You've Lost Your Way, Baby

How organized feminism has made itself irrelevant

What if they tried to revive feminism?s official media mouthpiece and nobody cared? That?s what?s been happening with Ms. magazine, which says something about the general state of organized feminism today. Last fall Ms. was sold to the Feminist Majority Foundation (FMF), which announced plans to hire a new editor and move the faded publication from New York to the group?s Los Angeles home base. But even as the 30th-anniversary spring issue, featuring founder Gloria Steinem on the cover, was hitting the stands in March, the group was still advertising for an editor-in-chief.

The position was finally filled in May by investigative reporter Tracy Wood, formerly of the Los Angeles Times and The Orange County Register. Strangely, the first media mention of the new hire did not appear until a New York Post story in early July -- one sign among others of Ms. having dropped off the cultural radar screen.

The relaunched Ms. is finally hitting the stands now, with a Fall 2002 issue. (FMF reduced the original bimonthly schedule to quarterly but hopes to return to bimonthly publication in January.) Steinem confidently told the San Francisco Chronicle that "the need for Ms. has never been greater than it is right now."

At its peak, in 1976, Ms. had a circulation of 500,000; it now limps along at an unaudited figure of around 110,000. But the magazine?s decline can be measured by more than its diminished circulation. You might have expected that landmark 30th-anniversary issue with the Steinem cover to get some major play. But media coverage last spring was practically nil, aside from a few brief reports and a Nation feature that noted the aging crowd at the magazine?s birthday celebration in New York: "The contents of the giveaway goody bags were largely restricted to estrogen replacement." When The Nation starts making jokes about menopause, you?ve slipped a long way, baby.

If Ms. hadn?t been technically dead before the FMF took it over -- it ceased publication entirely for a while in 1998 before Steinem revived it as a nonprofit -- you could be forgiven for not realizing it was still around. One of the last bursts of publicity the magazine got came a few years ago, when it hired the disgraced columnist Patricia Smith, who had been forced to resign from The Boston Globe after she admitted making up sources and quotes.

Yet despite the media dry spell, when I called repeatedly asking to interview someone from the FMF about its efforts to resuscitate Ms., I got nowhere. The spokeswoman waffled for weeks and then finally declined, after explaining that she found some articles on the Reason Web site "anti-feminist."

Such Big Nurse control-freakism from the Ms. crew isn?t really surprising: Feminist leadership has developed a habit of lashing out at anyone who questions the party line. For example, the outspoken Tammy Bruce, former president of the National Organization for Women?s (NOW) Los Angeles chapter, is now considered persona non grata by traditional feminists. (More on that later.)

Or consider the feminist response to the recent effort by infertility doctors to educate women about the problems of waiting too long to have children, the subject of a Time magazine cover story last spring. As Time pointed out, a survey had revealed that very few women (13 percent) realize that fertility begins to decline at age 27; three times that many mistakenly believe it doesn?t drop until age 40. The truth is that by age 42, 90 percent of a woman?s eggs are abnormal, making it more difficult to conceive and carry a child to birth.

Yet feminists blasted an American Society for Reproductive Medicine advertising campaign that stated a simple fact which might help many women avoid heartbreak: "Advancing age decreases your ability to have children." NOW President Kim Gandy provided a flurry of disparaging quotes about the campaign to the media. "We don?t need to see a ticking clock every time we pass a bus," she told the Los Angeles Times. The message that you might end up regretting it if you put off childbirth for too long elicits howls from feminists because it questions one of their dogmas: that women should not for any reason think twice about the career track. This attitude seems about as useful as criticizing physicians for suggesting that maybe it?s not so great you?ve got your own cigarette now, baby.

The undying attachment to old shibboleths -- on matters from war to leftist politics to abortion -- has been a major cause of organized feminism?s growing irrelevance. Feminists have been complaining for years that rumors of the movement?s death have been greatly exaggerated, citing among other things the number of women?s studies departments on college campuses. But the disconnect between ordinary American women and their self-appointed spokeswomen is now painfully obvious. Only a quarter of women are willing to describe themselves as "feminists" to pollsters, and you can see why: Pretty much every step the feminist leadership takes these days seems to lead to a pratfall, from odd little blips like Ms.?s hiring of a disgraced journalist like Smith to the huge media circus surrounding NOW?s support for convicted child drowner Andrea Yates.

In a statement last year responding to criticism of the group?s involvement with the Yates case, NOW?s Gandy maintained that "NOW has not created a legal defense fund for Andrea Yates. NOW is not raising money for her."

Her organization, Gandy added, was merely trying to focus needed attention on the dangers of postpartum psychosis. "I have two little girls, and I was never once counseled by my midwife or obstetrician to watch for the well-established warning signs," she complained.

Maybe so, but from lying to infanticide, the feminist movement has long displayed an uncanny instinct for racing in the direction opposite from most people?s natural sympathies. That instinct was also on display during the Clinton impeachment spectacle, with its weird sideshow of feminists excusing the president?s personal mistreatment of women because of his support for abortion and affirmative action.

One revelation of 9/11 and the ensuing invasion of Afghanistan is the stark contrast between the real world that women live in and feminist dogma. Pollsters have noted that this was the first war women approved of as much as men -- not a shock when you consider that bombing Afghanistan has probably done more to help a single group of violently oppressed women than any event since the British banned suttee in India. The feminist response? Hand wringing about the Taliban?s replacements and civilian casualties (which now appear to number in the hundreds rather than the thousands), obsessing about abortion, pushing for affirmative action and hate crimes legislation -- and suing to find out the true address of the house where ex-Beatle George Harrison died last year.

Wait -- what does that have to do with women?s issues? Exactly. Yet this is what Gloria Allred busied herself with last winter. Allred is the well-known feminist attorney who was last in the media limelight for successfully representing an actress who got fired from Melrose Place after becoming pregnant. (Producer Aaron Spelling had argued that the actress, cast as a homewrecking vixen, couldn?t pull the role off while in the family way.) "The integrity of public records is at stake," Allred said, explaining why Harrison?s family, wanting to avoid macabre fans, didn?t have the right to falsify the death address. Judging from Allred, Freud?s famous query "What do women want?" has a truly banal answer.

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