Leaning to the Left, But on the Level
I began my journey as a non-violent social change activist in my junior year of high school in 1967, when I marched to the Pentagon against the Vietnam War, and have always associated myself with the radical “left”. I’ve certainly always considered myself a radical, in the etymological sense: “of or going to the root”. My politics was grass-roots, and I believed that any issue could be effectively engaged only by understanding its roots and aiming at the root of the problem, rather than at superficial reforms of the status quo. But I was less sure about just what the “left” really was, even though I was at times immersed in it.
[I will continue to put the “left” in quotation marks, because the term is so vague and broadly misunderstood as to be meaningless, signifying anything from Marxist or anarchist revolutionaries to democratic socialists to centrist liberals as well as that broad category of “progressives” (which is also vague and requiring of quotes, as it suggests anyone who would rather society move forward than stand still or regress).]
As a child of the 1960s, coming of age in that turbulent time, and as the son of two liberal academics (a high school science teacher mother with a PhD in education and a father who was a professor of Social Psychological Research in a graduate school of Social Work – both working in the inner city of Detroit), I engaged with the anti-Vietnam War movement with my parent’s blessing.
I participated in the 1967 March on Washington and again as a parade marshal for the half-million-strong 1969 DC Moratorium to End the War, where I was tear-gassed. I inadvertently led an illegal Yippie march through Detroit in 1970, on my fluorescent pink Triumph motorcycle, in protest of the Kent State shootings and the invasion of Cambodia.
At age 17, I left home to seek my way toward the elysian fields of California, and later became a professional auto mechanic (one of the first and youngest fully-certified master mechanics in the nation at age 20) in an act of rebellion against my academic background (but also to be able to make a modest living, after experimenting with the hallucinogenic Hippie lifestyle in the Colorado Rockies).
After returning to academia at the tony “little Ivy” Amherst College (I had already taken courses at the University of Michigan, Stanford, Harvard and two other state schools), to study philosophy and religion in order to ground myself in ethics before engaging the world more fully, I wandered into the appropriate technology movement and side-stepped into the anti-nuclear power movement, moving quickly into leadership positions. (I declined to pursue a degree at that time, when I realized the inherent corruption of “higher” education, but later earned an AA with honors from a community college and a certificate in Experiential Education and Outdoor Leadership, and worked at Outward Bound and NH Conservation Corps.)
As a movement leader, I helped turn a problematic 6,000-person occupation of the Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant construction site into the world’s largest alternative energy and life fair, attracting 12,000 visitors, and arranged to get Dr. Ben Spock (the then-70-year-old baby doctor) arrested and interviewed by a half dozen media outlets (the young police officer who gently put the cuffs on Spock whispered in his ear, “my wife is never going to forgive me”).
Following a 1979 arrest for blocking the celebration of the launching of the first Trident nuclear submarine – the world’s most powerful killing machine – in Groton CT, and a six-day air fast, I determined that, since I had expected to refuse to give my body to war (I came close to being called up in the last year of the military draft lottery), I would also decline to give the fruits of my body to war, and I have refused to pay war taxes since then.
When President Carter reinstated draft registration in 1980, I helped organize three anti-draft groups in New Hampshire, including Quaker draft counselors (with whom I produced a half-hour TV special on draft resistance), and burned my Vietnam-era draft card in front of national network news cameras on the steps of the Concord federal building, signing a pledge to “encourage, aid and abet” draft registration refusal.
But, in all that rapid immersion in the non-violent “left”, I never allowed myself to become ideological or captured by a defined dogma, as they serve more to constrain thought and action then to liberate the mind and the will (they are, at best, training wheels for a liberated mind and can be as destructive as any fundamentalism if adhered to blindly).
When I served in 1978-79 as the media coordinator for the Clamshell Alliance, the nation’s first grass-roots anti-nuclear power coalition, and was part of the small group that organized the 1979 First National No Nukes Strategy Conference in Louisville Kentucky, which coalesced a worldwide movement against “nukes”, I found myself drawn more to the religiously- or spiritually-oriented activists, or those who lived close to the land (like Wendell Berry, whom I met in Louisville) than to the ideologically-driven ones. The former, I found, were not only more at peace in the world, even in the face of terrible injustice and inequity, but had far more perseverance – doing the work because it needed to be done, not merely to achieve temporal “success” (which the ideologues typically defined narrowly and hence often failed to achieve).
In fact, when the Clamshell Alliance failed in its primary goal of stopping the construction of the Seabrook NH Nuclear Power Plant, I watched many activists (largely from the urban centers of Marxist and anarchist thought) become deflated with the loss. I, on the other hand, felt we had achieved at least two enormous victories: we had introduced tens of thousands of Americans to the practice of strategic and militant non-violence (including decentralized organization and consensus decision-making), and we had dramatically expanded awareness of alternative (or “soft path”) energy options as well as the entire constellation of “appropriate technologies” – from organic gardening to people-centered communities.
I went on to focus my energies on one of those appropriate technologies – low-cost, healthy, passive solar, super-insulated home design and construction – which became my vocation for 35 years, in which I pioneered a unique method of construction and spent eight years teaching its underlying principles and practical methods to others (much of that in the not-for-profit sector).
As an activist in the “left”, it was almost an article of faith that one would also be part of the feminist movement, or at least identify as a feminist. It was not only my reluctance to subscribe to any ideological framework, but two specific experiences which kept me at arms length from one of the most active, seemingly ubiquitous and politically powerful social-change movements of the time.
While working in New Hampshire with the Clamshell Alliance in the late 70s, I heeded the call one day for assistance at the Portsmouth Feminist Health Center (the local abortion provider) to act as a human shield to separate clients from the anti-abortion protesters on the sidewalk.
During that afternoon, I engaged one of the Christian women protesters in discussion and found her to be less closed-minded than I was led to believe. We even concluded our chat with an invitation to continue the dialogue. After our stint on the sidewalk, I went inside the Health Center for “training” so that I could continue volunteering. What I found, however, was indoctrination in lieu of training and more closed minds among the feminist staff than I had encountered among the protesters outside.
I was told in no uncertain terms that I was never to speak to, nor in any other way interact with, the protesters. That would not only take my attention away from my primary task (which was actually quite intermittent) but I was assured that “those people” could not be reached by reason. “Believe me, we’ve been trying for years” I was harshly told. I argued that such a prohibition violated the most basic tenet of non-violence: to look for the best in others and opportunities for engagement with our adversaries. But, since their “rule” was absolute, I took my leave and never returned.
Then, in 1980-81, when I was volunteering a year of my life at an alternative economic and social-service community called HOME in Orland Maine, which was founded and run by an energetic former (actually discharged) Catholic nun with the help of three other nuns and an Oblate priest, I engaged a middle-aged secular feminist woman in conversation as we walked to our homestead, called St. Francis Community.
Years later, in 1997, when I was working as a wilderness guide and experiential educator, a midwife for men and others in ritual initiation and personal/social transformation – leading Mythic Warrior training for men, Vision Quests and Boys-2-Men Quests, sweat lodges and medicine wheel teaching – I wrote the following essay, which was published in Everyman: A Men’s Journal, Ontario, Canada later that year.
Ideology and Its Discontents: Transcending Feminism – ReHonoring Masuculinity
Years ago, I lived with three nuns and a priest in the Maine woods, engaged in volunteer service to the impoverished, neglected, and marginalized people of Hancock County. I respected the personal strength and moral independence of those women, particularly Sister Lucy who had chosen to ignore the hierarchy of her order and the Catholic Church in order to do God’s work.
