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|Introduction: The Gender Wars||1|
|1||Men Are from Earth, Women Are from Earth||15|
|2||The Mommy Wars and the Daddy Track||42|
|4||The Myth of Gender Violence||85|
|5||Legislating the Gender War: The Politics of Domestic Abuse||109|
|6||Sex Crimes, Political Crimes||138|
|8||Men and Their Children||197|
|9||Are Men Victims Too?||220|
|10||The Conservative Mistake||244|
|Epilogue: Where Do We Go From Here?||265|
The Gender Wars
Modern feminism, until recently at least, promised not to intensify sexual warfare but to bring about a new era of sexual peace in which women and men could meet each other as equals, not as antagonists.
Christopher Lasch, Women and the Common Life
Near the end of the century in which equality of the sexes became a basic tenet of civilized society, the best-seller of the decade says that men and women are creatures from different planets. A state legislature rewrites the text of marriage licenses to warn about domestic abuse, which, sponsors say, is "a leading cause of death and injury for U.S. women." In a seemingly endless stream of films and books, the war of the sexes rises to the level of mutual assured destruction. On a television show, actress-comedienne Janeane Garofalo declares that American women have been as oppressed as blacks since fat women don't get good movie roles, and that "everything we eat, sleep, and drink" is about disrespect for women. From some quarters, women are urged to take offense at male sexual interest; from others, to reclaim their power of sexual manipulation. Above all, women are urged to get mad: "To be a woman today is to be angry," a suburban working mom tells a newspaper.
When I came to the United States in 1980 at the age of seventeen, I was a feminist -- before I even knew the word. In the Soviet Union, where I was born and raised, the official dogma of equality coexisted with pervasive old-fashioned sexism: catching a husband was supposed to be a girl's supreme goal; the superiority of the masculine mind was taken for granted by many women as well of the white cops in the Rodney King beating, an ABC News town-meeting discussion of rape opened with Peter Jennings declaring that "the violence done to women" was as divisive an issue as racial strife (even if "there have been no bricks or bullets exchanged on this subject yet") and that, to illustrate the gender divide, men and women in the audience had been seated separately. That night, my belief that feminism was helping make things better between the sexes died.
In Backlash, Faludi wrote that feminism is a "simple concept, despite...efforts to dress it up in greasepaint and turn its proponents into gargoyles." Women are people, "just as deserving of rights and opportunities, just as capable of participating in the world's events" as men. But the gargoyles are real, and the concept is anything but simple.
To some, feminism is about "the belief in women's oppression" here and now; to others, it's about affirming the "different voice" of female values and repudiating such "male" notions as logic, individualism, and pursuit of knowledge and excellence. Maybe it means (according to feminist philosopher Judith Lorber) applying blatant double standards because a woman's mistreatment of a man "redresses [the] imbalance of power," while a man's mistreatment of a woman reinforces it. Maybe, as legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon says, it means "believing women's account of sexual use and abuse by men" and measuring everything by one yardstick: "Is it good for women?"
These ideologies sometimes clash; feminists who focus on oppression have accused "different voice" proponents of validating stereotypical femininity. But they also mesh easily: all reject the principle of equal treatment, either because equal standards are inherently "male" or because one cannot treat oppressor and oppressed as equals. All divide humanity along gender lines.
It's hard to tell why the movement went this way. In fact, it was always pulled in different directions by the belief in equality and female superiority, in individual rights and female community. Naomi Wolf says that "victim feminism" arose in the 1980s because feminists felt so besieged fighting "the backlash." But perhaps it was the reverse: with most battles for equal opportunity won, feminism came to be dominated by other goals and creeds. One could say that the movement had outlived itself and had to justify its existence, or that feminists were frustrated because, with the external barriers gone, women were still held back by more subtle obstacles. Or maybe many feminists realized that equality wasn't what they wanted.
But does feminism matter much anyway? After all, only about a third of American women identify themselves as feminists. The National Organization for Women has 250,000 members; Ms. has a circulation of 200,000, while the readership of more traditional women's magazines is in the millions.
And yet "gender feminism," to use the term coined by Christina Hoff Sommers, has had a powerful impact. It has won government backing for programs that give special priority to women's health and girls' educational problems, in response to alleged inequities. It has guided the campaigns against sexual harassment and domestic violence, issues that are real enough but are largely viewed today through the distorting prism of gender politics and bogus statistics. It has helped shape law and public policy in other areas, from rape (where the changes have often gone far beyond correcting traditional biases against women) to child custody (where feminist influence has often reinforced traditional biases against men).
