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?
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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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