The reclusive Oblate priest would join us every morning to celebrate the mystery of faith, transliterating the communion readings as they were recited to eliminate gender-specific language. That year was a wonderful immersion for me into the power and beauty of the feminine principle of life. My fellow-travelers were celibate but fecund women and men giving birth to a culture of caring that placed people and place above power and privilege.
On one of my mile-long walks into our community, in the midst of a conversation about sexism, I was admonished by a recently-arrived political feminist to never (as a man) attempt to define women’s oppression. I still remember the fierceness in her voice and the daggers in her eyes as she expressed that.
I’ve struggled these fifteen years since to hear the pain behind that stern warning. But I have had difficulty at times in hearing the story of women’s oppression, and witnessing the revision of our history, language, culture, and politics by a feminism which has grown ideological.
While many, if not most, of my brothers and sisters in the movement for non-violent social change freely adopted the perspectives and values of feminism, I could never call myself a feminist though I supported much of the struggle for women’s rights. Well before my conversation in Maine, I stood in defense of clients outside a besieged Feminist Health Center even when I had mixed feelings about the ethics of abortion and the right of women to make child-bearing decisions independently of the men with whom they co-conceived.
I honor women’s attempts to help society understand and acknowledge the pain and devaluation that they have felt as women. But I cannot accept, any more than that woman in Maine when the roles were reversed, the right of women to define and label men’s reality. I part company when the rhetoric of feminism not only denies men’s experience of devaluation and disempowerment but makes us into enemies of women.
Feminism as a movement which expresses women’s hopes, desires, and demands for respect and equality of opportunity is courageous and progressive. Feminism as an ideology which defines not personal experience but TRUTH – for both men and women – is oppressive and regressive.
Just as Sister Lucy knew that to live by her faith she had to deny the orthodoxy which degraded its living essence, all those who hope to usher in a new age must be wary of allowing liberating ideas to congeal into restrictive, self-serving, and oppositional ideology.
Among feminists, the name for the all-pervading evil of our culture is “patriarchy”. Caring men, still trying to please and protect women, have accepted the accusation which the new political consciousness imposes on men and masculinity. The acquiescence of the media and politicians to prevailing dogma further supports the demonizing of men as a class for attempting to fulfill society’s impossible demands.
Vietnam vets, who took on the most dehumanizing of male roles that our society requires, are still suffering from the experience of returning from the hell of combat to the contempt and condemnation of the very people for whom they sacrificed their humanity. We have named the syndrome of denial, extreme anxiety, misplaced rage, survivor guilt, paranoia, alienation from feelings, self-destructive behavior, and inability to love or trust as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. And we have recognized it as the normal human response to serious unresolved trauma compounded by lack of recognition for, or appreciation of, the sacrifice made for others.
And yet, in lesser degree, these are the very symptoms that women have recognized and criticized in men as a class. Historically, men have stoically accepted the role of protector and provider, sacrificing their own psychological and physical welfare for the sake of home, wife and children. Particularly in the last century, men have been drafted into the unrecognized and unappreciated status of civilian soldier in a constant and increasingly demanding low-level economic warfare. It is no wonder that men exhibit the signs of traumatization. Addiction and domestic violence – both forms of pathological narcissism – are the fallout.
In the 1960s and 70s, many of us, in the name of progressive ideology (and ironically, in the name of peace), made the grave error of blaming the foot soldiers for the violence and oppression of the system they were caught up in. Let us not, in the 90s, make the equally grave error of blaming men, individually or as a class, for fulfilling the roles which all of us – men and women alike – demanded of them.
The historical period we are now beginning to grow beyond was oppressive in many ways to all of us – or is recognized now as oppressive as we begin to understand the vital human needs that weren’t served by that culture of fixed roles and expectations.
As men begin to explore other ways of being men in a post-modern world; as men begin the long-overdue process of reclaiming their lost and repressed feelings, owning their pain and shame and guilt, recognizing the beast that lies within their aching breasts, joining hands in supportive and positive brotherhood, and celebrating their masculinity; as men are discharged from the socially-required roles of protector and provider – it is imperative that they be welcomed home and supported in their transition to a new civility.
Women do not serve their own liberation by pointing accusing fingers, or directing their pent up anger, at these returning veterans of a no-longer-functional masculinity. It is true that men must help men, as women helped women, to re-examine and redefine men’s experience and possibilities; but gender liberation will not be achieved until we all undertake a rite of passage through our own inner darkness. This passage, as all transformational journeys, requires that whatever demons we encounter on the way be acknowledged as our own projections and be transformed by recognizing them as divine beings calling for attention.
We now recognize our personal developmental responses to dysfunctional families as unfortunate but necessary to our ego-survival and viability. We must also acknowledge outworn and dysfunctional social constructs as unfortunate but necessary stages of our cultural evolution. In neither case is blaming self or other helpful or healing. Understanding, forgiving, and letting go are.
Vietnam vets deserve to be recognized as heroes for their sacrifice, though they may have engaged in reprehensible behavior while trying to survive in the inferno of a guerilla war. And men must be acknowledged as heroic for their civilian soldiering, though many unforgivable acts might have been perpetrated in the process of ego-survival in the daily hell of a competitive and materialist society which demanded that men kill themselves for the comfort and security of their wives and children.
One of the lessons with which the feminist movement has blessed us is that language has the power to define and limit our experience of life. Having learned that lesson, let us now refuse to label a culture which is understood in retrospect as oppressive and unfulfilling – a culture in which we were all in some way enslaved and disempowered to be fully human – in a way which defines one class as villain and another as victim. Division and dissension are tools of oppression, not of liberation.
The term “patriarchy” has been used, not just descriptively, but as a moral judgement and a weapon of accusation. By equating patriarchy with evil, all those who wield it point it menacingly at men and masculinity, even to the point of dishonoring the male principle of action and manifestation which lies within us all and without which there would be no edifice of human culture.
If we are to move together into a new millennium of cooperative coexistence on the Earth, we must abandon the narrowness inherent in any ideology, embrace the infinite openness of possibility, and honor the harmony of complementary sexual principles that make us whole, individually and collectively.
It is certainly true that the cultural denial of our essential connection to the Earth Mother created an unhealthy distortion of both the feminine and the masculine principles. A more accurate and less loaded term to describe that historical period might be Umbriarchy – the rule of the shadow.
Now that we are all beginning to leave the cold comfort of the cave of ignorance and isolation, men must not be afraid of wielding their warrior power in a new and conscious way which serves the God/dess in us all. It is by defending the sanctity of masculinity that we will slay the dragons of defensiveness and denial that have too long obscured with their sulfurous fumes the true beauty and power of men.
If men and women wish to be rainbow warriors of the new millennium, they must turn their swords from one another and stand together to face the demons we have co-created. As soon as we do, those demons will bow down to us in respect and begin to serve us in creating a new world, for they are only our unacknowledged shadows crying out to be loved.
The Last Straw
My real break with the “left”, however, was during the 2012 national controversy subsequent to the shooting of Trayvon Martin by Neighborhood Watch volunteer George Zimmerman. As one long opposed to the fetishistic American gun culture as well as to Stand Your Ground laws, I was strongly inclined to assume that Zimmerman was a wannabe cop and vigilante who killed Martin unnecessarily.