The obscure theories trickle down from the ivory tower and blend into a kind of pop feminism, epitomized by Anna Quindlen's now-defunct column in the New York Times, with its twin themes of men's victimization of women and women's superior virtues. Pop feminism also thrives, in a strange cohabitation with beauty-and-relationships fare, in many women's magazines. Readers of Redbook, Ladies Home Journal, and Mademoiselle are told that male violence is a constant threat, that the legal system is biased against them, that medicine neglects their needs, and that criticism of Hillary Rodham Clinton is driven by hostility toward ambitious women.
Quite a few women who may not call themselves feminists cheer the acquittal of penis slicer Lorena Bobbitt and say, "Well, men have gotten away with abusing women for thousands of years." A woman who has never taken a women's studies course and who has never read Catharine MacKinnon may tell a pollster that it's offensive for a man to talk to a coworker about her sexual attractiveness, or that it's rape if a man "argues with a woman who does not want to have sex until she agrees." Commenting on women's alienation from feminism, journalist Elinor Burkett notes that "it is Roseanne, not Gloria Steinem, who is a heroine to American women." But is that so encouraging, given Roseanne's tirades about how women should kill their husbands more often?
The new feminism appeals to many women by "validating" and giving a larger meaning to their personal problems, and in pa rticular by tapping into their anger at men -- which has little to do with politics, patriarchy, or even men being from Mars and women being from Venus. It has to do with the tensions and messiness of intimacy, perhaps exacerbated by rapidly changing expectations and roles. Exasperation with one man is easily projected onto men in general. The same is true of men's anger at women. But these days, male anger is viewed as misogynistic and dangerous. (A Redbook writer interviewing an imprisoned serial rapist notes that his rants about men getting "screwed over" by women aren't much different from what she has heard from normal men going through a nasty divorce.) Women's anger, meanwhile, is politicized and sanctioned -- and not just by feminists who argue that "a woman's distrust of any man is a completely rational response to the sustained attack on women perpetrated by both individual men and androcentric systems." A poll in which 42 percent of women agree that "men are basically selfish and self-centered" is presented as evidence of male rottenness, not female chauvinism. One could hardly imagine the reverse.
To some extent, feminism has always politicized the personal, inasmuch as it sought to change relations between women and men. But once, it targeted laws that gave the husband authority over his wife, and later the social norms dictating a woman's place: the assumption that she should subordinate her ambitions to her husband's, that he should have the final say in the household, that sex before marriage was fine for him but not for her.
This critique did not presume male malevolence or female innocence. In his 1869 essay, The Subjection of Women, after discussing the husband's formal powers over the person and property of his wife, John Stuart Mill emphasized that he was describing "the wife's legal position, not her actual treatment": "Happily there are both feelings and interests which in many men exclude, and in most temper, the impulses and propensities which lead to tyranny." (Yes, Mill was a man; but his wife and collaborator, Harriet Taylor Mill, took a similar view in her writings.) A century later, in The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan saw the suburban man as less the oppressor than, in some ways, a victim of the woman who had to derive her identity from her husband and made him "an object of contempt" if he didn't live up to her expectations. Friedan even viewed male hostility toward women with some sympathy, as a reaction to "the devouring wife."
The new feminism, on the other hand, focuses on the evil that men do to women. In 1998, when feminists were criticized for failing to support the women allegedly victimized by President Clinton, Susan Faludi wrote a remarkable article contrasting "real feminism," which is about "becoming equal and mature players in public life" and "girl power," gained by "celebrating yourself, ideally via your injuries, [and] talking about what was done to you" (like Paula Jones or Monica Lewinsky). Although her criteria were purely political, it's still a good point. Indeed, critics whom Faludi had ridiculed as "faux feminists" have been saying it for years.
This shift from women's rights to women's wrongs has far-reaching implications, besides making victimhood central to feminism. Male abuse of women and girls (including acts that Western culture had long abhorred, such as rape, wife beating, and incest) must b e redefined as the enforcement rather than the violation of social norms, and interpreted as broadly as possible to maximize the number of victims. Believing specific accusations by one person against another becomes an issue of politics more than fact. Private conduct becomes political (which is, of course, precisely what led Clinton's feminist supporters into a self-created quandary). Indeed, the very concept of privacy becomes suspect, merely a smokescreen for, in MacKinnon's words, "the right of men 'to be let alone' to oppress women one at a time." The evil that women do -- to children, other women, men -- must be erased. The same people who choke with indignation if someone suggests that women lack the "killer instinct" in the workplace or the military will sneer at the idea that women might be aggressors in domestic violence.
