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revista Santiago, Chile Á - N.2

2018 will be viewed as a big year in the history of global feminism. That year, a number of social movements, #MeToo, #Niunamenos, and some pro-abortionists (among others) lifted their voices against what they consider to be the restrictions and abuses women face in western societies.

Historically, both men and women have had to fight for the recognition of basic rights.  Ancient texts, notwithstanding their profound wisdom and insight, clearly reflect a world vision in which individual rights as we know them today are nonexistent and, in particular, the status of women is low. Later, with the consolidation of Christianity in the West and Islam in the Middle East, this situation, though it began to improve somewhat, went on in various guises. Essentially, the tradition of exclusion typical of agricultural societies was maintained, this is reflected by the thought of intellectual leaders—and politicians—who conceived a predetermined role for women derived in part from the material conditions of the period, greatly reducing their autonomy until the recent past.

This state of affairs gave rise to feminism, which in its beginnings took up two struggles, namely, the right to education and suffrage.  Education would liberate women from predetermined roles, giving them the opportunity to choose an autonomous life, integrate into the new economy and, later, vote in elections—a struggle they shared with large groups of men whose right to vote wasn’t guaranteed either. These were perhaps the most notable achievements of first-wave feminism.

All of this developed in Western societies, inspired by the ideals of liberty, but within a social order still opposed to the emancipation of women. As John Stuart Mill, one of the most important liberal thinkers of the 20th century, said: there was a “dislike [of] the idea of equal freedom for women”. For instance, the reactions to the liberalizing ideas from the end of the 19th century were such that “the immense popularity” of Otto Weininger’s influential and controversial book, Sex and Character “was to some extent undoubtedly due to… [the fact that] the fear of woman’s emancipation and especially that of the Jews, … was a [real and] widespread concern in turn-of-the-century Vienna”.

That was how, derived from liberal ideals, the struggle for equal rights for men and women began.  A struggle for “a principle of perfect equality that doesn’t allow any power or privilege on one side or disability on the other”, as Mill put it, who, in addition to proposing—without success—the right to vote for women in the English Parliament in 1866, wrote the influential essay The Subjection of Women in 1869. This essay was quickly and rather boldly translated in Chile just three years after its publication in England, and 7 years before it reached Spain. As Elena Irarrázabal details in her essay for the first issue of ÁTOMO, this was done by the distinguished socialite Martina Barros, who published the book under the title La esclavitud de la mujer (The Slavery of Women). Since feminism is based on the defense of the principles of equality, on skepticism of power —both in its social and governmental manifestations— and on the respect of every person’s right to be the architect of his or her own life, from its origins it is based on the ideals of classical liberal philosophy.

Many years before John Stuart Mill, in 1792, Mary Wollstonecraft —mother of Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein— wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman where she asserts the moral and legal equality of men and women, mainly advocating for the need to grant women the basic right of education. This liberal thinker, whose work elaborates on the enlightenment ideas she developed two years earlier in A Vindication of the Rights of Men, a rebuke of the conservative ideas of Edmund Burke. It constituted another fundamental text in the emergence of feminism, one that articulated and expanded on ideas that had been developing separately for some time in France and England.

Eventually the feminist cause spread across the West, one of its high points being the “Seneca Falls Declaration” in the United States in 1848. American feminism was the first to present itself as a movement rather than a group of individuals with a common agenda. After achieving political and civil rights in various counties, a new wave of feminism arose, this time lead by the writings of the Marxist thinker Simone de Beauvoir in the mid-twentieth century.

Around the same time, women began to enter the labor market en masse. This was the product of a number of different factors: 1) The liberties women had already achieved. 2) The ongoing development of capitalism, and concurrently the respect of private property and rule of law. 3) The simple fact that with the onset of the World Wars, men were busy fighting and someone needed to fill the factories. With the return to peace, women continued working, and this cultural triumph proved irreversible. Finally, by the middle of the century, postwar economic growth and the sexual revolution unleashed by the development of oral contraceptives consolidated the emancipation of women.

This is how the ideas of free society, the rule of law, and private property allowed women to achieve basic rights and choose among different lifestyles without depending politically and economically on their (potential or actual) husbands. Incidentally, this was an idea that Virginia Woolf had already stressed in her 1929 book, A Room of One’s Own. After the right to education, suffrage, and work, feminism’s focus shifted to gender issues, particularly in cultural matters, addressing dated and religious customs that still promoted predefined roles, and more specific demands such as the rights to divorce and abortion. De Beauvoir was very influential in that many different female thinkers defined themselves by being in favor or against her body of work. The American Betty Friedan was one of them. She talked about the “problem that has no name” referring to the fact that many women were unhappy with having to live the cultural stereotype of housewives, a situation reflected by Betty Draper in the TV show Mad Men, and in the movie Revolutionary Road, based on novel by Richard Yates.

During this period, feminism merged strongly with popular social causes that steered it away from its original purpose, such as the struggle for “world peace” and the Civil Rights movement in the United States. Instead of focusing on fighting conservatism and the status quo, feminism turned against the market economy, the very system that throughout human history has most benefited women and other marginalized groups. The student revolutions of 1968, inspired by a left-wing agenda in the context of the Cold War, resulted in feminism being politically exploited like never before.

Nevertheless, by 1975 even De Beauvoir herself (Who notwithstanding the emancipating discourse she preached like an infallible dogma, willingly subjected herself to the tortuous sexual and emotional demands of her lover, Jean Paul Sartre.) realized that capitalism had little to do with patriarchy. But that didn’t stop later feminists from insisting on replacing the liberal economic model. This exploitation is problematic, and not unlike how the alt-right tries to co-opt criticism of political correctness, and in so doing tarnishes the cause of freedom of expression. The left, meanwhile, with its ferocious fight against capitalism and the institutions and values of the bourgeoisie that uphold it (going as far as to question even due process) distorts the defense of women’s rights. In so doing, they spoil the feminist cause whose own history makes such a strong case in favor of free society—and the market economy that derives from it—rather than against it.

This and other topics are discussed in the articles published in this new issue of ÁTOMO.