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Until 1989, I was an academic feminist in good standing. My essays were included in feminist anthologies, I was invited to feminist conferences, and my philosophy courses were cross-listed with courses in women’s studies. But I ran afoul of the feminist establishment when I published an essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education that said something politically incorrect about the famous staircase scene in the film, Gone With the Wind.
I wrote: “Many women continue to enjoy the sight of Rhett Butler carrying Scarlett O’Hara up the stairs to a fate undreamt of in feminist philosophy.” I meant that to be not just a light-hearted comment, but also a serious warning to feminist theorists that they were out of touch with many women. My remark, however, incensed an organization within the American Philosophical Association known as SWIP, the Society of Women in Philosophy. Several prominent members of SWIP wrote outraged letters to the Chronicle and the Journal of the American Philosophical Association. SWIP felt the need to react more formally to my heresy, so they also arranged a meeting at which feminist philosopher Marilyn Friedman would read a paper showing once and for all how my views were treasonable to women.
At the meeting, Ms. Friedman told an overflowing crowd that she was stunned by my flippant reaction to Rhett Butler’s rape of Scarlett O’Hara. In her eyes, there was no doubt whatsoever that Rhett had raped Scarlett that night. Indeed, Ms. Friedman went on to compare Rhett Butler to a sociopathic murderer: “The name of Richard Speck, to take one example, can remind us that real rape is not the pleasurable fantasy intimated in Gone With the Wind.”
Ms. Friedman also called our attention to Angela Carter’s feminist rewrite of the “morning-after” scene in Gone With the Wind: “Scarlett lies in bed, smiling the next morning because she broke Rhett’s kneecaps the night before. And the reason that he disappeared before she awoke was that he had gone off to Europe to visit a good kneecap specialist.” The feminists in the audience found this riotously funny.
I then suggested to them that perhaps they ought to reflect on the difference between being raped and being ravished. The distinction is critical, after all, to millions of women who read authors of romance fiction from Margaret Mitchell to Barbara Carlton. It is behind the common sense conviction that Rhett Butler is in no way akin to Richard Speck. But this audience stared at me in angry incomprehension. I had crossed a divide.
If feminism is a religion, Rhett Butler is the devil. My casual acceptance of the women who find Rhett Butler so attractive was not to be forgiven. I never recovered my reputation as a reliable member of the sisterhood. Why?
A surprising number of clever and powerful feminists share the sincere conviction that American women live in an oppressive patriarchy, a male hegemony, where men collectively keep women down. It is customary for these feminists to assemble to exchange stories and to talk about their anger. Once such conference, “Out of the Academy and Into the World,” took place at the graduate center of the City University of New York in October, 1992.
The morning sessions were devoted to honoring the feminist scholar and mystery writer Carolyn Heilbrun on the occasion of her voluntary retirement from Columbia University after 32 years of tenure. I had just been reading Marilyn Friedman’s The War Against Women, which Ms. Heilbrun touts on the cover as a book that lays out women’s state in the world. It is a state of siege.
Intelligent women who sincerely believe that American women are in a gender war intrigue me. Since a day with Ms. Heilbrun and her admirers promised to be rewarding, I arrived early–but so did a crowd of more than 500 women. I was lucky to get a seat.
Ms. Heilbrun’s theme of siege set the tone for the conference. Jane Marcus, a professor at the City University of New York, called the afternoon “anger” session to order. Professor Marcus introduced herself as an expert on anger, and she urged the conference participants to use their rage in their writing.
She introduced the other panelists as angry in one or the other. Alice Jardine of Harvard University’s French Department was “angry and struggling.” Brenda Silver of Dartmouth University had been “struggling and angry since 1972.” Catherine Stimpson, former vice provost of Rutgers University (and recently selected to head the distinguished MacArthur Fellows Program) was introduced as “an engaged and enraged intellectual.”
Sarah Ruddick, a feminist at the New School for Social Research who is known for “valorizing” women as the gentle nurturers of our species, told the assembled feminists that “our anger arouses the patriarchy to disgust.” Gloria Steinem took the microphone and explained why she was enraged: “I have become even more angry. The only alternative is depression.” To deal with patriarchal schools, she recommended an underground system of education. She explained she had in mind a bartering system, in which a midwife could exchange her services in return for instruction in Latin American history. Steinem believes that things are so bad for contemporary American women that we might have consider setting up centers for training political organizers, where, as she put it, real education will take place.
