Will Class Trump Gender?: The New Assault on Feminism

I've

long held the theory that when a woman wants to change her life, or some

aspect of it that is bothering her, she first does something to her hair,"

writes Danielle Crittenden, in a stab at political commentary. As a young

and conservative writer, Crittenden regularly addresses social issues with

housewifely tartness, extolling Cinderella as a "role model"

for little girls and chastising a woman who resists being addressed by

her husband's name.

Crittenden is a columnist for the Women's Quarterly, the journal

of the oddly named Independent Women's Forum. The IWF, in the name of a

postfeminist female autonomy, regularly espouses views that have traditionally

rationalized, indeed demanded, women's dependence on men: The sexes are

destined to inhabit different spheres (women belong neither in combat nor

at the state-run Virginia Military Institute, now under court order to

integrate); professional women should be prepared to sacrifice their careers

to their husbands (particularly in Washington, women should adopt the role

of "supportive political spouse"); abortion rights advocates

are "rigid ideologues" opposed to reasonable restrictions on

reproductive choice such as bans on late abortions. The morale of the pro-choice

movement has collapsed, Candace Crandall writes in the Women's Quarterly,

because abortion "has become linked to sexual irresponsibility and

the degradation of sound values and human life."

You may hear in all this a call for women to abandon the quest for independence

and autonomy, but the Independent Women's Forum claims to advocate "individual

freedom and personal responsibility." IWF was founded in 1992 by a

small group of politically conservative, politically connected female supporters

of Clarence Thomas. Today, it offers a worldview that might be called Women's

Libertarianism--a vision of the striving individual woman, liberated from

feminist conceits and government controls, succeeding in the free market.

According to IWF, it is feminism, accused of exalting female victimization,

that would turn women back to whiny dependency.

Assuming that we already live in a meritocracy, conservative critics

of feminism see "victimism" in every complaint about sex discrimination

and every demand for government action to remedy it. In their view, the

feminist movement has become a refuge for incompetent, insecure women seeking

political excuses for their personal failures. Even feminist protests of

sexual violence are dismissed. Undaunted by evidence to the contrary, IWF

Executive Vice President Anita K. Blair asserts that "few" women

suffer "actual" injuries in domestic assaults. (The American

Medical Association estimates that some 4 million women a year are severely

assaulted by husbands and boyfriends.)

IWF tends to premise its arguments on empirical claims about progress

toward women's equality. Champions of traditional family values on the

religious right may argue still that God intended women to stay home, but

feminism's more sophisticated challengers have adapted to women's presence

in the professional marketplace. Now that the belief in white-male supremacy

has lost respectability, the preferred argument against government activism

on civil rights is that equality has been achieved--and who better to advance

it than successful female professionals?



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Selling libertarianism (economic libertarianism, that is) as the path

to liberation, the Independent Women's Forum is the women's auxiliary of

the conservative elite. Its board of directors includes former NEH Chairwoman

Lynne Cheney, Ricky Silberman, former vice-chair of the EEOC, writer Midge

Decter, and economist Wendy Lee Gramm, the wife of Senator Phil Gramm.

The IWF is a locus for accomplished Washington women and the wives of accomplished

Washington men: Barbara Ledeen, wife of former national security consultant

Michael Ledeen, is executive director; members include the Mesdames Laxalt,

Bork, and Bennett. IWF has access to the media and to conservative philanthropy,

receiving support from the Olin, Bradley, and Carthage Foundations. Members

such as Laura Ingraham, former clerk to Justice Thomas, are becoming a

familiar presence on the nation's op ed pages and news shows.

The presence of prominent right-wing careerists gives IWF the look of

a neo-feminist group, but it is expressly antifeminist, aiming to bury

feminism, not revive it, according to Danielle Crittenden. Its appeal to

affluent women echoes Republican rhetoric blaming big government for many

of the nation's ills. It is, however, easier to market economic libertarianism

to wealthy professional women or women married to wealthy men than to wage

earners who might rely upon government to monitor workplace safety and

discrimination or maintain the nation's parks. While opposing affirmative

action and legislation extending new civil rights to women, such as the

Violence Against Women Act, IWF doesn't doubt the professional capabilities

of individual women or denigrate their successes. It simply denies that

they confront social or institutional obstacles to advancement.


