The Antifeminist Seduction

American women are lonely and unfulfilled. They are able to cope with their dreary lives amidst seas of expensive carpeting and well-dusted furniture only by popping pills. Society has limited their choices and robbed them of their true power, leaving them resentful of the lives of quiet desperation left to them by their mothers.

Sounds like the feminist portrait of the 1950s housewife, right? Actually, the well-dusted prisons are not postwar suburban ranch homes but corporate office suites. "Mother's Little Helper" is no longer Valium—it's Prozac. Social pressure no longer confines the miserable female to the domestic realm; it now compels her into the professional realm. And the force behind that social pressure is not the patriarchy—it's feminism.

If the classic nightmare vision of the repressed housewife was always somewhat of a feminist caricature, it nevertheless served its purpose, ultimately expanding the acceptable range of choices available to women and changing—for the better—the cultural conception of a woman's role in society. While the first-wave feminists were reacting against the stultifying domestic lives bequeathed to them by their housewife mothers, the new generation of conservative antifeminists are now reacting against the terrifying array of choices bequeathed to them by their feminist mothers. And the stereotypes the antifeminists are concocting are proving to be if anything even more caricatured and (distressingly) more effective than anything Gloria Steinem or Betty Friedan came up with.

Who doesn't have a concrete visual image of the young professional woman, single and desperate, eating Häagen Dazs directly from the container on Friday nights after her 80-hour workweek? Or of the married middle-class mother, hopelessly overwhelmed by the competing demands of work and family? Like the 1950s housewife, these stereo typed images have a large grain of truth about them; that's why they resonate so powerfully. But the conservative use of these stereotypes is profoundly misleading. The supposedly lonely nights of the legions of Häagen Dazs eaters are more easily explained by economics—not to mention by the implicitly sexist assumption that anyone ambitious enough to work 80-hour weeks must have a wife at home to keep house and make dinner—than by feminist changes to the culture. Easing the plight of overwhelmed women could be more effectively accomplished by legislating better child care provisions for working mothers than by turning back the clock to the 1950s.

Yet according to a burgeoning conservative mythology—whose most prominent banner-carriers are young women—the problems the modern woman faces have been caused by feminism. Feminism, in this view, has overreached, brainwashing women into defying their own deepest longings for a family and a home. And the disconcerting thing is that, to a generation of overworked and underpaid women (often in fact struggling to raise a family and build a career), this mythology appears to be striking a chord. The new antifeminism seduces American women in the 1990s by asking the question: We have our freedom—so now what?

(Re)politicizing the Personal

It is no longer enough simply to convince legislators (mostly men, naturally) that a woman's place is in the home. The female voter is far too powerful. Thus the new antifeminists are making their appeals directly to young women, reinventing biological essentialism—the argument that a woman's fate is biologically foreordained—and dressing it up as choice and empowerment. Armed with sassy, accessible prose and anecdotes that depict self-delusion gnawing on the female mind, these women present themselves as sisters in suffering in a world that has lost its sense. As Wendy Shalit poses the question, "Which, really, is the mis ogynist view: the view that for all of world history women have been idiots (for staying home and taking care of children?), or the view that gives women more credit, and thinks we have only gone overboard in the past 30 years?"



Subscribe to The American Prospect



Shalit and Danielle Crittenden, whose books made a simultaneous splash earlier this year, are the most prominent representatives of this genre. Crittenden, who would like to be seen as the soccer mom next door, has built a career out of telling women their careers aren't important. She founded the Women's Quarterly, a publication of the right-wing Independent Women's Forum. What Our Mothers Didn't Tell Us: Why Happiness Eludes the Modern Woman is her full-length tract on where we went wrong.

But it's Shalit, a 1997 graduate of Williams College, who has been the press's darling. Her career as a virgin revolutionary began when her parents took her out of sex ed courses as an elementary school student, and continued with a campaign against coed bathrooms at Williams. A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue urges women to form a cartel of virtue—to do for sex what OPEC did for oil—in order to get the respect, honor, and mutually committed relationships they long for.

Shalit and Crittenden have both learned from the feminist movement. They have appropriated its language. Feminism sought to make the personal political; the new antifeminism makes everything personal. It's The Rules as written for Philosophy 101. The basic argument goes something like this. Modern women are chronically unhappy. Single parenthood, eating disorders, rape, battery, clinical depression, and even bad dates are rampant. Borrowing reasoning from opponents of decolonization in the Third World who predicted that social chaos would result from the natives' alleged inability to cope with "unnatural" freedom and modernity, the argument then links women's social and psychological miseries to the sexual revolution and female emancipation.