As each speaker recited her tale of outrage and gave more warnings of male backlash to come, it became clear to me that these privileged women really did feel aggrieved. It was equally clear that the bitter spirits they were dispensing on the American public were unwholesome and divisive. For whom do these enraged and engaged women speak? Who was their constituency? It might be said that as academics and intellectuals, they speak for no one but themselves–but that would be to mistake their mission.
The women at the Heilbrunn conference are the new feminists, articulate, prone to self-dramatization, and chronically offended. They see themselves as the vanguard of the second wave of the feminist movement: a moral vanguard, fighting a war to save women. But do American women need to be saved by anybody?
Many of the women on the anger panel were tenured professors in distinguished universities. All had fine and expensive educations. None, as far as I know, got her degree by bartering with a midwife. Yet listening to them, one would never guess that they live in a country where women are legally as free as men or whose institutions of higher learning now have more female than male students.
It was inevitable, I suppose, that such capable, energetic women would find their way into leadership positions. But it is unfortunate that American feminism has been taken over by their ideology. They are diverting the women’s movement from its true purposes.
The presumption that men collectively are engaged in keeping women down invites feminist bonding in a resentful community. The spirit of the Heilbrun conference is the spirit of much of contemporary feminism. American feminists are guided by women who believe in what they call the male hegemony or the sex gender system, a misogynous culture that socializes women to be docile and submissive to the controlling gender.
According to feminist theorist Sandra Lee Barkty, the sex gender system is “that complex process whereby bisexual infants are transformed into male and female gender personalities, the one destined to command, the other destined to obey.”
Sex gender feminism or gender feminism, for short, is the prevailing ideology among contemporary feminist philosophers. It certainly was prevalent at the Heilbrun conference.
Virginia Held, a professor of philosophy at City University of New York, has written this about the revolutionary effects of the sex gender perspective on feminist thought: “Now that the sex gender system has become visible to us, we can see it everywhere.” And indeed, most feminist theorists and spokespersons are sex gender feminists: most do see it everywhere.
I confess that I sometimes envy Held and her sister gender feminists the excitement that they seem to get from seeing the world through the lens of sexual politics. Ms. Held reports that many feminist thinkers are convinced that they are initiating an intellectual revolution comparable to those of Copernicus, Darwin, and Freud. Some feminists, she says, think the latest revolution will be even more profound.
Gender feminism is a beguiling and heady philosophy. And I do sometimes wish I could join in all the fun. On the other hand, I have learned that how these women regard American society is more a matter of temperament than insight into social reality. The belief that American women are living enthralled to men, seems to suit some women more than others. I have found that it does not suit me.
I consider myself a mainstream equity feminist. And I believe most American women subscribe philosophically to the classical, first-wave kind of feminism whose main goal is equity, especially in politics and education. A first-wave mainstream or equity feminist wants for women what she wants for everyone: fair treatment, no discrimination.
Equity feminism got us the suffrage and continues to get us many other needed reforms. The equity agenda may not yet be fully achieved, but by any reasonable measure, equity feminism has turned out to be the great American success story.
By contrast, the women at the Heilbrun conference, the women in the Society of Women in Philosophy, and the other new feminists who view the world through the lens of the sex gender system see little to celebrate. They speak instead of backlash, an undeclared war against women. The stories they have to tell are atrocity stories designed to alert women to their plight.
The gender feminist sincerely believes that our basic social institutions–from families and schools to the state itself–are designed to perpetuate male dominance. Believing that women are virtually under seige, gender feminists naturally seek recruits to wage their side of the gender war. They seek support. They seek vindication. They seek ammunition.
The gender feminists see revelations of monstrosity in the most familiar and seemingly innocuous phenomena. Their experience can be compared to that of the Dutch naturalist, Anton van Leeuwenhoek, when he looked for the first time at a drop of water through the microscope he had invented and saw there a teaming predatory jungle.
