Domestic Extremist: A Practical Guide to Winning the Culture War by Peachy Keenan—a pseudonym used by a seriously Catholic humorist deep in the bowels of blue California—is a heated polemic about how feminism has failed women and how they can take back their lives and femininity from a twisted culture. Its tone ranges from relentless rant to poor-taste humor to outrage. Yet I was pleasantly surprised by its serious takes on a variety of ethical issues and their impact on women—from abortion and birth control to egg-freezing, egg donation, and of course, hook-up culture.
We classical liberals struggle to grasp the reality of “network effects”—ways in which our decisions can change the landscape of choice even for those individuals who do not want to make similar decisions. Birth control is like this: while it’s certainly up to you whether to use it, the fact that so many women do has radically shifted the strategic landscape around mating.
Excuse me for the game-theoretic language, but this is an unavoidable fact of our lives now. If most women are not concerned about sex leading to babies, they are far more willing to have sex outside of marriage without the promise of marriage, even should a baby ensue. While I tip my hat to the few men who believe in the virtue of chastity, the cold, hard truth is that the traditional stigma against out-of-wedlock birth kept the majority of men in line in important ways, ways that have now for the most part disappeared.
In the olden days (before 1961 and the Pill), it was pretty tough for a man to find a woman to sleep with him who wouldn’t extract a promise of marriage in advance in case of pregnancy. Nowadays, not so much. This means that a man can have plenty of sex without getting married. But women who save themselves for marriage are up against a world indifferent to the institution, and a majority of men who aren’t interested in it at all. This, in turn, wears down the motivation for, say, a Christian woman to stick to her principles for fear of being alone forever.
Of course, the whole thing is a terrible trick—there have never been more single people in the history of the world, and reports of loneliness have never been higher. But we’re trapped in our own hell of strategic logic, with women of faith facing a depressing set of demographics. There simply are not enough good men to go around.
And this is where Keenan’s hot takes fall short, I’m afraid. While I appreciate her pointing out the advantages of young marriage and young motherhood, the sad fact is that many, many faithful women simply will not find a suitable partner, no matter how hard they try. The book may rescue a few young women from the stupid assumption that marriage and childbearing will be just as easy (or even possible) at 35 as it would have been at 25, and I’m grateful for that. But it’s got precious little to say to those who would have been happy to marry young but now need to forge some kind of life in spite of losing the dream of husband and children.
I’ll be honest and say that giving young women advice has its place, but we’re in much greater need of good advice that can break through to young men. They are just as shattered by the aimlessness and uselessness of the selfish lives they’ve been encouraged to pursue, and if more of them don’t find some way of turning things around, all the feminine modesty and chastity in the world won’t produce a bunch of beautiful families. Part of my disagreement with Keenan here is that she grew up in an irreligious background and drifted into liberalism in college, while I grew up in a deeply religious household and never really strayed from the values I’d been given. That just means that while Peachy wants her college friends to settle down and procreate before it’s too late, I can’t count the number of beautiful, godly women I know who cry themselves to sleep at night longing for marriage and children. To borrow from one of Keenan’s chapter titles, these women have no problem “cultivating a marriage mindset.” They have a problem finding someone to marry.
