Conservatism, Feminism, and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese
Amy R. Baehr

Forthcoming in Hypatia 24(2) April-June 2009

            There are conservatives who call themselves feminists. Their work can be found on the web and in the blogosphere, as well as in the popular and academic press (Stacey 1983; Kersten 2005; Dillard 2005; Heppell 2004; Rudy 1999). This may strike readers as odd. Isn’t conservative political philosophy anathema to feminism? Certainly most conservatives believe it is. The absence of conservative feminism from academic overviews of feminism suggests that feminists generally believe conservatism offers feminism few helpful theoretical resources. So is there a conservative feminism?
If there is, it might be found in the work of Elizabeth Fox-Genovese. Fox-Genovese was a self-described feminist and conservative (1991, 3; see also 6, 34; and 1996, 2). She was a founder and director of the women’s studies program at Emory University, and sat on the board of directors of the Women's Freedom Network and on the advisory board of the Independent Women's Forum, two conservative women’s organizations. An historian by training, Fox-Genovese authored three books and numerous articles on women and feminism. (She was also a scholar of the American south (Fox-Genovese 1983; 1988; Fox-Genovese, ed. 1992; 1994)). She wrote for both academic and popular audiences, and her work on women and feminism is part history, part theory, part cultural criticism, part policy advocacy, part autobiography. This paper offers a philosophical reconstruction of Fox-Genovese’s thinking about women and feminism. The overall aim of the paper is two-fold. First, it seeks to present Fox-Genovese’s thought in a systematic and philosophically compelling way so that its grounding in conservatism may be understood. Second, it asks whether Fox-Genovese’s thought should be counted as a form of feminism. In so doing, it asks whether there is a conservative feminism.
The question is not whether Fox-Genovese holds particular positions, say about pornography or welfare, that are usually recognized as feminist. (She does.) Nor is the question whether Fox-Genovese’s thought has affinities with social theories that are generally recognized as feminist. (It does.) These positions and affinities are explored below. The question is rather whether the conservative nature of Fox-Genovese’s thought renders it incompatible with feminism. The answer argued for here is that philosophers currently use the term ‘feminism’ to refer to advocacy on behalf of women motivated by the conviction that conventional social forms, like traditional marriage, motherhood, and sexual morality, involve gender hierarchy and thus should be criticized and transformed. But conservatism holds that conventional social forms such as these, while not perfect, tend to be conducive to human well-being, and thus should be protected and promoted, even as they are tweeked to fit changing circumstances. So conservatism, and Fox-Genovese’s conservative thought, do not include a core claim currently associated with feminism in philosophy.
Part I introduces conservatism as political philosophy. This section distinguishes conservatism from two kinds of libertarianism, and distinguishes between religious and traditional conservatism. Part II argues that Fox-Genovese’s thought can be understood as a form of perfectionism. This perfectionism holds that political power may and should be used to promote the well-being of citizens, and that conventional social forms are conducive to citizens’ well-being. Applied to feminism it holds that feminism should promote women’s well-being, and because women’s well-being depends on conventional social forms, feminism should protect and promote conventional social forms. Part III contrasts Fox-Genovese’s thought with liberal feminism, and explores its affinities with some other feminisms. These affinities do not make Fox-Genovese’s view feminist, however. The conclusion argues that while there is no true conservative feminism, some feminisms may be more conservative than others, or even informed by conservative political philosophy. The conclusion also suggests that we do not have to call Fox-Genovese’s thinking ‘feminist’ to acknowledge that it is a serious form of advocacy on behalf of women and, as such, can be fruitfully included in serious discussions about what is good for women.

I. Conservatism
To facilitate understanding the conservative nature of Fox-Genovese’s thought, this section distinguishes between a) right libertarians and conservatives, and between b) religious conservatives and traditional conservatives. In addition, this section discusses c) traditional conservatism’s normative foundations.

a) Right Libertarians and Conservatives
Right libertarians endorse individual liberty as the only good the state may promote (Narveson 1988; Nozick 1974). Conservatives advocate the conservation of valuable conventional social forms (Allison 1984; Cahoone 2004; Divigne 1994; Grant 1992; Gray 1995; Kekes 1998; Scruton 1980; Tannsjo 1990; for criticism see Honderich 1990). As we will see, Fox-Genovese’s work from the 1990’s exhibits features of conservatism. Right libertarians and conservatives are currently in political coalition in the United States, but they need not be. Indeed, their basic values are in tension. Right libertarians promote individual liberty even if it is socially disruptive. But while conservatives believe individual liberty can be valuable, they reject elevating it to the highest good, and advise overriding it when it is disruptive of valuable conventional social forms.
Despite this tension, there are reasons for the current political coalition between conservatives and right libertarians. First, both conservatives and right libertarians endorse limited government. According to right libertarians, limited government is a primary way to protect individual liberty. According to conservatives, an active state can erode personal virtues like self-reliance and weaken ‘tried and true’ social forms like families and religious associations. Thus conservatives, like right libertarians, generally advocate limited state power.
A second reason for coalition can be seen by distinguishing right from left libertarianism. All libertarians endorse individual liberty as the highest good. But right and left libertarians disagree about whether our conventional social forms are consistent with individual liberty. Left libertarians tend to see our conventional social forms as liberty-restricting and unlikely to endure given more freedom (Fried 2004; Otsuka 2003; Vallentyne and Steiner eds., 2000). But right libertarians see the state as the primary threat to individual liberty. They tend to see our conventional social forms as the accumulation of individuals' free choices, and productive of children who will grow to value individual liberty. Thus while right libertarians do not agree with conservatives about why our conventional social forms are valuable, they tend to agree that they are valuable.
There are libertarian feminists, right and left. Both believe liberty should be the primary value animating feminist politics. Left libertarian feminists believe the state and our conventional social forms often conspire to restrict women’s liberty. But right libertarians emphasize the threat of state power (Conway ed.1998; McElroy ed. 1991, 2002; Quest ed. 1994; Taylor 1992). Right libertarian feminists are currently in political coalition with conservatives, for some of the reasons described above. The space is lacking here to examine right libertarian feminist views.