Here, for example, is what Professor Susan McClary, a musicologist at the University of Minnesota, tells her students to listen for in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony: “The point of recapitulation in the first movement in the Ninth is one of the most horrifying moments in music, as the carefully prepared cadence is frustrated, damming up energy which finally explodes in the throttling, murderous rage of a rapist incapable of attaining release.” (McClary also directs students to be alert to themes of male masturbation in the music of Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler.)
Gender feminists are what some social psychologists call injustice collectors. I am often amused by their inventiveness in finding sexist bias in the most unexpected places. I recently heard a feminist astronomer on CNN seriously suggest that terms like “The Big Bang Theory” put off young women who might otherwise be interested in pursuing careers in her field.
The gender war requires a constant flow of horror stories documenting the perfidy of men and the suffering of women in the sex gender system. The feminists keep citing statistics to prove that women, even modern American women, are subjugated to men.
In my inquiries into the truth of the gender feminists’ claims, I kept finding a lot of outrageously false information, brought about to confirm the proposition that women are being humiliated, undermined, and subjected to male atrocities. The feminist atrocity claims function, in my opinion, like all war propaganda: they manipulate emotions, raise consciousness, and galvanize the troops.
Here are some examples of the kind of provocative data the public is fed. According to the gender feminists, anorexia nervosa is caused by the androcentric system that forces women to starve themselves in order to please men. In Revolution From Within, Gloria Steinem informs readers that “in this country alone, 150,000 females die of anorexia each year.” This figure made it into books like Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth and Myra and David Sadkers’ Failing at Fairness. It appears in college textbooks and even in Ann Landers’ column (with its millions of readers). The appalling figure of 150,000 deaths supports the gender feminist’s view that women are embattled–and that men are to blame.
It would be a neat confirmation of their world view if it were true. In fact, the statistic is wildly false. What is the correct death rate for anorexia? The Centers for Disease Control put the number at around 100 per year; other objective authorities put it somewhere between 100 and 300. (As a postscript, I should say that I called Naomi Wolf’s attention to the statistical error. She informed me that she intended to expunge the 150,000 figure from her book, and in a recent reprinting, she has done so.)
Patricia Ireland, president of the National Organization for Women, provides us with another example of the kind of provocative misinformation the gender feminists take pains to promote. Ms. Ireland recently informed a national television audience that “battery of pregnant women is the number-one cause of birth defects in this country.” Time magazine gave more details, reporting that a March of Dimes study discovered that battery is the primary cause of birth defects. The report has since appeared in hundreds of newspapers around the country.
I called the March of Dimes to ask about the study. Maureen Corry, director of the March of Dimes’s education and health promotion program, denied all knowledge of it. Andrea Ziltzer, who works in its media relations department, told me the rumor is spinning out of control. Their office had been flooded with calls from governors’ offices and state health departments; even Washington politicians like Senator Edward Kennedy had requested a copy of the report. It turns out there is no such research.
The question arises, why was everyone so credulous? Could battery really be responsible for more birth defects than genetic disorders like spina bifida, Down syndrome, Tay-Sachs disease, and sickle cell anemia, or from the abuse of crack, AIDS, and alcohol by pregnant women? Where were the fact checkers? Where were the objective, skeptical journalists? Where were the editors?
But the factoid that resignates so perfectly with the fashionable feminists’ themes of hapless female victimhood is still with us. In the September 1994 issue of Cosmopolitan we read, “A March of Dimes study says that battering during pregnancy is the leading cause of birth defects and infant mortality.” The infant mortality bit seems to have been a creative wrinkle added by the author, feminist activist Ann Jones.
Sad to say, the fictional March of Dimes study and the preposterous anorexia story are typical of the quality of information we are getting on women’s issues from many feminist researchers, women’s advocates, and a complicit and sensationalizing media.
Remember the Super Bowl hoax of 1993, when the public was warned that research showed a 40 percent rise in battery on Super Bowl Sunday? In fact, there is no such research. The incidence of battery on Super Bowl Sunday is the same for other days of the year. Yet NBC allotted enormously expensive air time to plead with its male viewers to remain calm during the game. Clearly, the network found something quite plausible in the proposition that American men, especially those who like contact sports, are simply not to be trusted.