CLASSY LADIES

IWF's support for female professionalism, however, is contradicted by

a tenacious attachment to traditional notions of gender difference. Its

journal, the Women's Quarterly, is like a pre-feminist woman's fashion

magazine--arch and relentlessly girlish. A typical article, by Anne Roche

Muggeridge, fondly recalls the now discredited tradition of whistling at

women on the street: "[W]hen a group of young, handsome male strangers

spontaneously burst into a chorus of admiring notes, a girl must, even

in her confusion and diffidence, experience a glow of pleasure and a dawning

self-confidence," she writes, and you expect her to burst into a chorus

of "I Enjoy Being A Girl."

The Women's Quarterly is strictly for "female females."

Its logo is a cartoon of a prototypical upper-class hostess from 1955:

A woman in a low-cut, full-skirted cocktail dress cinched in at the waist

is holding a coffee cup, smiling and winking with one eyebrow arched. She

looks like Betty or Veronica at a 15th reunion.

Advertising for itself, the Quarterly is self-consciously retro:

"Want something chic, trim, and in a timeless color? Something that

won't make you feel too fat or plain? Something that will make passersby

think you're witty and intelligent?" a subscription pitch asks. "Wear

the latest issue tucked under your arm, or over your face while snoozing

on the shuttle, or to attract the interest of the man at the next table

in a 'hot' bistro; it can also be improvised as a fabulous little hat in

a sudden squall. . . . And it won't push you over your credit limit. (Just

$16.95 at our special introductory rate. Think of the savings! That's about

$500 less than a Prada bag, and a good $10,000 less than a couture

suit.)"

But, as this ad makes clear, at the Independent Women's Forum gender

solidarity (girlishness) is strictly bounded by class. One solution to

poverty and unemployment proposed in the Women's Quarterly is a

return to domestic servitude. "[I]f factory jobs are disappearing,

why not put unskilled workers to tasks which they once did very well,"

Anne Applebaum asks. "Making it easier for the new working class--that

is, the middle class--to hire domestic servants is a much better and more

intelligent solution to the problem of long-term unemployment than anything

else proposed." As proof that this approach has "worked in the

past," Applebaum cites Mary Poppins, describing it as "a

film which depicted a bank manager and his nanny in 1910. Before income

tax, before unemployment tax, that bank manager could afford not only a

nanny but two other staffers as well."

When the Independent Women's Forum acknowledges that "it does not

speak for all women," you can credit it with truth in advertising.

Its embrace of femininity is trumped by its allegiance to class. This class

bias helps explain the insistence that equality has been achieved: Life

does seem relatively fair for affluent women, once you've denied the persistence

of racism and sexual violence and intimidation. If you focus merely on

expanded legal access to education and employment enjoyed by the middle

and upper classes, America may look like a meritocracy in which women enjoy

unprecedented freedom and opportunities.

Indeed, according to IWF board member Midge Decter, American women suffer

from the existential anxiety attendant on too much freedom. Writing in

the Women's Quarterly, Decter characterizes feminism as a "paroxysm

of cosmic greed. . . . Why should there have been an explosion of angry

demand on the part of women who as a group were the freest, healthiest,

wealthiest, longest-lived, and most comfortably situated people the world

had yet laid eyes upon," she asks, as if that described most women--as

if the women's movement were simply a collection of wealthy women clamoring

for bigger clothing allowances.

It's easy to see why conservative foundations support organizations

like the Independent Women's Forum. The feminist campaign against sexual

harassment, one of their favorite targets, is particularly vulnerable to

attack, because, in some cases, with little regard for free speech, it

does propose over-regulation of workplace behavior, based on assumptions

about feminine vulnerability. (Not all women cringe at risqué jokes

or pinups, which some would like to ban from the workplace.) The critique

of sexual harassment, which is most credible when offered by professional

women, is an effective segue into a broad critique of worker protections.