b) Religious Conservatives and Traditional Conservatives
Among conservatives, we may distinguish between religious and traditional conservatives. Fox-Genovese’s work from the 1990’s, on which this paper focuses, exhibits features of traditional conservatism. (Her more recent work is closer to religious conservatism. See Fox-Genovese 1999, 2004, 2005). Both religious and traditional conservatives oppose elevating individual liberty to the highest good, and endorse the conservation of conventional social forms. However, they disagree about why conventional social forms are valuable. Religious conservatives believe religious truth underwrites many of them as well as their possible promotion by the state. As we will see, traditional conservatives believe conventional social forms are worth preserving because they have stood the test of time. Religious conservatives tend to recommend one particular set of social forms – the set their religion underwrites – while traditional conservatives tend to be pluralists in one particular sense. On their view, because contexts vary, a plurality of social forms may have stood the test of time, and thus may be valuable (Kekes 1998, 152). However for traditional conservatives, as we will see, that social forms are not metaphysically warranted and vary with context does not mean they are optional.
The traditional conservative, qua traditional conservative, tends to value religion insofar as it promotes belief in the metaphysical anchoring of conventional social forms, and thus tends to reinforce them. But traditional conservatives are wary of religious enthusiasm. Religious enthusiasm can threaten valuable conventional social forms by radically changing citizens’ patterns of allegiance and habit, and by underwriting disruptive state intervention in civil society. However, when valuable conventional social forms are judged to have been dangerously eroded, and religious enthusiasm can aid restoration, traditional conservatives may welcome religious enthusiasm and state intervention in civil society.

c) Traditional Conservatism’s Normative Foundations
As we have seen, traditional conservatives believe conventional social forms are worth preserving because they have stood the test of time. Obviously some morally reprehensible social forms have stood the test of time. And conservatives disagree among themselves about which conventional social forms should be preserved (Cahoone 2004, 24). So if traditional conservatism is to be a formidable moral-political doctrine ‘standing the test of time’ must be proxy for a normative idea with some bite.
One account is that when social forms have endured we may presume they facilitate human well-being (Kekes 1998; see also Grey 1995, and Muller 1997). Call this the well-being account of conservatism. Jerry Z. Muller suggests this account makes conservatism an “historical consequentialism” (Muller 1997, 7). It is supposedly a form of consequentialism because it holds that social forms, and the policies that support them, are justified if they maximize some good, here the good of human well-being. It is said to be historical because it holds that the endurance of a social form over time creates a presumption that it maximizes human well-being. Thus in addition to being an account of what is of value and what justifies the coercive use of state power, conservatism involves an empirical hypothesis.
The association of the well-being account of conservatism with consequentialism makes some sense. Both that account and consequentialism can be contrasted with deontology in the following way. Deontology says actions should conform to principle, that is, it asks whether an action is the kind that may be performed (for example whether it is just). The well-being account of conservatism and consequentialism, by contrast, say some state of affairs should be realized. The well-being account of conservatism says well-being should be generally achieved. Common forms of consequentialism say the most possible happiness or preference satisfaction over all should be achieved.
But consider some differences. Common forms of consequentialism hold that more over all of what’s good (for example happiness or preference satisfaction) is better than less, while the well-being account of conservatism holds that well-being should be widely achieved. For well-being conservatism, the more people there are who enjoy well-being the better (Kekes 1998, 9). But while it may be possible for there to be more happiness or preference satisfaction above the threshold of well-being, the value urged by well-being conservatism is not maximization but the general achievement of the threshold. As conservative Lawrence Cahoone writes, “Endless improvement is not the ultimate criterion of either the good human life or the good human society” (Cahoone 2004, 34). Also, while a utilitarian state should prefer an arrangement in which an excess of happiness in one person or group compensates for its lack in another, a state guided by the well-being account of conservatism will not accept such a trade-off. Consider in addition that consequentialism looks for the realization of some outcome overall, but that outcome overall is just the sum of instances of the good (happiness or preference satisfaction) in individuals. For consequentialism, relationships between individuals are good only insofar as they are instrumental to happiness or preference satisfaction experienced by discrete individuals. But the well-being account of conservatism holds that social relationships are constitutive of, not merely potentially instrumental to, well-being. Thus when Fox-Genovese writes “Women’s lives are important to themselves but also to society” (Fox-Genovese 1996, 2), she does not mean that women are in a position to produce happiness or preference satisfaction in individuals in society. She means that women play a crucial role in the kinds of relationships that are constitutive of well-being.
