We’re at War, Sweetheart
Early on the morning of September 11, 2001, I had a nightmare. I don’t know how to explain it—I lay no claim to oracular powers. Maybe it was just a coincidental convergence. I dreamed I was sitting in an aisle seat of a commercial airliner. Next to me was another passenger, a woman. A hand jostled my headrest, and I looked up to see two young men bearing down on us. They both held pistols. One put his gun to my neck and shot. Then he shot again. I watched, as if from outside my body, as the first bullet entered at an angle and lodged in my throat. Moments later, the second bullet grazed by me and disappeared into the neck of my seatmate. I noticed that I was still alive but unable to speak. Then I woke up. A glorious dawn was filtering through the window blinds of my bedroom in Los Angeles. I described the dream to my boyfriend, in hopes of releasing its grip on my mind. I feared falling asleep and returning to that plane. As we lay there talking, the phone rang.
“Are you watching television?” a friend asked.
“No,” I said. “Why?”
“Go turn on your television.”
What I saw on the screen only deepened my sensation of being caught in some insane realm beyond reality, unable to wake up. It was a feeling that would linger. My induction into a more willful unreality came later that day, when the phone rang again. A reporter in the Los Angeles bureau of an East Coast newspaper was pursuing a “reaction story.” I was perplexed—he had hardly reached an authority on terrorism. As it turns out, that wasn’t his concern. After a couple of vague questions about what this tragedy would “mean to our social fabric,” he answered his own question with, given the morning’s events, a bizarrely gleeful tone: “Well, this sure pushes feminism off the map!” In the ensuing days, I would receive more calls from journalists on the 9/11 “social fabric” beat, bearing more proclamations of gender restructuring— among them a New York Times reporter researching an article on “the return of the manly man” and a New York Observer writer seeking comment on“the trend” of women “becoming more feminine after 9/11.” By which, as she made clear, she meant less feminist. Women were going to regret their “independence,” she said, and devote themselves to “baking cookies” and finding husbands “to take care of them.”
The calls left me baffled. By what mental process had these journalists traveled from the inferno at ground zero to a repudiation of female independence? Why would they respond to terrorist attack by heralding feminism’s demise—especially an attack hatched by avowed antagonists of Western women’s liberation? That a cataclysmic event might eclipse other concerns wouldhardly seem to warrant special mention. Unremarkably, celebrity scandals, Hollywood marital crises, and the disappearance of government intern Chandra Levy all slipped from the front pages. But my gloating caller and his cohorts weren’t talking about the normal displacement of small stories by the big one. Feminist perspectives, and those of independent women more generally, didn’t just naturally fade from view after 9/11.
In the weeks that followed, I had occasion to see this phenomenon repeated in many different ways. Of all the peculiar responses our culture manifested to 9/11, perhaps none was more incongruous than the desire to rein in a liberated female population. In some murky fashion, women’s independence had become implicated in our nation’s failure to protect itself. And, conversely, the need to remedy that failure somehow required a distaff correction, a discounting of female opinions, a demeaning of the female voice, and a general shrinkage of the female profile. As it turned out, feminists weren’t the only women to be “pushed off the map”; their expulsion was just the preview for the larger erasures to follow.
Within days of the attack, a number of media venues sounded the death knell of feminism. In light of the national tragedy, the women’s movement had proved itself, as we were variously informed, “parochial,” “frivolous,” and “an unaffordable luxury” that had now “met its Waterloo.” The terrorist assault had levied “a blow to feminism,” or, as a headline on the op-ed page of the Houston Chronicle pithily put it, “No Place for Feminist Victims in Post 9-11 America.”1
“The feminist movement, already at low ebb, has slid further into irrelevancy,” syndicated columnist Cathy Young asserted. “Now that the peaceful life can no longer be guaranteed,” military historian Martin van Creveld declared in Newsday, “one of the principal losers is likely to be feminism, which is based partly on the false belief that the average woman is as able to defend herself as the average man.” In a column titled “Hooray for Men,” syndicated columnist Mona Charen anticipated the end of the old reign of feminism: “Perhaps the new climate of danger—danger from evil men—will quiet the anti-male agitation we’ve endured for so long.” New York Times columnist John Tierney held out the same hope. “Since Sept. 11, the ‘culture of the warrior’ doesn’t seem quite so bad to Americans worried about the culture of terrorism,” he wrote, impugning the supposed feminist “determination to put boys in touch with their inner feelings.” “American males’ fascination with guns doesn’t seem so misplaced now that they’re attacking Al Qaeda’s fortress,” he sniffed. “No one is suggesting a Million Mom March on Tora Bora.”2
These were, of course, familiar themes, the same old nostrums marching under a bright new banner. Long before the towers fell, conservative efforts to roll back women’s rights had been making inroads, and the media had been issuing periodic pronouncements on “the death of feminism.” In part, what the attack on the World Trade Center did was foreground and speed up a process already under way. “Any kind of conflict at a time of unrest in society typically accentuates the fault lines that already exist,” Geeta Rao Gupta, president of the International Center for Research on Women, told the Christian Science Monitor in a story headlined “Are Women Being Relegated to Old Roles?,” one of the few articles to acknowledge what was happening.3 The seismic jolt of September 11 elevated to new legitimacy the ventings of longtime conservative antifeminists, who were accorded a far greater media presence after the attacks. It also invited closet antifeminists within the mainstream media to come out in force, as a “not now, honey, we’re at war” mentality made more palatable the airing of buried resentments toward women’s demands for equal status.
