Feminism and Freedom

Article excerpt

Freedom used to stand at the heart of feminism, but modern feminists have succeeded in erasing history

ON FEBRUARY 10, 2001, 18,000 women filled Madison Square Garden for one of the more notable feminist gatherings of our time. The event-"Take Back the Garden"-centered on a performance of Eve Ensler's raunchy play, The Vagina Monologues. The "Vulva Choir" sang; self-described "Vagina Warriors"-including Gloria Steinem, Jane Fonda, and Donna Hanover (Rudolph Giuliani's ex-wife)-recited pet names for vaginas: Mimi, Gladys. Glenn Close led the crowd in spelling out the obscene word for women's intimate anatomy, "Give me a C...!!!" A huge banner declared the Garden to be a "RAPE FREE ZONE." The mood grew solemn when Oprah Winfrey came forward to read a new monologue called "Under the Burqa," which described the plight of Afghan women living under the Taliban. At its climax, an actual Afghan woman named Zoya, who represented RAWA-the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan-appeared on stage covered from head to toe in a burqa. Oprah approached her and, with a dramatic sweep of her arm, lifted and removed it. The crowd roared in delight.

Later, an exposé in the progressive American Prospect would reveal that RAWA is a Maoist organization whose fanatical members are so feared by Afghan women that one human rights activist has dubbed them the "Talibabes." According to the Prospect, when Ms. magazine tried to distance itself from RAWA in 2002, a RAWA spokeswoman denounced Ms. as the "mouthpiece of hegemonic, U.S.-centric corporate feminism." But on that magical February night at the Garden, few knew or cared about Zoya's political views or affiliations.

The evening was a near-perfect distillation of contemporary feminism. Pick up a women's studies textbook, visit a college women's center, or look at the websites of leading feminist organizations and you will be likely to find the same fixation on intimate anatomy, combined with left-wing politics, and a poisonous antipathy to men. (Campus feminists were among the most vocal and zealous accusers of the young men on the Duke University lacrosse team who were falsely indicted for rape in 2006.) Contemporary feminism routinely depicts American society as a dangerous patriarchy where women are under siege-that is the message of the "RAPE FREE ZONE" banner in the Garden. It therefore presents itself as a movement of "liberation," defying the patriarchal oppressor and offering women everywhere the opportunity to make contact with their "real selves."

But modern "women's liberation" has little to do with liberty. It aims not to free women to pursue their own interests and inclinations, but rather to re-educate them to attitudes often profoundly contrary to their natures. In Professing Feminism: Education and Indoctrination in Women's Studies (2003), two once-committed women's studies professors, Daphne Patai and Noretta Koertge, describe how the feminist classroom transforms idealistic female students into "relentless grievance collectors." In 1991, the culture critic and dissident feminist Camille Paglia put the matter even more bluntly: she described women's studies as "a jumble of vulgarians, bunglers, winners, French faddicts, apparatchiks, dough-faced party-liners, pie-in-the-sky Utopians and bullying sanctimonious sermonizers. Reasonable, moderate feminists hang back and keep silent in the face of fascism."

The embarrassing spectacle at Madison Square Garden, the erratic state of women's studies, the outbreak of feminist vigilantism at Duke University may tempt some to conclude that the women's movement in the United States is in a state of hopeless, hapless, and permanent disarray. Perhaps American feminism has become hysterical because it has ceased to be useful. After all, women in this country have their freedom; they have achieved parity with men in most of the ways that count. Why not let the feminist movement fade from the scene? …