Victimhood Is Powerful

Both feminists and antifeminists see advantages in keeping women down.


A woman wants to sue a moving company for damaging her furniture. Unfortunately, she has signed a paper waiving any liability for such damage. Case closed? Maybe not. She signed the paper without reading it, and one could argue that this is a natural thing for a woman to do and therefore the signature shouldn't be held against her. Who would use such an argument, you may ask, except some old, paternalistic male judge? Try a feminist legal theorist.

The argument, by the late New England School of Law professor Mary Jo Frug, goes thus: Since the movers were tired and in a hurry to leave, and since women are socialized to be concerned about the feelings of others, the woman was acting reasonably from the female point of view. This peculiar logic is typical of the new school of feminist legal scholarship. Where feminists once fought for legal equality of the sexes, this new school holds that since women are socially disadvantaged, treating them as equals before the law can only further victimize them.

Feminist legal theory may exist in a rarefied academic world, but its focus on victimhood reflects an increasingly prominent tendency in more "mainstream" feminism as well, at a time when the revival of the women's movement is touted as one of the big stories of the year. The chapters in this story—Thelma and Louise, Anita Hill, the Palm Beach trial, Naomi Wolf's The Beauty Myth, Susan Faludi's best-selling Backlash—have something in common, besides being about women, sex, and gender. At their center is the image of women as victims—victims of men, or victims of a (male) societal conspiracy. The women's movement of the 1960s and '70s was perhaps equally preoccupied with the oppression of women; but it was also about affirming female freedom and self-actualization and challenging stereotypes of women as weak and helpless. Today, the stress is not on women developing assertiveness but on society accommodating female passivity.

Meanwhile, antifeminist conservatives have created their own victimology of women. Responding to Faludi's contention that women are victims of a male-dominated culture, Washington Times columnist Suzanne Fields concludes, "It's actually worse than that. The culture of feminism has made them victims as well."

A 36-year-old bride wistfully tells Fields that if she could do it over again, she would have had babies at a younger age. "A few young women, fresh out of college, joke about wanting to enjoy the life of 'cooking and sewing' their grandmothers describe," Fields writes. In fact, these women would not really want to give up their modern-day freedoms and opportunities, but they suspect that the gains have brought along some drawbacks; should they want to find a man willing to support a nonworking wife, it may not be easy.

The feminist Susan Faludi suggests that if many women worry about having children before it's too late, or even, heaven forfend, want to quit their jobs and stay home rearing those children, it's because they've been brainwashed by the media and by perfidious Reaganauts.

The antifeminist Maggie Gallagher suggests, in the 1990 book Enemies of Eros, that if many women put careers first, find full-time motherhood dissatisfying, or even, heaven forfend, do not want children at all, it's because they've been brainwashed by the media and by perfidious feminists. To both Faludi and Gallagher, choices they find unpalatable and baffling must be not merely wrong but somehow involuntary. Of course, each vehemently denies the other's version of victimization. While Faludi does not specifically mention Gallagher, she heaps ridicule on the "postfeminist" lamentations about the miseries of single women and working mothers. (While the ridicule is mostly well deserved, she typically overshoots her target and ends up denying the obvious: that many single women in their 30s do worry about their prospects for marriage and motherhood and that many working mothers often do feel exhausted and torn between their two roles).

And Gallagher, in a review of Backlash, skewers Faludi for refusing to confront the fact that women want to stay home while their children are young (even as Gallagher virtually ignores the fact that many women have tried staying home but then gone back to work, feeling stifled or realizing how much their identities were tied to their jobs—and that many of those who remain full-time mothers have moments of ambivalence and conflict).

The conflicting yet mirror-image visions of female victimhood became apparent recently in the responses to the Tailhook incident, in which a number of Navy women were sexually molested by drunken fellow officers at a convention, and to the nearly simultaneous revelation that female POWs in the Gulf War had been sexually assaulted by Iraqi soldiers. Liberals focused on the misconduct at Tailhook—pretty egregious, by all accounts—to push for a radical program of gender sensitivity training that lumps physical assault together with sexual innuendo and for an expansion of women's role in the military; apparently women can handle combat but not lewd jokes. Conservatives seized on the abuse of the POWs to argue, as a National Review editorial put it, that it's time for the Pentagon to "come out firmly against putting our mothers in army boots." (Meanwhile, one of the women POWs, flight surgeon Maj. Rhonda Cornum, told interviewers that since her experience was not life-threatening, disabling, disfiguring, or excruciating, she didn't consider it important and believed that the torture inflicted on the male prisoners had been much worse. One wonders if this determination not to be a victim disqualifies Cornum as a modern-day feminist heroine.)

