If you’ve ever studied issues like Super Fund or environmental pollution generally, you quickly learn that the first 90-99 percent of any toxic mess is relatively easy to clean up. Bring in a couple bulldozers, some dump trucks, and just clean up the gunk. It’s that last little bit which is so hard to take care of. When the experts stop saying “that big pile of gunk over there” and start saying things like “reducing parts per billion,” costs and effort multiply by orders of magnitude while rewards dwindle to microscopic levels. It’s the detail work, the last little bits you have to pick up with tweezers on your hands and knees which can be so exhausting.
Think of Cool Hand Luke in that movie — I forget the name right now. He ate 50 eggs, even though George Kennedy said, “Nobody can eat 50 eggs.” The first 30 were easy. The next ten were hard. And the last one or two were brutal. Some experts actually have a term for the problem for the last one percent — they call it “the problem of the last one percent.”
Sorry for the jargon.
I suppose you could also call it the “law of diminishing returns,” but that’s awfully toothy and would make the economists happy, and I hate doing that.
But it is true: Economic laws tend to be laws of human nature because economics describes what humans do. So it only makes sense that this principle would apply to all sorts of things, not just egg eating and toxic-waste cleanup but also, say, feminism.
I was reading my wife’s piece for NRO yesterday, and I got to thinking about how silly and hopeless feminism has become. Jessica points out how feminists at the National Women’s Law Center, for example, can’t get over the fact that women are more interested in working with pretty things than with blocked toilets. [By the way, if you think this is shameless promotion for the missus, you're wrong. This would be shameless promotion: Buy this book, or I will kill your cat].
WE’RE ALL FEMINISTS NOW
Anyway, when you think about it, most of us are feminists in the traditional sense, a point I made often in the numerous feminist theory classes I endured in college. Even some of the most hardcore readers of National Review — the folks who e-mail me to say that I’m little better than a David Gergen with a pulse — basically believe that chicks have the right to vote, work, etc. Some of us may be perfectly willing to note the social costs that have come with women’s emancipation, borne disproportionately by women themselves by the way.
But most conservatives I know actually don’t have a serious problem with, say, equal work for equal pay. If by that you actually mean truly equal in the most appropriate economic sense (indeed, if you control for childbearing, time in the workforce and other relevant factors, women do generally get equal pay for equal work) and if women are willing to recognize that major sacrifices come with choosing to work the same way men do.
So, if you think of anti-female discrimination as a toxic-waste cleanup effort, 99 percent of feminist work has been accomplished. The only places women are barred from working on an equal standing with men — certain combat-related military gigs, professional football, competitive distance-urinating — it’s either because women cannot pass the physical requirements of the job or because we’re reasonably concerned about the effect women will have on male performance. For example, dudes are wired to impress chicks and look out for them in dangerous situations. So having them in frontline combat situations can screw-up unit cohesion. Meanwhile, all of the big barriers are simply gone. There are women on the Supreme Court, there are female CEOs, female cops, soldiers, senators, etc. The executive editor of National Review Online is a dame as is the Washington editor of National Review OnDeadTree, for Pete’s sake.
THE LAST ONE PERCENT
The problem is that there are still a lot of professional feminists out there. And, much like environmental fanatics with pollution, they have to work much, much harder to accomplish much, much less. And in order to do this, again like environmentalists, they have to insist, loudly, that little problems are actually monumental.
The earlier feminist accomplishments — the first 99 percent — were the easy ones. By easy, I mean the original feminist arguments were intellectually and morally compelling to a very large number of people — men and women. Giving chicks the vote made sense to many, though certainly not all, apolitical women. Permitting women to attend college appealed to a broad array of normal, socially adjusted women. Opening the job market to women made sense to a lot of non-ideologues.
Not too long ago, normal women, with normal desires, could call themselves “feminists” or advocates for “women’s rights” because women’s rights had reasonable definitions. That’s just not true anymore.