So the well-being account of conservatism is not a form of consequentialism. It is a form of perfectionism. Perfectionism holds that there is a way in which it is good for people to live – human well-being – which does not depend on anyone’s attitude toward it. Perfectionist theories differ according to what they hold to be essential to human well-being. Conservative perfectionisms, as we will see, emphasize the importance of received tradition and conventional moral identities.
Someone might hold that something, for example natural beauty, the identity of the nation, or traditional gender roles, is good, but not mean that it makes human lives go well. One might mean it is good regardless of the effect it has on human lives. This view is like perfectionism in the sense that it holds that things can be good regardless of anyone’s attitude toward them. But it is not like perfectionism in the sense that it holds that things can be good even if they do not contribute to anyone’s life going well. Call those who claim that if something is good it’s got to be good for people ‘personalists.’ Call those who claim that something can be good regardless of its positive contribution to people’s lives ‘nonpersonalists’ (Pettit 1993, 26-30).
Fox-Genovese sometimes seems ambivalent between personalism and nonpersonalism. If her view turns out to be nonpersonalist, that would be unfortunate for her. Nonpersonalism is not entirely unattractive. One might concede that a few things, for example the natural world, have value in themselves, that is, apart from how they affect human lives. But a political theory that says the nation, traditional gender roles, some other arrangement within society can be good regardless of its affect on human beings is philosophically unattractive. Such a theory grants separate normative status to things whose value clearly derives from their connection to people. I believe Fox-Genovese’s thought is most plausible when understood as personalist. So I show here that any apparent ambivalence in her work can be resolved in favor of personalism.
Recall the personalist interpretation of Fox-Genovese’s claim that “Women’s lives are important to themselves but also to society.” She means it is important for women to live a certain way because their well-being and the well-being of others depends on it. One might have interpreted her to mean that society is entitled to women living a certain way, regardless of whether their living that way is conducive to their well-being or to the well-being of others. Indeed, Fox-Genovese writes “We need a conception of the collective good that transcends the aggregate interests of competing, atomized individuals” (Fox-Genovese 1991, 74). She claims also that the collectivity has its own rights (8). Claims like these might mean that society has interests that are not the interests of its citizens. This would be nonpersonalism.
But the collective good, or the collectivity’s rights, may be understood in a personalist way (see Raz 1986, 200). I believe Fox-Genovese is best understood in this way. Let us understand a collective good as something that, for anyone to enjoy, everyone must be able to. Joseph Raz gives the examples of living in a tolerant and educated society (199). Let’s say it is good for people to live in a tolerant and educated society. We must acknowledge that, because toleration and education are qualities of society, people cannot enjoy these goods unless everyone else can. So they are collective goods. Fox-Genovese and other conservatives emphasize the collective goods of received tradition and conventional moral identities. Let’s say it is good that people follow received tradition and cultivate conventional moral identities. If so, we must acknowledge that, because of the inherently social nature of tradition and conventional moral identities, people cannot enjoy these goods unless everyone else can as well. But if Fox-Genovese’s claim is that collective goods like tradition and conventional moral identities are good for individuals, why does she write that the collective good transcends the aggregate interests of atomized individuals? For Fox-Genovese, the key words here are “atomized individuals.” Atomistic individualism does not recognize the inherent value of any collective goods, although it recognizes their instrumental value to some individuals (Raz 1986, 198). Fox-Genovese means to reject the atomistically individualistic view of society as merely a collection of separate individuals whose interests overlap only incidentally. She believes that human well-being is most important, and that collective goods are essential to human well-being. On her view, cultures like ours that conceive of themselves as atomistically individualist do not recognize the importance of collective goods and have trouble producing them. This leads, in her view, to a threat to human well-being. This personalist reading of Fox-Genovese’s emphasis on the good or rights of the collectivity is consistent with her own comments on her work. She tells us that she defends “feminism, or rather a feminism” (Fox-Genovese 1991, 6), the goal of which is to “make sense of what women need” (243) to “ensure decent lives for all people” (19).
            This first section distinguished conservatism from two forms of libertarianism, and distinguished religious from traditional conservatism. It suggested that perfectionism grounds one version of conservatism. It called that version ‘well-being conservatism,’ and suggested that Fox-Genovese’s thinking about women and feminism can be understood as the application of well-being conservatism to the case of women. In anticipation of one likely criticism – that conservatism puts society’s interests above the interests of individuals – this section argued that well-being conservatism may emphasize collective goods without rejecting personalism.