"We seem to have spawned a generation of girls whose thwarted feminine nature is reasserting itself in grotesquely distorted forms—in eating disorders, self-mutilation, or in charges of sexual harassment and date rape," writes Shalit, sounding a lot like Freud a century ago when he diagnosed female "hysteria" in women who defied natural needs.

Biology and Honor

According to Crittenden, this underlying dissatisfaction is evident even beneath trends that have gained widespread acceptance. For example, she argues that there is little evidence to support the notion that late marriage produces happier results, conveniently ignoring the fact that marrying young is a surefire way to increase the statistical probability of divorce: of couples who married in 1989 in which either partner was under 20, almost one in five were divorced just five years later. In comparison, among couples in which either partner was between 30 and 34, just over one in 20 had divorced. Throughout the book, she makes dubious use of statistics to make her argument, which is that women would rather be home with the kids than at the workplace. She cites a 1997 Roper Starch Poll which reports that 52 percent of working women with children would rather be home. But a Pew Research Center poll conducted around the same time put that number at 25 percent, and found moreover that 25 percent of stay-at-home moms would pre fer to be working full-time. Crittenden eschews conventional studies, and suggests polling three- and four-year-olds: "I doubt the majority would say that they are 'happier' or 'better off' with their mother away all day." Would Crittenden advocate determining a national bedtime by a poll of nursery schools?

In the Crittenden-Shalit worldview, men, too, are slaves to their biology—they all act like characters in a country western song. Boorish and commitment-phobic, they'll use and abuse women if given the chance. What's a woman to do? Be virtuous, and use sex as a carrot to make men behave, Shalit urges. This Machiavellian vision of sexual relations—along with the nineteenth-century conception of marriage as a baldly economic contract—is actually romantic, she says. This is not a new argument, but it is an ironic vision of male behavior coming from the right, again reflecting the antifeminist attempt to usurp feminist language. For years feminists have been accused of being man-eaters. Today it is the "postfeminists" who base their argument on a combative understanding of relations between the sexes.

"In the name of independence and equality we've been told by our elders to deny our natural feelings," says Crittenden. But if women's natural inclinations are to stay home with children, marry young, and remain chaste, how is it that given even a modicum of choice women so quickly began to opt for careers, later marriage, and sexual freedom, in addition to child rearing? Crittenden and Shalit are left to argue that feminists managed to "socialize" women in the course of three decades to ignore their most basic biological programming. But if marginal, out-of-touch feminists could revolutionize preferences so fast, men—with the weight of education, wealth, law, and force on their side—might have succeeded in socializing women over the preceding centuries.

It is still far from clear to researchers in the sciences where biology ends and socialization begins. But scientists are increasingly calling into question classic arguments about how rigidly deterministic the biological differences that separate the sexes really are. For example, Shalit and Critten den's argument that women are "by nature" more interested in monogamous committed relationships is probably based on the idea that in the Paleolithic age women needed a loyal man to bring home the mastodon. But new research suggests that providing for children in primitive societies may have fallen heavily on women as foragers, and particularly upon post-menopausal women. (This would explain why human females have a relatively long infertile period, unlike most primates who die around the same time they stop reproducing.) Other research has shown that women and children may have played a greater role even as predators, and female promiscuity might have done at least as much for human evolution as male "roaming." Our closest relatives in the animal kingdom certainly don't heed Wendy Shalit's call to modesty. And her own "evidence" of women's modest nature is ridiculously thin: teenage girls who giggle and turn red, women who will not allow their skirts to blow up to their ears on a windy day.

Shalit and Crittenden also make use of an understanding of history that is as weak as their understanding of biology. Shalit argues, for example, that laws protecting women from rape by their husbands weren't necessary in the days when men had "honor." Furthermore, she argues, this notion of honor, along with the idea that women are the property of their fathers and husbands, actually made women more powerful. "The simple fact remains that a woman in 1948 had 101 reasons to say no to sex, if she wanted to say no, and those reasons were credible. The story we are told now is that all of those reasons, such as father waiting up for you, were oppressive to women. And yet in their absence we can appreciate how an earlier generation of women were made more powerful by them." But in 1999, American women can say no too. Shalit can only envision women's power stemming from an external (and usually male) authority, such as the respect her boyfriend should have for her father, rather than the respect her boyfriend should have for her.

Sex and Justice

So what explains the fawning critical reception Shalit has received from not just the right but also centrist newsweeklies? George Will called Shalit "Katie Couric with Edith Wharton's mind." Time and the New York Observer have profiled Shalit in gossipy articles, which present as counterpoint only the appealingly bitchy comments of the less-than-credible Katie Roiphe and Camille Paglia. (Roiphe says she has a hard time being condescended to by a "23-year-old virgin," apparently forgetting that her own term as neoconservative poster girl began at age 24.)