In my studies of the powerful influence of gender feminism on American culture, I have been repeatedly impressed with how easily they are able to persuade people that there is something fundamentally the matter with our male population.
The catalog of research designed to show that women are being systematically brutalized and undermine is very extensive. And often it comes from the most prestigious sources. Most of you have heard the sensational finding of the American Association of University Women’s study that the self-esteem of American girls falls 31 points during their high school years. The AAUW findings made headlines around the country: “Dreadful Waste of Female Talent” (San Francisco Chronicle), “Bias Against Girls is Rife in the Schools With Lasting Damage” (New York Times), “Girls’ Confidence Erodes Over Years, Study Says,” and so on.
The idea that our educational system bolsters the boys as it demoralizes the girls is perfect grist for the gender feminist mill. By undermining the self-esteem of the nation’s adolescent school girls, America is socializing them for failure. America’s teachers, most of whom are female, are thus regarded as sort of unwitting handmaidens of the patriarchy. For they are unconsciously favoring the boys, while sapping the confidence of the girls.
But is it true? No doubt the AAUW’s official reputation for professionalism and probity carried a great deal of weight in persuading everybody, including Congress, to accept the dramatic claims about the plight of American school girls. However, the image of scholarly impeccability rapidly fades as soon as one takes a good look at the actual research behind the findings.
Even a casual glance at the AAUW’s report puts one on alert that something is wrong. Consider this major piece of evidence adduced by the AAUW in its brochure to highlight the difference in boys’ and girls’ aspirations for success:
“Self-esteem is critically related to young people’s dreams and successes. The higher self-esteem of young men translates into bigger career dreams…. The number of boys who aspire to glamourous occupations (rock star, sports star) is greater than that of young women at every stage of adolescence, creating a kind of ‘glamour gap.'”
I did a double take on reading this. A glamour gap? Most kids do not have the talent and drive to be rock stars. The sensible ones know it. The number-one career aspiration for girls, by the way, is lawyer. What the responses of the children suggest and what many experts on adolescence development will tell you is that girls mature earlier than boys, who at this age apparently suffer a “reality gap.”
And why, when it came time to publicize its findings, did the AAUW never mention that African-American school boys (i.e., children at highest risk) had the highest self-esteem of all? This finding alone should have called into question the AAUW’s basic assumption correlating self-esteem with future achievement, but that information was buried in the report.
According to the AAUW, the nation’s school girls suffer from inattention from their teachers. Again I quote from materials circulated by the AAUW: “In a study conducted by Myra and David Sadker, boys in elementary and middle school call out answers eight times more than girls. When boys call out, teachers listen. When girls call out, they are told raise their hands if they want to speak.”
This fact about call-outs has become a favorite with journalists and politicians: knock-down evidence of pervasive classroom bias. But like so many gender feminists’ claims, when you check it out, the source evaporates. In this case, the study the AAUW cites but does not quote had found just the opposite.
I will quote it for them: “Boys, particularly low-achieving boys, receive eight to ten times as many reprimands as do their female classmates. When both girls and boys are misbehaving equally, boys still receive more discipline.”
The so-called short-changed girls consistently out perform boys in grades, attendance, and participation in extracurricular activities. More girls than boys go to college. More girls than boys plan to pursue post-graduate degrees. Even the frequently cited claim that girls score lower on standardize tests is misleading.
Look, for example, at the 1990 National Assessment of Educational Progress test, given to a scientific sample of 17-year-olds in the United States–not just the two-fifths of high school seniors who take the SATs. While males outperform females by three points in math and eleven points in science, girls much more dramatically outperform boys by 13 points in reading and 24 points in writing.
The AAUW reports have inspired a spade of books and articles about America’s endangered girls. Books by Peggy Orenstein and Judy Mann and Myra and David Sadker are filled with anecdotes documenting the progressive demoralization of our female children. Journalists happily credit their writings, and reviewers generously praise the books.
At the same time, the vast majority of scholarly experts who work professionally in the area of child and adolescent development consider the alleged phenomenon to be utter nonsense. But on the basis of the AAUW research, Congress has just passed the Women’s Educational Equity Act, which will provide millions of dollars for gender equity programs in our schools.