What was most striking, and passing strange, was the way feminism’s detractors framed their assault. In the fall and winterof 2001, the women’s movement wasn’t just a domestic annoyance; it was a declared domestic enemy, a fifth column in the waron terror. To the old rap sheet of feminist crimes—man hating, dogmatism, humorlessness—was added a new “wartime” indictment: feminism was treason. That charge was made most famously, and most cartoonishly, by Rev. Jerry Falwell. “I point the finger in their face and say, ‘You helped this happen,’ ” Falwell thundered on 9/12 on the Christian Broadcast Network, addressing his j’accuse to “the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle.” By altering traditional gender roles, feminists and their fellow travelers had “caused God to lift the veil of protection which has allowed no one to attack America on our soil since 1812.”4 Falwell’s outburst struck even his compatriots as unfortunate, or at least unsubtle. But his allegations, sanitized and stripped of their Old Testament terms, would soon be taken up by conservative pundits and in mainstream outlets; old subpoenas would be reissued, upgraded with new counts of traitorous behavior.
Post-9/11, feminism’s defense of legal abortion was accordingly deemed a Benedict Arnold act. “After September 11th the American people are valuing life more and realizing that we need policies to value the dignity and worth of every life,” Bush’s senior counselor Karen Hughes said on CNN, on the same day as a massive reproductive-rights march was in progress in the capital. In fact, American opposition to abortion was “really the fundamental difference between us and the terror network we fight,” Hughes stressed. (A curious contention, considering that our assailants were hardly prochoice, but her CNN interviewers let it stand.) Others, like Focus on the Family founder James C. Dobson, stated the equation less decorously. “Has God withdrawn his protective hand from the US?” he asked on his organization’s Web site—and answered that God is “displeased” with America for “killing 40 million unborn babies.” A thirty-second television commercial likening abortion to terrorism was rushed on the air some weeks after the attack by an antiabortion organization—“to take advantage of the 9-11 events to press our case for sparing the lives of babies,” as the executive director candidly put it.5
The October 15, 2001, edition of the National Review could have passed for a special issue on the subject of feminist treachery. In “Their Amerika,” John O’Sullivan accused feminists of “taking the side of medieval Islamists against the common American enemy. They feel more comfortable in such superior company than alongside a hard-hat construction worker or a suburban golfer in plaid pants.” Another article, “The Conflict at Home,” blamed American feminism’s “multiculturalist” tendencies for allowing Sharia extremism to thrive in the Arab world. And a third piece claimed that women’s rights activists have so browbeaten the American military that our armed services have “simply surrendered to feminist demands” and allowed an insistence on equal opportunity to “trump combat effectiveness.”6
As the denouncers made their media rounds, they homed in on two aspects of feminist sedition: women’s liberation had “feminized” our men and, in so doing, left the nation vulnerable to attack. “Well, you see, there is a very serious problem in this country,” Camille Paglia explained to CNN host Paula Zahn a few weeks after 9/11. Thanks to feminism, Paglia said, “men and women are virtually indistinguishable in the workplace.” Indeed, especially among the American upper middle class, the man has “become like a woman.” (Paglia was weirdly, albeit inadvertently, echoing the words of Taliban attorney general Maulvi Jalilullah Maulvizada, who had earlier told a journalist that when women are given freedom, “men become like women.”) This gender confusion in the workplace would bode ill for our coming conflicts with the Arab world, Paglia warned. “There is a kind of a threat to national security here,” she said. “I think that the nation is not going to be able to confront and to defeat other countries where the code of masculinity is more traditional.”7
The editors and writers in the centrist media expressed such sentiments more euphemistically—as furrow-browed concern that a “soft” America might not be able to rise to the occasion, that a womanly “therapeutic culture” would cause the nation to value the feminine ritual of mourning over martial “action,” that a “Band of Brothers” ethic, as one newsmagazine put it, could not take root in a female-centered “Sex and the City culture.” “For once, let’s have no ‘grief counselors,’ ” Time editor Lance Morrow lectured. “For once, let’s have no fatuous rhetoric about ‘healing.’ ” Coddled Americans had let themselves go and needed to “toughen up.” Our World War II elders say we have “become too soft,” a story in the San Francisco Chronicle warned. Numerous press reports fixated on a report that bin Laden thought Americans were “soft and weak.” Beneath the press’s incessant fretting lurked anxious questions that all seemed to converge on a single point: would a feminized nation have the will to fight? 8
