Commentary Magazine


The Failure of Feminism, by Nicholas Davidson; Feminism and Freedom, by Michael Levin

Feminist Fallout

The Failure of Feminism.
by Nicholas Davidson.
Prometheus Books. 392 pp. $24.95.

Feminism and Freedom.
by Michael Levin.
Transaction Books. 336 pp. $39.95.

During the mid-1970′s I was briefly a low-rung associate attorney for a corporate law firm. It was one of those career mistakes, for both me and the firm. Once, toward the end of my short tenure, a partner handed me a file and said, “Charlotte, here’s an assignment I know you’re going to like.” The assignment consisted of drawing up the articles of incorporation—or, rather, opening up a form book and copying out the articles of incorporation—for an entity with a name something like “First Women’s Bank.” (The institution has long since gone out of business, merged with another financial institution, or changed its name.)

The partner’s remark has stuck in my mind because of his implicit assumption that since I was a woman, I had to be a feminist, and would just love the idea of a women’s bank. In truth, I was already finding feminism a big bore. Did I really have to pay my own way on dates? Why were men elbowing me aside to get out of the elevator first? Why did everyone address me with the ugly honorific “Ms.”? And those awful sandals with the below-sea-level heels that liberated women had to wear. . . .

Nonetheless, as the partner’s reflexive remark indicates, feminism—which started out during the late 1960′s as an outré phenomenon of academic bohemia—quickly and apparently permanently transformed the way of life of the American upper middle class. Male religious leaders now busy themselves trying to think up “non-sexist” names for God. Few indeed are those who have been willing to criticize feminism for its appalling (if ultimately unsuccessful) efforts to blur differences between the sexes, its brutal denigration of motherhood, its indiscriminate nastiness toward men, its contempt for femininity.

In the early 1970′s, there were, to be sure, the brave and much-maligned efforts of George Gilder and Midge Decter. Over the past few years, though, the well seems to have gone dry, even though a number of women in real life have been quietly sneaking back to preliberation ways: shortening their skirts, forsaking corporate-ladder jobs to stay home with their children, and even strong-arming their men to take them ballroom dancing. Anne Summers, the new editor of Ms. magazine, recently expressed dismay at market studies indicating that young women detest the word “feminist,” associating it with man-hating. Nonetheless, women who can write have for some reason been mostly silent in print about the absurdities of their feminist soi-disant sisters. There are Suzanne Fields in the Washington Times, Maggie Gallagher in National Review, and Carol Iannone in COMMENTARY, but they are lonely exceptions to the rule.

Perhaps sensing a revanchist vacuum, two men have recently published critiques of feminism. Both Nicholas Davidson, a writer, and Michael Levin, a professor of philosophy at the City University of New York, had trouble finding publishers for their books, apparently because feminist editors hold the major New York publishing houses in thrall. Levin’s is said to have languished at several houses before being rejected and finally picked up by a university press; Davidson’s hails from a small house in Buffalo, New York. George Gilder has had similar woes. Although he is the author of several best-selling books about economics and technology, he had to turn to a tiny Louisiana publisher when he rewrote his 1973 Sexual Suicide as Men and Marriage in 1986, because no New York house would touch it.

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Of the two new books, Davidson’s is the less serious and the less focused. Its premise is that feminism, defined as a form of social activism aimed at improving the lot of women, accomplished a great deal of good, opening up corporate doors, garnering funds for women’s college athletics, and so forth. Then, in 1984, Davidson claims, feminism died, presumably with the numbing vice-presidential candidacy of Geraldine Ferraro. (This year, the Ferraro-like Pat Schroeder went nowhere, despite heavy touting by the National Organization for Women, the same group that pressured Walter F. Mondale to put Ferraro on his ticket.)

“The Feminist Era is over,” Davidson declares. “Organized political feminism speaks neither for women nor for progress; it increasingly reflects the views of an embittered minority which has long since forfeited the respect of the ‘transitional’ generation of its parents and has now lost the pulse of the rising generation.” And Davidson predicts: “The major battles over gender issues in the post-Feminist Era will therefore not be fought between feminists and non-feminists but between more standard political groups: socialists, liberals, and conservatives.”

Davidson’s book glints now and then with zircons of insight. Of the dress-for-success movement, he writes with damning perception:

Thus, under the closely related pressures of feminism and careerism, a new image of the flower of middle-class American womanhood appeared—one of the most pathetically conformist norms ever seen in a culture as diverse as our own. Fighting back as they could, women spent a part of their new job dollars on sexier underwear. Beneath her drab business suit, complete with collar bow to match the male necktie, the professional woman often swathed her skin in luxurious whiffs of silk and lace. The scruffy running shoes with which the urban legions of women replace their heels at 5 o’clock for the ride home are partly a rejection of the corporate ethos to which the quest for independence has consigned American women, and partly a rejection of the femininity implied by more attractive footwear: a fittingly ambiguous symbol of our era.

And then there is the weepy New Man, presumably beloved of feminists but secretly despised by them as unmanly: “Unable to please either himself or women, the New Man, like the New Woman, was left to the cold comfort of envisioning himself as a pioneer of human progress.”