But, after four months of exhaustive research into every element of fact and evidence, and every facet of the story and the backstory, I was led inexorably – and contrary to my own bias – to the conclusion that Trayvon Martin was the aggressor and Zimmerman the hapless victim of a rather severe and prolonged beating (witnessed by several) that could be stopped only by the use of whatever force was available, which happened to be his legally-carried gun. The jury, needless to say, agreed.
That conclusion, of course, put me at odds with the entire “left”, liberal, “progressive” and black civil rights communities of America, and also left me feeling no longer at home among those whose values I largely share but whom I see as led by their ideological prejudices rather than their objectively rational minds.
I found myself further outside of the “left/liberal/progressive” community after extensively studying the case of Cliven Bundy, the 67-year-old rancher and organic melon farmer in Nevada who became notorious in 2014 for his refusal to pay grazing fees and the subsequent armed sage-brush rebellion that occurred near his land. While, even as a long-standing practitioner of civil disobedience, I could not support Bundy’s conscientious resistance to the payment of very meager grazing fees while continuing to trespass his cattle on public lands – including after they were closed to protect an endangered species – I determined that the chorus of voices labeling him a racist was not only wrong but was a malicious form of character assassination (and I saw more character in that old rancher than I had seen in most people, particularly on the “left”, but also on the right, most of whom ran for the hills after the NY Times painted him with racist tones).
But the biggest break with the “left” in my 47 years of progressive social-change activism came with the increasing stridency of the radical feminist movement, which led me to publish “When Progressive Social Change Becomes Regressive Ideology” in June of 2014. My cognitive dissonance with radical feminism and the universally-supportive “left” only increased when the national furor erupted over the November 2014 Rolling Stone article, “A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at U-VA”, and the nation’s campuses, under intense pressure from the Obama administration, doubled down on protecting women at the expense of men, rationalized by the ideological fiction of a “rape culture“.
This long-form essay will be the 24th I’ve published on my Turning The Tide : Shifting the Paradigm of Human Culture blog on the dark side of Feminism. And it will be yet another twist away from “left” dogma and praxis.
Ironically, I have long detested the typical trajectory of young idealists, even one-time radical activists, toward belated centrism or conservatism and “normalcy” as they grew older, and had vowed never to allow myself such a self-indulgent luxury. In my lifestyle and core values, I have kept true to my promise. I have given my life largely to improving the social condition, assisting others and protecting the planet, taking little in financial compensation, living very simply by American standards (I now have no indoor plumbing and am typing on my laptop in a 300 square foot cabin with my woodstove providing heat and my composting outhouse a short walk away). I continue to refuse to pay federal war (income) taxes (or accept anything from the federal government), live near or below the poverty line, and have increasingly become an outlaw in my native land.
But I have come to realize that my long-time resistance to ideological constrainment has allowed me to appreciate the better angels of all parts of the political spectrum, as well as to abhor the devils that dance all along that continuum. I still consider myself an unbowed radical, but find more affinity to some of the ideas of the “right” than to much of what now passes for an uncritical and un-self-reflective “left”, particularly the feminist left, or what Christina Hoff Sommers calls “Victim Feminism”.
Christina Marie Hoff Sommers (born 1950) is an American author and former philosophy professor known for her critical writings about feminism in contemporary American culture. She coined the term “equity feminist” to denote her philosophy, which she contrasts with what she describes as “victim” or “gender feminism”. Sommers argues that modern feminist thought often contains an “irrational hostility to men” and possesses an “inability to take seriously the possibility that the sexes are equal but different”.
Sommers is a longtime critic of Women’s Studies departments, which she perceives as peddling a skewed and incendiary message: ‘Women are from Venus, men are from Hell’.
Sommers earned a BA at New York University in 1971, graduating Phi Beta Kappa, and earned a PhD in philosophy from Brandeis University in 1979. A former philosophy professor in Ethics at Clark University in Worcester MA, Sommers is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) for Public Policy Research, a member of the Board of Advisors of the nonpartisan Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, and served on the national advisory board of the Independent Women’s Forum. At the AEI she currently produces the weekly “Factual Feminist” video blog.
AEI is a think tank, founded in 1938, to support “democratic capitalism”, limited government, private enterprise, individual liberty and responsibility. More than twenty AEI scholars and fellows served in the George W. Bush administration, which I consider one of the worst in American history.
Sommers was given a 2013 Exceptional Merit in Media Award by The National Women’s Political Caucus, an organization co-founded by Ms. Magazine founding editor Gloria Steinem, for her New York Times article “The Boys at the Back“.
Christina Hoff Sommers, then an associate professor of philosophy at Clark University, and Camille Paglia, professor of humanities at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, both self-described “equity feminists”, were interviewed on PBS in 1995 about the question Has Feminism Gone Too Far?
Sommers published Who Stole Feminism?: How Women Have Betrayed Women (1995) and The War Against Boys: How Misguided Policies are Harming Our Young Men (2001, 2013), among other books.
A couple of her articles which I’ve found informative to my own writing are
“In Making Campuses Safe for Women, a Travesty of Justice for Men”, The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 5, 2011; and “The Media Is Making College Rape Culture Worse“, The Daily Beast, January 23, 2015.
I just finished reading her small book, published by AEI in 2013, titled Freedom Feminism, and I find her thinking so compelling and important to our times that I’ve published the “Cliff Notes” version of it below.
Schools of Feminist Thought and Activism
from Freedom Feminism (2013), by Christina Hoff Sommers
Mary Wollstonecraft, the First Feminist Philosopher
Egalitarian feminism had its beginnings in the writings of British philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797), who believed that women were as intelligent as men and as worthy of respect. Her manifesto, A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) was written in the spirit of the European Enlightenment.
Wollstonecraft was a lower-middle-class, semi-educated “nobody” (as one British historian described her) who became the first woman to enter the Western canon of political philosophy. Her friends included Thomas Paine, William Wordsworth, and William Blake. She was noted for an unorthodox lifestyle that included love affairs and an out-of-wedlock child.
In 1776, Abigail Adams famously wrote to her husband, John, urging him and his colleagues in the Continental Congress to “remember the ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors”, appealing to a tradition of male chivalry and gallantry and protectiveness toward women.
Sixteen years later, Wollstonecraft demanded that women possess the same rights as men – total political and moral equality. Wollstonecraft was perhaps the first woman to insist that biology was not destiny. “I view with indignation the mistaken notions that enslave my sex.”
Wollstonecraft, like most political radicals of her time, was a great admirer of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, but appalled at his views on women. While stating in his Social Contract that “man is born free but everywhere in chains”, Rousseau thought that “woman is specially made for man’s delight”. Their essential virtue was “docility”, their proper role “subservience”.
Rousseau had quipped that, if women were to become like men, they would lose their power over men. Wollstonecraft replied, “I don’t wish them to have power over men, but over themselves.” For Wollstonecraft, education was the key to female liberation. “Strengthen the female mind by enlarging it, and there will be an end to blind obedience.”
Though falling out of favor after her untimely death at age 38, by the early 20th century, her reputation recovered and Virginia Woolf wrote that “we hear her voice and trace her influence among the living”. Woolf praised Wollstonecraft’s book as “so true” that it “seems to contain nothing new”. Its originality “has become our commonplace”.