The conservative commentariat had an answer and wasn’t shy about stating it. The problem, according to the opinion makers from Fox News, the Weekly Standard, National Review, and the many right-wing financed think tanks who seemed to be on endless rotation on the political talk shows after 9/11, was simple: the baleful feminist influence had turned us into a “nanny state.” In the wake of 9/11, a battle needed to be waged between the forces of besieged masculinity and the nursemaids of overweening womanhood—or, rather, the “vultures” in the “Sisterhood of Grief,” as American Spectator’s January–February 2002 issue termed them. “When we go soft,” Northwestern University psychology professor and American Enterprise scholar David Gutmann warned, “there are still plenty of ‘hard’ peoples—the Nazis and Japanese in World War II, the radical Islamists now—who will see us as decadent sybarites, and who will exploit, through war, our perceived weaknesses.” And why had our spine turned to rubber? The conservative analysis proffered an answer: the femocracy.9
“Our culture has undergone a process that one observer has aptly termed ‘debellicization,’ ” former drug czar William Bennett advised in Why We Fight, his 2002 call to arms against the domestic forces that were weakening our “resolve.” The “debellicizers” that he identified were, over and over, women—a female army of schoolteachers, psychologists, professors, journalists, authors, and, especially, feminists who taught “that male aggression is a wild and malignant force that needs to be repressed or medicated lest it burst out, as it is always on the verge of doing, in murderous behavior.” Since the sixties and seventies, Bennett wrote, this purse-lipped army had denounced American manhood as “a sort of deranged Wild West machismo”; it had derided the Boy Scouts “as irrelevant, ‘patriarchal,’ and bigoted”; it had infected “generations of American children” with “the principle that violence is always wrong.” And with the terrorist attack on our nation, the chicken hawks had come home to roost.
“Having been softened up, we might not be able to sustain collective momentum in what we were now being called upon to do,” Bennett wrote. “We have been caught with our defenses down.”10
“What’s happening now is not pacifism but passivism,” National Review’s Mark Steyn maintained soon after the attack in an article titled “Fight Now, Love Later: The Awfulness of an Oprahesque Response.” “Passivism” was a pathogen that had invaded the body politic—and American women were its Typhoid Marys, American men its victims. The women who ruled our culture had induced “a terrible inertia filled with feel-good platitudes that absolve us from action,” Steyn wrote. He found particularly telling Oprah Winfrey’s call, at a post-9/11 prayer service in Yankee Stadium, to “love” one another. “Not right now, Oprah,” he instructed. If we were to prevail in the coming war, the nation first needed to unseat this regiment of “grief counselors” and silence all their “drooling about ‘healing’ and ‘closure.’ ” “You can’t begin ‘healing’ until the guys have stopped .ring.”11
As if feminizing our domestic culture weren’t bad enough, the women’s movement was also jeopardizing our readiness on the battlefield. “Bands of brothers don’t need girls,” a Rocky Mountain News columnist held, denouncing feminists for depleting the military muscle we would need for the upcoming war on terror. “To them, the military is just another symbol of the male patriarchy that ought to be feminized, anyway, along with the rest of society.” Our first lady of antifeminism, Ann Coulter, cast this argument in her usual vituperous fashion. “This is right where you want to be after Sept. 11—complaining about guns and patriarchy,” she addressed feminists in a column titled “Women We’d Like to See . . . in Burkas.” “If you didn’t already realize how absurd it is to defang men, a surprise attackon U.S. soil is a good reminder. . . . Blather about male patriarchy and phallic guns suddenly sounds as brilliantly prescient as assurances that the Fuhrer would stop at Czechoslovakia.”12
A few weeks after 9/11, the Independent Women’s Forum (an all-female think tank supported by right-wing foundations) inaugurated its onslaught against martial emasculation at the National Press Club. Under the banner “IWF Women Facing War,” one female panelist after another rose to face the enemy within. “Our freedoms and way of life depend on a strong national defense,” Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness and soon to be a ubiquitous media presence, told the assembled. “And yet, for far too long, a minority of feminist women have presumed to tell not just the commander-in-chief but the secretary of defense and the heads of all the armed forces what to do to advance the feminist agenda in the institution of the military.” An “ungendered” armed services with “mandatory assignments” of women to “close combat units” was “the premiere item on the feminist agenda,” Donnelly warned, and that agenda had seriously damaged the U.S. military’s “morale, discipline, recruiting, retention, and overall readiness.”13
The IWF, which had been lobbying for years against efforts to bring more women into the military and the police and fire services, celebrated what it saw as vindication. The group’s spokeswomen fanned out on television and radio and in print. “It took an act of monstrous criminality to show us this,” IWF member and commentator Charlotte Allen declared. “But sometimes, perhaps most of the time, those are jobs that only a guy can do, and if we lower our standards because some women may feel bad about not living up to them, it is going to cost lives.” Kate O’Beirne, a National Review editor and regular presence on CNN’s Capital Gang, accused feminists of ruining the military. “Kumbaya confidence courses have replaced ego-bruising obstacle challenges,” she wrote a week and a half after 9/11. “Let’s hope that stepstools will be provided for female soldiers in Afghanistan.”