Thus the occasional excesses of sexual harassment cases are used to discredit

other marketplace regulations as patronizing exercises in victimism.

Alittle

to the left of the IWF, arguing more judiciously that structural barriers

to equality have been significantly eroded, if not eliminated, is the Women's

Freedom Network, another Washington-based organization of affluent white

professional women, united by disdain for what its president Rita Simon

calls "extremist, ideological feminism," (though it's hard to

imagine how feminism or any political movement might exist bereft of ideology).

Boasting a board of directors that includes Harvard law professor Mary

Ann Glendon, political scientist Jean Bethke Elshtain, and former U.S.

Ambassador to the United Nations Jeanne Kirkpatrick, WFN can hardly be

accused of denigrating women's roles outside the home; and, unlike the

unequivocally antifeminist Independent Women's Forum, the Women's Freedom

Network purports to offer a moderate, alternative feminism.

According to Simon, WFN believes in the "full participation of

women in every area of American life," and "celebrates"

women's achievements, as do all feminists, at least rhetorically. What

distinguishes WFN philosophically from mainstream feminist groups is a

highly individualistic approach to equality, which disavows affirmative

action, and a relatively sanguine view of relations between the sexes.

Like IWF, the Women's Freedom Network tends to minimize the problems of

sexual violence, expressing particular contempt for protests of date rape

and sexual harassment, without making a serious effort to understand the

reality of sexual violence and intimidation and the intensity of women's

concerns, particularly in an age of AIDS, or to distinguish between meritorious

and frivolous claims.


FREE WOMEN IN FREE MARKETS

The superiority of free markets was an underlying theme of a 1994 conference

sponsored by the Women's Freedom Network. At a session on "Women and

Economics," panelists argued that (l) women were close to achieving

workplace parity with men; (2) free markets are good for women; and (3)

any apparent inequities between the sexes reflect the natural preferences

of women, not prejudice. Sears Roebuck successfully made this argument

in a 1986 case charging it with excluding women from higher-paying sales

jobs. Sears claimed that women tended to choose lower-paying, noncommissioned

sales work because it was less competitive than commissioned sales.

Arguing that workplace regulations limited workers' freedom to contract,

Deborah Walker, professor of economics at Loyola University, urged a return

to the days when working conditions were simply not the business of government.

Equality of opportunity entails freedom of contract, she argued. For example,

a woman should be free to enter into an employment contract that prohibits

her from getting pregnant for three years: Individual contract rights like

this would offer ambitious women freedom of choice and facilitate their

rise.

It was unreasonable and counterproductive for women to demand that employers

accommodate the demands of family life, Walker explained. Family leave

legislation would encourage discrimination against women of childbearing

age (as if the absence of family leave policies has no discriminatory effect).

Besides, business is not in business to provide day care, she stressed,

and women ought to be sensitive to the bottom line. Walker

didn't deny that discrimination exists, but she offered a familiar rationale

for not regulating it: A free market will cure discrimination because discrimination

is costly, she asserted, without even wondering if, or why, the 1964 Civil

Rights Act prohibiting race and sex discrimination in the workplace was

necessary.

Women also need to value entrepreneurship, Walker stressed: "Making

money is a socially responsible goal. I can't think of a more socially

responsible group than entrepreneurs." Walker urged women to demand

lower taxes and less regulation, because they create opportunities for

entrepreneurship.

This was less an example of revisionist feminism than standard Chicago-school

economics, expounded by a female. At the close of the panel I asked Walker

to elaborate on her freedom of contract argument. Should we repeal minimum-wage,

maximum-hour, and occupational health and safety laws? Yes, she said quite

forthrightly: People should be free to perform hazardous jobs for a lot

of money. Presumably she also supports their right to perform hazardous

jobs for little money, as many workers do.

Rita Simon, the president of the Women's Freedom Network, tapped me

on the shoulder and assured me that Deborah Walker was not speaking for

everyone in the organization, pointing out that members such as Jean Bethke

Elshtain and Elizabeth Fox Genovese did not share Walker's views. Still,

no contrary views on workers' rights were presented. This was also about

the only panel on women and economics I've ever attended that did not even

mention welfare or the problems of low-income women. WFN's intended audience

was clear-middle- and upper-middle-class white professional women who have

a chance of prospering individually in an unregulated market, though probably

not as good a chance as some believe.