Hannah More and the Bluestockings
At the time Wollstonecraft was writing, Hannah More (1745-1853), a novelist, poet, pamphleteer, political activist, evangelical reformer and abolitionist, was waging a very different campaign to improve the status of women. The late UCLA literary historian Mitzi Myers called her a “female crusader infinitely more successful than Wollstonecraft or any other competitor”, but her story has been largely left out of the feminist canon.
If Wollstonecraft is the founder of egalitarian feminism. More is the founder of maternal feminism. More was a religiously-inspired, self-made woman who became an intellectual peer of several of the most accomplished men of her age. She was a friend and admirer of Edmund Burke (whom Wollstonecraft had debated), a close friend of Samuel Johnson and Horace Walpole, 4th Earl of Orford, and an ally and confidante to William Wilberforce, father of British abolitionism.
As one biographer notes, “In her time she was better known than Mary Wollstonecraft and her books outsold Jane Austen’s many times over.” According to one literary historian, 19th century Americans were more familiar with the writings of Hannah More than the plays of Shakespeare. More’s pamphlets sold in the millions, and her tract against the French Revolution enjoyed a greater circulation that Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution or Paine’s Rights of Man.
More, who never married, was active in the Bluestocking Circle founded in 1750 as a group of intellectual upper and middle-class women and men who would meet to discuss politics, literature, science and philosophy. “I, as a girl, was educated at random” More would say, and women’s education became one of her most passionate causes.
While More was a champion of constitutional monarchy, she was no defender of the status quo. She called for revolutionary change, not in politics but in morals. She sharply reproached members of the upper class for their amorality, hedonism, indifference to the poor, and tolerance of the crime of slavery.
In the many Sunday schools she established, poor children were taught to read and encouraged to be sober, thrifty, hardworking and religious. In her writings, More promoted the same virtues for the wealthy.
She shared Adam Smith’s enthusiasm for the free market as a force for good, but for the market to thrive she believed England’s poor and rich would need to develop good moral habits and virtuous characters.
Unlike Wollstonecraft, More believed the sexes were significantly different in their propensities, aptitudes and preferences, but she was a great proponent of empowered femininity. She envisioned a society in which women’s characteristic virtues and graces could be developed, refined and freely expressed, and that these virtues could be realized only when women were given more freedom and a serious education.
According to More, women were more tender-minded than men and were the natural caretakers of the nation, with their gifts of nurturing, organizing and educating. She urged upper-class women to get out of the home and engage in philanthropic pursuits. She appealed to women to exert themselves “with a patriotism at once firm and feminine, for the greater good of all”.
UCLA literary scholar Anne Mellor said that “her call was heard: literally thousands of voluntary societies sprang up in the opening decades of the 19th century to serve the needs of every imaginable group of sufferers”. Women galvanized by More’s call for good works later played a prominent role in the movement for women’s suffrage.
By embracing a special women’s sphere, she gave it greater dignity and power, and initiated a humane revolution in the relation between the sexes that was decorous, civilized and socially cohesive – a feminism that empowered and freed women on their own terms, a feminism that women could comfortably embrace.
More has been almost erased from the history of feminism, accused of being a “bourgeois progressivist” and a case study in “patriarchal complicity”. But her style of maternal feminism still remains vital, as contemporary women in both the developed and developing world want their rights and freedoms but still want to give priority to their roles as wives and mothers.
Frances Willard: “Saint Francis of American Womanhood”
In Ken Burns’ documentary of Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902) and Susuan B. Anthony (1820-1906), Sally Roesch Wagner, a pioneer in the field of women’s studies, informs viewers that Anthony was so determined to win the vote that she established alliances with pro-suffrage women who were “enemies of freedom in every other way – Frances Willard is a case in point”.
One would never imagine, from Burns’ film, that Willard (1839-1898) was one of the most beloved and respected women of the 19th century. When she died, one newspaper wrote, “No woman’s name is better known in the English speaking world than that of Miss Willard, save that of England’s great queen.” Because of her prodigious good works and kindness, Willard was often called the “Saint Francis of American Womanhood”.
Willard served as president of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) from 1879 until her death in 1898. Under Willard’s leadership the WCTU developed into a powerful and effective movement that promoted causes as diverse as prison reform, child welfare, and care for the disabled in addition to suffrage and temperance. Though largely a white, middle-class organization, the WCTU attracted considerable numbers of Native Americans, immigrant and black women. According to one study, 30% of its local leaders were wives of skilled or unskilled workers. Most late 19th century social reformers, including Stanton, Anthony and Sojourner Truth, supported the ban on alcohol, as they believed that a ban would greatly diminish wife abuse, desertion, destitution and crime. Temperance was a movement in defense of the female sphere; the saloon was the enemy of the home.
Feminist founders like Stanton and Anthony promoted women’s suffrage through appeals to universal rights. Their inspirations were John Lock, Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson. Stanton admired Hannah More, whom she called “one of the great minds of her day”, but Stanton’s own style of feminism was in the egalitarian tradition of Mary Wollstonecraft.
The egalitarians brought an Enlightenment feminism to women, but to their abiding disappointment, American women greeted the offer with a mixture of indifference and hostility. Stanton’s words resonated with a small coterie of educated women, mostly in the East, and her movement was considered carpet bagging in some Western states.
Even in the East, suffrage was not a popular goal. In an 1895 Massachusetts referendum, in which both men and women could vote, the initiative lost by 187,000 to 110,000, with only 23,000 women voting in favor.
Anthony recognized the problem as lying in “the indifference, the inertia, the apathy of women”. She wrote, in her 1902 history of women’s suffrage, “The average man would not vote against granting women the franchise if all those of his own family and the circle of his intimate friends brought a strong pressure to bear upon him in its favor.” By the 1890s, more than 20,000 women had joined an anti-suffrage group in New York State.
Historian Carl Degler and others believed that, because the vote was associated with individualism and personal assertiveness, many women saw it as selfish and an attack on their unique and valued place in the family. What has been derided by some feminist historians as the “cult of domesticity”, also freed many rural women from manual labor, improved material conditions of women’s lives and coincided with an increase in female life expectancy.
Alexis de Tocqueville noted in his Democracy in America (1835,1840) that Americans did not think that men and women should perform the same tasks, “but they show an equal regard for both their respective parts; and though their lots are different, they consider both of them as being of equal value”.
Impassioned feminist rhetoric about freedom, dignity, autonomy and individual rights fell on deaf ears. Frances Willard showed the way to a more respectful entreaty to women. Willards’ motto for her organization was “Of the women, by the women, but for humanity”, and that message resonated with women from every sector of American life. The WCTU provided thousands of women their first experience with public activism. Along the way, they became receptive to Willard’s idea that voting was a woman’s sacred duty. With their vote, she suggested, women could greatly increase their humane and civilizing influence on society. She referred to the vote as “the home protection ballot”.
Women were galvanized by Willard’s vision of an elevated femininity; men were disarmed. The late historian Ruth Bordin has called the WCTU “one of the most powerful instruments of women’s consciousness-raising of all time”.
Susan B. Anthony admired Willard. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a religious skeptic, was leery. But both were startled by Willard’s ability to attract unprecedented numbers of dedicated women to the suffrage cause.
In 1890, two leading egalitarian suffragist groups merged because they were worried that the cause was dying, and they formed the National American Woman Suffrage Association, which elected Stanton president. Anthony said in an 1893 speech that the group numbered only 7,000. By comparison, Willard had built an organization with 150,000 dues-paying members, along with an additional 50,000 in branches for young women.
