Feminism and Public Policy

Article excerpt

There are more points in Robert Sheaffer's "Feminism, the Noble Lie" that could be discussed than I have room for, so I'm going to respond primarily to the policy issues. But first, I must comment on Mr. Sheaffer's basic oversimplification. I think he is himself aware that his use of "feminists" and "contemporary feminists" is misleading if he wants to talk about that part of the feminist movement that is "politically correct" and whose sphere of influence is academe and government. I would have little quarrel with him if that were all he was criticizing, although I would think he would be interested in the counter-movement in the feminist world that has recently become vocal, but when he dismisses such a possibility by asking, "Where are all these reasonable feminists?" it makes it appear that he wants to tar all feminists with the ideas he disagrees with.

Clearly, the landscape of feminism is very confusing to Mr. Sheaffer. Feminism predates Marxism. Eighteenth and nineteenth-century classical liberal feminists wanted to extend the rights of man to women, and this classical liberal tradition of feminism is honored by most feminists today. But "contemporary feminism" is generally considered to have begun in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and came from a number of sources: New Left activists, disgusted with the way male activists treated them; radical separatists; and - most of all - generally "liberal" women, believing in the Bill of Rights and the American free enterprise system, whose lives were turned upside down in 1963 by Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique. Marxism is only a small part of the mix: Marxist feminists were often isolated, although some were arguing that they should work with "the largest sector of the women's movement: liberal feminists. . . . [W]ithout this work with liberal feminists, the left wing of the feminist movement will remain isolated from struggles with the state [such as the Equal Rights Amendment] which is just what right wing elements of the state want."(1)

All feminists agree that women have suffered and continue to suffer legal and social disadvantage because of their gender, but from there they disagree. They disagree as to whether government is the answer or the problem. They disagree as to whether they see women as strong or weak, victims of oppression or remarkable even in adversity, genetically and morally very different from men or basically having the same spectrum of interests and talents. Reference books give different names to the different feminisms: Leftist, liberal, Marxist, and radical, in the case of a scholarly survey of feminist ideas and their influence on policy(2); socialist, radical, and women's rights, in the case of a feminist history of the women's movement.(3) Mr. Sheaffer criticizes two differing feminist schools as if they were the same - proponents of androgyny who were vocal in the early seventies but have since then generally disappeared, and proponents of gender differences, who have adopted the view he seems to support but turned it upside down. Such difference feminists substitute for the nineteenth-century idea of woman's inferiority (which was used to legally and socially bar her from many educational and occupational possibilities) the idea that women are instead superior. Most feminists take a middle position - agreeing that there are a number of sex differences but that not all differences in social treatment of men and women can be shown to be genetic in origin.

Having, I hope, established that feminism is not monolithic, let me say where in the spectrum I belong. I have been a feminist since the 1970s. I identify with the long, classical liberal and humanist tradition of feminism, which I have written about previously in FREE INQUIRY (see "Feminism and Humanism," Fall 1990). My contemporary allies in the feminist world are people like Ann Stone, chairman of Republicans for Choice (which will probably influence the Republican Party and therefore public policy); Nadine Strossen, president of the American Civil Liberties Union (who is already influencing public policy); Christina Hoff Sommers, professor of philosophy at Clark University and author of Who Stole Feminism? …