Feminism is, from this perspective, an incidental target of conservatives,

some of whom, like P.J. O'Rourke, ridicule even the Americans With Disabilities

Act as an exercise in victimology--as if providing disabled people with

access to jobs so that they can be self-supporting is somehow more patronizing

then consigning them to reliance on telethons. A group like the Women's

Freedom Network is antifeminist only to the extent that feminism is identified

with a belief in the power and responsibility of government to police capitalism

and address social ills. Successful professional women can feel at home

with its philosophy because it is not antiwoman so much as antigovernment,

when the power of government is directed toward social welfare.

Still, if WFN is not a liberal feminist group (given its general hostility

to affirmative action and other marketplace controls), dismissing it as

antifeminist is historically inaccurate. Unlike the Independent Women's

Forum, it does represent, in part, a traditional strain of feminism that

has focused on expanding individual opportunity, in the belief that the

sexes can and should compete as equals in the marketplace. For some women

committed to expanding social welfare programs, ending sexual violence,

or foisting spiritual enlightenment and a female-identified ethic of caring

upon the world, female professionalism is only one part of feminism; but

for others it is nearly the whole of it. Adopting a professional identity

means discarding an identity based primarily on sex, defining yourself

not as a female astronaut but an astronaut who happens to be female.


DIFFERENT VOICES

The battle to define feminism in the 1990s revolves around familiar

conflicts. Are women variable individuals, who may differ as much from

each other in temperament, intelligence, ability, and ideology as they

differ from men? Or are women members of a female collectivity, who share

natural sexual vulnerabilities, a primary role in child rearing, relational

skills, and particular moral sensibilities (that translate into political

preferences)? There are liberal and conservative versions of both views.

In campaigns for individual rights and sexual freedom, such as voting

rights and birth control, most feminists have naturally inclined toward

the liberal individualism that made all men equal under law--although suffragists

also relied on a belief in common female consciousness, arguing that once

enfranchised, women would purify government. In crusades to accommodate

wage-earning mothers and protect women from sexual violence and exploitation,

feminists have generally adopted a collective view of womankind.

Tension between individualism and sexual solidarity, between rejecting

and embracing sex as a predictor of character, competence, or behavior,

has always plagued and enlivened the women's movement. Individualism and

a belief in strict, sex-neutral equality that eschews compensatory treatment

of women spawned the first campaigns for an equal rights amendment, proposed

by the National Woman's Party in 1923 and vehemently opposed by feminist

advocates of protective labor laws. Individualism and the drive for sex-neutral

laws shaped no-fault divorce and the reform of traditional alimony laws,

now assailed by many feminists for ignoring women's economic vulnerability

and the primacy of their reproductive roles. Nineteenth-century feminists

were similarly divided over divorce reform: Elizabeth Cady Stanton was

a passionate advocate of no-fault divorce, which was passionately opposed

by Lucy Stone, who regarded it as a license for men to leave their wives.

Individualism fuels the feminist defense of sexual freedom, including the

freedom to read or view pornography, blamed by other feminists for sexual

violence.

Alternating between individual and collective views of women, feminism

can seem confusing. Internal, ideological inconsistencies recently surfaced

in the controversy involving the Virginia Military Institute. Integration

of the military academy was advocated by liberal feminists who argued,

from an individualist perspective, that VMI's exclusionary admission policies

were based on stereotypes of femininity and the assumption that women were

not suited to the school's "adversative" training. Yet many of

these same feminists support single-sex education, based on the same collectivist

assumptions about women's learning styles invoked in defense of VMI. Feminists

often protest the competitive, "male" ethos of many coed classrooms,

insisting that it effectively discriminates against women. As neo-feminist

Cathy Young of the Women's Freedom Network has pointed out, law professor

Lani Guinier's charge that the Socratic method used in the nation's law

schools is inhospitable to women was essentially no different from VMI's

claim that adversative training was essentially male.