Willard was also able to bring electoral victories that the egalitarians could not. In 1893, Colorado held a second referendum on women’s suffrage which passed with 55% of the vote, unlike the failed 1877 attempt at which the “tramps of Boston” were sent packing.
Though it would be another 22 years before ratification of the 19th Amendment, guaranteeing women the vote in all federal and state elections, the groundwork was laid by Willard’s maternal feminist philosophy that built a mass base for social change.
Today’s women’s movement has little sympathy for Willard’s family-centered philosophy, but it is that focus which makes her brand of feminism acceptable to women in the developing world, particularly Muslim women who are seeking freedoms while still honoring their roles as mothers, wives and caregivers. One Iraqi women’s advocate said “We see feminism in America as dividing women from men – separating women from the family. This is not good for anyone.”
The Second Wave: Since 1960
In Two Paths to Women’s Equality (1995), Brandeis University scholar Janet Zolllinger Giele tells how American women won suffrage only when egalitarian groups led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony formed a coalition with moderate mainstream women led by Frances Willard. “History records defeat in every instance where one branch failed to recognize the valid arguments of the other.” When the two branches cooperated, success followed.
The efforts that culminated in the 19th Amendment made up the “first wave” of feminism. Then, forty years after American women won the vote, history repeated itself in what is know known as the “second wave” – expanding women’s rights from the ballot box to the courts, the workplace, the university and beyond.
The second wave began in the early 1960s by a coalition of Republican and Democratic women (and men). The “bra-burning” radicals came later – though no bras were actually burnt – after several landmark victories had been achieved.
After the long hiatus of the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression and World War II, Americans returned to the pursuit of the Dream and the country was ready for an egalitarian adjustment. Women had contributed valiantly to the war effort, both at home and abroad, and had entered the workforce in unprecedented numbers, often performing hard and arduous work.
The women’s movement had not become fully dormant, but remained an important part of the labor movement, dominated by maternal feminists and focused on workplace protections for women and children. But after the War, employment equality was becoming a consensus issue.
Gallup surveys showed that 76% of Americans supported equal pay for equal work as early as 1945, up to 87% by 1954. The Equal Pay Act was introduced by Republican and Democratic sponsors in the late 1940s. By 1960, dozens of bills against sex discrimination were in the congressional hopper. The reformers were a group of bipartisan female lawyers, commissioners and legislators – mostly in pearls and high heels. These women, aided by their male colleagues, persuaded Congress to pass the Equal Pay Act in 1963. Because of their efforts, the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 contained Title VII, prohibiting sex discrimination in hiring and promotion.
These successes were the decisive first steps in second wave feminism, but it would take years for these policies to translate into social practice, and there remained issues of equality in education, and family and property law.
The publication of the best selling manifesto, The Feminine Mystique, by Betty Friedan in 1963 attracted women who were frustrated by traditional feminine roles and Friedan founded the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1966 to eliminate discrimination and open doors for women. Initially, its membership consisted of women from both parties who had been part of the efforts to pass the Equal Pay Act and Title VII, but NOW quickly attracted a more diverse group, including the housewives who were galvanized by Friedan’s book and radical younger women from the anti-war movement. It was an uneasy alliance, but it worked for a while.
University of Minnesota historian Sara Evans calls the years between 1968 and 1975 feminism’s “golden years”. According to Evans, the US Congress seemed hellbent on figuring out what women wanted and giving it to them. In 1972, Congress passed the Title IX equity in education law and the Equal Employment Opportunity Act that expanded and strengthened Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. These laws were supported and signed by socially conservative Republican president Richard Nixon.
At the same time, the US Supreme Court, at that time all male and Republican dominated, ruled that husbands could no longer have complete control of community property (1971), that women could not be denied employment because they had children (1971), that servicewomen as well as servicemen could claim their spouses as dependents (1973), that employers could not force pregnant women into mandatory maternity leave (1974), and that states could not have different rules for men and women concerning jury duty (1975).
As these victories were being achieved during these “golden years”, a coalition of conservative, liberal and radical women converged around the idea of amending the US Constitution to guarantee women full equality with men. The proposed Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), first introduced to Congress in 1923, read simply: “Equality of rights under law shall not be denied or abridged on account of sex.” It had languished in congressional committees for 40 years, but by 1970 it seemed success was imminent.
At first, Republican leaders were at least as enthusiastic about the ERA as their Democratic counterparts. Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon and Ford endorsed it. After it passed the house in 1971 by a nearly unanimous vote, it momentarily stalled in the Senate because of the objections of a powerful Democratic senator from North Carolina, Sam Ervin, who defended the biblical law that gave men the responsibility for support and women the responsibility for bearing children.
But, at a time when Helen Reddy’s anthem, “I am Woman, Hear me Roar” was at the top of the pop music charts, Ervin’s sentiments did not find wide resonance. On March 22, 1972, what Ervin called the “Equal Wrongs Amendment” passed the Senate by a vote of 84 to 8.
States raced to ratify the ERA and no governors opposed it. Newspapers and magazines excitedly supported it, including traditional outlets like Redbook, Family Circle, Good Housekeeping and Parenting. While a few critics, such as the New York Times called it a “contrivance of a gang of harpies”, it was supported by such celebrities as Carol Burnett, Lilly Tomlin, Paul Newman, Lauren Bacall, Candice Bergen and Ann Landers. Ratification seemed inevitable.
Most historians agree that the ERA would have become law were it not for the efforts of one formidable woman, Phyllis Schlafly of Illinois. Schlafly came from a hard-scrabble depression-era family but managed to scramble her way into Washington University in St. Louis, where she graduated in 1944 with honors. She paid her way through college by working a 48-hour per week night shift at a munitions factory where she test-fired rifles and machine guns. Later, she earned a master’s degree in political science from Radcliffe and then, in middle age, a law degree. By the 1960s, she had become a nationally-known advocate for political conservatism as well as a wife and mother of six children.
A conservative Catholic, she called politics her “hobby”, but it was a hobby that included two runs for Congress, more than 100 public appearances, and writing books, including a 1964 bestseller about Barry Goldwater. She also worked for a time at the American Enterprise Institute as an expert in strategic nuclear policy. As one reluctantly admiring feminist leader would say, “I just can’t think of anyone who’s so together and tough. I mean [she is] everything you should raise your daughter to be… She’s an extremely liberated woman.”
Schlafly became an anti-ERA activist by accident. In December 1971, she was invited to speak at a Connecticut bookstore on strategic balance. When the host asked her to address the ERA, she said she knew little about it and wasn’t even sure which side she was on. When Schlalfly read a packet of information sent to her by the host, she had a “click” experience – the term feminists use to describe the moment of realization of personal oppression. But, for Schlafly, the realization was how destructive the ERA would be if it became enshrined in the Constitution.
As Schlafly would explain in talks and debates, by 1972 most of the laws that had treated men and women differently had already been stricken from the books. She often praised the Equal Pay Act, Title VII and the early Court victories, and conceded that she had benefited from these reforms. But, through her reading, including of legal scholars at the University of Chicago and Harvard Law Schools, she became convinced that the ERA was not about equality of opportunity.
