When teaching feminism, preach inclusiveness

August 30, 1999|By Cathy Young

RADICAL feminist theologian Mary Daly has been a controversial presence at Boston College for more than 30 years. Now, she's a controversial absence.

Earlier this year, Ms. Daly, 70, either resigned or was kicked out (depending on whether you accept the school's version or hers) after the threat of a lawsuit over her refusal to admit male students to her classes. You might think the case against her would be pretty much open-and-shut. The law -- specifically, one of the feminists' favorite laws, Title IX of the 1972 Education Amendments -- says that educational institutions that benefit from any federal funds cannot discriminate on the basis of gender, except for single-sex schools.

Thus, when senior Duane Naquin was told he couldn't enroll in Ms. Daly's "Introduction to Feminist Ethics" course for no other reason than being male, the law was violated.

Ms. Daly claims she offers to teach men individually, but even if she has ever done so (which is in dispute), it wouldn't get her off the hook.

You might also think feminists would seize on this opportunity to show that they stand for gender equity. Wrong. Instead, feminists from Gloria Steinem to Eleanor Smeal (former president of the National Organization for Women) are championing Ms. Daly's cause.

Feminist writings

An editorial in The Nation titled "Feminist Detenured" depicts Ms. Daly's plight as part of a "backlash" against feminist academics. Ms. Daly's supporters hail her as a brilliantly subversive, witty thinker. But a look at her writings, such as the 1978 book "Gyn/Ecology," reveals a ranting preacher of hate and paranoia.

In a mind-numbing jargon, Ms. Daly excoriates men as agents of the patriarchy, "lethal organs" of a "rapist society," misogynists who feed parasitically on female energy and invent evil technologies to compensate for their inability to bear children.

The birth-control pill and estrogen therapy are denounced as "the poisoning of women," a medical plot to end women's irritating tendency to live longer. The only contraception women need, Ms. Daly asserts, is a "mister-ectomy." Women who don't accept her view are mocked as "honorary white males."

For some students, this message apparently has great appeal. Boston College is such a "patriarchal" place, moans one student who supports Ms. Daly: "We had one two-hour class a week just for women, and now it's gone."

Actually, about 53 percent of the students enrolled at Boston College are female. Women make up 29 percent of the tenured faculty (about the average for all colleges and universities). That may not be a feminist utopia, but it's hardly a patriarchal bastion, either. And I'm willing to bet that not a single one of the male professors excludes women from his classes.

A silencing effect

Ms. Daly's explanation of her single-sex policy is that men essentially pollute her classroom atmosphere: Let them in and women will be silenced and stifled. (Daly supporters cite research showing that men dominate and monopolize the attention in coed classes; but the minor sex differences found in these studies hardly support this demeaning notion of women as shrinking violets.)

Moreover, Ms. Daly claims, with men around, women "become caretakers for the men." In other words, they're apt to feel bad for the guys when virulent anti-male rhetoric starts to fly.

It's harder to preach hate when your targets are present in the flesh.

The problem of men in the classroom gives headaches to quite a few radical feminist professors. They bemoan such forms of "harassment" by male students as "challenging facts" or "stating the exceptions to every generalization." They want to run cozy consciousness-raising groups undisrupted by dissent or debate.

"I want to talk about women," wails another pro-Daly student. "I don't want to teach anyone about why I feel oppressed." But a classroom from which potential dissenters are barred is incompatible with the mission of the academy.

It is ironic that at a Catholic college, the worst intolerance and dogmatism did not come from orthodox defenders of the faith but from a radical feminist.

The actual reaction of self-styled champions of equality is yet another demonstration that the women's movement as we know it is bankrupt. With feminists like these, you start wondering if the subject of Ms. Daly's course -- feminist ethics -- is an oxymoron.

Cathy Young is the author of "Ceasefire!: Why Women and Men Must Join Forces to Achieve True Equality." She wrote this for the Chicago Tribune.

Pub Date: 8/30/99

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