Perhaps their acclaim is attributable to their success in repackaging antifeminist ideas in feminist or individualist terms. While most traditional feminists disagree with Shalit's claims about nature, her description of a sex-crazed society resonates, and few wish to defend a world in which teenage girls are pressured into dreary sexual encounters under the influence of alcohol, Calvin Klein ads, and Cruel Intentions. If you think about it, it's not really so strange that Shalit's book won kudos from jacket-blurbers as disparate as—and you couldn't get any more disparate—the radical left-wing feminist Andrea Dworkin and the conservative Kristol family matron Gertrude Himmelfarb.

But there is an even more significant parallel between the type of feminism advocated by Shalit and voguish feminism on the left. Sex and Social Justice, a new book by Martha Nussbaum, helps us to perceive these similarities. In a convincing attack on the work of feminist theorist Judith Butler in the New Republic, Nussbaum observed with dismay a shift in American feminist thought from a practical commitment to using feminist theory and ideas to enact material, legal, and social change, to a form of activism that fails to extend beyond the seminar room, focusing on the symbolic politics of language and performance. "Feminist thinkers of the new symbolic type would appear to believe that the way to do feminist politics is to use words in a subversive way, in academic publications of lofty obscurity and disdainful abstractness," says Nussbaum, a professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago. This feminism, which Nussbaum believes Butler exemplifies, not only fails to engage with real women and their problems, but posits that such efforts are futile.

Butler, Shalit, and Crittenden share this fatalism: all three base their arguments on women's powerlessness to enact real social change. For Butler, the villain is a steel-cage social structure; for Shalit and Crittenden, biology imprisons us. The best strategy we have is to make use of subtly "subversive" maneuvers designed to better our individual positions: we can refuse to kiss on the first date (as Shalit recommends), or we can act out parodic "performances" of the structures that oppress us (as Butler does).

Butler's abstruse academic prose, aside from being fatalistic, is almost impossible to understand. Tellingly, Butler was the winner of the journal Philosophy and Literature's Bad Writing contest, and Nussbaum quips that "it is difficult to come to grips with Butler's ideas, because it is difficult to figure out what they are." Such inaccessible and defeatist feminism on the left opens the door wide for twenty-something antifeminists writing in simple prose on the right. While neither Shalit nor Crittenden offer anything more hopeful than Butler, the former get lucrative book contracts, glowing press coverage, and appearances on morning talk shows. In any event, Butler's impenetrable prose and ideas leave her without an audience outside of academe. Thus aside from maybe Katha Pollit and a few others, there are no liberal feminist voices with the popular readership to counteract the antifeminists.

But Nussbaum, by bringing real—and not just symbolic—politics back into the foreground, deflates conservative critics who have attacked feminists for their allegedly elitist and impractical worldview. While rejecting simple cultural relativism, she emphasizes the ways in which gender and sexuality are historically and locally constructed. In Nussbaum's view, there is no contradiction between arguing that social, cultural, and economic factors will always make some choices more truly "free" than others and arguing that politics should be used to improve people's political and economic conditions. Only through concrete political action will women be able to exercise more choice in their lives. Globally, we must continue to fight for basic political participation, adequate health care, nutrition, and education for women. In the U.S., we must protect the legal rights of homosexuals, fight domestic violence, provide better child care alternatives to working women, and increase female representation in the political sphere.

By taking the reader outside of the realm of Williams College and suburban Maryland, Nussbaum illuminates precisely the points at which Shalit and Crittenden suffer from provincialism and bias. Even the cover photo on Nussbaum's book—an aging Indian peasant woman standing on a dry, black and white field—reminds us that there is more to feminism than the feelings of a privileged twenty-something and her friends. Nussbaum's case studies and examples, many drawn from her work on a multinational project on the quality of life in developing nations, discuss such questions as how feminists should see a woman like Metha Bai, an Indian widow with four children who can't leave the house due to the traditions of her caste; "I may die, but I still cannot go out," she says. "If there's something in the house, we eat. Otherwise, we go to sleep." If she attempts to go out and work, her in-laws will beat her and abuse her children. Nus s baum also demonstrates the creative ways in which not just women like Metha Bai and victims of genital mutilation in Africa but also lesbians and poor women in the United States have all used liberal feminism to expand their own realm of possibility. Each group has made political and legal gains by arguing for the basic human rights and choices that liberalism upholds, such as privacy and choice of sexual partners, equal protection under the law, equal opportunity, and basic health and nutrition.