II. Elizabeth Fox-Genovese’s Conservative Thought
This section offers a) an overview of Fox-Genovese’s thinking about women and feminism. Key elements are reconstructed, using the well-being account of conservatism, as b) an argument to the conclusion that feminism should support conventional social forms and women’s conventional moral identities.

a) Overview
Fox-Genovese describes herself as a feminist, and offers criticism of conservative theorists. For example she prods conservatives to give up the “celebration of domesticity as usual” (Fox-Genovese 1995). And she criticizes conservatives for not offering a post-patriarchal model for family life (1992). But she also describes herself as “tempermentally and culturally conservative” (1991, 3; see also 6, 34; and 1996, 2). Thus her criticisms of conservatism are best understood as constructive. Her writing expresses alarm over what she sees as the recent erosion of inherited culture and community life. The cause of this erosion, she believes, is the increasing influence of individualism (1991, 8). According to individualism, freedom of the individual is the highest value and thus citizens are obligated only to avoid violating one another’s freedom. This overemphasis on freedom leads us to overlook many other goods essential to human well-being (especially collective goods), and to assume that conflicts between freedom and these other goods may be resolved in freedom’s favor without significant loss.
Fox-Genovese believes individualism grounds dominant forms of feminism (1991, 5-9, 50, 53, 75; 2004, 302, 304). Feminism has stood for protection of women from harm and abuse (understood as conditions for women’s freedom), and for freedom for women from unchosen obligations. But currently, Fox-Genovese believes, some of the social roles (and attendant unchosen obligations) inherited culture prescribes to women play a significant role in maintaining women’s well-being, and the well-being of others. Thus women’s liberation, as dominant forms of feminism prescribe it, currently threatens human well-being, including women’s well-being (1991, 51). Fox-Genovese believes that feminism in its current manifestation is a symptom of individualism. She points to the capitalist market as another concerning expression of individualism (8; 1996, 135). This does not lead her to reject feminism however (or capitalism), but to imagine a different feminism. On my interpretation, it is one that replaces individualism’s exclusive focus on liberation from unchosen obligations with perfectionist focus on well-being.
Fox-Genovese also disapproves of anti-individualist feminisms, such as political versions of care ethics (1991, 19, 21, 52). For although they are supposedly anti-individualist, emphasizing the importance of community life and women’s traditional affinity to care, Fox-Genovese believes they fail to appreciate the centrality of authority to community life. She writes: “[W]ithout some acceptance of the claims of authority, it is difficult to imagine an adequate defense of communities” (50). “The defense of community points toward a strengthening of authority within intermediate institutions” (51; see also 46). While social forms can harmlessly leave some room for free choice, the reliable performance of many of the social obligations necessary for human well-being depends on authority. To do something because of authority is to do it not because you believe you stand to benefit, or even because you see its sense, but because others recognized as knowing better recommend it, or because it is required by a conventional social form accepted as expressing the accumulated wisdom of one’s predecessors. Religion and women’s conventional moral identities play important roles in providing this authority, and thus in assuring the performance of social obligations necessary for well-being (1996, 253).
At the same time, Fox-Genovese believes our inherited culture contains much that is incompatible with women’s well-being (1991, 235-36). This counts for her as a moral reason against simply returning to the social forms of the past. In addition to this moral reason, there is a practical one: we cannot go back (1996, 234). As conservatives see it, reactionaries fail to recognize this. Ought implies can. That is, for something to ought to be done it must be possible for it to be done. Thus Fox-Genovese asks what can be done, under contemporary circumstances, to actually facilitate women’s well-being, given how conventional social forms both detract from and contribute to it. She answers that under contemporary circumstances women’s well-being requires that women be able to support themselves and develop their talents (3, 244). Thus feminism should advocate these, as indeed it does. However, Fox-Genovese suggests, these are not timeless and universal goods. Their value depends on their current relevance to women’s well-being. In addition, she tells us, their importance should not be exaggerated. They must be balanced against the authority of those conventional social forms that also contribute to well-being. This balancing can be accomplished in ways of life that combine some degree self-sufficiency and self-realization (for example, through access to higher education and the labor market) (1996, 121), with women’s conventional moral identities (123, 190).
As a perfectionist, Fox-Genovese believes the state should promote the well-being of citizens. As we have seen, she believes well-being for women currently depends on ways of life that reconcile some self-sufficiency and development of talents with conventional social forms. Small government is often good, because it can provide the space communities need to promote allegiance to valuable conventional social forms. But sometimes, like now Fox-Genovese argues, government action is necessary (although she recommends a mix of public and private initiatives) (1996, 248-258). She writes: “If conservatives wish to encourage private virtue and responsibility [because these are conducive to well-being] they need to provide social conditions that permit people to act virtuously and responsibly” (242). Among these conditions are national health insurance (1991, 9) and a right to early abortion (10; 1996, 131). (She hints at public funding of early abortions for poor women (1996, 232).) The state should make it easier for women to forgo paid employment to care for young children, or work part time, through tax policy and “universal child allowances” (1996, 243, see also 239-55). Fox-Genovese is also supportive of day care (especially in-home), and welfare for poor women, arguing that it must be “accompanied by a … family policy for society as a whole” (238, see also 250) that encourages conformity with social forms proven to support well-being. For example she writes: “Such a policy must start with the assumption that children fare best in an intact family with a mother and a father who can provide for their basic needs” (Fox-Genovese 1996, 239). But that policy must not be utopian. She explains “we cannot sacrifice one or more generations of children while we wait for their parents to comply” (251). Fox-Genovese muses that the state might deny married people the right to divorce, or remarry, or take on responsibility for another family, until their children have reached maturity (1992). She also endorses banning “extreme” pornography because it “dehumanizes” women (1991, 88). And she advocates equal pay for equal work.

b) The Argument
I now reconstruct one line of Fox-Genovese’s thought as an argument.

  1. Conventional social forms do not ensure well-being for women, but well-being for women is unlikely in their absence.
  2. Feminism should advocate well-being for women.
  3. Therefore, feminism should advocate, among other things, women’s access to conventional social forms.
  4. Conventional moral identities are necessary to conventional social forms.
  5. Therefore, feminism should advocate women’s conventional moral identities.


