Politics & Policy

Feminism’S Thin Skin

Kate O'Beirne and her critics.

A colleague of mine remarked the other day that as far as the elite press was concerned, there has never been a successful anti-feminist book. (He meant intellectually successful, rather than commercially successful. The people he has in mind would regretfully concede that some anti-feminist books had sold well.) He was speaking, of course, about Women Who Make the World Worse, by another colleague and friend, Kate O’Beirne.

It’s not just that feminists, and social liberals in general, are overrepresented in the media (although they are: even some liberals who dispute the idea that the media has a liberal bias are willing to concede this point). What Kate’s book, and the reactions to it, demonstrate is that feminists have constructed an impregnable (sorry! sorry!) fortress against criticism.

If a critic of feminism takes after well-known feminists, then her criticisms are “stale” and “predictable.” If the critic dissects the views of little-known feminists, her criticisms can be dismissed because her targets are “obscure” and “fringe.” (Kate’s book has been dismissed for both reasons.) Female writers are disqualified from criticizing feminism because they (allegedly) owe it so much. Male writers are disqualified because they’re men. No criticism can run this gauntlet successfully.

Another common tactic for deflecting criticism has also been deployed. Kate is said to have painted feminists with a broad brush, ignoring the diversity of views among feminists. It is true that there are many, many feminisms. There are equity feminists and Third Wave feminists and libertarian feminists and “sex-positive” feminists and Christian feminists and difference feminists and on and on. (One magazine a few years ago even tried to invent a category of “do-me” feminists.)

But there are certain views held by most self-described feminists, disagreement with which will cause most of them to resort to the label “anti-feminist.” It’s simply not true that Kate attacks views that only a fringe group of feminists hold. Chapter by chapter, she takes apart myths in which nearly all feminists have invested. How many feminists oppose day care? Or women in combat? How many feminists recognize the “pay gap” as largely the result of choices by women?

How many feminists oppose abortion, as Kate does? Yes, I know about Feminists for Life–as does Kate, who writes about the group. How many feminists consider the group an ally? There is a feminist orthodoxy (just as there is a conservative orthodoxy): The label means something, which is why heterodox feminists are trying to contest that meaning.

Kate’s book takes on feminists where they’re strongest, not where they’re weakest. She has been accused of “smearing” feminists, essentially by quoting them. But I am aware of no attempts to demonstrate that any of the quotes were taken out of context. Kate, on the other hand, has been taken out of context. Several of her critics have seized on this line: “A woman being brutally killed alongside men is a long-awaited feminist dream of equality.” The implication is that Kate has ascribed a desire to see our troops killed to feminists. That would be a smear. But Kate is simply putting a justifiable gloss on the preceding sentence, which the critics don’t mention. In that sentence, Kate quotes an influential proponent of women in combat exulting in the public’s acceptance of the death of female troops in Iraq as a normal part of wartime. (Kate’s chapter on women in combat is, incidentally, a handy refutation of most of the drivel that gets published on the subject.)

Might the feminists be wrong about the military, or the wage gap, or any other point of their orthodoxy? Far less than adherents of other orthodoxies, they will never have to think about it. They have well-honed defense mechanisms to deal with any challenges. Those mechanisms may help feminism politically, at least in the short term, but they cannot help but ossify it.

Ramesh Ponnuru, an NR senior editor is at work on a book about the sanctity of life and American politics.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.


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