In late October 2001, Pentagon brass who shared such sentiments announced they would soon be reversing Clinton-era policies that had sought to expand women’s roles in battle zones. “That’s all changing,” a senior defense official told U.S. News & World Report. Frontline “units won’t involve women,” another said. After women’s rights groups protested, the effort was shelved for the time being. But the Bush administration quietly began dismembering the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services, a long-standing internal institution that had promoted women’s progress in the military for more than half a century: the committee’s charter was allowed to lapse, women’s rights advocates were replaced with GOP party loyalists, and the organization’s purview was restricted to family and health issues.14
The few feminist—or even perceived-to-be feminist— pundits that managed to find a forum in this cacophony received a less than congenial reception. “I wanted to walk barefoot on broken glass across the Brooklyn Bridge, up to that despicable woman’s apartment, grab her by the neck, drag her down to ground zero and force her to say that to the firefighters,” New York Post columnist Rod Dreher ranted on September 20, 2001. The object of his venom was Susan Sontag and the less than five hundred words she had famously contributed to the New Yorker on the subject of 9/11. What was so “despicable”? Was it her suggestion that “a few shreds of historical awareness might help us to understand what has just happened, and what may continue to happen”? Or perhaps it was her weariness over the muscle-flexing mantras: “Who doubts that America is strong? But that’s not all America has to be.” Dreher was too busy seething to specify his objections. In any case, he was not alone in his overheated fury. The New Republic ranked Sontag with Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. Former New Republic editor Andrew Sullivan called her an “ally of evil” and “deranged.” Yet another New York Post columnist, John Podhoretz, said she suffered from “moral idiocy.” National Review’s Jay Nordlinger accused her of having “always hated America and the West and freedom and democratic goodness.” In an article titled “Blame America at Your Peril,” Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter charged the “haughty” Sontag with dressing the nation in girl’s clothes. It was “ironic,” he wrote, that “the same people urging us to not blame the victim in rape cases are now saying Uncle Sam wore a short skirt and asked for it.”15
Sontag was no more provocative than any number of male left-leaning intellectuals and pundits whose remarks sparked criticism but nowhere near the personal and moral evisceration that she was made to endure. No one called them, as Sontag was called in the Chicago Tribune, “stupefyingly dumb.”16 A few nights before Sontag’s New Yorker article was published, ABC’s Politically Incorrect host, Bill Maher, raised hackles when he remarked that flying an airplane into a building was hardly “cowardly.” FedEx and Sears pulled ads and a dozen local affiliates suspended the show’s broadcast. But in the media court of opinion, Maher received a comparatively gentle dressing down—and was then forgiven and even feted after he made the electronic rounds, seeking absolution. (Rush Limbaugh actually defended Maher, saying, “In a way, he was right.”) ABC pulled the plug on Politically Incorrect the next year when the show’s contract expired. The network contended that the show just wasn’t making enough money; Maher maintained his remarks sealed his doom. He wasn’t out in the cold for long: in a matter of months he was back on the air with his own HBO show.17*
But the stoning of Sontag went on and on. More than a year after the offending issue of the New Yorker had departed the newsstands, former New York mayor Ed Koch was inveighing against her. “Susan Sontag will occupy the Ninth Circle of Hell,” he declared in a radio address in December 2002. “I will no longer read her works.”18
Anyone who has followed the commentaries of feminist writer Katha Pollitt in the Nation knows she can stir the pot. But pot stirring hardly describes her subdued and almost mournful October 8, 2001, column, in which she related her discussion with her thirteen-year-old daughter about whether to .y an American flag from their apartment window. Pollitt pointed out the flag’s historic use as a symbol of “jingoism and vengeance and war”; her daughter said she was wrong, that the flag “means standing together and honoring the dead and saying no to terrorism.” Pollitt agreed that, sadly, “The Stars and Stripes is the only available symbol right now.” She closed by lamenting the lack of “symbolic representations right now for the things the world really needs—equality and justice and humanity and solidarity and intelligence.”19
These words unleashed a torrent of wrath. Pollitt noted with some amazement that she had received more hostile responses to that column “than on anything I’ve ever written.”
