'The Essence Of Feminism' by Kirsten Birkett

'The Essence Of Feminism' by Kirsten Birkett

Catherine Sheehan

The Essence Of Feminism, Kirsten Birkett (Matthias Media, 2000, 141pp, RRP $18.00. Available from AD Books)

In attempting to define the movement called "feminism" and in studying its history and its effect on the lives of women, Kirsten Birkett, the author of The Essence of Feminism, comes to the conclusion that it has not improved life for women or society in general, as is commonly believed.

Through her research Birkett found that women today are not generally happy with their situation in life and that this is a result of feminism's largely successful campaign to have women in the workforce on equal terms with men and to downgrade the institution of marriage. She argues that these two factors have made life worse for women and hence for children and men also.

The author demonstrates how marriage is actually good for women and protects women and children, and how statistics show that most married women would prefer to stay at home rather than be in the work force. The evidence indicates that feminism has turned its back on the desires and the needs of women: "Its individualism and freedom led it to attack the social structures that were good for women (marriage, family) and now women are suffering."

It becomes evident that feminism as a philosophy is flawed because it has no set goals that are common to all feminists except the vague notion of "women's rights", which can only be fought for when one defines what a "woman" is and therefore what is good for her. As this has never been determined the result is a feminist movement that is often confused and contradictory. For example, the "Essentialists" argue that "woman" is distinctly different from "man" and that these differences should be celebrated. The "Constructionists" argue that the idea of "woman" is merely a historical construct and there are no real differences between men and women except those which society imposes.

From a moral perspective feminism does not hold up. Many feminists argue that abortion is a fundamental right, yet, as Birkett observes, "A rather peculiar right it is, that allows women of one age to extinguish the life of women of another age." She exposes feminism for what it really is, which is essentially a campaign to liberate women from any moral responsibility, allowing them to be as selfish as the males they claim to abhor.


Feminism often uses history to justify its arguments, such as the many landmark achievements of women in the past, to gain certain rights for women. Yet The Essence of Feminism shows it is not only women who have had to struggle for recognition.

Before 1918, not all men had the right to vote in England either, as this was dependent on "certain property and wealth qualifications." And men in various areas of work have often had to fight for safe and adequate working conditions and fair wages and have had to cope with unemployment and the right to a job.

The Essence of Feminism is a well-researched and clearly thought out examination of feminism. Through logical argument and unbiased presentation of the facts it shows how feminism has damaged the lives of those it sought to liberate and how the feminist movement of the last thirty years has little in common with the movement which fought for women's right to vote in the 1800s. Birkett, who was a feminist herself, states: "Well, I was a feminist. I am now an ex-feminist, because I have discovered that it does not bring freedom, and if I want to be competent and empowered what I need is truth."

This is essential reading for anyone wanting to understand the highly influential and persuasive force that is feminism.

Catherine Sheehan is a Melbourne Catholic writer.

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