Carrie Gress’s shoddy argument undercuts her own ideals
The End of Woman: How Smashing the Patriarchy Has Destroyed Us by Carrie Gress. Regnery Publishing, 2023. 256 pp., $29.99
“Are women human?” This is the question novelist and translator Dorothy L. Sayers asked in a lecture of the same name in 1938—after the height of the UK suffragist movement and before the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Sayers rejected the title of “feminist” for herself yet was concerned that an excessive focus on what women are uniquely suited for would result in a denial of the common humanity between men and women. Seventy-five years later, in her new book, The End of Woman: How Smashing the Patriarchy Has Destroyed Us, Carrie Gress asks a different yet related question: Are women still women?
Gress begins with some key observations. She notes that any brand of feminism that in its quest for equality seeks to erase sex differences is likely to do women more harm than good. The sexual revolution left women miserable in their attempt to emulate disordered male sexual behavior. Today’s dating culture works to the advantage of non-committal men and disproportionately harms women—as Louise Perry eloquently explains in her 2022 book The Case Against the Sexual Revolution. Gress sees and laments this. She wants femaleness—just as maleness—to be embraced and celebrated in its uniqueness. She believes that this can no longer happen in our society—which, in addition to accepting sexual liberation, has also accepted disordered gender ideology, thus severing any connections between the idea of “woman” and biological sex. How did we come to this point? How can we make things better?
The aims of Gress’s book are noble: first, to answer the above questions by tracing an intellectual history of feminism; second, to provide an alternative model of womanhood—one that embraces domestic life, a love of children, and a harmonious relationship of women with men as husbands and fathers. The latter aim is one for which conservative Catholics like Gress readily advocate, but they have also found common ground with secular reactionary feminists like Louise Perry and Mary Harrington. Perry and Harrington, among others, would agree that the sexual revolution failed women, that women should get married and stay married, and that motherhood is a profoundly transformative—and, it should go without saying, profoundly female—experience. But while the likes of Perry and Harrington are calling for a sex-realist feminism, Gress rejects the label of feminist altogether: She concludes that feminism was doomed from its very beginning. Consequently, she exhorts women to stop subscribing to what she perceives as a deeply dangerous and damaging ideology.
To prove that feminism is rotten at its root is no easy feat. As a label, it has been shared by—and in some cases retroactively attached to—thinkers with vastly different priorities. But Gress’s thesis is especially difficult to prove because it also relies on the assumption that an initial project, begun in the 1700s, existed and continues to exist: to erase and eradicate the concept of womanhood. If you think this sounds somewhat conspiratorial, consider this extract from Gress’s introduction:
This book is a rare examination of the historical ideologies that have driven and shaped feminism. What has resulted did not happen overnight but is part of a much larger project that goes back even to the 1700s. It is a little-known story, with elements closely concealed for fear that the truth might become widely known.
Who exactly is doing the concealing, and what has been concealed is still not entirely clear to me. What is clear is that Gress sees the beginning of the feminist movement in the French Revolution, which “put the state in God’s place.” With the French Revolution, Gress argues, all human beings become merely “citizens,” rather than men and women. What’s more, the French Revolution seeks to erase all hierarchies, including divine patriarchy, leaving men and women unanchored. But how did we get from Robespierre’s Reign of Terror to modern-day progressive feminism, with its support of casual sex, abortion, trans-rights, and gender ideology? Gress’s answer: Mary Wollstonecraft.
Gress argues that Wollstonecraft came to a series of radical conclusions due to her initial support of the Revolution (later complicated by the atrocities of the Reign of Terror). Wollstonecraft, per Gress, insisted “First, that society must be fundamentally restructured away from male hierarchy; second, that women’s education must change; and third, that females need to be reclassified to ensure that their dignity is respected.”
Furthermore, Gress adds, Wollstonecraft imitated proponents of the Revolution in equating the life of virtue to the pure exercise of reason, thus erasing any virtues that may be peculiar to the female sex: “While admitting bodily differences, Wollstonecraft did not believe there were differences in virtues between the sexes. Like Rousseau and others, she uses virtue to mean the exercise of reason.”
Let’s tackle these claims in order. First, Gress does not seem to distinguish between worldly hierarchies, which can be oppressive, because humans are fallible, and God’s perfect hierarchy in heaven. She states:
Although she didn’t use the word “patriarchy” explicitly, [Wollstonecraft’s] criticisms have been passed down through the generations with the effort to collapse hierarchies. She begins the neutering of the concept of female, driving it away from the maternal, and supplies the foundation for equating men and women in a way that denies any difference between the sexes.
What Gress fails to make clear is that Wollstonecraft herself, in her Vindication of the Rights of Woman, does not actually abandon the idea of humans being subject to God’s authority. Rather, she criticizes the kind of hierarchical system by which women are more dependent on their husbands and fathers than on God. Women should be able to “feel the dignity of a rational will that only bows to God,” Wollstonecraft contends, and to “attain conscious dignity by feeling themselves only dependent on God.” These hardly seem like the words of a thinker rejecting hierarchies altogether.
Nor does Gress’s point hold that Wollstonecraft’s idea of virtue, like Robespierre’s, can be equated with secular rationalism. Wollstonecraft may indeed focus on virtue as “the exercise of reason,” but this is not to the exclusion of virtues that may be deemed characteristically female. Rather, Wollstonecraft’s concern that young women be educated in ways deeper than mere “accomplishments” was a reaction to a society that often valued chastity as the exclusively crucial virtue for women, all the while not recognizing the “want of chastity in men” as a real problem. Wollstonecraft writes that “Females have been insulted, as it were; and while they have been stripped of the virtues that should clothe humanity, they have been decked with artificial graces.”
