Commentary Magazine

Sex & Power by Susan Estrich

Sex & Power
by Susan Estrich
Riverhead. 287 pp. $24.95

Suppose you launched a revolution that nobody wanted? Suppose you crafted a series of sexual-harassment laws, knife-edged and designed to gut nasty conservatives, and they were then used to carve up your best friend? You too might be hurt, angry, confused, and resentful, as Susan Estrich assuredly is.

Estrich first became newsworthy as the manager of the presidential campaign of Michael Dukakis. Since then, she has been a law professor, a regular talking head on Fox News, and, as she incessantly reminds us, a very good Friend of Bill (and of Hillary, and of Al). Estrich, in short, has done well for herself. But her brand of feminism has fared about as well as the hapless Dukakis campaign, having been largely rejected by actual women and all but derailed by the sexual foibles of her friend Bill. In an attempt to explain what has gone wrong and why, she has written a book.

Sex and Power meanders wildly. Its opening chapter surveys current attitudes toward female success, beginning with the meaning of Madeleine Albright’s appointment to high office (“she deserves her power”), proceeding to the case of Hillary (“she wants power”), and ending with Estrich herself, with glances along the way at obscure personal acquaintances—“one very ambitious young woman who [sic] I came to know,” etc.

Other chapters survey the current state of “gender discrimination” in American law; the inferior status of women in the corporate world; the tension between motherhood and the “fast track”; and Bill Clinton’s collision with the law of sexual harassment and its relation to Estrich’s own experience as a rape victim 25 years ago.

Though the book is rather short, and set in very large type, distilling its basic message is no easy endeavor. The problem stems to some degree from its form, which is one part memoir, one part polemic, and one part dishonesty. The dishonesty is to be found less in the stands that Estrich adopts than in the way she adopts them: in incomplete, incoherent, fragmented half-arguments that take assumptions as givens and refuse to acknowledge critical counterarguments, much less refute them. The evasions and blustering suggest a mind at times supple but also unable to grapple with the deep contradictions of contemporary feminism.



One difficulty for Estrich concerns real-life women and what she presumes they want. Estrich and her sisters have long assumed that most women are similar to men in their eagerness to scale the ladders of career success. “When I signed up [for the movement],” she writes, “the idea was to get women to the top who would change the rules for everyone. The first wave would open the door, and then throw it wide open” for the ambitious hordes to charge through.

But the hordes never materialized, and many of the women who did charge through turned around and charged right out again, dashing the feminist dream of numerical parity in the law firms, on the corporate boards, and in the halls of Congress. “Among the 2,500 top corporate executives in America, there are 63 women,” laments Estrich. This, to her, is a disaster that demands drastic action. She urges women to research the companies that do not have enough women and boycott their products. She thinks someone—“women”? the Justice Department?—should police these offending companies and force them to make amends. “The critical point,” she says, “is to see the absence of significant numbers of women in positions of power as a problem.”

But a problem for whom? For women, or for the feminists who look to the courts and the government to generate the forced parity that conforms to their wishes? As critics of this idea have pointed out, some professions tilt to one sex or the other for reasons wholly unrelated to discrimination. Few men choose to teach preschool, while few women want to be lumberjacks. And there are entire male-dominated professions, like coal-mining, janitorial work, and garbage-collecting, that feminists themselves have never been particularly eager to integrate along sexual lines.

The small number of women at the top of large companies is due far less to discrimination than to the fact that few women qualify for such positions. “The most challenging careers,” the economist Diana Furchtgott-Roth has explained, “require uninterrupted commitments of 60 hours a week, year after year.” Pregnancy and child-rearing are almost always incompatible with the pace and intensity of these jobs, for, as Furchtgott-Roth puts it, “a pause, even momentary, leaves one hopelessly behind, passed over in the frenzy of others pursuing the same goal.”



Estrich’s relentless focus on the top of the corporate trees blinds her to the flora among which most women (and most men) really live. In recent years, women working in smaller businesses (sometimes their own), in which hours and rules are less rigid than in the Fortune 500, have prospered as never before. Furchtgott-Roth reports that, between 1987 and 1999, women-owned businesses more than doubled in number to 9.1 million and now generate $3.6 trillion in annual sales.

To Estrich, however, the women who have opened businesses of their own are nothing but victims, forced out of her world by systemic bigotry. Or—much worse—they are weaklings or sell-outs who have let down the feminist cause. “It is not my intent,” she says, “to diminish the accomplishments of women who have left big business for small . . . [or] big law firms for small ones, [or] corporate America for the high-tech sector.” But diminish she does, over and over again. Here she is on Brenda Barnes, the top management officer of PepsiCo, who left her high-paying job to spend time with her family: “Dropping out—pulling back—is also a selfish decision, from the collective perspective of feminism . . . . [I]t negatively affects other women, it retards change.” But why, one would like to know, should other people sacrifice their family life, their happiness, to pay for Susan Estrich’s “collective perspective”?

There seems, however, to be no end to what Estrich wants women to do for her cause, including, when it comes to the issue of sexual harassment, throwing all principle to the winds. In 1991, in the effort to derail the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, feminists, including Estrich, relied on charges brought against Thomas by Anita Hill that, she concedes today, did not amount to much: “even if everything Hill complained of was true, it only proved that Thomas was crude, not that he was a lawbreaker, or morally unqualified to serve.” But no matter. Feminists thought that they had found a tool that could be used against others, and that could never be turned against them.

But it was. In 1994, they urged their great friend Bill to sign an extension of the Violence Against Women Act that would allow the plaintiff in a sexual-harassment case to rummage freely through the past private life of the accused. Alas, as Estrich now complains, the very rules she had “supported and helped to create” were used by the lawyers in the Paula Jones case to unearth her favorite President’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, which in turn led to his impeachment and disgrace. All this, she admits, created something of a quandary for her: “How could I question Clarence Thomas’s fitness to serve on the Supreme Court, and then turn around and defend the President?” Her revealing, pathetic answer: it is all a matter of sticking by your friends.

It has been 30 years since feminists began making the “revolutionary” arguments that appear so stale and tired in Sex & Power, a work that sets out to justify feminism but ends by inadvertently indicting it. This book is only for those, like Susan Estrich, who need to deny their confusion and failure. All others can safely ignore it.


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