The harangue came from across the political media spectrum, from Dissent to the Washington Post to the Washington Times. She was called a bad mother, charged with, variously, “lunacy,” “ignorance,” “idiocy,” “facile insipidities,” and designated one of the “chattering asses.” The Chicago Sun-Times excerpted a few lines of her piece under the headline “Oh, Shut Up.” “We’re at war, sweetheart,” a column in the New York Post instructed her. “Pollitt, honey, it’s time to take your brain to the dry cleaners.” Both the Weekly Standard and the New York Post published her address so readers could inundate her daughter with flags. During a radio interview on an NPR talk show, Katha Pollitt was taken aback when Andrew Sullivan accused her of supporting the Taliban and then, in an almost verbatim repeat of the Newsweek commentator’s attack on Sontag, likened her, she recalled, “to someone who refuses to help a rape victim and blames her for wearing a short skirt.”20
*Maher was, in fact, echoing conservative writer Dinesh D’Souza, a guest on the show, who had just said of the terrorists, “These are warriors.” Maher agreed and added, “We have been the cowards lobbing cruise missiles from two thousand miles away.” After Maher made his apologies to, among other father confessors, Jay Leno, Bill O’Reilly, and Howard Stern, he received media support from some surprising corners. Even O’Reilly was sympathetic, choosing to construe Maher’s remark about “lobbing cruise missiles” as criticism of the Clinton administration, not the troops. “I don’t like a lot of the things that Bill Maher has said in the past,” Fox’s conservative host Sean Hannity said on Hannity & Colmes. “But I do think there is this mentality out there to jump on somebody, never give them an opportunity for clarification, never give them an opportunity to apologize.”National Review’s Jay Nordlinger, who had heaped such scorn on Sontag, declared his support for Maher and his program: “I liked the show, approved of it, appeared on it.” (Needless to say, no denunciations of their fellow conservative, Dinesh D’Souza, were tendered.) More mainstream venues and pundits went even further, paying tribute to Maher as a free-speech patriot. “Politically Incorrect is downright American,” a BusinessWeek writer declared. “To see Maher—the always irrepressible, often irritating wiseacre— sitting rigid next to Leno as he explained himself was to watch McCarthyism-in-the-making.”
In the midst of the fracas, Pollitt came home one day to a message on her answering machine. “You should just go back to Afghanistan, you bitch,” a male voice said. Pollitt played the tape for her daughter. “And a little later,” Pollitt recalled, “she came to me and said, ‘You know, I think you might have been right about the flag.’ ”21
The novelist Barbara Kingsolver was similarly bewildered by the fierce response to two op-ed pieces she wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle and the Los Angeles Times—in which she appealed to “our capacity of mercy” and proposed that one of “a hundred ways to be a good citizen” was to learn “honest truths from wrongful deaths.” Two weeks later she reported that, “I’ve already been called every name in the Rush Limbaugh handbook: traitor, sinner, naïve, liberal, peacenik, whiner. . . . Some people are praying for my immortal soul, and some have offered to buy me a one-way ticket out of the country, to anywhere.” The Los Angeles Times received a letter from a collection agency owner who called Kingsolver’s essay “nothing less than another act of terror” and “pure sedition”; he promised to subject Kingsolver to “the most massive personal and business investigation ever conducted on an individual” and to send the results to the FBI, because “this little horror of a human being” needed to be “surveilled.”