Right-wing victimology has also surfaced in the rhetoric of the anti-abortion movement. The image of the woman who terminates a pregnancy as a promiscuous, selfish murderess has given way to the soothingly familiar image of woman as victim. A July 14 full-page ad in The New York Times, entitled "A New American Compact: Caring About Women, Caring for the Unborn" and signed by Pennsylvania Gov. Robert Casey, Harvard University law professor Mary Ann Glendon, and a number of pro-life feminists, asserts that the right to abortion "has ushered in a new era of irresponsibility toward women." The new party line goes thus: A woman faced with an unwanted pregnancy needs compassion and help, but our cold and uncaring society leaves her with no choice but to kill her baby. Let's offer her social programs, government-enforced maternity leave, subsidized day care (no wonder Gov. Casey, a Democrat, insists that his party rightly belongs on his side of the abortion issue), and of course she'll want to be a mother. If she still doesn't—well, she should try harder.

The kinder, gentler right-to-lifers are out to redefine abortion as exploitation of women—by profiteering abortionists, selfish boyfriends or husbands, and other assorted (male) villains. Abortion becomes "surgical rape," as if pregnant women were grabbed on the streets and dragged kicking and screaming inside the clinics. The conservatives have even found their very own victim group: women who regret their abortions.

"My child died because of Roe v. Wade," Olivia Gans, head of American Victims of Abortion, declared in a 1989 television debate. When an opposing panelist pointed out that she was the one who made the choice—Roe merely enabled her to do so—Gans shot back, "It was a choice I was forced to make, because of the pressure of the abortionist." Never mind that at many clinics, up to 40 percent of the women who come in for counseling opt to carry their pregnancies to term and that women who went in for abortions but changed their minds have described clinic staffers as sympathetic and supportive.

Yet many of the feminists who cringe when they hear someone like Gans assert that no woman can make a truly voluntary choice to "kill her baby" are being hoist by their own petard. If antiporn activists can claim that a woman who, in the words of legal theorist Catharine MacKinnon, "spreads her legs before a camera" cannot be exercising her free choice, what's so different about a woman spreading her legs before a suction machine?

The image of woman as victim of abortion has an interesting corollary in the image of woman as victim of sex. Access to abortion, says the "New American Compact" ad, has "encouraged irresponsible or predatory men, who find abortion a convenient justification for their lack of commitment." A male conservative college professor in his mid-30s once explained to me that the availability of abortion allows men to exploit women sexually because it takes away fear of pregnancy as a reason to say no to sex. But doesn't it also allow women to say yes to sex if that's what they want? Oh, but they don't want that, he replied; they want to marry and have babies, and restrictions on nonmarital sex gave them the leverage to harness men into family life.

This "why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free" theory of love and marriage has become a staple of neoconservative thinking and a leitmotif of such baby-boomer female conservatives as Fields and fellow columnist Mona Charen. "In the twinkling of an eye (a male eye)," writes Charen, "women abandoned standards of sexual conduct which had protected them from untempered male lust for millennia," only to "look at their hands and recognize that they had given away their trump"—the sexual favors they could have traded for marriage. In this scheme, a woman's desire for sexual or social freedom becomes a transgression against other women who desire security: By making sex out of wedlock available to men, they reduce the pressure on men to marry. According to this reasoning, when women were ostracized and forever banned from decent society because of a youthful indiscretion, it was for the greater good of womankind.

In matters of sex, the left-wing and right-wing images of female victimization sometimes achieve a truly uncanny resemblance.

"A man exploits a woman every time he uses her body for sexual pleasure while he is unwilling to accept the full burden of paternity….That is to say, single men (and frequently married men) exploit women almost every time they make love. [The woman] may consent fully, knowledgeably, enthusiastically to her exploitation. That does not change the nature of the transaction." This is Gallagher in Enemies of Eros, which carries admiring blurbs from Robert Bork, George Gilder, and Suzanne Fields.

"Physically the woman in intercourse is a space invaded, a literal territory occupied literally; occupied even if there has been no resistance; even if the occupied person said, 'Yes please, yes hurry, yes more.'" This is Andrea Dworkin in Intercourse, the book that explicitly says what many radical feminists alternately imply and deny having implied: All heterosexual sex is rape.

Of course, to Dworkin, sex is always rape; to Gallagher, it is exploitation only when the man is not prepared to support the child he might father (even if the woman has no desire for a child). But the underlying logic is the same. Women are exploited even if they don't know they're being exploited; women are raped even if they don't know they've been raped—a standard line even among anti-date rape activists who shun Dworkin's extreme position.

The women's movement surely deserves credit for helping dispel the notion that a woman who goes to a man's room or kisses him relinquishes her right to refuse sex. But what currently occupies center stage in feminist activism is an ever-expanding effort to redefine rape as any time a woman has sex when she's not quite sure she wants it. If she is too ambivalent or unassertive to say no, that's not her problem. In rape prevention workshops on campuses, young men are being told that they may have raped some of their seemingly willing partners if they didn't ask for and obtain an explicit "yes." (See "It Sounds Like I Raped You!", July 1990.)

