Why Feminism? Why the Third World?

In much of the developing world, women are often human only in the genetic sense: the traditional vulnerability of women to death and grave injury in childbirth almost requires men (and to a lesser but still significant extent, women) to devalue, almost dehumanize, women simply in order to preserve their sanity. This means that when the philosophes discussed “The Rights of Man” they emphatically did mean such rights as for women not to be beaten by their husbands. “One Man, One Vote” emphatically did not mean “One Person, One Vote.” Sadly, the full meaning of citizenship only began to apply to women after the ratification of the XIX Amendment in America. Prior to that, when American women were wanted to be citizens, it was usually to pay taxes and transmit citizenship to their children, especially sons. (A similar trajectory may be described for other countries.) It took a second feminist struggle to begin to apply “the Rights of Man” to American women in their own homes.

Stripped of rhetoric, exaggeration, and lies, the task of feminism was (and throughout much of the world, still is) to assert the full civic and human worth of women. In the United States, that task is almost accomplished. Some work still remains, but it requires a different approach than the hissy-fitting and male bashing we have come to associate—only sometimes inaccurately—with late 20th Century American feminism. Despite modern American feminism’s burnout, a legacy of the Baby Boom obsession with Vietnam, no other socio-political movement has succeeded in making people who were barely citizens, and often perceived as not quite human, into humans and citizens so rapidly and with so little bloodshed. Now the overwhelming task of American feminism is to help revive citizenship as a powerful political force, but permanently altered to include women. And if no one else is talking about reviving citizenship, a key to resurrecting America as a Republic in more than name, well, why should not feminists claim and accept the task? Indeed, citizenship cannot be revived without an overtly feminist ethos: the equal human worth and civic participation of women.

The concept of citizenship is Western, but it encapsulates universal aspirations, and typically, when cultures try it, they like it. Classically, the citizen is not a taxpayer, and certainly not a consumer, but an active participant in the life of their civilization. What this means now is: entirely free solid practical and liberal education for every child through the high school level that prepares children to understand and participate in the world they will inherit as adults; meaningful work for their parents that enables them to support themselves and their children in dignity; and participation in the common defense, which is a continuum from local militias all the way up through federal uniformed service, in order that citizens may protect themselves and their own, and keep what is theirs.

The Greeks and Founders both understood that this civic triad can form a stable foundation upon which to build a civilized representative government. However, it will also be only half as representative and less than half as effective if women are not included in it. Furthering this enabling “civic triad” should be the foundation of all US foreign policy and aid in the Third World, a triad in which the United States should strive to see women and girls fully and equally included in, along with their male kin.

But this will not happen automatically unless we choose to reorient our foreign and defense policies, a reorientation that will not happen unless we re-engage our own government as citizens. Not as taxpayers or consumers, but as participants—as citizens—men and women together. Nor will this happen unless women re-engage ourselves as citizens, to include giving far more serious attention to foreign, defense and military policy than we usually do, and participating in these arenas as well. These are not male arenas, or male burdens. It helps no one for women to pretend—as politically organized American feminism so often has—that violence is not sometimes necessary, sometimes even the only effective solution to certain problems, and that women should not share in wielding that violence.

As for citizenship, if there is one thing women (including Muslim women) throughout so much of the developing world are not even less than their men are, it is citizens. And, yes, if civic feminism is an American idea, especially one that could actually work (as practical political philosophies, both feminism and citizenship have extremely good track records), then it’s ours and it is something we can offer to the world. After all, it is because of the ideals and the possibilities our ideals offer that so many people, all over the world, are willing to risk their lives to come here. Which indicates that while American political ideals may have been formed in in the Western political tradition, they reflect universal aspirations.

When people—men and women—have a good, solid liberal and practical high school education, you can’t deceive them. When they can provide for themselves in a way that does not reduce them to wage slavery, they have dignity and autonomy. When they are can defend themselves and their community, it is harder and more dangerous to prey upon and brutalize them. And yes, women should participate in, create, and defend their own civilization, the civilization they help make possible: this is our world. And we American women should remember this and organize ourselves to shape our society and insist our government act accordingly.


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