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Duly Noted

Saturday, Feb 18, 2012, 2:42 pm

What are Women For?

By Lindsay Beyerstein

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What is that thing for? Find out.   Per Olof Forsberg, Creative Commons.

Conservative columnist James Poulos got a lot of flack for his essay "What Are Women For?" and its equally long-winded and opaque sequel.

Poulos's main claim is that women have "privileged relationship to the natural world" through their bodies and that this has something to do with how women ought to live. He fancies himself an iconoclast, dispensing hard truths that neither liberals nor conservatives are ready to accept. So, what is this "privileged relationship" that nobody is willing to acknowledge? Do women have untapped powers to command animal familiars and sour milk at a glance? Disappointingly, Poulos just means that women can have babies.

"If my claim [that women are mostly for having babies] is doomed to be met with an avalanche of contempt, it seems likely that in our lifetimes social conservatism as we know it will be mocked, despised, and shamed right out of existence," Poulos whines.

By Jove, he's got it! If we reject the idea that biology determines a person's proper social role, then social conservatism turns out to be intellectually bankrupt and morally repugnant. Social conservatism says: i) There are exactly two genders, ii) You are biologically assigned to one of these at birth, iii) Each gender has a narrowly defined gender role that is esssential and unchanging across time and place, iv) Everyone has a duty to follow the role of the gender they were born into.

Conservatism says we should stick to the old ways because they're old. Any ten-year-old can see that "because we've always done it this way" isn't a persusasive argument for anything. So conservatives have to come up with some way imply that things that are old must be also good.

Poulos, like many conservatives, asserts that his preferred social mores are ordained by nature. How do we know they're natural? Usually the answer is "because we've always done it this way." But even if we grant the premise that these mores are natural, why should we feel constrained by nature? As conservatives are always reminding us, a lot of our natural impulses are bad.

Feminism says: Who cares what's natural? You have no obligation to meet other people's expectations about gender roles. These stereotypes have no moral force. Love who you want, parent if you want, express yourself, contribute to your community in the best way you know how. 

Poulos implies that feminists want to jettison ideals of right and wrong. Nothing could be further from the truth. Feminism doesn't want to dispense with right and wrong, it wants to eliminate questions that are irrelevant to morality, like what shape a person's gentials are. If it's good to be strong and independent, or sensitive and nurturing--or all of the above--it's good regardless of whether you have a penis or a vagina.

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The Nation, Ms. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times' City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (, a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.

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