Women on the Verge

Speaking of Sex: The Denial of Gender Inequality, by Deborah Rhode, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 341 pages, $29.95

Domestic Tranquility: A Brief Against Feminism, by F. Carolyn Graglia, Dallas, Texas: Spence, 442 pages, $29.95

As recently as 10 years ago, the debate about feminism was relatively simple: Conservatives wanted to preserve traditional roles; feminists wanted to dismantle them. Neither camp was monolithic, and there were always some who didn't fit into either one. But those two perspectives dominated public discourse on gender.

In the 1990s, new voices emerged: dissenters who shared the ideal of equal treatment for men and women and applauded female economic and social gains but took modern feminism to task for its tendency to downplay those gains, polarize the sexes, and portray women as victims of a brutal patriarchy.

Speaking of Sex: The Denial of Gender Inequality, by Stanford University law professor Deborah Rhode, is in many ways a rejoinder to dissident feminists like Christina Hoff Sommers (author of the acclaimed Who Stole Feminism?). Yes, Rhode admits, women have made much progress, but "this progress has created its own obstacles to further change." How so? "Women's growing opportunities are taken as evidence that the `woman problem' has been solved." Rhode notes that most Americans favor equality yet fail
to support feminist political efforts. (As evidence, she cites the fact that the National Organization for Women has only about 250,000 members--in fact, a pretty healthy number for a political group.) Americans are not keen on feminism, says Rhode, because they "do not perceive gender inequality as a serious problem." Yet "no just society could tolerate the inequalities that women now experience in status, income, power, and physical security."

Both Rhode's diagnosis of American attitudes and her grasp of lived reality are dubious. In polls, most women and, by a smaller margin, men agree that workplace inequality is a serious problem, though relatively few women say that they have personally encountered unfairness (which may mean that people give claims of discrimination more credence than their own personal experience warrants). Another allegedly unrecognized problem--women's greater burden at home--is also widely perceived as a barrier to equality. There may be other reasons than "denial" that keep people from signing up with the National Organization for Women, from NOW's narrow left-wing agenda to the belief that political activism is not the best solution to women's present-day problems.

Is Rhode's analysis of the world in which women actually live any more accurate? The charge that women have less "physical security" than men is at best one-sided. Yes, women are generally more fearful of crime--for reasons that have far more to do with biology (women's smaller physical stature and their greater risk of sexual assault) than with politics, unless one believes that rape is an organized male conspiracy to terrorize women. But men are far more likely to be victims of violent crime and to work in dangerous jobs. And questions of status, power, and income can be quite complex. Women may be underrepresented in Congress, but they seem to have plenty of power as voters. Women also control more than half of the inherited wealth in this country; at the other end of the economic scale, women are more likely to be poor but also more likely to receive assistance from the welfare state.

Ironically, even as Rhode attacks dissident feminists for glossing over lingering disparities, she unwittingly confirms much of their critique. For instance, she consistently displays the orthodox feminist penchant for what a friend of mine calls "fictoids." Thus, Rhode writes that "Hispanic female college graduates average lower salaries than white male high school dropouts"; in fact, they make 70 percent more. Chastising "skeptics" (including me) who charge that feminist propagandists have exaggerated women's abuse by men, she revives the canard that "[d]omestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women." (See "Domestic Violations," February.)

Besides rehashing other people's fictoids, Rhode mishandles some numbers herself. Thus, she asserts that attorneys "estimate that in more than a fifth of divorce cases, one parent, almost always the mother, experiences pressure to make financial concessions" in exchange for better custodial terms. But in the study she cites, a mere 14 percent of lawyers said that only female clients had experienced such pressure, and nearly half reported that it happened to men equally or more often.

At other times, Rhode ignores data in favor of anecdotes. Yes, in 1994 a Maryland judge sentenced a cuckolded husband who killed his wife to just 18 months in prison (provoking a national outcry). But Rhode neglects to mention that according to the Department of Justice, men who kill their wives receive sentences that average nearly two years longer than those for men who kill non-relatives.

The debate between feminists and their dissident critics, however, is about more than quibbling over "feminists' faux pas," as Rhode dismissively puts it. If Rhode's way with studies and statistics is questionable, her ideology is no more reassuring.

Speaking of Sex has none of the unabashedly deranged rhetoric found in the writings of Catharine MacKinnon or Andrea Dworkin. But in her low-key, level tones, Rhode espouses the key tenet of their school of feminism: that men use physical and sexual violence against women "as a strategy of dominance, exclusion, control, and retaliation--as a way to keep women in their place and out of men's." (Apparently, this is not "male-bashing"--of which, Rhode avers, only "a tiny but vocal minority" of feminists are guilty.)

While she stops short of supporting the MacKinnon-Dworkin push for censorship
of pornography and even acknowledges the validity of concerns about restrictions on speech, Rhode endorses rather sweeping restrictions in the name of combating sexual harassment, calling for regulation of "computer networks where women have been...humiliated by sexually explicit mass mailings." Her discussion of sexual harassment is remarkably dis-ingenuous: Overreactions to trivial charges are dismissed as "aberrant," while accounts of sexual assaults on the job are followed by the claim that these are not "isolated examples," since "[o]ver half of all women experience harassment during their academic or working lives" (never mind that the vast majority of the "harassment" consists of sexual comments or looks).

Rhode's discussion of what is arguably the most serious issue tackled in her book --the conflict between women's new roles in the workplace and the demands of family--most glaringly exposes orthodox feminism's distance from reality. While she concedes that gender disparities in the workplace are due not only to discri-mination but to personal priorities, she invariably puts quotation marks around "choice" or "choose." She writes, "About 85 percent of women believe that reducing hours or taking substantial time away from work will hurt their careers. About 70 percent `choose' to make that sacrifice."

Clearly, the inference is that no sane woman would do so if she had real choices. We are also told that "[a] third of all women who have `chosen' part-time work would prefer more hours if good childcare were available." Two-thirds, then, would not; but Rhode still can't bring herself to respect such choices as truly voluntary, let alone mention that many women (and quite a few men) working full-time would prefer fewer hours if they had more money.

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