The variety of economic and cultural experiences—even within the U.S.—to which Nussbaum draws our attention undermines Shalit and Crittenden's assumption that feminism is universally in its second generation. For example, Crittenden argues that most women would choose not to work unless forced to by economic necessity. But what percentage of women would choose to work if their class and educational background didn't confine them to low-respect, low-wage jobs? What percentage would invest in more education and training if their expectations about the work world, based on the experiences of their mothers, were more positive? That's not to say that there aren't professional women who choose to sacrifice time in the office for time at home as well. But Crittenden cannot make such broad assumptions about women's innate preferences unless she acknowledges that not everyone faces a choice between child rearing and a lucrative and fulfilling journalism career, as she does. She may be surprised to discover that not all of us were raised to believe that we should become bank presidents and go on the Pill.

The Price of Virtue

It is in their solutions that Shalit and Crittenden's emphasis on individualism ultimately crumbles. They claim to be defending "choice"—to be a housewife, for example, or to decline to have sex. But the cartels of virtue that are the key, they say, to female empowerment can be effective only if there is threat of punishment for the renegade women who violate the cartel's sex quotas. And Nuss baum's historical examples make clear how governments and patriarchal societies have brutally enforced their own virtuous cartels. Recently, a mother and daughter in Afghanistan were lashed in front of an audience of thousands because the daughter had had a sexual affair. (Had she been married, the punishment would have been stoning to death.) Afterwards, Taliban official Mullah Moham med Sadik denounced Western opposition to the Taliban's treatment of women and girls and declared that the Taliban's laws are necessary to protect women's honor. The recently acclaimed Iranian documentary film The Apple, by 18-year-old director Samira Makhmalbaf, tells the story of two 12-year-old Iranian girls who have never been outside of their parents' house. Their father, genuinely confused as to why the child welfare authorities are harassing him, protested that he had no choice. "They're girls. I had to protect their honor."

More than a hundred years ago, John Stuart Mill argued that if women's options and power outside the domestic sphere are limited, they will rely on their sexuality for power. But this "power" through honor can clearly be a double-edged sword. Can honor be a virtue without a sexual double standard, in which a promiscuous man is just following his nature and a promiscuous woman is a slut? Until recently in the U.S., a women's sexual history could be used as evidence against her in a rape trial. And Nussbaum describes how some cultures practice female genital mutilation to control women's sexuality, thereby forcibly protecting their "honor." As Shalit and Crittenden would have it, honor is a "romantic" tool with which to "up the price of the milk," as it were. It is also, however, a virtue for which women have paid a heavy price.

"Modesty cannot be 'just' a private value," writes Shalit, "a 'personal choice' in a society in which there is such a high survival value placed on immodesty." So to help us make the right choices Shalit and Crittenden propose that sex education and birth control pills should be harder to get. "For an unmarried woman the Pill—all contraception for that matter—is essentially a conspirator in her self-deception," Shalit writes. Thus the state should stop pouring money into day care and stop making family leave laws, policies which also aid women's false consciousness. And for those mothers who work not because they were brainwashed by feminists—but because they genuinely found it "pleasanter, less menial, and more fulfilling" to work while raising their children, Crittenden reserves the following opprobrium: "No one compels us to have babies. When we do bear them, we have an obligation to take care of them no matter how dull and boring it may be."

Shalit's mission, meanwhile, is to define a new kind of feminism. "Modesty offers a new choice. Its rich, but often ignored cultural legacy offers a positive content to womanhood." But ultimately her attempt to usurp the values of self-fulfillment and choice is overwhelmed by her reductionist view of human nature: biology offers no choice, so why should the government aid self-delusion? Nuss baum's vision is far more potent and therefore more dangerous to the traditional order of things: "The freedom of social construction is a freedom to follow good arguments, which may lead to the conclusion that tradition is in many ways stupid, oppressive, and bad. And that freedom imposes responsibilities that are all too easy to evade."

Shalit says she would like to be "young ladied" more often. As in, "Young lady, what are you doing? Young lady, where are you going?" But—based on her own precocious career—she presumably doesn't want this to extend to "Young lady, you don't belong at this school," or "Young lady, you will marry that man." Shalit seems not to realize that these strictures lie only slightly further down the continuum toward ceding all freedom of choice. Full membership in a liberal democratic society means women need to take on (as conservatives in other places are so quick to remind us) not just choice, but the responsibility that comes with choice. Young lady, isn't it time to let women grow up?



You need to be logged in to comment.
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)

Connect
, after login or registration your account will be connected.
Advertisement