Gender feminism

May 31, 1994|By Mona Charen

TWO best-selling feminist authors, Gloria Steinem and Naomi Wolf, note in their books that 150,000 females die of anorexia nervosa per year. Ms. Wolf is particularly outraged. "How," she writes in "The Beauty Myth," "would America react to the mass self-immolation by hunger of its favorite sons?"

It's an arresting statistic. And Ms. Wolf would perhaps be justified in her outrage if it were true. But in her new book, "Who Stole Feminism," Professor Christina Hoff Sommers of Clark University demonstrates that it is not.

The National Center for Health Statistics reports that the annual death toll from anorexia is fewer than 100 per year -- usually 50 or 60, with 101 in 1983. To her credit, Ms. Wolf has promised to correct the error in future editions of her book, but the statistic was so useful -- from a certain point of view -- that it has been repeated again and again. The anorexia "holocaust" has already shown up in newspaper columns and college textbooks.

That is not, alas, the only example of the precarious fate of facts in feminist hands.

On Nov. 4, 1992, Ms. Sommers recounts, Deborah Louis, XTC president of the National Women's Studies Association, sent a message to the Women's Studies Electronic Bulletin Board saying, "According to the last March of Dimes report, domestic violence (vs. pregnant women) is now responsible for more birth defects than all other causes combined."

Horrifying, right? But false. Ms. Sommers called the March of Dimes and spoke with members of its public relations department. They said the rumor of a March of Dimes "report" was spinning out of control. They had been deluged with calls from governors' offices, state health departments and Washington politicians. The press had picked it up as well, with references to the pseudo-fact about violence against pregnant women causing birth defects making it into Time magazine, the Boston Globe, the Dallas Morning News, the Chicago Tribune and the Arizona Republic.

Time had relied on information provided by an advocacy group called the San Francisco Family Violence Prevention Fund. Professor Sommers traced the "datum" back farther, to discover that the giant canard had begun with an introduction of a speaker at a nurses' conference. The master of ceremonies referred to a March of Dimes report, which said that more women are screened for birth defects than are screened for domestic violence. She said nothing about a causal link.

"Why was everyone so credulous?" asks Ms. Sommers. "Battery responsible for more defects than all other causes combined? More than genetic disorders . . . more than Down's syndrome . . . more than alcohol, crack or AIDS?"

The pattern of false "facts" being circulated easily in the press was repeated most spectacularly last year when another bogus "report" -- this one claiming that more women are victims of domestic violence on Super Bowl Sunday than any other day -- was given wide coverage. Ken Ringle of the Washington Post was the only journalist who bothered to check it out, and he discovered that the claim was totally false.

What's going on? Professor Sommers sees these phenomena (and others grouped under the heading "Noble Lies") as the work of "gender feminists," who long ago parted company with the mainstream feminism to which Ms. Sommers, and most women, adhere.

Gender feminists, triumphant on the American campus and highly influential in the society at large, believe that women are victims of something called the "sex/gender system," which perpetuates male dominance over females. Where other women look around and see terrific progress for women over the past 20 years, gender feminists see only "backlash" and perpetual gender war. Gender feminists believe that ordinary men -- Super Bowl watchers -- are the real danger to women, and they are constantly in search of propaganda to make their case.

Gender feminists do not live in the real world. They believe in something called "feminist science" and reject "phallocentric" ways of knowing. They are nutty and anti-intellectual. But they are very powerful. Check your child's textbooks -- one history text devotes more space to Sybil Ludington than to Paul Revere.

The gender feminists claim to speak for women; that is the source of their power. Only clear renunciation by mainstream women can defrock them. Christina Hoff Sommers is a brave woman, with a necessary sense of humor, who has written an urgently important expose.

Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.

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