To go forward, feminism must redefine its ideology

BOOKS; THE ARGUMENT

Culture warfare and habitual hyperbole detract from both progress and purpose.

May 30, 1999|By Norah Vincent | By Norah Vincent,Special to the Sun

Are you a feminist? It's a question that every American female who has come of age since the 1970s has been asked at least once in her lifetime, and it's a question that most thoughtful girls and women have a hard time answering.

If you say "no," you're conceding that women are inferior -- or, at least you've been conditioned by the reigning feminists of the world to think so.

If you say "yes," those same feminists have, to their detriment, convinced you that you're allying yourself with a group of mostly hateful, hysterical demagogues whose aim for women has never been equality, but power. The word feminist reeks of jingoism; but the word misogynist seems to be its only antonym. What's a girl to do? Or say?

The only thing left to do is break the stranglehold that hard-line feminists have on the minds of young women, and encourage them to think and speak for themselves.

The Cato Institute's Cathy Young ("Ceasefire!: Why Men and Women Must Join Forces to Achieve True Equality," Free Press, 400 pages, $25) has coined the term "dissenting feminist." Young argues that one of the worst outgrowths of '70s feminism has been the conviction that women are not simply equal to, but superior to men. In dissenting from this point of view, Young emphasizes the common humanity of men and women.

This is an admirable stance, but the term "dissenting feminist" describes what you are only by saying what you are not. We need a neologism of the type that postmodern and p.c. academics are so fond of coining. Perhaps something like heteroequiandrogynist: a person, like Young, who believes that though men and women are different they are equal and should be treated as such in the eyes of the law. Neohumanist may be a less clumsy way of saying the same thing, but it lacks specificity.

For, if we call ourselves humanists, do we mean that though men and women are different, they are both human, and being human is what guarantees rights in America? Or do we mean by humanist that men and women are androgynous -- i.e. that they are made of exactly the same stuff, through and through, but only seem different in our socially constructed world?

The right favors the first interpretation that equal does not mean the same -- i.e. being human will get women the same basic rights as men, but it will not obliterate gender (F. Carolyn Graglia, "A Brief Against Feminism," Spence, 1998).

The left favors the second interpretation that gender is a fiction -- i.e. if you admit differences, those differences will be used against women, as they have been throughout history (Judith Butler, "Gender Trouble," Routledge, 1990).

So, on the right you have the heart of rights-based Anglo-American democratic politics, while on the left you have what, for simplicity's sake, might be called the shared ideal of communism, socialism, and Jacobinism: radical equality.

The right insists, and rightly so, that equal opportunity is the most governments and laws can guarantee -- this is freedom, there is no other -- whereas the left insists that equal outcome is the ideal that governments and laws are made to enforce.

But radical equality has always been susceptible to one tragic flaw, and it is the reason the French and Russian revolutions failed. Possibly it's also the reason post-feminism has stalled: freedom and radical equality are incompatible.

You can't enforce radical equality without repressing all forms of dissent or difference. This is fundamentally illiberal, not to mention deluded (differences exist, there is no denying them). Hence, what began historically as an experiment in enforced freedom for the weak and strong alike, ended in totalitarianism (Stalinism -- Robert Conquest, "Harvest of Sorrow," Oxford, 1986; Maoism -- Jasper Becker "Hungry Ghosts," Free Press, 1997, Robespierre's Reign of Terror -- Anchee Min, "Red Azalea," Pantheon, 1994; ), and more recently the kind of mind control that is so typical of the American left.

Orwell said this succinctly in "Animal Farm," when the slogan "all are equal," became "some are more equal than others." This has happened to feminism as well. It began by saying that all men and women are equal, but has ended up saying that women are superior to men.

In her latest screed, "The Whole Woman," (Knopf, 384 pages, $25) Germaine Greer is so churlish toward men that New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani called the book "as sour as 'Eunuch' was exuberant, as dogmatic as 'Eunuch' was original, as slipshod in its thinking as 'Eunuch' was pointed. . . a castrated book."

Likewise, Margaret Talbot, writing in last week's issue of the New Republic, called Greer a misogynist and, in uncanny agreement with Kakutani, pronounced "The Whole Woman" "a sour and undiscriminating litany of charges against men -- all men, men as nature created them -- wrapped around the willfully obtuse argument that little or nothing has improved for American and European women over the last thirty years."

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