Let me just say up front this column contains a riot of conflicts of interest. My friend and colleague Kate O’Beirne has written a new book. It’s called, with no undue subtlety, Women Who Make the World Worse: and How Their Radical Feminist Assault Is Ruining Our Schools, Families, Military, and Sports. I think it’s a great book, and I truly would not say so if I thought otherwise. Also, Kate praises my lovely wife as a woman who makes the world better, an opinion I could hardly quibble with save to say it’s a grotesque understatement as far as I’m concerned.
And since we’re in full-disclosure mode, let me upend the bucket completely.
I went to an all-women’s college. Mine was the first “integrated” class at Goucher College, a fine, historically single-sex liberal arts college in Baltimore. As you might imagine, many of the young women there, some egged on by very ideological feminist professors, had opposed the decision to admit men. The fact that my freshman year was also the year Robert Bork was nominated to the Supreme Court and Glenn Close boiled a bunny in Fatal Attraction might give you a sense of the larger cultural climate as well.
While my undergraduate experience was not exactly the late-night Cinemax adventure some imagine when they hear that there was a roughly 30-to-1 female-to-male student ratio, I did find the experience rewarding on several fronts. One of them was that I learned quite a bit about feminism and feminists (I was certainly exposed to more feminist theory than I was to, say, the U.S. Constitution or the American Founding).
I discovered that there were many different kinds of feminism. For some, feminism is a heartfelt dedication to women’s equality, variously defined. For others, it is a shabby form of identity politics that serves as a crutch to compensate for low self-esteem and lazy thinking. And some brands of feminism aren’t really about women at all. They’re about using the “feminist perspective” to smash the “socially constructed reality” or the “patriarchy” or “bourgeois capitalism” in order to sneak into the mainstream debate various Marxist and postmodern nostrums that would never survive without the aid of victim-politics guilt trips. After all, the attack on “dead white males” wasn’t an explicitly feminist enterprise so much as a broader left-wing assault on a whole bunch of things.
But, most often, feminism is a mixture of all of these things. Moreover, many of the dedicated feminists I knew and befriended (and, yes, dated) sincerely believed in the cause. I have no doubt that there are literally no feminists anywhere who believe they are making the world worse. But that doesn’t mean the title of Kate’s book is inaccurate.
The great sin of feminism, like all identity politics, is its narcissism. Feminists honestly believe they are speaking for all women; I think this way, I am a woman, I must represent all women. This is, of course, nonsense. For example, you wouldn’t know from the conventional public debate over abortion that roughly half of American women are generally opposed to abortion. A large majority of women oppose the NARAL party line of abortion on demand. John Kerry won the overall women’s vote by 3 points but lost the white women’s vote by 11 points. (This is particularly ironic since self-identified feminists are overwhelming white.)
When presented with this sort of evidence, feminists trot out various arguments trying to demonstrate that conservative, or otherwise un-feminist, women don’t understand their own interests. This is a vestigial Marxist argument known as “false consciousness.” If women only understood the truth, the way feminists do, they would agree with feminists. If you doubt the persistence of nostalgic Marxist thinking in feminist rhetoric, check out the reader reviews of Kate’s book at Amazon.com. You’ll learn that Kate is a self-hating woman and a fascist doing the work of her knuckle-dragging male paymasters. Anyone who’s met Kate (or actually read her book) knows this is nonsense on stilts. A successful and independent-minded career woman and proud mom, she’s equal parts Joan of Arc and mentoring den mother.
In the broad mainstream of American life, feminism has become an anachronism with as much relevance as, say, Fabian socialism. But, institutionally, feminists punch well above their weight. Like their brothers and sisters in the New Left, they succeeded in their long march through American institutions, transforming them in profound ways. Many of the changes wrought by the first generation of feminists were important and valuable. But those battles were won a long time ago, and yet the would-be revolutionaries won’t lay down their weapons or change their very stale talking points, casting age-old progressive schemes, and newfangled feminist ones as essential tools in the battle against “discrimination.” And women who don’t get on board aren’t “authentic” women, just as black conservatives aren’t really black.
The tragic illiberalism of this perspective should be obvious. And it will be to anyone who reads this book.
–(c) 2006 Tribune Media Services