Postfeminists are plagued with similar contradictions. The Independent

Women's Forum, which presents itself as a bastion of female individualism,

protesting affirmative action because it confers group benefits on women,

opposed the integration of VMI. As a group, women have particular developmental

needs that differ from those of men, an IWF publication explains in supporting

the plan offered by the state of Virginia to set up a separate leadership

school for women. The new school would have respected women's supposed

penchant for cooperation and focused on such issues as building self-esteem.

Without a trace of irony, or self-awareness, the antifeminist, rugged individualist

IWF endorses Victorian ideals of sex and gender difference (and feminine

weakness) at the heart of the "victim" feminism.

The same sex stereotypes thought to justify all-male military academies,

not to mention an all-male military, long justified the unequal treatment

of men and women under law, and virtually mandated feminine dependency,

which until recent history was considered perfectly natural. A contrary

view of women as diverse human beings, not icons of femininity, was at

the heart of the drive for sex-neutral laws led by Ruth Bader Ginsburg

in the 1970s. As head of the ACLU Women's Rights Project, Ginsburg successfully

challenged laws that conferred different privileges and disadvantages on

men and women, based on assumptions about their different natures and roles.

A wide range of laws governing family life, employment, social security,

and civic responsibilities such as jury service, treated men categorically

as breadwinners and women as homemakers. Women should be treated as individuals,

not fungible members of the female sex, equal rights feminists like Ginsberg

argued--and you'd expect any group concerned with women's independence

to agree. Stereotypes about masculinity and femininity are not legitimate

bases for the allocation of rights and resources, Supreme Court Justice

Ginsberg has confirmed, some 20 years later, ordering VMI to admit women.

In recent years, feminism has focused on protecting or accommodating

women as a group. But as the VMI case showed, the women's movement will

always bear the birthmark of the liberal individualism that the right-leaning

Women's Freedom Network claims to represent. Women are "rational creatures,"

Mary Wollstonecraft stressed some 200 years ago, exhorting each of us to

"obtain a character as a human being, regardless of the distinction

of sex." Or, as the first American women's rights advocates put it

in their 1948 Declaration at Seneca Falls, the sexes were "invested

by the Creator with the same capabilities and the same responsibility for

their exercise." Calling for the liberation of women from dependence

on men, feminists were condemned, predictably, for denying or perverting

their own nature and violating a social order divinely ordained.

It is a familiar irony of history: Women's rights advocates were once

attacked for demanding independence; feminists are now accused of discarding

it and encouraging women to seek special treatment instead. In part, the

feminist movement fell victim to its limited success. Feminists succeeded

in greatly expanding women's rights during the l960s and '70s, and as their

focus shifted from achieving legal equality to combating social inequality

during the Reagan years, they began to stress natural sexual solidarity

and women's "different voice"--different "ways of knowing,"

different sexual and emotional needs, economic disadvantages, and commitment

to family life.

This was not mere nostalgia for femininity. The retreat from civil rights

and social welfare programs during the 1980s was felt keenly by women who

had not as a group achieved economic parity. As reports on the feminization

of poverty made clear, women were in fact being victimized by the failure

of public policies to address continuing discrimination and resistance

to reforming gender roles. And, despite new attention paid to domestic

abuse and changes in the prosecution of rape cases, sexual violence was

unabated. Meanwhile identity politics was on the rise, exacerbating a tendency

of feminists to promote supposedly progressive visions of the eternal feminine.

So

it's not surprising that since the 1980s, the most popular strains of feminism

have been shaped by a belief in femininity, which contributed to the portrayal

of women as a weaker sex, more readily victimized than men. In part, politics

and culture were to blame for actual economic and sexual vulnerabilities

to which feminist "victimism" responded. And in part, some feminists

had themselves to blame for exaggerating women's weaknesses.