U.S. Senators Kay Bailey Hutchison and Nancy Kassebaum were skeptical about the quality of the research behind the Women’s Educational Equity Act. This past July, just before it went to the Senate, they began to draft an amendment requiring that funds approved the Act be held up until the research on which it was based could be verified. The AAUW described what happened next in its monthly newsletter:
“A planned Hutchison-Kassebaum amendment to hold up implementation of all gender equity provisions, pending verification of AAUW’s research, was fortunately averted. Senator Mikulski acted quickly and persuaded them not to offer the amendment. AAUW’s grassroots were alerted in Texas and Kansas to ensure the idea did not resurface.” The AAUW has every reason to congratulate itself: even when two distinguished senators raised doubts about the validity of its research, it was able successfully to ensure that the idea that somebody actually check on that research did not resurface. (The bill has by now passed both houses of Congress, and will reach President Clinton’s desk shortly.)
The new feminists are also having a profound effect on the academy. Many of them teach in our universities, where they pass on to their students a mix of misinformation and ideological fervor. Many an academic feminist teaches students to be on constant alert for manifestations of female humilation and denigration. Even the most innocent sign of a sexist attitude must be stamped out.
At the University of Nebraska, for example, a graduate student was forced to remove a small photograph of his wife on his desk. She was pictured at the beach wearing a bikini. Apparently, the small photo offended and intimidated two of his female office mates. The chair of the department agreed, and ordered the photo removed on the grounds that it might intimidate undergraduates. (Perhaps they had never been to beach before, a local wag observed.)
At the University of Michigan, an undergraduate was threatened with harassment charges for mentioning a character called “Dave the Stud” in his paper.
At the University of New Hampshire, Professor Donald Silva was trying to dramatize the need for focus in writing essays. Unfortunately for him, he used a sexual image to make his point: “Focus in writing is like sex. You seek a target. You zero in on the subject. You and the subject become one.” During another lecture he graphically illustrated the way some similes worked, saying, “Belly dancing is like jello on a plate with a vibrator underneath.”
An overwhelming majority of Silva’s large lecture class found his remarks innocuous. Some, no doubt, found them tasteless. But six female students filed formal harassment charges, claiming that his words demeaned women and created a hostile and intimidating environment. SHARPP, the Sexual Harassment and Rape Prevention Program at the University of New Hampshire, took up their cause.
Professor Silva was found guilty of having used two sexually explicit examples that a reasonable female would find offensive, intimidating, and contributing to a hostile environment. He was formally reprimanded, fined $2,000, ordered to apologize in writing, and ordered to undergo a year of therapy and to make periodic reports on its progress to his program director at the university.
Silva courageously refused to comply and has been suspended from the university without pay. He is now suing the university, which is a very good sign: I think the Salem witch trials were also stopped by lawsuit.
The issues surrounding the Silva case have divided the New Hampshire campus. Although the suit will be coming to trial soon, Patricia Ireland, president of the National Organization for Women, could not wait to let the case run its legal course. She came to UNH to support Silva’s accusers, arguing that the professor’s purported right to speak as he did is trumped by the overriding fact of women’s oppression. Reminding her audience that women have been silenced in the past, Ireland urged the university community to stand firm against Silva’s challenge to the administration’s policy of silencing him.
“I know,” Ireland said, “that we have to be very conscious of the First Amendment and academic freedom. But I think we must also be conscious that a lot of us have been excluded and silenced.”
To me nothing more clearly illustrates what is wrong with the current women’s movement than Ms. Ireland’s trip to New Hampshire. Here we have the president of the National Organization for Women putting the prestige of the women’s movement behind the persecution of a single bewildered, beleaguered professor, who is facing a firestorm of zealotry for having made some tasteless remarks.
To my mind, this act of persecution surpasses Ireland’s cannard that men are the primary cause of birth defects–at least that charge could easily be shown to be false and malicious. But the charges against Professor Silva are like charges of being a communist or a witch: the more you defend yourself, the guiltier you become in your accusers’ eyes.
