Feminism's values crisis becomes internal warfare 'Equality' vs. 'differences' and other stresses: Is this a left-brain problem?

THE ARGUMENT

November 15, 1998|By Merle Rubin | Merle Rubin,special to the sun

Not only do I not know how to answer the question, Are you a feminist?, but it's got to the point where I'm not even sure what the word means. I've come to the conclusion that feminism needs to be saved from the feminists.

Look around and you'll see what I mean: Some feminists believe in equal treatment, regardless of gender. But other feminists believe women have special needs and concerns that society must take into account. Then again, some feminists say women should stop acting like the "weaker" sex. Yet, other feminists think special "feminine" qualities like nurturing and non-aggressiveness are exactly what society should honor instead of the death-dealing "masculine" traits. Not to mention those feminists (a small but vocal minority) who consider all varieties of heterosexual intercourse, including what most folks call "consensual sex," to be a form of rape!

As if all this in-house fighting were not trouble enough, official feminism has now added hypocrisy to the list of off-putting features. After lobbying for years to regulate sexual activity in the workplace, they've decided the rules don't apply to President Clinton, because he supported their efforts to make his kind of office dalliance a federal offense!

So selective - and irrational - are they in deciding whom to rake over the coals for hanky-panky, that a woman like Senator Boxer of California, who led the fight to oust Bob Packwood from the Senate (despite his support for the feminist agenda), is now defending a president whose strategy involves getting the public to ignore serious charges of perjury and obstruction-of-justice by claiming that it's "only" about a "trivial" matter like sex in the workplace.

But disapproving of some feminists' pronouncements or personalities does not prevent me from appreciating feminism in general and the justice of its claims. Oddly, I find myself agreeing, at least in part, with what might be called its two "rival" schools: "Equality" and "Difference."

In her insightful book "Woman Suffrage and Women's Rights" (New York University Press, 308 pages, $18.50), UCLA history professor Ellen Carol DuBois explains the split between the two sides: one emphasizing the importance of equality, the other celebrating the qualities that make women different from men. "Difference feminism" got its start in France, and, according to Prof. DuBois, developed along lines that eventually called into question such "basic elements of progressive political theory as individualism, the desirability of expanded rights, and liberal thought itself." Taking her own stand on the side of "equality," Prof. DuBois notes that the claims of the "difference school" give old-fashioned male chauvinists just the kind of rationale needed to put the little woman back in the kitchen where she can "nurture" to her heart's content.

Also in the "equality" camp is Linda K. Kerber, a feminist historian at the University of Iowa. In her thought-provoking new book "No Constitutional Right to Be Ladies: Women and the Obligations of Citizenship" (Farrar Straus & Giroux/ Hill & Wang, 405 pages, $25), she argues that for centuries, women's exemption from the obligations of citizenship was what made it seem permissible to deny them the rights of citizenship. A woman's duties, it was assumed, were to her husband rather than the state.

Thus, while men had civic obligations such as military service and jury duty, women were presumed to have duties only to their spouses and families.

Supporters of the setup pointed to the "privileges" that women gained in return for giving up their civic rights and responsibilities: to be treated as "ladies." But, as Prof. Kerber shows, down through the ages these "privileges" were more illusory than real, and served as excuses for depriving women of the right to vote, serve on juries and have control over their own bodies and property.

To turn to a book like Leonard Shlain's "The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image" (Viking, 464 pages, $24.95) is a kind of culture shock. Prof. Kerber offers carefully-reasoned arguments based on a close reading of feminist history and a respect for the principles of justice, equality and due process. Dr. Shlain invites us to do nothing less than re-examine the vast history of humankind on planet earth in the light of his far-out theory.

A surgeon at University of California, San Francisco Medical Center and author of a previous book about parallels between art and physics, Dr. Shlain is also one of the growing army of men committed to feminism, more specifically, a feminism that exalts "feminine" values.

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