By Jonathon Van Maren
In his recent Daily Wire documentary, podcast host Matt Walsh posed a question that nearly everyone, circa the year 2000, would have thought ludicrous: “What is a Woman?” The most sobering interviews in the film were not of trans activists and butcher surgeons beclowning themselves or offering sinister justifications for their medical misdeeds; we already knew that was happening. It was the number of ordinary Americans Walsh spoke to who could not answer the question. This is a sobering indication that the insanities of the elites are trickling downwards far more swiftly than most of us thought, with a little help from Hollywood, the public education system, academia, and of course, the Democratic Party.
Walsh got the answer to his titular question at the end of the documentary, when his wife states that a woman is “an adult human female.” And indeed, as a matter of science, this is an obvious (albeit increasingly denied or forgotten) fact. But it is also true that this fact is merely the beginning of the discussion rather than the conclusion. How should a Christian answer the question “what is a woman?” or, for that matter, “what is a man?” Two writers have come forward with proposed answers to those questions this year: Rebekah Merkle in the documentary version of her 2016 book Eve in Exile: The Restoration of Femininity and Anthony Esolen in his new book No Apologies: Why Civilization Depends on the Strength of Men. The answers they pose are a bracing, full-throated defenses of biblical femininity and masculinity—and they hedge no bets and take no prisoners.
Merkle’s book (and documentary) is a comprehensive takedown of modern feminism from a biblical perspective. In her view, a key aspect of the rise of feminism was the Industrial Revolution’s relegation of women to a primarily decorative role, as the household economy in which men, women, and families worked together to make a living and a life was replaced by men leaving the home to earn a pay cheque while women inhabited suburbia, denuded of much of the work that had given them purpose. This loss of purpose—combined with the rise of technology that rendered much creative work moot—created both crippling boredom and depression. It was this intangible sense of despair that Betty Friedan captured in The Feminine Mystique, with the question that launched a movement: “Is this all?”
Merkle definitely simplifies things a bit here—there isn’t much analysis of how badly women were treated; how frequently they were barred from education; how much control of their lives was denied them under law, especially with regard to their children. But Merkle’s framework is still a helpful one. She defends not simply the woman’s role, but the woman’s domain; she explains what women are better at than men; she goes through each of the Bible verses discussing gender differences, and highlights their place as the glory of Creation. She doesn’t shy away from any of the “difficult” verses, and the result is a defence of biblical femininity that is effective precisely because it is so unapologetic and counter-cultural. The broken promises of modern feminism frankly come off as pallid in comparison.
No Apology is the latest in a string of brilliant Anthony Esolen offerings: Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture (2017), Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World (2018), Defending Boyhood (2019), and Sex and the Unreal City (2020). Utilizing a wide array of literary, Scriptural, and philosophical references (Protestants should be aware that Esolen, although ecumenical in his source selection, is most definitely Catholic), Esolen unapologetically defends not only the virtues of masculinity—strength, drive, ambition, determination in building, upholding civilization—but exults in their historic accomplishments and their role as protectors and defenders. It is a book, he notes, that should not need to be written. It is a sign of the times that his statements of the obvious are so offensive.
Esolen lives up to his title, demolishing feminism with every literary tool at his disposal. Being conditioned by our egalitarian age, he occasionally makes the eye balls bulge (such as when he wonders aloud whether doing away with household voting was the right move), but his advocacy of manhood rooted in Scripture and tradition; a masculinity that does not boast or swagger, but is comfortable in its own powers; a masculinity that recognizes its responsibilities and seeks to fulfill them; a masculinity that is, by design, the fundamentally physically stronger sex. He spends several chapters detailing this point by laying out the biological differences and statistical strength differences. Again, this is not the sort of thing that used to be controversial.
Esolen defends men as men—as fathers, as builders, as defenders of women and children. What men have become is another story. Online porn has allowed men to achieve a pathetic imitation of carnivorous sexual satisfaction without courting, supporting, or loving a real woman; video games have allowed them to play at accomplishing great feats without leaving their parents’ basement (and distracting them from, you know, actually doing that). Genuine masculine traits are written off as “toxic” and men and boys increasingly fall behind—something that is celebrated by feminist writers who produce books such as The End of Men and the Rise of Women. Without men, Esolen writes, civilization falls. Men built the very things necessary for its survival—and if they do not learn how to do so again, we are all in a world of trouble.
What struck me about these recent works by Merkle and Esolen is the fact that at the age of 34, I remember when nearly everything they say would have been taken for granted. Sure, second and third-wave feminism began long before I was born, but the destruction of the so-called “gender binary” by the transgender revolution is brand-new, and certain feminine and masculine characteristics, especially in Christian circles, were taken for granted. The idea that men are generally stronger and that women are generally more nurturing; that both men and women are essential to children, and to each other; that most men cannot do without women and most women cannot do without men—these things are now so radical that, on a recent panel on ABC in Australia, the guests and audience laughed and sneered at Peter Hitchens simply for saying them.
Rebekah Merkle and Anthony Esolen are counter-revolutionaries, and their books (and the documentary) thus carry the whiff of gun-smoke. We need much more of this bracing sanity.