Despite its sober subject matter, the book is supposed to be funny, yet I didn’t exactly find it to be particularly hilarious (OK, I chuckled here and there). Keenan’s attempts at humor were as likely to induce an “oof” as a laugh. I think of myself as someone with a good sense of humor, and I’m not overly moralistic about it, but even I was a bit shocked by some of her vulgar nonchalance. She refers to the current suicide epidemic as young people “flinging themselves off buildings left and right” and asserts sarcastically that remembering that your favorite porn actors are probably being trafficked is “a real boner-killer.” I don’t mind a bit of dark humor, but something doesn’t sit right with me about the new vulgarity on the right. Am I really supposed to listen to you wax eloquent about traditional values while you gleefully ignore what we used to call “common decency”? Chesterton’s humor was clever, not crude. Conservatives ought to be smarter than that, but oddly they seem to have embraced the old liberal canard that it’s always best to just say whatever comes to mind, as a sign of “authenticity.” That’s the danger of slipping into a reactionary mindset. In our decided defiance of the left, we ironically become them, sometimes without even realizing it.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about moral imagination and the role of Christians in generating genuinely creative solutions to our moral and social ills. I think this is one reason I didn’t enjoy the book as much as I’d hoped. To be fair, Keenan does spend the latter part of the book on alternatives, but it’s a 321-page work, and the entire first half is one long complaint against feminism. Each social perspective has its pitfalls, and while conservatives are good at being grateful for the past, they’re bad at pushing into the future. Their natural disposition is one of lament, which can be exhausting. After 168 pages of finger-wagging sarcasm, I found myself, frankly, bored.
I often joke with my students that I’m a “radical first-wave feminist,” which means that I’m pro-marriage (with equal rights to custody of children), pro-life, and pro–women’s voting and property rights. I’ve always been a working mom who was painfully aware of my dependence on the homemakers who had time to go on field trips, run the school fundraisers, and host the spring-break hangouts. But I did choose a profession—and a certain path within that profession—that would protect my family life and give me the flexibility I needed to be a mom.
I’m also a lifelong Christian who followed all of Peachy Keenan’s advice about finding domestic bliss. And while I resonated with many of her snarkily stated, tough-love, anti-feminist (whether second, third, or fourth wave) perspectives, I can’t help but grieve for those of us who followed all the “rules” yet didn’t end up with our promised outcome. After 10 years of marriage, I underwent an unwanted divorce from the father of my children. So much for “till death us do part” when your partner refuses to do his.
A strange sort of prosperity gospel can sneak its way into the understandable praise for the traditional family: if you do these certain things, you’ll get a great husband and a great life. But life is far too complicated for that, and human beings are dysfunctional and unpredictable. Speaking up for many of us church girls who fell for this false gospel, I’ll say, yes, do all the things, and yes, it will improve your chances, but also, life is still difficult and I can’t promise you any particular outcome, except that Jesus is faithful.
It’s undoubtedly annoying to read a critique of a book for not being a different book than it is, but given the near-ubiquitous critiques of “purity culture” coming out on everything from #WeirdChristianTwitter to Netflix, I expected Keenan to demonstrate some reflection on these matters. The trad-wife trend might be cute for college-educated converts like Keenan who know how to balance adherence to tradition with legitimate autonomy. It stops being cute altogether when you’re 16 and raising your smallest siblings, homeschooled with a curriculum that praises benevolent slave-holders, and soon-to-be married off to the veritable stranger that your father recommends.
Does this sound extreme? It is! But it’s all too real in movements like the IBLP, recently exposed by Netflix’s Shiny, Happy People documentary. If you can stand it, listen to Sheila Gregoire’s interview with Alyssa Wakefield, who describes her years of sexual slavery in a marriage set up by her father. While it’s funny to name a book Domestic Extremist, it’s important to explicitly hedge on just how extreme you want to be. Keenan herself is no more extreme than any culturally cosmopolitan but theologically serious Catholic, and yet somehow misses the chance to caution against the extremes to which “traditional domesticity” takes some women.
In the end, I may simply be tiring of the futile culture wars. Build something beautiful or stop talking. And if we’re not policing our own side, don’t come complaining to me when the really weird ones go off the deep end and undermine all the credibility in our movement. Kudos to Peachy for finding God and building a family. I hope her book does encourage some young women not to be taken in by the ridiculous lies of the feminist left. But rosy pictures of the perfect traditional life won’t provide meaning and purpose to those left behind by a culture in free fall. The only thing that can do that is God Himself, and the love and service He calls us into, whether our dreams of domestic bliss come true or not.