c) Defense of the Argument
To explore a defense of this argument, I discuss primarily premise one. Premise two is controversial within feminist philosophy. There is insufficient space here to treat it, however, or the related claim that the state should promote citizens’ well-being (as opposed, for example, to their rights).
            Premise one says that conventional social forms do not ensure well-being for women, but that well-being for women is unlikely in their absence. Observe that because many women are raised in conventional social forms, many develop preferences that can best be satisfied by those forms (Fox-Genovese 1996, 31). Fox-Genovese tells us: “Most women still hope to fit their new gains at work and in the public world into some version of the story of marriage and family that they have inherited from their mothers” (1996, 16). “Many women want rewarding work even as they continue to cherish traditional family values. Many want to be respected as competent workers even as they continue to enjoy the pleasures of femininity. Most cherish their independence even as they want binding ties to a man and children… [Their] self image as good mothers … [matters] so much to them” and they find their children to be “an inestimable source of love and personal satisfaction” (3). If preference satisfaction is a part of well-being then it counts for conventional social forms that they tend to satisfy preferences they create. Of course, these are not the only preferences women have, and not all women have these preferences. But conservatives invite us to observe that social forms create preferences that tend to be uniquely satisfied by them, and the absence of some conventional form, through slow erosion or radical change, can lead to reduced satisfaction. The dominance of a particular social form means the preferences it creates are likely to be dominant, and its absence particularly strongly felt. Conservatives take seriously that ought implies can, and thus, to some degree, is implies ought (Cahoone 2004, 26).
            Conservative populism is motivated by this observation that conventional social forms create preferences that are uniquely satisfied by them. But well-being conservatism does not share the view that preferences are self-justifying. Instead, well-being conservatism holds that the fact that social forms satisfy the preferences they create counts for them only if the social forms the preferences support are conducive to widespread well-being. As John Kekes puts it, those forms must satisfy the basic needs of the people participating in them, and not actively deprive people of the satisfaction of basic needs. As Kekes explains, all human beings have certain “basic physiological, psychological, and social needs” (Kekes 1998, 35, see also 51-53): the need for food and protection from physical harm, the need for security and a sense of self, and the need for companionship are examples (115). Good social forms make it possible for basic needs to be met. Social forms that meet basic needs vary with culture. But although these forms are variable, they are no less necessary. If particular social forms actually meet citizens’ basic needs they are valuable and should be protected and promoted by the state (48-67, 110-35).
A good society will have some variety of social forms because basic needs are plural and people have differing temperaments, abilities, and desires. As Kekes explains, people construct good lives by participating creatively in some of the social forms available in their society. But a society should not have an infinite variety of social forms, because some forms actively undermine access to basic goods; these should be discouraged or even prohibited. It should merely tolerate those social forms that, while not directly depriving people of basic goods, represent a rejection of the conventional social forms through which most people receive them (Kekes 1998, 127, 132). Also, not all imaginable social forms can coexist. If a social form, or set of social forms, makes necessary goods accessible then retaining it is good even if it makes other forms impossible (or merely tolerable), which might themselves have turned out to be valuable had they been dominant. The well-being account of conservatism holds that the just state may and should protect and promote the particular social forms that actually provide widespread access to basic goods. It should be wary of promoting those that are only predicted to do so.
So preference satisfaction is part of well-being in the following sense. When social forms that satisfy basic needs create preferences that are uniquely satisfied by them, preference satisfaction becomes a motor sustaining well-being. Note that preferences sustaining well-being need not be preferences for the basic goods themselves; they can be for other aspects of a social form that in turn support access to basic goods. On Fox-Genovese’s view, conventional social forms play a role in satisfying women’s basic needs. (They also play a role in satisfying children’s basic needs (Fox-Genovese 1996, 72, 94, 118, 123, 125, 256).) This is why she, and other conservative advocates for women, emphasize women’s continued embrace of women’s conventional moral identities (Kersten 2005). We look now at three particular connections Fox-Genovese sees between women’s well-being and conventional social forms. They concern marriage, mothering and sexual morality.
1) Marriage. Fox-Genovese tells us that most women in our society want to marry, remarry after divorce, and identify with the role of wife. This preference is good, as marriage functions as the “foundation for personal and economic security” for women (1996, 95). Fox-Genovese claims that easy access to divorce has contributed to reduced personal and economic security for women. This is because women’s gains in paid work have not made up for the losses caused by divorce, especially for poor women. For the latter, the availability of divorce has meant increased poverty (115). The rejection of marriage should usually be tolerated only, not accepted or praised. This is because although one person’s rejection of marriage may not directly undermine her or others’ access to basic goods, it is a rejection of a social form responsible for providing widespread access to those goods. The state should promote getting and staying married. Policies Fox-Genovese is likely to endorse include covenant marriage, which makes it harder to legally divorce. We saw above that she has mused that the state might deny married people the right to divorce, or remarry, or take on responsibility for another family, until their children have reached maturity. Fox-Genovese explicitly rejects a simple return to the past, however. And her claim is not that marriage is a panacea – she recommends women’s being able to be self-sufficient to protect against the effects of divorce or never marrying. Instead, her view is that, especially for poor women, under current conditions, marriage satisfies women’s basic needs better than the actually available alternatives. Thus if feminism advocates women’s well-being, feminism should advocate marriage.
2) Mothering. Fox-Genovese believes that women generally want to mother, and that they get great satisfaction from mothering. Mothering work, as Fox-Genovese describes it, is the unremunerated work of support and nurture. It includes sustaining the myriad voluntary associations of civil society (1996, 17). Without the benefits provided by this work, society would lack all “social cohesion” (130), and life could not be good for most people. Mothering’s benefits are enjoyed by women and girls as well as by men and boys. Thus that women want to mother is good. Changes in culture and the economy have made women less and less able to mother. Working class women and the communities in which they live, according to Fox-Genovese, are especially vulnerable. Working class women, Fox-Genovese writes, worry that their inability to mother well endangers the prospects of the next generation (1991, 30). Fox-Genovese is in favor of state action aimed at making it possible for women to mother. These include making part-time work more financially rewarding, welfare for poor women, child allowances, as well as requiring more financial support from fathers. Fox-Genovese does not imagine a utopia in which men do half the mothering. (But she does think that sharing housework is a good thing, and that reducing the influence of individualism would promote male responsibility (1996, 205, 255).) Instead, she draws on the patterns of socialization that already exist and, when enabled, actually do support well-being. If mothering is important to the well-being of women and others, and feminism is committed to promoting women’s well-being, feminism should promote women’s mothering.
3) Sexual Morality. Fox-Genovese believes that traditional sexual morality, if revived, could play a role in promoting women’s well-being. Traditional sexual morality ties sexuality more tightly to marriage and reproduction. She writes: “Our mothers and grandmothers understood women’s sexual vulnerability, especially as manifested in their ability to bear children and in their special responsibility to care for them” (1996, 144). She believes that reduced promiscuity would protect women, especially poor women for whom sexual activity often equals pregnancy and unwed motherhood. She believes that sexual libertinism has increased men’s rejection of family obligation, and magnified their tendency to objectify and instrumentalize women, as in pornography (1991, 95, 108). And she believes that it is related to increased violence against women (255). If this is the case, then reviving traditional sexual morality could be conducive to women’s well-being. If feminism is committed to the promotion of women’s well-being, then feminism should advocate traditional sexual morality.
It is clear, then, that Fox-Genovese largely approves of traditional marriage, motherhood and sexual morality. In addition, she argues for using state power to protect and promote these conventional social forms because of the contribution they make to human well-being. Feminism is diverse, of course, but feminists generally have been critical of conventional social forms such as these and argue for their transformation. Traditional conservatism is wary of social change. Well-being conservatism holds that reform or wholesale discarding or replacement of conventional social forms may be morally required if a conventional social form fails to deliver widely the satisfaction of basic needs it promises, or fails to do this more than some actually existing alternative, or actively deprives citizens of the satisfaction of basic needs. But conservatives hold that agents of social change must be careful not to destroy the social forms on which people depend for well-being (Cahoone 2004, 29). If it is not possible to reform a morally offending social form while preserving whatever is in it that affords citizens something essential for well-being, then it might be best to live with the offense as the lesser of evils. Wholesale replacement of one social form with another, even with excellent intentions, is risky. This is because the fabric of human society is complex and the exact relationship between conventional social forms and basic goods that afford well-being is not well-understood. Living with the lesser of evils is also sensible, according to well-being conservatives, because some evil, even some human-caused evil, is ineradicable (Kekes 1998, 72-79).