The embrace of popular therapeutic notions of victimization exemplified

in the recovery movement and a preoccupation with self-esteem that borders

on self-parody revived old notions of women's fragility. The adoption of

Victorian feminist demands to protect women from men has been particularly

evident in the sexuality debates, as critics right and left (myself included)

have frequently observed. Efforts to censor pornography, to define harassment

subjectively--so that it includes speech considered offen sive by the self-identified

victim--and to define rape so broadly that it blurs the line between confusion

and coercion (or fails to acknowledge that a line exists) fueled what are

by now familiar charges of victimism. Feminist orthodoxies about sex and

sexual misconduct have been most unforgiving. (Reviewing the works of Catharine

MacKinnon you get the sense that feminists divide into two camps-true feminists

and feminists who disagree with her.)

The development of postmodern, feminist jurisprudence, elevating subjective

individual perceptions and denying even the possibility of formulating

fair, relatively objective standards of law, exacerbated a tendency to

side reflexively with self-identified victims. In one dominant feminist

view, if a woman felt raped, she was raped; if she felt offended

or abused by a colleague's behavior in the workplace she was, by definition,

harassed. Casualties of this extremism included, on one side, respect for

the due process rights of accused rapists and harassers and, on the other,

sympathy for the claim that many women continue to be victimized by harassment

and rape, according to relatively objective notions of reality.

The excesses of feminist orthodoxies had much more effect on culture

than law (although they did influence disciplinary proceedings in universities

and some workplaces). Raising the alarm about sexual correctness and an

epidemic of harassment and rape cases, critics on the right were as overwrought

as the feminists they derided for portraying all women as the victims of

sexual terrorism. Still, the feminist attraction to victimhood demanded

correction. Self-criticism, however, was generally conducted in private.

Some women didn't want to be vilified as antifeminist by their sisters,

and some were reluctant to lend any credibility to critics on the right.

In this highly polarized debate, "truth" was presented as an

absolute, as if every allegation of harassment and date rape were valid

or none were. It became extremely difficult to stake out a feminist middle

ground acknowledging the problems of sexual violence and intimidation without

exaggerating them.

Of course, sexual harassment has functioned as a subtle and very effective

form of sexual discrimination ever since women entered the workforce. Exposing

and explaining the dynamics of harassment and forcing regulation of it

has been an important achievement of contemporary feminism. But it has

not come without costs. Defining harassment between adult men and women

in a society that values free speech and is beset with countervailing strains

of sexual permissiveness and puritanism is not as simple as feminist rhetoric

is apt to suggest. But if some feminists have been guilty of assuming that

virtually all women are victimized by culture and law, their critics on

the right categorically deny that sexism makes victims of any women at

all.

Right-wing

attacks on feminism, however, were respectfully received by the media,

in part because they were advanced by professional women, whose own success

seemed to certify that equality had arrived. Susan Faludi is making a habit

of exposing the antifeminist biases of her right-leaning putative sisters,

deriding Katie Roiphe, Camille Paglia, and Christina Hoff Sommers along

with the members of the Independent Women's Forum and the Women's Freedom

Network as "faux feminists," promoted by an antifeminist press:

We are not witnessing the birth of a legitimate political movement but

a "media assisted invasion of the body of the women's movement: the

Invasion of the Feminist Snatchers, intent on repopulating the ranks with

Pod Feminists," Faludi wrote in a 1995 article in Ms.

It's easy to sympathize with Faludi's outrage: The media paid considerable

attention to incendiary, self-proclaimed feminists, like Paglia, whose

knowledge of the women's movement and women's history was only slightly

less limited than the feminist sympathies of right-wing males who promoted

her. But not all of feminism's new female critics were simply antifeminist

self-promoters. Some, like many women attracted to groups like the Women's

Freedom Network, represented historic feminist points of view.

Twenty-four-year-old Katie Roiphe, for example, was vehemently condemned

for debunking conventional feminist wisdom about an epidemic of date rape.

The Morning After was a young, injudicious book that showed little

appreciation for perfectly rational fears of sexual violence--fears that

are bound to make many of us at least a little irrational. But it was not

antifeminist. The view of women as sexually competent and responsible for

their own behavior, which underlies Roiphe's critique and similar feminist

pleas for sexual freedom, is basic to modern feminism, just as puritanism

was basic to the nineteenth-century women's movement.