Some feminists animated by a hysterical fear that women are all “one vote of the Supreme Court” away from being forced to collect berries for the men folk. For example, a leading feminist defender of Title IX quotas exclaimed to ESPN.com that attempts to fix regulations implemented in the 1990s “would be a leap back to the 18th century.”
After all, we all know that female college athletics leapfrogged from the mid-1700s to around 1995.
But even these left-wing reactionaries are reasonable compared to the Pacifica Radio-listening radicals who think there are Big Things left to do for women. Today, if you believe there are still Big Things left to be done for women’s equality, you have to either be a very young person looking for a little youthful rebellion, an old person wracked by nostalgia or some form of zealot or loon.
For example, consider Colette Dowling’s The Frailty Myth which came out in 2000. Ms. Dowling, also the author of acclaimed feminist tome The Cinderella Complex, argues in the Frailty Myth that there are, in fact, no physical differences between men and women in the athletic sense. Differences in athletic performance are purely a result of the patriarchy’s “hidden agenda of keeping women in their place by keeping them believing in their weakness.” She insists that “studies show gender to be barely relevant as a predictor, or limiter, of athletic performance,” she writes. “What really counts are acquired skills, trained muscles, and movement efficiency that comes from refined technique.”
Seriously, she explicitly believes that if women were unleashed from the shackles of the patriarchy, the NFL, the NBA, the world of boxing, etc. would be completely coed. In other words, she’s batty and, quite frankly, a liar since no legitimate “studies” show any such thing.
What studies and polls do show is that most young women don’t want to be called “feminists.” Why? Because the term has become synonymous with “unreasonable ideologue,” “chronic complainer,” “crypto-lesbian,” and perhaps most of all, “humorless toothache of a human being.”
This annoys professional feminists to no end — but then again, what doesn’t? Their main gripe is the ingratitude of young women who “betray” the cause of the “founding sisters” who brought us so much. When you read feminist junk — and most of it is, quite simply, junk — there’s a lot of guilt mongering about “continuing the revolution” and “finishing the work of our foremothers.” But, the unfinished work invariably involves such picayune and marginal issues as “transgender equality” and homosexual adoption. Insisting these are the same issues as women’s suffrage doesn’t make it so. This desperation to infuse the cause with new passion is the chief reason feminists are so humorless. Because there are so few specific meaningful issues, all sorts of minor or nonexistent issues get injected with outsized and outlandish meaning. See the letter Ramesh received yesterday for example. Make a joke about women or use the word “chick” in the wrong company, and you will likely receive a barrage of dragon breath about how “the degradation of women is no laughing matter!” You will be educated on the great chain of oppression, which begins with a dumb-blond joke and ends in female circumcision in Africa.
At bottom, the problem for the professional feminists is that most women, including liberal ones, have stopped drawing their personal meaning and identity from being female. Most women draw their sustenance from being lawyers, doctors, writers, mothers, friends, scientists, teachers, Christians, Jews, Muslims, yoga enthusiasts, environmentalists, whatever. Women don’t need to define themselves primarily as women, at least not in the “oppressed by the patriarchy” sense, because they aren’t oppressed anymore. It’s the same problem socialists and Marxists and some trade unionists ran into when ordinary people refused to define themselves simply as “workers.”
What feminists — and similar “civil-rights activists” (yes the quotation marks are deliberate) — don’t understand is that gratitude to successful revolutionaries should not translate into the need for continued revolution. For example, we should all be grateful to the founders of this country, but that doesn’t mean we should keep tinkering with the constitution. Union members are grateful for their union’s accomplishments, but at some point picketing solves fewer problems than working. The dream in Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech was that blacks and whites would no longer care about race not that they would scream about it in perpetuity.
That’s a bad example, though. Rendering race irrelevant is theoretically possible. Rendering sex irrelevant is not. Because no matter how much screaming you do, you’re not going to get women to prefer clogged toilets over pretty things any more than you’re going to get boys to give up snips and snails and puppy dogs’ tails.