III. Fox-Genovese and Feminism
This last part a) contrasts Fox-Genovese’s thinking about women and feminism with liberal feminism, and b) explores affinities and contrasts between Fox-Genovese’s thought and some difference and communitarian feminisms. These sections argue that Fox-Genovese’s thought, indeed conservatism itself, seeks to reconcile women to conventional social forms (like traditional marriage, motherhood and sexual morality) while feminism condemns the sexist hierarchy in them and recommends social transformation. The paper concludes by suggesting that while there is no true conservative feminism today, c) some feminisms are more conservative than others, and some may be informed by conservatism.

a) The Contrast with Liberal Feminism
Fox-Genovese’s thinking about women and feminism can be contrasted with liberal feminism. To be sure, Fox-Genovese endorses several goals liberal feminists also endorse: universal health care, access to early abortions, low-cost, high-quality daycare, welfare for poor single mothers, the development of women’s talents and their ability to be self-sufficient. But her reasons are not liberal. Recall she tells us: “If conservatives wish to encourage private virtue and responsibility [because these are conducive to well-being] they need to provide social conditions that permit people to act virtuously and responsibly” (1996, 242). Universal health care, access to early abortions, etc., may be currently necessary to provide the social conditions necessary for people to practice private virtue and responsibility, on which human well-being depends. If they are, all things being equal, they are justified. But they may not be. And even if they are now, circumstances change. The status of a woman’s access to an early abortion or to welfare, or even to the development of her talents, on this view, is dependent upon whether it can be part of a way of life that supports the well-being of citizens. Fox-Genovese argues that we should conceive of “the claims of society – the collectivity – as prior to the rights of the individual” (1991, 9 my emphasis). According to Fox-Genovese, we need a “view of individual right as derivative from collective social life” (1991, 244).
Liberal feminists, by contrast, hold that women have a right to an early abortion, to welfare, and to develop their talents, and that rights trump whatever interest citizens might have in protecting and promoting particular ways of life, even ways of life held to support citizens’ well-being. Indeed, liberal feminism holds that personal, associational, and political life must be guided first by the values of freedom (including women’s freedom) and equality (including gender equality). On a liberal view, it is from these priority values that rights flow and inherit their trumping character. This is not to say that freedom and equality exhaust the moral universe. Liberal feminists hold that community and associational life are important to human well-being. But they believe community and associational life must be compatible with women’s freedom and gender equality, and not the other way around.
On the liberal feminist view women should be able to live lives of their own choosing. This involves, at least, being able critically to reflect on one’s circumstances and to imagine and choose life otherwise (Meyers 2004). Exercising this ability is in tension with Fox-Genovese’s claim that the authority of conventional social forms and moral identities should be strengthened. She writes: “[W]ithout some acceptance of the claims of authority, it is difficult to imagine an adequate defense of communities” (Fox-Genovese 1991, 50). “The defense of community points toward a strengthening of authority within intermediate institutions” (51; see also 46). As suggested above, Fox-Genovese holds that while social forms can harmlessly leave some room for free choice, the reliable performance of many of the social obligations necessary for human well-being depends on authority. To do something because of authority is to do it not because you believe you stand to benefit, or even because you see its sense, but because others recognized as knowing better recommend it, or because it is required by a conventional social form accepted as expressing the accumulated wisdom of one’s predecessors. Religion and women’s conventional moral identities, indeed prescribed social roles, provide this authority, and thus play an important role in assuring the performance of social obligations necessary for well-being (1996, 253). This argument for the value of social roles unreflectively accepted contrasts strongly with liberal feminism’s emphasis on the importance of critical reflection on social roles and on the ability to imagine and live life otherwise. David Sidorsky puts this contrast well: for liberals, the opposite of freedom can only be tyranny and coercion, but for conservatives freedom must be balanced with “competing values such as civic order, inherited religious, moral or cultural traditions” (Sidorsky 2007, 8). Fox-Genovese writes that we must not prioritize the freedom of individuals but “struggle to balance individual freedom and community authority” (Fox-Genovese 1996, 245).
On the liberal feminist view, equality requires that gender be costless. Society should be arranged so that a morally irrelevant characteristic – like being born female – does not put one at systematic disadvantage (Okin 1989). Fox-Genovese’s endorsement of conventional social forms (like traditional marriage, motherhood and sexual morality) involves promoting a version of women’s difference that, on the liberal feminist view, disadvantages women. Fox-Genovese does not so much deny this as to question its relevance. Conservatives point out that all social forms have costs, and different costs to different parties. We are to not focus on the differential nature of the costs, but rather on whether there are costs and benefits to citizens’ well-being, and on whether a social form is on balance better than some actually available alternative. Fox-Genovese holds that the erosion of women’s conventional moral identities has had substantial cost to the well-being of citizens generally, and to the well-being of women in particular. And thus while being a woman in a relatively conventional marriage means not being able to live like a man, much is potentially bought with it. While for liberals the opposite of equality is hierarchy, for conservatives equality must balanced against the value of social roles embedded in ways of life conducive to human well-being (see Sidorsky 2007, 14).
A further contrast with liberal feminism concerns the proper uses of state power. Liberal feminists hold that the state may act only on values that are public and shareable, like the freedom and equality of citizens (see Rawls 1993). (Feminist liberals emphasize the public value of women’s freedom and women’s equality (see McClain 2006.) This means that, beyond securing the conditions for citizens’ freedom and equality, the state must be neutral with respect to citizens’ conceptions of how life should be lived. Fox-Genovese holds that the state need not be neutral concerning the ways of life citizens choose, but may take action to steer citizens into those social forms that are conducive to well-being. To be sure, conservatives often advocate limited state power. But their reasons for state constraint are not liberal. Liberals hold that citizens have a right to a sphere of freedom, and thus the state must be constrained. Conservatives hold that small government is often conducive to citizens’ well-being because it can provide the space communities need to promote allegiance to valuable conventional social forms. But, because well-being is normatively prior, government action to promote well-being is permissible when valuable social forms are endangered (Fox-Genovese 1996, 248-258).