Ireland’s mean-spirited trip to New Hampshire should alarm and incense every woman who believes in classical feminist ideals of justice and fair play for both men and women. If this does not dismay us, then we women have become the ones who just do not get it.
Too many prominent feminist leaders are role models of intolerance and anti-male prejudice. Too many play fast and loose with the truth. Students in the feminist classroom imbibe the false statistics on women’s victimization, anorexia, self-esteem, battery, and rape. They learn how to listen to Beethoven with an ear to the rape themes.
Is it any wonder that the more sensitive among them become horrified at what the sex gender system is doing to women? Hysteria on campus over the male threat to women’s safety and dignity runs higher than ever.
Is it any wonder that we have outbreaks of intolerance on nearly every campus in the country? In that atmosphere, not only fairness, but logic and sober learning are a grave disadvantage. Academic freedom comes under assault. But so do the standards of scholarship and the ideal of disinterested knowledge.
Karen Lerman is a young journalist who happens to be an old-fashion classical liberal feminist like myself. She recently wrote about her visits to women’s studies programs at Berkeley, the University of Iowa, Smith College, and Dartmouth for Mother Jones magazine. Here is what she found:
“In many classes, discussions alternate between the personal and the political, with mere pit stops at the academic.” Ms. Lerman considers this to be a betrayal of the traditional feminist ideals. “A hundred years ago, women were fighting for the right to learn math, science, and Latin; for the right to be educated like men. Today, many women are content to get their feelings heard, their personal problems aired, their instincts and intuitions respected.”
Two professors of women’s studies, Daphne Patai and Noretta Koertge, became convinced that something was very wrong with academic feminism. And after much soul searching, they decided to publish a book about their misgivings.
In Professing Feminism, Patai and Koertge asked more than thirty professors of women’s studies (on the condition that their names not be mentioned) to talk about how academic feminism is affecting their students. Here is what one prolific and highly visible scholar had to say about the discipline she helped to establish:
“Students are being cheated. I feel really bad for them, because they’re not being given an education. And you know, once they’re in women’s studies, it’s like Stepford Wives. Women’s studies turns them into ideologically inflamed Stepford Wives. I was always able to recognize it when these kids come, kind of zombified, and start uttering stock phrases. Politics is driving out their ability to think.”
Needless to say, my only surprise is that academic feminists, however anonymously, are now willing to speak out. Unfortunately, the community at large has allowed itself to be confused. It is time, I think, to repudiate the group think, the divisive social philosophy that inspires that unseemly effort to find more and more evidence of male perfidy and female humiliation.
We must never forget that feminism was not traditionally associated with misinformation, intolerance, censorship, or misandrysm. On the contrary, the founders and models of the movement, from Mary Wollstonecraft, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony, down to Betty Friedan in our own day, were passionately concerned about telling the truth about women.
Misogynous men have falsely claimed women are innately irrational, that women have smaller brains, and that women are prone to hysteria. Feminism was about getting the facts about women straight: we have excellent brains; we are not hysterical; we deserve the same rights men enjoy.
I wrote Who Stole Feminism? because I believe the new feminism has gone astray and that women who care about women’s issues must find their way back to the classical feminism of the first wave. The gender feminists do not represent the vast majority of women. They have given feminism a bad name. We should not let them define what it means to be a feminist. I am an equity feminist, as are many women today who refuse to call themselves feminists.
Speaking with a historian friend of mine last year, I lamented the feminist philosophers’ attack on rationality, the flood of misinformation in media on women’s victimization, the anti-intellectualism of the feminist academics, the male bashing, and the witch hunts. “Don’t be depressed,” my friend said. “After all, most of history has been dominated by superstition, authoritarianism, irrationality. Why should we be any different?”
As a teacher of philosophy, I am committed to the idea that we must do our utmost to be different. As a member of the professoriate, I am mortified that more scholars are not protesting the gender bigotry and the anti-intellectualism that characterizes so much of academic feminism.
My historian friend is right, a democratic culture like ours, in which a respect for reason and open expression have actually taken hold, is rare indeed. All the more reason to promote our freedoms and intellectual standards unstintingly. We are not free to hang back and allow unreason and intolerance to have the last word.
Christina Hoff Sommers is an associate professor of philosophy at Clark University.
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