In a recent history of second-wave feminism, When Everything Changed, New York Times writer Gail Collins confirmed Schlafly’s argument that almost all the changes the ERA was intended to make had already been achieved by the mid-1970s. She thought that legislators were eager to pass the amendment as a goodwill gesture toward women; that it was more symbolic than substantive.
Schlafly saw the ERA as far more than merely symbolic, but rather as a blueprint for a radically new society. Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique had called the suburban home a “comfortable concentration camp” where women suffer a “slow death of mind and spirit” and were little more than “walking corpses”. Friedan had not only attacked the culture that consigned women to the domestic sphere, but also that sphere itself and all the women who chose to live there. Some critics pointed out Friedan’s indifference to poor women who longed to get out of the workplace and become housewives.
Schlafly responded that “women’s libbers view the home as a prison and the wife and mother as slave… The libbers don’t understand that most women want to be a wife, mother and homemaker – and are happy in that role”. Feminists, unaccustomed to dissent from their gospel, were sometimes unhinged by Schalfly’s critiques.
In a 1973 debate between Schlafly and Friedan over the ERA, an irate Friedan said to Schlafly, “I’d like to burn you at the stake”, and the unflappable Schlafly asked the audience to take note of the intemperate nature of ERA proponents.
In a 1973 debate with a NOW official on William F. Buckley’s Firing Line, when Buckley noted that the simple language of the ERA did not seem particularly subversive, Schlafly responded that it was less about women’s rights as about an eccentric agenda to be imposed on an unsuspecting nation – that it could not only lead to state funding of abortion but to the elimination of all forms of so-called gender segregation, such as mother-son picnics and single-sex schools. If it passed, Schlafly insisted, young women would be subject to the military draft, with full equality in combat.
Though Schlafly’s critics accuse her of misrepresenting the ERA and engaging in “alarmist apocalypticism”, NOW representative Ann Scott agreed with Schlafly’s predictions, but stated that they were both desirable and long overdue. When Buckley asked Scott if NOW would accept a compromise allowing women to volunteer for military service, Scott bristled, saying failure to accord women the “difficulties that citizenship entails” is “to lower our status as human beings”. Even today, the idea of drafting women into combat is controversial; in the 1970s it was unfathomable for most Americans.
Schlafly believed the goal of the ERA was a radical egalitarianism without exception or compromise and that its congressional backers had not intended to ratify such an extreme agenda. Working with a small group of women from her kitchen, Schlafly organized one of the most successful grassroots campaigns in American history. In a world without faxes, email or the internet, she made her case by telephone, speeches and a monthly newsletter. At her own expense, she reprinted and distributed a NOW manifesto entitled Revolution: Tomorrow Is NOW. Among the manifesto’s targets was women’s volunteer service, which pitted NOW against two centuries of maternal feminism.
NOW dismissed Schlafly as a crank and underestimated her abilities. A New York Times editor wrote in 1977 that “Phyllis Schlafly has become one of the most relentless and accomplished platform debaters of any gender to be found on any side of any issue.”
Schlafly’s sense of humor (she would start a debate by thanking her husband for allowing her to be there) and her flair for political theater led to a “Second American Revolution” in which Indiana’s 35th ratification in 1977 (out of the required 38) would be the last, and for the first time states began voting the amendment down, while others tried to rescind their earlier ratifications.
In spite of a successful campaign to extend the ratification deadline from seven years to ten, and in spite of increasingly radical protests, the clock ran out on the ERA in 1982. Schlafly had realized as early as 1972 that the ERA did not represent the majority of American women and, with the unintended collaboration of the pro-ERA forces, she prevailed.
Had the ERA supporters compromised with an exemption from the draft and some concessions to maternal feminism, the ERA would surely have passed. But NOW had become increasingly strident in its all or nothing approach, and nothing is what they got.
Then as now, most women want equality with differences, perceiving those differences as natural, socially important, non-invidious and (at least to many) the enjoyable fruits of personal freedom. Once the hard-line egalitarian goals of the ERA were unmasked, it was doomed to failure.
Free Women Make Free Choices
Before the dramatic advances in women’s liberation of the 1970s, conservative feminist, playwright and congressperson Clair Boothe Luce wrote in the 1940s:
“It is time to leave the question of the role of women in society up to Mother Nature – a difficult lady to fool. You have only to give women the same opportunities as men, and you will soon find out what is or is not in their nature. What is in women’s nature to do they will do, and you won’t be able to stop them. But you will also find that what is not in their nature, even if they are given every opportunity, they will not do, and you won’t be able to make them do it.”
We have now, in effect, run the experiment Luce described and can observe the results. By the 1980s and 1990s, women were entering the workplace in record numbers, filling the colleges, law and mecical schools, starting businesses, joining sports teams, and enjoying and contending with opportunities beyond those of any women in history. They were venturing in droves far beyond the domestic sphere.
Yet gender roles persisted. Majorities of working mothers (62%), according to a 2009 Pew Research Center survey, still say they would prefer to work part-time. The same survey also found that an overwhelming majority (79%) of men prefer full-time work.
The innately feminine virtues of tenderness, care and nurture are reflected in women’s predominance in the caring professions. Even today, when hard-line feminism is dominant in education, the media, and the women’s movement, women continue to far outnumber men in fields like nursing, social work, pediatrics, veterinary medicine and early childhood education. Meanwhile, men continue to far outnumber women in the saving and rescuing professions of policeman, firefighter and soldier. In the words of 19th century psychologist William James, for men “the world is essentially a theater for heroism”.
While social scientists tell us that nearly one-fifth of women defy the stereotypes, the majority of men and women continue to gravitate to traditional sex roles.
In a 2008 study reported in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, a comparison of gender and personality across 55 nations found that women tended to be more cooperative, nurturing, risk averse and emotionally expressive; men were more competitive, reckless and emotionally flat. What is most revealing, perhaps, is that such personality differences are most pronounced in prosperous, egalitarian, post-industrial societies. According to the study’s authors, “Higher levels of human development – including long and healthy life, equal access to knowledge and education, and economic wealth – were the main nation-level predictors of sex difference variation across cultures.
[A study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology in 2014, explored an explanation for the “feminist paradox”: that, though the feminist movement purports to improve conditions for women, only a minority of women in modern societies self-identify as feminists. What they found, in agreement with other studies, was that feminists exhibit both physiological and psychological characteristics associated with heightened masculinization, which may predispose women for heightened competitiveness, sex-atypical behaviors, and belief in the interchangeability of sex roles.]
Wealth, freedom and education empower men and women to self-actualization – to become who they truly are. It would appear that gender role differentiation is an expression, not of oppression, but of social well-being.
The grand experiment of the last half century confirms the paradox of egalitarian feminism: that the more liberated women become, the more likely they are to choose the domestic sphere. With legal equality and resistance to the imposition of traditional sex roles, men and women will never-the-less employ their freedoms in different ways, and will find the conventions of femininity and masculinity to be natural, attractive and powerful sources of meaning and happiness. Efforts to obliterate gender roles can be just as intolerant as efforts to enforce them.
Freedom feminism is at peace, not at war, with abiding human aspiration. Unable to accept the evidence of experience, egalitarian feminists are driven to develop theories of subtle coercion and deep institutional injustice still operating to oppress women. And these theories are prevalent in the women’s movement.