Things only got worse after the Wall Street Journal ran a piece by writer Gregg Easterbrook claiming Kingsolver had said the American .ag stood for “bigotry, sexism, homophobia and shoving the Constitution through a paper shredder.” (She had actually said the exact opposite, that the .ag shouldn’t stand for these things.) The story was accompanied by a cartoon of a wildhaired .gure on a soapbox wearing an “I [Heart] Osama” T-shirt. The misquote was picked up in scores of publications, including Stars and Stripes. “It became the most quoted thing I ever said,” Kingsolver told me, “and I didn’t say it.” The New Republic put her on “Idiocy Watch”; the Chicago-Sun Times denounced her “vicious and unpatriotic drivel” and “hatred of America”; the National Review called her “hysterical,” “moronic,” and, more obscurely, “Miss Metternich,” and even the alternative paper, the Tucson Weekly, in the town where Kingsolver had lived for a quarter century, sneered with the headline “The Bean Trees Must’ve Fallen on Her Head.” Kingsolver’s family received threatening mail; a trustee at Kingsolver’s alma mater sought to revoke her honorary degree; invitations, both social and professional, were retracted; and readers shipped back copies of her books “with notes saying, ‘I don’t want this trash in my house,’ ” Kingsolver recalled. Her efforts to correct the record werespurned. After Kingsolver’s attorney wrote the Wall Street Journal to protest the mangling of her words, a dismissive letter arrived from the newspaper’s associate general counsel, Stuart D. Karle, who deemed the article “a perfectly reasonable interpretation of Ms. Kingsolver’s text.” He added strangely that Kingsolver seemed to believe the flag’s stars should now symbolize not the fifty states but “entertainers of the moment” like Julia Roberts and Britney Spears. No retraction was forthcoming.22
The few dissenting male journalists who were harshly punished, it’s worth noting, had called Bush’s manhood into question. At the Grant Pass, Oregon, Daily Courier, Dan Guthrie was .red after he wrote that Bush had “skedaddled” the day of the attacks. Tom Gutting at the Texas City Sun lost his job after he wrote that Bush flew across the United States “like a scared child” (“Bill Maher on the Defensive,” The O’Reilly Factor, Fox News Network, September 20, 2001; “Interview with Dennis Prager, Ellen Ratner,” Hannity & Colmes, Fox News Network, September 21, 2001; Jay Nordlinger, “Bush Knew? ‘Dr. Win the War.’ The Pearl Video. And More,” National Review Online, May 20, 2002; Ciro Scotti, “Politically Incorrect Is Downright American,” BusinessWeek Online, September 26, 2001; Linda Diebel, “Freedom of Speech Casualty of a New War,” Toronto Star, October 3, 2001).
The scenario repeated whenever a feminist-minded writer dared challenge the party line. Epithets were hurled at novelist Arundhati Roy (“repulsive,” “foaming-at-the-mouth,” “ungracious operator”)—for pointing out pertinent historical facts about America’s role in the mujaheddin’s rise and for suggesting that “it will be a pity if, instead of using this as an opportunity to try to understand why September 11 happened, Americans use it as an opportunity to usurp the whole world’s sorrow to mourn and avenge only their own.” Columnist Naomi Klein was deemed traitorous—for suggesting that an international response to terrorism might be more effective than a unilateral one. (William Bennett claimed she was “taking from us” our “right to selfdefense.”)
Humorist Fran Lebowitz was denounced as “disloyal” on an MSNBC talk show—for finding humor in Bush’s shoot-’em-up rhetoric. Female journalists who so much as reported on the treatment of these women were roughed up, too. While researching a story on the post-9/11 attacks on dissenters, Vanity Fair columnist Leslie Bennetts made the mistake of phoning the New York Post’s John Podhoretz. She asked him if he had any regrets about accusing Sontag of “moral idiocy.” He didn’t. After a few brief questions, she rang off. Two days later, Bennetts opened the Post to find Podhoretz had devoted his latest column to an attack on her. “I was getting this for simply raising these issues,” Bennetts marveled.23
Even feminists across the border weren’t safe. “Never before—or at least not since the War Measures Act—have I watched such a calculated, hot and hateful propaganda campaign,” Toronto Star’s columnist Michele Landsberg observed. She was referring to the response, in the United States and Canada, to some remarks at an Ottawa women’s rights conference on October 1, 2001. One conference panelist, Sunera Thobani, a University of British Columbia women’s studies professor, had said that Third World women might be dubious about the U.S. government’s vow to “save” them, consideringthat American foreign policy in the past had spurred “prolific levels of violence all over the world.” Overnight, Thobani became the favorite media and blogosphere whipping girl, dubbed “sick,” “hateful and destructive,” “Communist-linked,” guilty of “sucking on the front teat of society,” and “shockingly similar to Osama bin Laden.” She was inundated with so much hate mail and violent pornography and so many death threats that the university assigned her security guards. Even so, when the Ottawa police received a formal hate-crimes complaint, the anonymously filed grievance was submitted not on Thobani’s behalf but against her. The accuser charged her with “publicly inciting hatred against Americans.”24 Some weeks into these media drubbings, Barbara Kingsolver picked up Newsweek and came across Jonathan Alter’s article “Blame America at Your Peril,” which singled out her, Susan Sontag, and Arundhati Roy for yet another round of reprimand and ridicule. “And I understood when I read that piece that Arundhati and Susan and I were the bad girls who had been mounted on poles for public whipping,” she told me. “They whipped us with words like bitch and airhead and moron and silly.” At first, the patronizing tone made Kingsolver think that the detractors regarded her and the other women as children.
