Feminism's far from dead

The Argument

its challenges are pressing

The record is richly made in a wide variety of books -- and the imperatives for the movement are overwhelmingly powerful.

April 01, 2001|By Victoria A. Brownworth | Victoria A. Brownworth,Special to the Sun

Gloria Steinem, feminist matriarch, got married last year after 40 years of avoiding what she had termed a sexist institution. Has the death knell of American feminism finally rung? The old guard like Steinem who birthed the second wave of feminism in the 1960s seemed to have tired, while younger women who'd reaped the benefits of feminism were, like many a privileged child of hard-working parents before them, decrying the very politik that had bequeathed to them a freedom no generation of women in history has ever known.

But feminism is not dead. Despite media claims of its demise, dozens of books have been published in recent months addressing its pros and cons, its history and, yes, its future. The challenge of that future is still enormous -- and vital.

The trajectory of feminism is viewed most objectively through its first wave, the history of early feminist achievements. Yale historian Nancy F. Cott's "No Small Courage: A History of Women in the United States" (Oxford, 768 pages, $35) details a rich store of female accomplishment over several centuries while historian Daphne Spain's "How Women Saved the City" (University of Minnesota Press, 288 pages, $34.95) examines how, during the growth of cities between Reconstruction and the start of World War I, women's "municipal housekeeping" made cities safe for their inhabitants. Spain and Cott illumine the reformist movements founded by women and how those reforms quelled social chaos.

Feminism's second wave is thoroughly explored in Ruth Rosen's fascinating "The World Split Open: How the Modern Women's Movement Changed America" (Penguin, 444 pages, $15). Rosen examines why a second wave was so necessary to further women's position in American society and details the startling lengths gone to by the FBI in the attempt to quell the feminist movement.

That sort of totalitarian approach to feminism hasn't disappeared with the rise of its third wave. Considered by many -- the religious right, social conservatives, men and women -- to be the vile root of all social evils, it has become accepted in both liberal and conservative media to declaim feminism. Pro-woman books are heavily counterbalanced by the nay-sayers.

Not surprisingly, many men weigh in negatively on the impact of feminism. In "Standup Guy: Manhood After Feminism" (Villard Books, 256 pages, $12.95) Esquire columnist Michael Segell laments the demise of male / female intimacy, another victim of feminism, he insists. Political correctness has led to emasculation, asserts Segell and the men interviewed for the book. Fear that a woman will cry sexual harassment or date rape if he makes a pass leaves many a man eschewing that post-date kiss or fondling, Segell claims. He notes that fewer men are marrying, citing U.S. Census Bureau statistics that over 20 percent of men 30 to 34 have never been married. That about 10 percent of American men are gay and thus constitute half of that statistic gets ignored.

Feminism, he argues, is the culprit, creating hostility and resentment between men and women that has resulted in a total breakdown in intimacy as evidenced by pack dating and other intimacy avoidance by Gen Xers and their younger brethren.

Gen Xer Katie Roiphe ("The Morning After: Sex, Fear and Feminism on Campus") agrees. Her book posits date rape is a feminist invention and blames feminism for emasculating men and victimizing women. Christina Hoff Sommers, however, is the clear leader of anti-feminism, a Phyllis Schlafly for the new millennium. Sommers makes Segell and Roiphe seem minor malcontents; she theorizes that feminism is the single most destructive cultural force in America today.

Her "Who Stole Femimism?: How Women Have Betrayed Women" (Simon & Schuster, 320 pages, $23) argues that feminism is destroying heterosexual relationships by turning women into victims of men. That women are frequently victims of male rapists, abusers and murderers is conveniently excised from Sommers' theory. For example, Sommers claims that domestic violence is a feminist exaggeration -- ignoring the FBI and Justice Department statistics that have deemed it the most frequent violent crime in the U.S. for the past 21 years.

In "The War Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism Is Harming Our Young Men" (Simon & Schuster, 251 pages, $26) Sommers makes men the victims of women. She asserts that boys -- not girls, as study after study has proved and Mary Pipher's "Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls" detailed through meticulous research -- are given short shrift in education. Sommers, who opens with the dire declaration "It's a bad time to be a boy in America," asserts feminism has made America anti-boy, obsessed with the crimes boys commit (that 96 percent of all crime committed by juveniles is committed by boys and might need addressing escapes Sommers' scrutiny) and determined to thwart their maleness.

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