b) Affinities and Contrasts with Difference and Communitarian Feminisms
Despite these points of contrast with liberal feminism, Fox-Genovese’s thought has affinities with other feminisms, in particular with some difference feminisms (like that of Luce Irigaray and care ethics) and with feminisms inspired by communitarianism. We look first at difference feminisms. Fox-Genovese, like Luce Irigaray and care ethicists, argues that while gender difference may be, to a significant degree, a social construction (Fox-Genovese 1991, 155-56), emphasizing women’s difference from men can be beneficial. Irigaray insists on the transformative role to be played by the assertion of women’s difference. She suggests that asserting women’s difference can put the lie to patriarchy’s reduction of women to men’s subordinate ‘other’ and open up the possibility of a proliferation of nonhierarchical difference (see Whitford 1994, 16). In contrast, for Fox-Genovese, affirming women’s difference despite its contingency should not have a radically transformative effect. On a conservative view, hopes for transformation are dangerous, for they risk discarding beneficial social forms for uncertain gain. Fox-Genovese’s assertion of women’s difference is an attempt to stabilize and consolidate the benefits of the current construction of difference while protecting women from some of the vulnerability these forms create.
Care ethicists too hold that women’s difference from men should be affirmed. Some argue that the work of caring should be socially recognized and politically supported (Kittay 1999; Fineman 2003). In this way care ethicists’ thinking about ethics and politics blurs the line between traditional public and private realms, arguing that the well-being of families and communities generally should be considered important political matters. Fox-Genovese’s work also points in this direction. But care ethicists focus our attention on the unjust and patriarchal contexts within which women’s caring nature develops and in which women care. They call for a transformation of these contexts so that women’s caring labor does not threaten their well-being or put them at a disadvantage. Fox-Genovese, as we have seen, is hesitant to advocate transformation and de-emphasizes women’s disadvantage.
Fox-Genovese’s view also has affinities with feminisms inspired by communitarianism. She shares with feminist communitarians the concern that the dominance of individualism in our culture threatens citizens’ well-being by undermining our ability to produce collective goods. She shares with them an emphasis on the socially embedded nature of identity. She also shares their view that communities have important roles to play in politics and that politics may be used to further community ends. But feminist communitarians emphasize that the forms communities currently take have been imposed on women. They envision fundamentally transformed communities, communities that lack prescribed social roles, especially those roles that have traditionally constrained women (Frazer and Lacey 1993; Weiss and Friedman 1995). Fox-Genovese, in contrast, does not advocate transformation and largely affirms the value of prescribed social roles.