In losing the battle over the ERA, it would seem that radical feminists determined to win the battle for the political infrastructure of feminism. Mortified and angry at their loss, many of these egalitarian feminists retreated into advocacy groups, research centers and feminist theory enclaves in the universities (such as the Gender Studies curriculum), where they use their hard-won organizing skills to pursue their agenda through other means.
In their academic isolation, they expanded their analysis of the patriarchy that they insist holds millions of American women in its thrall, unconscious of their servitude. Persuaded of the reality of female victimhood, they see no point in engaging with unbelievers. They rarely consulted their academic colleagues down the hall in the economics or statistics departments. Most male academics maintained a judicious silence and few female scholars were inclined to challenge sisters who had made women’s studies their specialty. As a result, in women’s research centers across the nation, the hardliners rule unopposed.
Feminist Theory and Its Discontents
In the summer of 1985, Virginia Held, a professor at the City University of New York, announced in a premier philosophy journal that feminist theorists had initiated an intellectual revolution comparable to those of “Copernicus, Darwin and Freud”. Indeed, said Held, “some feminists think the latest revolution will be even more profound”.
What they had “discovered” was the universality of Patriarchy – a system so pervasive that it has resulted in the oppression of women by men since the beginnings of human evolution, throughout time and across the globe. “We can see it everywhere” said Held.
[Pattern recognition is the machine ability to recognize patterns in external stimuli from pre-determined templates in memory, and is the computer equivalent of human pattern recognition. Apophenia is the human tendency or experience of perceiving patterns or connections in random or meaningless data and ascribing abnormal meaning. Pareidolia is a form of apophenia involving a vague and random stimulus (often an image or sound) being perceived as significant – it is the Rorschach inkblot test of everyday experience, and involves the projection of pre-formed mental patterns onto an unpatterned canvas.]
On the basis of this universal theory of gender relations, it is not enough to simply “add women and stir” – the system of human culture must be dismantled and rebuilt afresh. The theory drew inspiration from the egalitarian writings of Wollstonecraft, Mill and Stanton, but also out of the radical political politics of the 1960s, and is informed by the philosophy of Karl Marx, and his heirs, such as Herbert Marcuse, Frantz Fanon and Michael Foucault.
Stirring feminism into this heady brew generated such Copernican revelations as this from legal theoriest Catherine MacKinnon: “I think that sexual desire, at least in this culture, is socially constructed as that by which we come to want our own self-annihilation.”
There are some serious scholars in the field of Women’s Studies, but in too many colleges and universities, ideologically-inflamed, statistically-challenged “theorists” set the tone and the agenda.
Students who enroll in typical introductory Women’s Studies courses are not likely to learn about the conservative roots of women’s emancipation, and even the egalitarian thinkers of the first wave are sometimes given short shrift. Textbooks in feminist theory often present Mary Wollstonecraft, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony under the rubric of “liberal feminism”, which is described as a relic of the past, limited to the needs of middle-class women in capitalist societies. The more inclusive theories which have supplanted “liberal feminism” include gynocentric feminism, which views women as different from and better than men, and assorted versions of Marxist, socialist, radical, multi-racial, and post-colonial feminism.
As black feminist bell hooks puts it in Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, the “white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy” must be overthrown through protracted struggle, and she criticized the second-wave as exclusionary of non-whites and the lower classes who were put off by the demonization of men, and for the “opportunism of bourgeois white women” at the core of the movement. She addressed what is now called the “intersectionality” of race and gender.
While it’s true that Stanton and Anthony opposed the 15th Amendment on the grounds that it granted the vote to “ignorant” black and immigrant males while excluding educated native-born women like themselves, what they were promoting were universal human ideals. The rights to vote, be educated, enter a marriage of equals, to flourish – these are not the special province of white middle-class women, but belong to human beings everywhere.
The claim that feminism is authentic only when it is revolutionary denigrates the achievements of more moderate women activists and, while focusing on the limits of reform, disregards the dangers inherent in radical social transformation (or social engineering).
Women of all races, ethnic groups, social classes and gender identities aspire to freedom, opportunity and self-determination, and can generally differentiate between cultures or countries in which patriarchal domination is “everywhere” and those advanced democracies which are markedly different and have achieved most of the visions of the feminist foremothers.
The hardliner theorists see no success story in America, where college women are among the most free and fortunate people in the world, but rather see “male hegemony” and women’s oppression even in these liberated environments. In the feminist classrooms, young women are taught that they inhabit an oppressive society where women are conditioned to subordination, and that any sense of personal freedom is a mere projection of “patriarchal consciousness”.
In their book, Professing Feminism: Education and Indoctrination in Women’s Studies, two once-committed feminist professors, Daphne Patai and Noretta Koeftge, describe the “sea of propaganda” that overwhelms the contemporary feminist classroom. They show how idealistic female students are changed into “relentless grievance collectors”.
The historian Christine Rosen, in her 2002 report on five leading Women’s Studies textbooks, found them all to be hostile to traditional marriage, stay-at-home mothers and the culture of romance. They were also rife with falsehood, half-truths and “deliberately misleading sisterly sophistries”.
Most, if not all, of the statistics used for such women’s issues as violence, depression, eating disorders, pay equity and education are misleading, confused or deliberately inaccurate.
A color-coded map of the world, found in the highly-praised Penguin Atlas of Women in the World (2009) by academic feminist Joni Seager, showed the United States in the same category as Somalia, Uganda, Yemen, Niger and Libya for places were “patriarchal assumptions” operated in “potent combination with fundamentalist religious interpretations”. The explanation was that “state legislators had enacted 301 anti-abortion measures between 1995 and 2001”. In Uganda, a man can claim an unmarried woman as his wife by raping her, but in the US the often clumsy workings of democracy are considered to be as problematic.
On another map, the United States gets the same rating as Uganda and Haiti for domestic violence. This is based on the ubiquitous fiction that “22% to 35% of women who visit hospital emergency rooms do so because of domestic violence. No matter how often refuted – the actual statistic is less than 1%, as documented by the CDC and DOJ – this “fact” still appears in feminist textbooks.
Reasonable people can debate statistical findings, but feminist textbooks do not seem interested in debate. Most ignore studies that show low rates of victimization, no matter how rigorous or fair-minded, and embrace as gospel those that show high levels, no matter how dubious or slanted.
The gender wage gap is another almost universally-cited reality that is evidence of systemic discrimination, yet it is based on the gross difference between all men’s and all women’s annual full-time income (which can mean anything more than a 35-hour work week), ignoring all the differences in actual jobs.
Economists have found that almost all the difference is due to the choices that men and women make regarding work and home life. A 2009 Department of Labor study, which examined more than 50 peer-reviewed papers, concluded that the wage gap “may be almost entirely the result of individual choices being made by both male and female workers”. There were so many differences in pay-related choices that the researchers were unable to specify even a residual effect that might be the result of sex discrimination.
Women in medicine, for instance, are more likely to chose to be pediatricians than cardiologists, more likely to work part-time, and those who work full-time put in 7% fewer hours per week then men in the same field. They were also much more likely to take extended family leaves.
Women’s advocacy groups, like the American Association of University Women (AAUW), do occasionally acknowledge that the pay gap is explained by women’s choices, but insist that these choices are not truly free. “Women’s personal choices are fraught with inequities”, says the AAUW, and are “pigeon-holed” into “pink-collar” jobs in health and education. The National Organization for Women (NOW) says that powerful sexual stereotypes “steer” women and men “towards different education, training and career paths” and family roles. But this fundamental axiom of feminism is merely asserted and it is never proved that the choices women make are not of their own free will.