“But if we were so silly and moronic, why was it so important to bring us up and attack us again and again and again? The response was not the response you would expect toward a child. It was more like we were witches.”25
With so many feminist-minded writers disenfranchised by the post-9/11 press, such calumny stood unchallenged. There was no counterpoint perspective to blunt its force. In fact, a feminist perspective on any topic was increasingly AWOL. This reality was reinforced to me on a morning three years after 9/11, as I sat in a dim back room of the public library in Portland, Oregon, scrolling through reels of faded microfilm. I had been invited to speak at the thirtieth anniversary of a graduate fellowship program for women. Perhaps it was the gilt-framed oil portraits of the city’s founding fathers, all of them whiskered, staring down at me as I ascended the library’s marble staircase, that led me to indulge in some Pollyanna thoughts about how far my sex had come in the last three decades. In any event, I decided it might hearten the female “fellows” to hear some evidence of progress from the antediluvian days of their fellowship’s first year. My search, however, unearthed an opposite trend. In the yellowing pages of the 1973–74 Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature, I found a category titled “Women’s Liberation Movement”—with a list of stories that reported in overwhelmingly favorable terms on women’s clamor for change. Under “Women,” another long string of stories reported on efforts to expose sex discrimination and advance women’s rights in virtually every occupation—from architecture to construction, fine arts to sports, publishing to plumbing. These weren’t just stories in Ms. magazine. Publications like Christianity Today and New Catholic World boasted the headlines “First at the Cradle, Last at the Cross,” “Liberation of Mother Church,” “Bless Me, Mother,” and “All We’re Meant to Be: A Biblical Approach to Women’s Liberation.” Even Motor Boat and Sailing magazine was offering “Skipper Is a Ms.,” “Sailors Lib,” and “No Men Aboard.” Prominent feminist bylines included Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, Germaine Greer, Kate Millett, Vivian Gornick, Juliet Mitchell, Phyllis Chesler, Mary Daly, Ellen Willis, Barbara Deming, Jo Freeman, Nora Ephron, and Helen Reddy, and magazines featured interviews with feminists from Simone de Beauvoir to Rita Mae Brown.26
Then I pulled the 2004 Readers’ Guide off the shelf to see what was listed under “Women’s Liberation Movement.” The category had been discontinued; readers were advised to see “Feminism.” But judging by its contents, “Feminism” had become little more than a repository for the paltry remains of the women’s liberation movement and, especially, for obituaries celebrating the movement’s demise. The category featured antifeminist articles from the Weekly Standard, Reason, Atlantic Monthly, Commentary (which hailed “the end of the era of feminism”), and Society (which declared “the looming failure of the feminist project” and equated feminist efforts to challenge sex differences with “the effort by the German Nazis to craft The New Aryan Man”). Other stories listed under “Feminism” could most charitably be characterized as “postfeminist”—like “Beautiful Girl,” a feature on the life of a supermodel, or the article in Men’s Health called “Babes in Boyland.” Only a few stories actually expressed a feminist point of view—nearly all of them by Katha Pollitt.27
I flipped to the “Women” section and scanned the subheadings for more authentically feminist entries. While there were a few (particularly when the subject was women’s oppression in Islamic countries), they were vastly outnumbered by articles of the “Beautiful Girl” variety. The categories “Women in Motion Pictures” and “Women in the Motion Picture Industry” offered such headlines as “Killer Chicks” and “Six Crazy Men and a Blonde,” along with articles on the remakes of Charlie’s Angels and The Stepford Wives. “Women in TV” offered “Invasion of the Dumb Blonds” and stories about mean girls on reality TV shows and cat fights on Desperate Housewives. “Women in Literature” and “Women Authors” offered “The Chick-Lit Challenge” and “Breaking Out Bombshells.” The category “Women Disc Jockeys” listed only one article, called “Barenaked Ladies.” I leafed back some pages to see if there might be something more elevating under “Female”—and came on the subcategory “Female Friendships,” where a lengthy list gave me hope for a refreshing alternative. Then I read the headlines: “All She Does Is Complain,” “She Thinks Her Life Matters More Than Mine,” “She Never Has Time for Me Anymore,” “Can You Truly Trust an Office Friend?,” and “I Can’t Stand Her New Husband.” Two articles on the list promised sisterhood of a sort: one was called “Shopping Buddies,” the other “Two Women Joined by Murder.”28
This depressing selection didn’t emerge overnight. Perusing the Readers’ Guide from the late nineties, I could see what Geeta Rao Gupta called “the fault lines that already exist.” But those lines were clearly accentuated in the years after 9/11. By 2004, the difference between where we once were and where we now seemed to be was an untraversable chasm.