Feminism is a diverse and complicated movement that is often at odds

with itself. Categorically dismissing all the criticisms raised by WFN

as antifeminist, and considering all the women attracted to them faux feminists,

ignores historic fault lines within the women's movement. It also distracts

us from the groups' overriding goal-or the goal of their funders-of dismantling

government regulation of the marketplace.


WOMEN LIBERTARIANS

The drive for free markets, not hostility toward women, is what underlies

neo-feminism's exclusive emphasis on individualism. The trouble with the

women's movement, according to Sommers, is its promotion of "gender

consciousness"--encouraging women to see themselves as part of a group

rather than as merely distinct individuals. Sommers, author of Who Stole

Feminism?--an attack on political correctness in the academy and the

veracity of feminist claims about sexual violence and sexism in general--has

blamed victimism on something she calls "gender feminism" (a

nonsensical term used to deride the view of women as a class or interest

group).

When conservative women like Sommers say that they're feminists, they

often mean that they believe in equal opportunity and their own capacity

to succeed; they mean that they want to be treated as individuals and not

members of a group. Individualism is an essential part of feminism; but

a commitment to collectivism is also an important part--it's what makes

for a movement. It reflects a recognition that despite differences between

them, women constitute a political class.

If women functioned only as individuals, lacking any sense of female

solidarity, there would have been no woman's movement. We would not have

the vote, much less laws insuring equal opportunity in education or employment,

which neo-feminists generally claim to support; we'd have no battered women's

shelters and no laws against marital rape. Women like Christina Hoff Sommers

would not be teaching philosophy. Little girls would not be playing soccer.

The stupidest criticism leveled against feminism is that it suffers from

gender or sex consciousness. You might as well criticize the civil rights

movement for being conscious of race.

What betrays the neo-feminists in the end is their utter ignorance of

political movements and the sense of community they require. Feminism thrives

on its ability to balance the view of women as individuals with the understanding

that they are part of a collective, with a common history of discrimination

and some common political goals.

In fact, the persistence of sex consciousness is recognized, if not

understood, by any pollster or politician concerned about a gender gap.

In the fear or hope that female voters constitute a group, Bob Dole selected

moderately pro-choice Congress woman Susan Molinari to deliver the keynote

speech at the Republican Convention. In an effort to attract professional

women alienated by the social conservatism of the right, conservative foundations

support groups like the Independent Women's Forum and the Women's Freedom

Network, for whom gender consciousness is strictly determined by class.

Historically, feminist notions of male and female roles have also been

affected by class bias. But nineteenth-century progressives and women's

rights activists, who remained attracted to the ideal of True Womanhood,

extended it to some poor and working-class women at least. In theory, feminism

can be reconciled with economic libertarianism but, in fact, it has always

involved a commitment to social justice and an activist government.

Individualism

occasionally suffers from this alliance. Feminists are sometimes at odds

with civil libertarians, over pornography or the rights of accused rapists

and harassers, partly because feminism's tradition of reliance on government

is so much stronger than its mistrust of government. When neo-feminists

protest the elevation of female solidarity over concern for fairness to

individual males, they offer feminism a necessary corrective. But when

they advocate "empowering individual women rather than the state and

its bureaucracies," as the Women's Freedom Network mission statement

puts it, they challenge the essential, historic quest for sexual justice.

Given our history of sex discrimination and the crucial role played by

government in dismantling it, laissez-faire feminism makes about as much

sense as a pacifist military.

"Are there still structural barriers to equality?" I once

asked Christina Hoff Sommers, after she delivered a speech excoriating

"gender feminists" for portraying women as victims. It was impossible

to know, she replied, because feminists have falsified statistics, exaggerating

the obstacles to women's advancement. "So use your common sense,"

I suggested. (She'd said that she was merely trying to inject some common

sense into feminist debates.) "You've been around for over 40 years.

What does your common sense tell you about the persistence of institutionalized

discrimination?" She had no response, nor could she articulate a vision

of sexual justice. Like priests who have no opinions about the existence

of God, neo-feminists have a tenuous claim to their pulpits.



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