11/30/2012 03:16 pm ET Updated Jan 29, 2013

Suzanne Venker and Forest-for-the-Trees Feminism

Feminism is political. It is not a dating strategy or a self-help philosophy. It is not a guarantee of personal fulfillment. This point may have once been obvious, but in light of Suzanne Venker's Fox News piece and the swift, enraged response to it, it seems necessary to reiterate.

Ms. Venker's piece is a symptom of a larger shift in our national conversation about feminism, seen in a near-constant flow of books and articles on having it all or the decline of men or how in touch you are (sometimes literally) with your vagina. We have reached a point where the mainstream discussion has been personalized and sexualized to such a degree that is almost meaningless; whether or not I am paid equally for my work is viewed only in the context of how it will help or hurt my search for a man.

Or woman, of course, though that is rarely mentioned in articles like Ms. Venker's. In re-framing the debate over feminism as a debate over heterosexual relationships, gay women are inherently excluded. "Obviously there's a small portion of the world that's homosexual," Ms. Venker says in a dismissive response to the idea that not all women want what she does.

For Ms. Venker and her ilk to admit that women who don't want a husband could have political goals in common with women who do would be to admit that the women's movement is, at its core, not really about your sex life. It would be to admit that it is a political movement like any other, that it is about pay equity, reproductive rights and the feminization of poverty, not about the destruction of romance. That it is not really about you, personally, as a woman but about all of us as women.

Similarly, the endless trope that successful, educated women end up either proudly or pathetically, depending on your view, alone is a fallacy. In fact, they are by far more likely to be married than their less educated, less prosperous counterparts, an alarming socio-economic trend mentioned rarely since, one imagines, the demographic it concerns is less likely to buy hardcover books or troll online comment sections. That a record number of American women are living in poverty is ignored in favor of a meditation on having it all.

This tendency to mire the women's movement in the trivial is not new. Joan Didion identified it in 1972: "The tendency for popular discussion of the movement still to center around daycare centers," she wrote, "is yet another instance of that studied resistance to the possibility of political ideas which characterizes our national life." Her piece, while ambiguous in its sympathies for or against the movement, was a warning cry unheeded.

We are still resisting the political, conflating feminist ideology with a mating strategy. I recall a friend telling me about an advice piece similar to Ms. Venker's, admonishing women to return to more traditional gender roles to find romantic happiness. "I know the feminists will hate this," she said, simultaneously distancing herself from the movement and reminding me of how radically our discussion of it has drifted. We are not so much missing the forest for the trees as we are missing the forest for a lake a mile down the road.

It is easy and satisfying to eviscerate Ms. Venker's argument, but to do so perpetuates a debate already far off course. Too often, we rush to offer answers without stopping to make sure we are asking the right questions. I do not doubt that women have trouble dating. I have trouble dating. But I don't ascribe such trouble to feminism any more or less than I do to capitalism or constitutional democracy. Feminist activists fought for generations for your right to make your own choices, not the guarantee that you would make good ones. It is the freedom to pursue happiness, not the promise of its attainment. That, I fear, is the domain of self-help books and that is, ultimately, what Ms. Venker is selling. And whether women buy it or not, I hope we can agree, has only the loosest relationship to real feminist thought.