The assumption that the personal is political is deeply entrenched in the gender debates. Even Karen Lehrman, who explicitly asserts in her book, The Lipstick Proviso, that the personal is not political -- that is, not a proper sphere for government action -- still believes it's a feminist issue that many women stay in "bad relationships" and let men mistreat them.
Yet deep down, I think, most of us know that the sexes are roughly equal in inflicting personal misery on each other. This may have been true even when men had far more legal power in the home and far more freedom outside it. By focusing on women's private grievances, feminism not only promotes a kind of collective feminine narcissism (which reached its peak after the death of Princess Diana in the rush to turn the unfortunate princess into a symbol for the woes and the victories of the moder n woman) but links itself to the myth of female moral superiority and the demonization of men.
And where do men fit in? There is much chuckling about white males who feel beleaguered because their power and privilege are eroding. But power and privilege have always been a fairly abstract notion for most men. And today, whatever advantages men may still have, in some ways they have fewer choices than women do: less freedom to choose between traditional and nontraditional roles, to drop out of the workforce, to trade a better-paying job for a more fulfilling one.
Yes, some men miss the old days when girls were girls and men were men. But there are probably far more who are troubled by the sense that they, as men, are under attack and that women want it both ways.
It is widely felt that at the core of today's gender troubles is the fact that women have changed but men have not: they still fail to treat women as equals and to do their share of traditional "women's work." But in some ways, women haven't changed either. Many still want to be protected, even if they also want independence; to marry a man who earns more, even if they also want equal pay, to let their husbands bear the primary burden of financial responsibility, even if they also believe they are entitled to a career. As Katie Roiphe noted in a provocative essay, "We want men to be the providers and to regard us as equals."
Sometimes this attitude is expressed openly. In a 1996 article in the campus paper the Daily Bruin, UCLA student Jessica Morgan calls it "creative feminism." Women, she asserts, should employ "a combination of feminist ideals and the advantages that come with being female" to achieve their end s: fall back on feminism if they feel sexually harassed but on femininity if they need to use sex appeal to get their way; refuse to defer to men but rely on them to do manly things like squash bugs. "So men are confused, and I say 'good,'" adds Morgan. "The more confused the men of this country are, the easier they are to manipulate. The more easily they are manipulated....the more likely it is that we'll get what we want -- whatever it is that we want."
Such frankness may be rare. But a having-it-both-ways philosophy is characteristic of much modern feminism: women are the same as men or different, whichever suits them; sex stereotypes are endorsed if they're positive (e.g., that women are more nurturing than men) and denounced if they're negative (e.g., that women are less intelligent than men). Feminists who resent any suggestion that a mother belongs with her children often insist, when it comes to child custody, that children belong with the mother. Feminists acutely sensitive to bias against women show little concern for bias against men, whether it's the informal leniency accorded female defendants in court or overtly discriminatory draft registration.
Blindness to male disadvantage is hardly limited to feminists. Throughout our culture, women's interests and demands tend to be seen as uniquely legitimate. One can hardly imagine politicians talking about what they've done "for men" the way they talk about doing something for women. Partly it's because of the presumption, rooted in the long history of women's struggle for the most fundamental rights, that women's cause is a just cause. Added to the mix is the traditional paternalism that views women as deserving more protection from harm than men do. The charge that women's lives or health are being jeopardized would have a less powerful effect if one were to substitute the word people.
As a result, efforts to right old inequities, real or perceived, may lead to new ones. Men's problems, such as male health issues or boys' educational needs, become invisible or are put on the back burner. Men accused of violence toward a woman may face a virtual presumption of guilt. As men's advocate Warren Farrell points out, the notion that men have all the power and women are powerless (which was never quite true, and is preposterous in America in the 1990s) "makes us fear limiting the expansion of women's power," even when that power becomes unjust.
That is why the alternative to "victim feminism" proposed by Naomi Wolf in Fire with Fire -- "power feminism" with the slogan "More for women" -- won't do. Women don't always deserve more. Moreover, power feminism can mutate into exploitation feminism: grab power whichever way you can. Jessica Morgan's "creative feminist" manifesto is easy to dismiss as one article by one ditzy girl, but it could be part of a mini-trend. A book-length version of the same viewpoint can be found in Elizabeth Wurtzel's 1998 clunker, Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women. (Wurtzel summarizes the "bitch philosophy" as, "I intend to do what I want to do and be whom I want to be and answer only to myself," and imagines that "for men this attitude is second nature.") New York-area attorney Rosalie Osias has gained notoriety by running provocative photos of her leggy self in ads for her law firm and by preaching what she practices: women, kept down by an old boy network, should use sex as an asset. A f emale newspaper editor opines that if such advice can help women feel better about themselves and get ahead, isn't that "the point of real feminism?