Unfortunately, Davidson displays a tendency to slip out of this sort of high-spirited polemics into mere carping. His book—especially the last two chapters and an appendix, which are specifically addressed to men—occasionally has the whiny tone of one of those “men’s rights” meetings where divorced fathers gripe about child support. He also protests a bit too much about feminists’ “forcing us all to accept a neutered society”—an unlikely prospect if feminism is really as dead as he says.

The weakest but perhaps most telling part of the book is its exceedingly shallow discussion of abortion. Davidson believes that legal abortion promotes “family integrity and stability”—the idea being, one presumes, that if we get our pregnant daughters to the abortion clinic fast enough they will not be able to embarrass us at the next family gathering. This is the yuppie slant on teen pregnancy, and it puts Davidson in the position of describing the middle-class family in terms—“controlled, self-conscious, a locus of planning”—that recall the feminists’ own inclination to regard pregnancy as a nuisance. Such remarks, together with others defending the sexual revolution (it made “millions of people feel more comfortable with their sexuality”), suggest that Davidson likes his women liberated enough for consequence-free sex, and that he may thus be far more ambivalent about feminism than he lets on.

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Michael Levin’s book covers much the same ground as Davidson’s, although in a more thorough and thoughtful, if occasionally turgid, fashion. Levin’s discussion of abortion, for example, reaches no conclusions about what sorts of restrictions ought to apply to the procedure, but he recognizes, as Davidson fails to do, that human life is at stake, not mere inconvenience. He also slices neatly through the contradictory feminist insistence that abortion should be strictly a matter of private choice, free of government intervention. “Probably the majority of feminists,” he Writes, “hold that abortion should be publicly funded, which would not leave the matter to private conscience at all, since it would force taxpayers who do not approve of abortion to support it.”

Levin is hardly as sanguine as Davidson that feminism is a spent ideology. He argues instead that it has been all too insidiously successful, and is likely to remain so for a long time, largely because it has captured the courts, the government bureaucracies, the educational system from kindergarten through graduate school, and the major philanthropic foundations, which distribute millions of dollars to fund “women’s rights” projects. Thus:

The Supreme Court has outlawed pension plans that use the greater longevity of women as a factor in computing premiums. Public speakers can no longer use “he” or “man” comfortably. Critics reflexively apologize before praising books, movies, or ideas that might displease feminists. Newspaper reports on menstrual disorders note that feminists do not like the idea that there are such things, as if nature were obliged not to mark sex distinctions. . . . Political leaders of every persuasion reflexively apply gender quotas. . . . The popular press continues to suggest that wanting to marry and raise children is a curious goal for a woman.

The ways in which courts and governments implement the feminist agenda—trying to fit the two sexes into the same Procrustean bed, as it were—has produced a laundry list of discordances that is hilarious when it is not horrifying. An example: the desperate efforts of cities, often under the gun of court-ordered quotas, to produce substantial numbers of female firefighters. Sensible physical tests clearly related to public safety, such as the ability to carry human loads of a certain size and weight, must be dispensed with. In the new, sex-integrated military forces, most female soldiers simply do not have the strength to meet the minimum tests routinely required of men: lifting standard-size 90-pound boxes of ammunition, throwing a grenade far and accurately enough. Unisex athletics? A joke. Yet as Levin documents, the advocates of “sex equality in sports” have mandated that single-sex teams of children cannot play on public facilities in Minnesota, and that girls in public schools have a constitutional right to try out for boys’ teams.

The most frightening use of feminism as an instrument of social control is in education. Levin explores college-level programs in women’s studies, where the content usually violates all canons of academic objectivity and the course work is typically laughable (in one course, students can get an A for writing a short paper on how they feel about menstruation). But the worst violations against human nature occur in the “nonsexist classrooms” of the elementary grades: textbooks cannot use the words “housewife” or “mother,” and teachers are instructed to break up the single-sex social groupings that all children find natural.

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Levin is not entirely without hope for the human species, even in the world feminism has created, for he believes that human nature—particularly the abiding desire of women for husbands, children, and families, no matter what they say in public—will out. “Feminists may be beyond rational persuasion, and will continue to proclaim their errors with complete assurance,” he writes. “But they are, in the end, asking women to make themselves unattractive to men and to forgo love and children. Feminism will be forgotten, commanding only the loyalty of barren women whose genetic lines are running to extinction.”

If Levin displays a fault in all these observations, it is that he tends to rely for much of his argumentation not so much on common sense—which would suffice—as on an odd collection of pseudo-scientific theories of a sociological stripe. (Davidson has the same tendency; both authors show the influence of Steven Goldberg’s 1973 book, The Inevitability of Patriarchy.) Too, Levin seems more enamored than is strictly necessary of the benign workings of an evolutionary free market. Yet these are minor faults in an admirable book. Indeed, there is much to welcome in the message both Davidson and Levin bring us. One wonders when we will start hearing it from women.

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About the Author




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