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Killing the Mother

A new book situates the problems with feminism at its inception.

Mary_Wollstonecraft_by_John_Opie_(c._1797)
Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie (c. 1797) (Wikimedia Commons)

The End of Woman: How Smashing the Patriarchy Has Destroyed Us, by Carrie Gress, Regnery Publishing, 256 pages

Mary Wollstonecraft liked the sound of her own voice. Her eventual husband, William Godwin, would complain of an early meeting that “I…heard her, very frequently when I wished to hear [Thomas] Paine.” Despite her prodigality, however, both in spoken and written word, Wollstonecraft was not particularly lucid, prone to chatter and reason in circles. The ideology which she mothered would follow in her footsteps, forging its path through history with a similar excess of words.

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Wollstonecraft’s story is where Carrie Gress begins her new book, The End of Woman (Regnery, August 2023). The book chronicles the history of the feminist movement with the goal of bringing to light its under-discussed flaws. A Catholic mother and author of several books, Gress is best known for her Theology of Home series and online magazine, a Christian response to pop culture lifestyle magazines. Gress is no mere “mommy blogger,” however. A fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a Washington, D.C. based think tank, and a scholar at the Catholic University of America, Gress has written a number of books on Christian womanhood, including The Anti-Mary Exposed, which explores the toxic view of femininity which has grasped the western world since the 1960s. Fittingly, Gress begins her new book with a study of another Mary, who, she argues, forged the way for this toxic ideology.

Gress is far from the first to chronicle the history of the women’s rights movement and its harmful elements, but she is among the few who identify those elements all the way back at its inception. Where other post-feminists suggest the movement went wrong during the Second Wave, or express dislike for the feminists’ controversial methods and ties to communism, but approve at least some of the results, Gress is not afraid to say that the problems with feminism were baked in the cake. The only way forward is to reject the philosophy whole cloth, starting with Wollstonecraft.

This is not the conservative orthodoxy some might imagine it to be. Erika Bachiochi, also a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, has spent much time and effort to make Wollstonecraft palatable to conservatives through the Wollstonecraft Project at The Abigail Adams Institute, which Bachiochi directs, as well as in her book, “The Rights of Women.” But the virtues Bachiochi finds in Wollstonecraft’s thought are too absent, at least for Gress, in the mother of feminism’s life.

The proof, in other words, is in the pudding. This is a thread which Gress pulls on with each of the major feminist namesakes, from Wollstonecraft to Friedan: the girls led debauched lifestyles, many engaged in witchcraft and the occult, and the later women’s involvement in communist groups makes the purity of their intentions suspect at best. Most troubling of all, however, is something which even a strict survey of the founding texts alone cannot overlook: the fundamental goal of the movement was egalitarianism, and its attendant death of all hierarchies, which Wollstonecraft took issue with as fundamentally male.

Much of this trouble can be traced to an abnormally distressing family life, Gress argues, a common feature for every major female in the movement’s history. Wollstonecraft’s father abused her mother and Wollstonecraft herself twice attempted suicide; her daughter with free-love advocate William Godwin, Mary Shelley, spent most of her youth chasing the licentious Percy Bysshe Shelley around Europe. Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s father openly wished she was a son, while her domineering mother left her with a permanent antagonism toward authority. Betty Friedan had a discontented mother, too, who scolded her for her ugliness and large nose, and to whose presence Friedan attributed her own turn to feminism. These were not happy women, they were not raised by happy women, and they did not produce happy women.

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“Lost girls,” as Gress refers to them, make bad role models.

Lost girls are also not nice. As each woman became embittered toward men, she broadcast her bitterness to bring countless other women down with her. Gress describes this as “destructive envy:” “It is a kind of envy, but also a hidden rejection of what it means to be a woman.” Which is another way of saying that the story of feminism is a story about mean girls. Moreover, their energy was not always commensurate with the wrongs done to them. Charles M’Clintock, noticing the time it was taking Elizabeth Cady Stanton to write the Declaration of Sentiments, apparently joked, “Your grievances must be very grievous indeed, if it takes you so long to find them.”

Wollstonecraft once wrote that “the more equality there is established among men, the more virtue and happiness will reign in society.” But what has come of egalitarianism, Gress argues, is quite the opposite. The girls who rage against the patriarchy—out of their own hurt, or due to a sense of sisterhood with other, angrier women—“have become exactly the type of man they love to hate: “negligent, narcissistic, aloof, unengaged…like players and cads.”

“We haven’t used our power properly,” Gress writes. For Gress, the problem baked in the feminist cake is that it asked the wrong question: How can women become men? Its conclusions, therefore, are wholly unsuited to reality. They have also led to death: death of unborn babies, death of female fertility, death of marriage, death of family, and death of womanhood itself in the face of the new transgender “science.” More to the point, all this death has not even been good for those who wanted it.

Is there a way which leads to life? Gress says yes. It requires restoring what has been destroyed, including, provocatively, “the patriarchy.” While Gress doesn’t flesh this out, it’s clear from her language throughout the book that her vision is neither slavishness for women nor egalitarianism. Instead, she proposes a grammar of womanhood which emphasizes the female creative role in harmony with men: “As uncomfortable as it is to say, we have to consider women as mothers—even if, of course, many among us aren’t mothers now or won’t become mothers,” she writes. This is because “all women are called to a type of psychological or spiritual motherhood in our relationship with others, where we look out for the best interest of others, mentor them, and help them grow.”

This grammar of motherhood involves women seeking to serve others, to take responsibility for our actions and behavior, to restore the art of homemaking, and to nourish and hold those in our care. We might describe this vision for women as replacing Mary, the mother of feminism, with Mary, the mother of Jesus. She’s a sight for sore eyes.