c) Conclusions
These contrasts suggest a definition of feminism that gibes with usage in contemporary political philosophy. Political philosophers usually mean by ‘feminism’ more than ‘advocacy for women.’ Advocates promote the good of something, as they understand that good. Fox-Genovese is clearly an advocate for women. By ‘feminism’ is usually meant a more specific kind of advocacy, namely advocacy grounded in the belief that conventional social forms (like traditional marriage, motherhood, and sexual morality) involve gender hierarchy, and that they should be strongly criticized and transformed. Fox-Genovese’s advocacy on behalf of women does not seek to liberate women from gender hierarchy or to transform social relations. In keeping with conservatism, it seeks instead to reconcile women to conventional social forms. To be sure, it seeks to reconcile women to conventional social forms to the extent that those forms are conducive to human well-being (1996, 233). For Fox-Genovese this means that traditional motherhood, marriage and sexual morality must currently accommodate women’s ability to develop their talents and be self-sufficient. It means also that the state may need to step in to support these forms, for example by supporting women’s mothering when the fathers of their children are absent, by banning violent pornography, or by making early abortions available.
But traditional conservatism’s current endorsement of the kinds of social forms feminists criticize does not stem from its endorsement of gender hierarchy as such. It just turns out that the social forms conservatives believe currently do support human well-being, or if repaired could do a better job than the actually available alternatives, are the same social forms that feminists tend to criticize. One can imagine a future in which traditional conservatives and feminists endorse the same kinds of social forms – nonhierarchical, nonsexist ones. But conservatism would not have a principled account of why gender hierarchy or disadvantage is bad. The traditional conservative endorsement of nonhierarchical, egalitarian gender relationships would be contingent upon their being more conducive to human well-being than the actually available alternatives. But today, to be a traditional conservative is to seek to reconcile women to those kinds of social forms which feminists condemn and seek to transform.
‘Conservative’ has been treated here as a political philosophy. But it is also an adjective, according to the Oxford Desk Dictionary and Thesaurus, meaning simply “averse to rapid change … moderate … cautious, careful, prudent, temperate” (1997). Surely some feminisms are more conservative than others, when what is meant by ‘more conservative’ is simply ‘more averse to rapid change, more moderate, cautious, careful, prudent, temperate.’ To be clear, a theory is feminist if it holds that criticizing and eradicating gender hierarchy is a moral priority. But it is a more conservative feminist theory if it is more averse to rapid change, more moderate, etc., than some other feminist theory.
Some feminisms might even be informed by conservative political philosophy. (They might be more conservative because they are informed by conservative political philosophy.) A feminism informed by conservative political philosophy might include conservatism’s emphasis on the idea that ought implies can. As a result, such a feminism might adopt a conservative anti-utopian principle. That principle says that a recommendation for social change must be based on confidence that that change can be made, and that it would be good for people, as they are, for it to be made. It insists that the proposed change be able to be part of a way of life that would be better for people, as they are, than the actually available alternatives. This feminism would emphasize the limits to our normative horizons, and recommend gradual, piecemeal change. A feminism informed by conservative political philosophy might also emphasize that liberation and transformation involve risk, that losses are to be expected, and that things could easily be worse after a change has been made (even a change that had much to recommend it). Such a feminism might want to be sure that trading in our current injustices will leave us better off than leaving things as they are (see Fox-Genovese 1991, 101). A feminism informed by conservative political philosophy might also tend to welcome state support for ways of life it holds to be conducive to widespread well-being. It might even hold that ways of life feminists hold to be of value should have authority, that is, should be shielded from the eroding effects of social criticism.
Are these feminisms – the more conservative feminism and the feminism informed by conservative political philosophy – philosophically attractive? Are aversion to change, and a tendency toward moderation and cautiousness, virtues of political theories? Should feminism eschew visionary, utopian thinking? Should feminism enlist the power of the state to promote its values? These questions cannot be answered here. But they are questions that conservatism, including the work of Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, puts on the table for feminists to consider.
Feminism is committed to listening to the voices of women, including conservative women. Fox-Genovese’s voice urges feminists today to reconcile women to conventional social forms. It has been argued here that feminism cannot heed that call. But conservative voices, like Fox-Genovese’s have serious suggestions to make about how normative political philosophy should proceed, and about women’s well-being. Indeed, we do not have to call Fox-Genovese’s thinking ‘feminist’ to acknowledge that it is a serious form of advocacy on behalf of women, and that as such it can be fruitfully included in discussions about what is good for women.



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Thanks are due to colleagues who read and commented on this paper, and to two anonymous readers for Hypatia.

For discussion of conservative feminism on the web and in the blogosphere see Feminist Planet:; Rightgrrl:; Amazon Society:

Some use “conservative feminism” to mean merely the repudiation of legal sex distinctions. This view is associated with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. On this usage of “conservative feminism,” see Sungaila (1998) and Posner (1989). Elizabeth Frazer and Nicola Lacey mention ‘conservative feminists’ and mean politically conservative women who call themselves feminists and advocate on behalf of women (Frazer and Lacey 1993, 131).

It is not possible to list all of the important academic overviews of feminism that do not mention conservative feminism. Consider this short list: Arneil (1999), Beasley (1999), Bryson (2003), Evans (1995), Jaggar (1988), and Tong (1998).

A conventional social form – for example a custom, identity, moral attitude or institution – is part of a conventional way of life, that is, a way of life recommended by the fact of past practice.

Patricia Smith writes that the core of feminist thought is that “Patriarchy is bad for women, morally unjustified, and ought to be eliminated” (Smith 1993, 9). Sally Haslanger and Nancy Tuana write: “‘Feminism’ is an umbrella term for range of views about injustices against women. There are disagreements among feminists... Nonetheless, feminists are committed to bringing about social change to end injustice against women, in particular, injustice against women as women” (Haslanger and Tuana, 2004). Susan Okin writes: “By "feminism," I mean the belief that women should not be disadvantaged by their sex, that they should be recognized as having human dignity equally with men, and the opportunity to live as fulfilling and as freely chosen lives as men can” (Okin 1999, 10).

For right-libertarian/conservative rapprochements see Epstein (2004), 74-104. See also Feser (2004). Against rapprochement, see Gray (1995), chapter 7. Fox-Genovese is also wary of rapprochement.

For an examination of right libertarian feminism, also called classical liberal feminism, see Baehr (2007). For right libertarian feminism on the web, see the Independent Institute’s ifeminism page:; and the Independent Women’s Forum:; Lew Rockwell:; and Liberty Haven:

For more criticism of conservatism, see Fox-Genovese (1991, 2, 5, 6, 8, 27, 31, 35, 50, 59, 61, 81, 91, 100, 107, 155-56, 167); and (1996, 28, 256).

For a related criticism of individualism, see Genovese (1995, 124).

As another conservative puts it, “Civil society has markets, but [should] not itself [be] a market” (Cahoone 2004, 42).

More recent works show Fox-Genovese’s increasing uneasiness with the pro-choice position.

For an argument to the conclusion that feminist politics should avoid perfectionist foundations see Lloyd (1998).

See also 1991, 161. But she writes that “A biological difference remains” (1991, 244); see also 101.

One implication of this principle is that to identify something as unjust or harmful is not yet to show that it would be better, all things considered, for it to be changed. Sally Kitch worries that much feminist theory confuses problem-identification with problem-solution (Kitch 2000, 4). See Kitch (2000) for a general critique of utopianism in feminist thought and practice.

For discussion authority from a feminist point of view, see Tirrell (1993) and Hanrahan and Antony (2005).