I don't wish to paint too harsh a picture. Most people's lives remain relatively untouched by politics, gender or otherwise. I feel hopeful when I talk to a young woman who is baffled by the talk of teenage girls' losing self-confidence; when I see dads shopping with their children and overhear two burly fellows in a supermarket discussing baby food brands; when I talk to enthusiastic male fans of the Women's National Basketball Association; when I read about a businesswoman or an astronaut who gives more thought to doing her job than to her gender; when I see women admiring male beauty.
But I also know that all is not well. Too many young women waste their energy on "anger," while others, disgusted by feminist excess, embrace traditionalist views at odds with their own lives. Too many quietly resentful men are walking on eggshells. Too many children are growing up without fathers. The Rules, a supremely cynical manual that instructs women how to scheme their way to the altar by mixing old-fashioned coyness with postfeminist independence, lands on the best-seller list, filling the vacuum left by feminism's failure to present a positive vision of love between equals with a pseudo-traditionalist and, at bottom, profoundly adversarial prescription for courtship.
Only a fevered fantasy could conjure up a gender war fought with guns and bricks; parallels between race and sex go only so far. But precisely because there is much more social and personal intimacy between the sexes than between races, ostensibly gentler and quieter gender warfare can inflict deeper wounds and wreak greater havoc. Today the gender police seek to invade male-female relationships at every stage. Marital conflict is redefined as "abuse" which, pamphlets warn, may consist merely of "making you feel bad about yourself." A clumsy advance or an off-color joke becomes "sexual harassment," which in some states children are being taught to recognize as early as elementary school.
Do I still consider myself a feminist? No, if feminism means believing that women in Western industrial nations today are "oppressed" or if it means "solidarity with women," as essayist Barbara Ehrenreich claimed on National Public Radio in 1994. Yes, if it means that men and women meet each other as equals, as individuals first and foremost; if we remember what British philosopher Janet Radcliffe Richards wrote more than fifteen years ago: "No feminist whose concern for women stems from a concern for justice in general can ever legitimately allow her only interest to be the advantage of women."
I still believe the feminist challenge to woman's place was right. I think we can take pride in the fact that a woman is now expected to be her own person and make her own way in the world, and that the public sphere is no longer considered a male domain. Like all other cultural shifts, these changes have not been cost free. But most women (and, I think, most men) don't want to go back, nor should they.
Contrary to some conservatives' claims, the fifties were not an idyll in which women enjoyed respect as homemakers and ample opportunities if they wanted a career. Employers themselves reported rampant discrimination against women, without risking much public disapproval, since most Americans did not believe that women should have equal opportunity in the job market. Many top colleges did not accept women, and those that did routinely gave preference in admissions to less qualified men. Young women who did go to college were often held back by the fear of being too smart and scaring boys away. Asked to complete a story about a high-achieving female medical student, they typically produced scenarios in which the woman suffered a dire fate (death, disability, spinsterhood) or let her grades slip on purpose and focused on helping her man.
A charge often made against "dissident feminists" like myself is that we acknowledge past problems only to say that equality has now been achieved and the women's movement has outlived itself. Unfortunately, those who make this accusation usually build their case for continued feminist activism on claims that, as I intend to show in this book, do not stand up to scrutiny. Girls are not silenced or ignored in the classroom. Medicine has not neglected women's health. Abuse by men is not the leading cause of injury to American women; the courts do not treat violence toward women more leniently than violence toward men. Gender disparities in pay and job status are not merely a consequence of sex discrimination. The eighties were not a "backlash decade" but a time of steady progress for women and, generally, of strong support for women's advancement. The climate in our society is not one of "cultural misogyny," as feminist writer Katha Pollitt asserts, but is far more saturated with negative attitudes toward men.
Nevertheless, I too believe there is some unfinished business -- besides undoing the harm done by the ex tremists. We need to reexamine "pro-female" stereotypes and double standards as seriously as we have reexamined antifemale ones in the past twenty-five years. We need to determine how, in an era when women participate equally in the public world, the responsibilities of the home can be balanced in a way that is fair to women, men, and children. Of course, these problems must be solved by each couple in its own way, but society can make it easier, or harder.
I believe we still need a philosophy to guide us on the journey of an unprecedented transition: a philosophy that is not pro-woman (or pro-man) but pro-fairness; that stresses flexibility and more options for all; that encourages us to treat people, regardless of sex, as human beings. If sentimental traditionalism won't get us there, neither will the gender warfare that would destroy our common humanity in order to save it. I don't know if this philosophy should be called feminism or something else. But the biggest impediment to its development is what passes for feminism today.
Copyright © 1999 by Cathy Young