Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
People walk through downtown Washington, D.C., during the Women's March on Washington on Saturday, Jan. 21, 2017.

Feminists take pride in the many varieties of feminism. Along with the different types there are also the historical “waves” to deal with, but different people seem to count these differently (in France and in the U.S., for example). The diversity of feminisms seems to allow for a diversity of tastes and to address a diversity of situations among the women (and men) who would like to call themselves “feminists.” This diversity is also of great advantage in deflecting any criticism of feminism: A feminist who prefers not to come to terms with a fundamental challenge can always respond, “oh no, that’s not my feminism!”

This is why, for anyone wishing to get clear on and to scrutinize fundamental assumptions, “feminism” can prove to be a very elusive target. Some milder advocates for women who wish to embrace the label “feminist” will make concessions on controversial points until nothing seems to be left of feminism but a benevolent attitude towards women. Well, if everyone who loves and supports women (a wife, a mother, sisters, daughters, friends) qualifies as a feminist, then I must claim my place in their ranks. But I imagine all feminist activists and intellectuals will agree that any definition under which the author of this piece is a feminist is probably somewhat too broad.

So let us raise the bar and strengthen our minimalist definition of feminism just a bit. Let us say that to be a feminist, one must believe in equality for women. Ah, but just what do we mean by “equality”? If we say that women are equal to men in the sense that God loves them as much as men, that their eternal souls have the same worth as men’s, that their eternal salvation is no less glorious than men’s — well all that is lovely, a feminist might say, but a little other-worldly. A feminist will rightly insist that any serious idea of women’s equality must have traction here and now, in the social, economic and political arrangements of this life.

But here’s where things get difficult. Just how should we expect the lofty idea of the equal worth of women and men to be reflected in the moral and political order? The classical liberal idea of simple equality under the law would seem to be an attractive solution: The law should be blind to the difference between men and women. But the fact is that treating people with wombs the same as people without wombs does not make sense in every situation. The law has never treated and cannot treat sexual difference as a matter of indifference. The community has an interest in the procreation, nurturing and education of the next and future generations, and women play a special and critical role in accomplishing these supremely important purposes.

Paternal leave is nice; maternal leave is, arguably, essential. And everyone used to feel, very reasonably I would say, that sending young mothers or potential mothers into deadly combat was much worse than sending fathers or potential fathers.

Still, overall, the idea that the law should treat men and women the same is mostly reasonable, and there’s no doubt we could do much worse. Many feminists are eager to use the law to bring about statistical equality of result between men and women. Any pay disparity or lack of equal representation of women in some prestigious or influential profession is taken to be prima facie evidence of invidious inequality or “discrimination.”

If evidence shows that differences in outcomes are largely a result of different choices, different priorities between men and women on the whole, then a more feminist feminist will say there must be structural factors in our society that are influencing men and women to sort themselves out differently. And these factors must be overcome. Invisible barriers must be removed, consciousness must be raised. The only evidence of effective equality between men and women will be equal outcomes. Sameness, then, is the only sure proof of equality.

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Of course there are such “structural factors” that shape our sensibilities and practices regarding male and female roles. And we must hope that there always will be such factors, for the very existence of society depends on civilizing our natures and giving some particular, culturally conditioned content to the very significant biologically based differences that exist between men and women.

Nature makes male and female, nurture makes men and women — and even used to make, occasionally, gentlemen and ladies. And there is no way to eliminate the culturally conditioned shaping of our understanding of the man/woman relationship without buying into the radical project of eliminating difference altogether.

Any feminism that cannot embrace the nurturing of civilized differences between men and women remains a radical feminism, whether it knows it or not.