In the aftermath of September 11, you didn’t have to be a feminist to feel the purge. Soon after the World Trade Center vaporized into two biblical plumes of smoke, another vanishing act occurred on television sets and newspaper pages across the country. Women began disappearing.
The morning after the attack, Geneva Overholser opened the Washington Post and turned to the opinion section, where she had formerly written the ombudsman column. She saw that the editors had responded to the disaster by doubling the section’s size. The expansion, however, only magnified a certain contraction. “Instead of the typical five opinion columns, there were ten,” Overholser noted. “And every one was written by a man.” Nor would that morning’s paper prove anomalous. “A few days into that awful time,” Overholser later wrote, “I started to notice a haunting silence amid the views I was finding in America’s newspapers: it was the absence of women’s voices.” As one of the few women to have run a major American newspaper, the Des Moines Register, Overholser had long been aware of the gender imbalances in her profession. During her tenure as editor in chief in the late eighties and early nineties, the Des Moines Register increased coverage of so called women’s issues and won a Pulitzer Prize for its reporting on the media’s treatment of rape victims. But this latest setback for women seemed to come with a new and insulting twist. “Here we have the editors at the Washington Post expanding their opinion-column inches dramatically because they understood how important it was to give voice to more people at this crucial time,” Overholser told me. “And yet it still didn’t occur to them to expand those voices to women.”29
Nor would it occur to their brethren at the nation’s other leading newspapers. At the end of the first week after 9/11, Overholser reviewed the eighty-eight opinion pieces in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times. Only five, she found, had female bylines. Three weeks after 9/11, the media watchdog group Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) counted the op-ed bylines in the nation’s major newspapers and reported similar results: the New York Times had now run seventy-nine opinion pieces—eight by women. (In the same three weeks a month earlier, by my count, the Times had run seventy-three opinion pieces, sixteen by women; in other words, the female bylines on the Times’s op-ed page had dropped from 22 percent to 9 percent). The Washington Post was even worse: it had published 107 commentaries in the three weeks after 9/11—and only seven were by women. The phenomenon wasn’t restricted to centrist publications, either. On October 8, 2001, the Nation’s cover announced “A Just Response,” a set of commentaries on the terrorist attack. All of them were by men. In fact, with the exception of Katha Pollitt’s regular column (which that week was the much-decried flag story), the entire issue—including articles unrelated to 9/11, the books and arts section, and even the illustrations—was a male production.30
Marie Wilson was watching the same attrition in another medium. The president of the feminist White House Project flipped from CBS’s Face the Nation to NBC’s Meet the Press to ABC’s This Week to CNN’s Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer to Fox News Sunday and wondered: where are the women? As it happened, the White House Project was in the midst of a study of women’s representation on the Sunday talk shows—and in the seven weeks following the attacks, that census recorded a plunge: the number of appearances by American women shrank by nearly 40 percent; all told, less than 10 percent of the total number of guests in that period were women. On This Week, thirty-two people were invited to speak; only one was a woman.31
The disappearances continued as the next year wore on. “Since Sept. 11, pictures of Afghan women in burkas have been seen more often on American television than female talking heads,” Boston University journalism professor Caryl Rivers observed on the online Women’s eNews, one of the rare media outlets registering the decline.32 At the end of 2002, Rivers leafed through the last twelve issues of a venerable national magazine published in her backyard. What she saw—or didn’t see— troubled her:
If you’re a regular reader of [the Atlantic], which I am, you’d think that some sort of plague had decimated the female population. Between December 2001 and December 2002, for example, I found 38 major articles by men and seven by women. Two of these women were writing with their more famous husbands; another was doing an anecdotal piece on cross-dressing. So for serious pieces, the total is 38 to 4. The essays were even worse. During this period, I found 41 essays by men and two by women. Or to be precise, two essays by the same woman. For the Atlantic, Margaret Talbot represented all of womanhood.33
Excerpted from The Terror Dream. by Susan Faludi
Copyright © 2007 by Susan Faludi.
Published in September 2008 by Henry Holt and Company
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the publisher.