This prevalence of propaganda and one-sidedness on campus is so effective that intelligent, sensitive, socially-concerned young women come to regard the grim radical feminist worldview as incontrovertible truth, and seem to regard alternative opinions as a form of hate speech.
[The case of the banishment of black Reed College freshman Jeremiah True for challenging the 1-in-5 sexual assault statistic and the reality of “rape culture” in a mandatory Humanities class because it triggered discomfort among some of the female students is a classic example.]
The Feminist Brain Trust: Obstacle to Truth
The National Council for Research on Women (NCRW), launched in 1981, is a network of 120 women’s research and policy centers. It includes such mainstream organizations as Hadassah and the YWCA, but two-thirds of its members are academic centers, and include such activist research institutes as the American Association for University Women, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, the Ms. Foundation, and the National Women’s Law Center.
Together, these groups constitute what might be called the feminist brain trust. “Research powers a revolution”, says an NCRW promotional video. At a 2011 debate on the website The Economist, NCRW president Linda Basch began by stating” “Women belong in the workplace. It is right for families, communities, the economy and, most importantly, for women so that they can live to their full potential as productive and self-reliant individuals.” Her insistence that women had only one legitimate sphere of action surprised even the moderator, but was not surprising to those who know the NCRW, whose most influential members remain captivated by 1970s-style egalitarian feminism and the elimination of sex roles.
Their answer to the question of why women don’t enter certain STEM fields or enter politics and choose the second-class citizenship of hearth and home is that they are being held back by unconscious bias, hostile climates and internalized oppression. The NCRW egalitarians have their own research that they think shows the presence of ubiquitous, albeit invisible, discrimination. [This is reminiscent of Donald Rumsfeld’s insistence that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”.]
Because the NCRW has convinced the world that they are the final authority on women’s issues, when journalists, policymakers and legislators address such topics as the wage gap, gender and education or women’s health, they turn to one of the NCRW’s 2,000 experts for enlightenment.
The American Association of University Women (AAUW), one of the NCRW’s more influential members, refers to skeptics and dissidents as “adversaries” and has put them on notice:
“Our adversaries know that AAUW is a force to be reckoned with…We are issuing fair warning – we are breaking through barriers. We mean it; we’ve done it before; and we are coming after them again…and again and again, if we have to! All of us, all the time.” – AAUW president Linda Hallman
The damage wrought by the NCRW lobby is evidenced in the 2009 Paycheck Fairness Act, which was based on the premise that the 1963 Equal Pay Act, which bans sex discrimination in the workplace, had failed (the proof being the continuing pay gap half a century later). The legislation would have made employers not only liable for intentional sex discrimination (as had the previous act), but also for “lingering effects of past discrimination”, and made them liable to class-action lawsuits. After concern expressed by such diverse sources as the US Chamber of Commerce, the Washington Post and the Boston Globe, the bill went down in defeat in 2012.
Laws like that and the “Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering Act” were built on years of tendentious advocacy research and would set women against men, empower trial lawyers and activists, perpetuate falsehoods about the status of women, and create havoc in the economy.
These powerful advocacy groups see the world as a battlefront in a zero-sum struggle between men and women. Though a vanishingly small number of women see life in such Manichean terms, for the moment these groups set the national agenda.
The Freedom Feminist Agenda
The historical women’s movement, at its best and most effective, was representative, broad-based and purposive. Seeking to improve society rather than turn it upside-down, the movement won many famous victories and earned the gratitude of posterity. Today’s movement has harnessed the prestige of historical feminism, but its aims and methods are those of a narrow, intellectually-corrupt, special-interest group.
Follwing are suggestions for a revival of the freedom feminist movement.
- Take Back Reason
There is an urgent need to correct more than 40 years of feminist advocacy research, which must be assumed to be manipulated in the service of gender ideology. Sound policies must be predicated on sound research. Legislators, educators and the public are getting too little trustworthy information on women’s issues, and political discourse and policy are suffering as a result.
Fortunately, there is a growing body of serious empirical research on women’s issues, much of it by women, which displays an increasing willingness to challenge the dogmas of the feminist brain trust.
- Be Pro-Women but not Male-Averse
The current women’s lobby thinks of men as a rival camp – not only are men denigrated, but their problems ignored or explained away, such as the alarming gender gap in education that shows male students falling far behind female students, from grade school through post-graduate institutions. Men and women complement each other, and are not on separate teams competing for one trophy. This is not a zero-sum competition; we are not natural adversaries. Our fates are inextricably tied – if one is in trouble, so is the other.
- Pursue Happiness
In the Netherlands, Dutch women are among the freest, best-educated and happiest on the planet. In studies of life satisfaction, Dutch women (and men) consistently score at the top. More than 70% of Dutch working women work part-time and when asked if they would like to work more, the vast majority say no. A Dutch psychologist and the author of Dutch Women Don’t Get Depressed, says “it has to do with personal freedom… women in the Netherlands are free to chose what they want to do”. But the Netherlands would get failing grades for workplace equity from the US women’s lobby.
- Respect Female Diversity
21st Century feminism must learn to accept women as they are, not as they were supposed to be according to egalitarian specifications drawn up in 1978. Some women are as dedicated to careers as are men, but many are not. Despite 40 years of gender-neutral pronouns and harsh denunciations of women’s traditional roles, domestic life remains a vital priority for millions. And no amount of consciousness-raising or cajoling has discouraged women from pursuing “pink-collar” jobs in the helping and caring professions.
- No Political Litmus Tests
Freedom feminists can be liberal, conservative or libertarian. They can differ on abortion, the wage gap and the role of government in their lives. They can strike different balances between family and career. In the spirit of pluralism and democratic coalition-building, they can even work together for concrete ends while standing on different philosophical bedrock.
What they must share is respect for considered differences of opinion and choice, insistence that debate and scholarship be reasoned and evidence-based, commitment to improving the lives of women, recognition that the sexes are equal but different, and devotion to Enlightenment democratic principles.
To the extent that hardliners share these commitments, they can still play a critical role. International women’s groups, such as the Feminist Majority, the Women in the World Foundation and Equality Now, are aggressively targeting human rights violations such as sex trafficking of women and children in India, female genital mutilation in Mali, and the lashing of non-conforming women in Iran. This is admirable and necessary work that both conservative and liberal women can endorse and support. There could be a powerful and effective consensus on the need to help millions of women around the world who are struggling against honor killings, genital cutting, acid attacks, forced marriages and lashings.
Imagine if the modern heirs to Hannah More and Francis Willard were part of an ecumenical coalition. But today’s feminist movement is a hostile place for faith-based, family-centered, conservative women who do not wish to be “liberated” from their femininity – the very type of women who played a decisive role in the history of women’s emancipation. If they could ally themselves with progressive forces and women’s groups across the globe, history suggests they would prevail.
When I completed reading Sommers’ little book, I was struck by how similar some of her ideas were to the ones I expressed in my 1997 essay on Transcending Feminism. If there is to be a future for the human race (putting aside for the moment the irremediable damage we’ve done, and continue to do, to the planet), it will have to be built on a meeting of the minds and a finding of common ground among those who habitually see one another as adversaries or enemies.
by Robert Riversong: may be reproduced only with attribution for non-commercial purposes and a link to this web page.