In simpler terms, it’s all very well for women to learn to sing and perform at the piano, but there are certain virtues, like courage and fortitude, that should belong to both men and women. These virtues cannot be attained unless women are first seen as rational human beings, sharing a common humanity with men.
What about distinctively female virtues, without which the “concept of female” is inevitably “neutered,” as Gress argues? Doesn’t Wollstonecraft overemphasize men and women’s common humanity, thus paving the way for the eventual descent of feminism into gender ideology and a denial of sex differences? Once again, my answer would be that Wollstonecraft does no such thing. In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (the only text by Wollstonecraft that Gress discusses), Wollstonecraft references the “indispensable duty of a mother,” the importance of raising girls to become “sensible mothers,” and the beauty of seeing a “child suckled by its mother,” just to give a few examples.
Wollstonecraft’s dedication to elevating the importance of motherhood is even clearer in her novel Maria: or, The Wrongs of Woman, a lesser known but fascinating work, left unfinished and published posthumously in 1798 by Wollstonecraft’s widower, William Godwin. Doubtlessly Wollstonecraft, like Dorothy Sayers, believes that there is much that’s common to men and women as human beings. But that does not mean erasing what is special to womanhood.
Maria is littered with references to breastfeeding as a mother’s natural duty, as something unique and precious to the experience of being a woman. In the first chapter the eponymous Maria, whose beloved child her husband has removed from their home, is “grieved at the thought” that her baby might “receive the maternal aliment” from a “stranger.” At other points in the novel nursing is described as “the tenderest maternal office,” and “being a mother,” Maria declares, is “unutterable pleasure.” Wollstonecraft shows that motherhood, which not all women experience but which is a distinctly female experience, is the highest duty and greatest source of virtue for Maria. This is hardly the perspective of someone who is seeking the “neutering of the concept of female,” as Gress believes.
The misrepresentation of Wollstonecraft unfortunately does not stop here. What is perhaps Gress’s most egregious mistake (in a book that purports to be an intellectual history of feminism) is her conflation of Wollstonecraft’s ideas with those of her son-in-law, Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Gress repeatedly implicates Wollstonecraft in Shelley’s embracing of occult practices and free love, apparently failing to realise that by the time Shelley openly embraced such ideas Wollstonecraft was long dead. I could continue to list the ways in which Gress misjudges Wollstonecraft, but I will pause here.
The reason I have built such a defense of Wollstonecraft against Gress is that it is on this indictment of Wollstonecraft that the remainder of Gress’ book depends. Gress must blame Wollstonecraft for the development of contemporary feminism, otherwise her argument would not stand. She seeks to prove that there was no hijacking of the feminist movement later in the nineteenth or twentieth centuries, but rather that it was a rotten ideology from the moment A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was published, and that it stayed on that trajectory. As I have tried to show, I think this is a faulty premise.
After her initial assault on Wollstonecraft, Gress spends the rest of her book arguing that Wollstonecraft paved the way for figures like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Betty Friedan, and Gloria Steinem, who increasingly chip away at the concept of woman by making it a goal for women to act more like men. Her criticism of these figures is in many ways fair. There have been many feminists since Mary Wollstonecraft who have, in the name of equality, done a lot of damage to women. Some have advocated for abortion, which in the last few decades has left countless women emotionally and physically traumatized (as well as ending the lives of countless preborn children, of course); some have advocated for sexual liberation, which more often than not results in female exploitation. Many contemporary feminists, to my astonishment, have openly embraced gender ideology and supported the trans movement, that very movement that has reduced the definition of woman to a matter of “feeling” like one.
But this is simply not the entire story. In an effort to condemn Stanton and Anthony’s interest in Spiritualism, Gress underplays the fact that they were firmly anti-abortion, while twentieth-century second wave feminists like Friedan and Steinem supported abortion rights. Wollstonecraft’s writings also influenced the likes of Lucretia Mott and Sarah Grimké, both abolitionists and women’s rights activists. Figures like Mott and Grimké do not figure into Gress’ account—Mott is mentioned in passing, Grimké, the author of “Marriage,” not at all—but they are valuable examples of nineteenth-century women’s rights advocates who were influenced by Wollstonecraft and who emphasized sexual differences between men and women while celebrating marriage and motherhood.
Gress concludes her book with some useful practical advice. We “need to rehabilitate the home and the idea of homemaking.” Good: Homemaking deserves to be exalted as a vocation important in its own right, just as much as a “career.” “We must also end the vilification of men and move to restore the family,” Gress continues. Good as well; there is no raising the next generation if men and women live in strife with each other.
These are noble and necessary goals, and I applaud Gress for endorsing them. However, I lament that Gress’s solution to the issues women face today is to repudiate feminism altogether, brushing over its complex intellectual history and thus losing the possibility of learning from thinkers like Wollstonecraft. As Dorothy Sayers notes in the lecture with which I began this review: “Every woman is a human being . . . There is a fundamental difference between men and women, but it is not the only fundamental difference in the world.”
Beatrice Scudeler holds an M.A. in English from Oxford University. She is a freelance writer on literature, religion, the arts, and family life.