While the radical feminist view that rape is at the core of traditional male-female relations is anathema to the conservatives, some express a guarded sympathy for the date-rape crusaders, whom they see as misguided but responding to a real need. After the William Kennedy Smith trial, Mona Charen opined on The Capital Gang that men had better think twice about casual sex now, because when the woman realizes she's been used, the hurt and humiliation might drive her to make a false charge of rape. And Irving Kristol, writing in The Wall Street Journal, somewhat simplistically interprets both the rise of antisex feminism and the outcry against sexual harassment as evidence that women are seeking a return to some form of Victorian morality, which protected women from degrading casual sex, and to old-fashioned male gallantry.

If so many people (mostly women, presumably) are buying copies of Backlash, does this mean they're buying into the victim mentality? Not necessarily. If public opinion is any indication, the Backlash view of the '80s as one long assault on women's progress should not have found a responsive audience. Only about 28 percent of the women surveyed by The New York Times in 1989—fewer than a quarter among white women—thought that men were "trying to take away the gains made by women over the past 20 years." (There may be a lot of book buyers among those 28 percent.) Seventy percent said that at the places where they worked, women had "an equal or better chance of being promoted." And 74 percent of women in an October 1991 Gallup poll for Newsweek said that women were better off than 10 years before with regard to economic and social status; 81 percent said that women's legal rights had improved.

Melanie Thernstrom, a 28-year-old writer whose reaction to Backlash was largely positive, says that she was interested in Faludi's dissection of how the media fabricate sensational stories—though she readily admits that Faludi's thesis of a relentless war on women's progress reeks of the very sensationalism she deplores. Thernstrom suggests that many of the people who swear by Backlash are the same ones who were the most susceptible to the negative media stories Faludi lambastes, such as the hype about the Harvard-Yale marriage study supposedly showing that women over 40 have a higher chance of being killed by a terrorist than of tying the knot: "They're the kind of people who are easily swayed and manipulated by the media and not smart or confident enough to see through those stories, and they really do see themselves as victims of the backlash."

On the other hand, there is precious little evidence that large numbers of women feel they have been victimized by the changes resulting from feminism. In the 1989 Times poll, 49 percent felt that women had had to "give up too much" in exchange for gains in the workplace—specifically, time with children and the quality of family life. This could mean that the glass is half empty, or that it is half full. Nor do all those women necessarily want to go back to a prefeminist past; a common sentiment is that if men pitched in more, women would not have had to give up so much. Inequitable division of domestic duties shows up consistently in poll after poll as a major source of female frustration.

Of course there is, as 43-year-old former English professor, writer, and mother of two Catherine Cox puts it, "that fear in the pit of every woman's stomach that this is going to be the morning when the babysitter calls in sick or the child can't go to day care." Cox adds, however, that most of the working mothers in her suburban Maryland area seem to feel that it's worth it, and those who are home often look forward to going back to work or to school.

It is surely true that for many if not most women, the greater choices and opportunities of today mean greater stress (which is, of course, the largely gender-neutral dilemma of modernity). It is equally true that our choices and desires are, to some degree, influenced by economic circumstances and by social attitudes. Conservatives point out that a majority of working mothers with young children (as many as 73 percent in one survey) say that they would stay home if their families didn't need a second income. Feminists point out that many full-time mothers—28 percent, according to a 1983 poll—say that they would get a job if they could find adequate child care.

There are social pressures that make working mothers feel guilty and social pressures that make homemakers feel inadequate, so in a sense both Faludi and Gallagher are right; in a pluralistic culture, the media can and do send out contradictory messages. Most women today, and to a lesser extent men, are pulled in different directions by traditional and "liberated" imperatives. Yet ultimately (the restatement of the obvious, as George Orwell once remarked, is a duty in this day and age), they are the ones who make the choices.

The sense of more options accompanied by more stress that characterizes women's work and family lives may also be true when it comes to relationships and sex. New York writer Susan Crain Bakos, who surveyed more than 800 women in their 20s, 30s, and 40s for her 1992 book Sexual Pleasures: What Women Really Want, What Women Really Need, found that while most enjoy the freedom to be sexually active and are happy that, as a single 31-year-old woman put it, "women don't have to pretend we don't have a sexual past anymore," there are those who feel "pressured into a wantonness that doesn't suit them." But despite the ambivalence, she found very few who would like to go back to old-fashioned chastity or the double standard.

Some women may, as Norman Podhoretz has argued, have used the overblown threat of heterosexual AIDS as an excuse to bail out of the sexual revolution and put sex back in the context of committed relationships. On the other hand, in a September 1990 New York Times op-ed piece, college senior Karla Vermeulen mourned her generation's loss of sexual freedom to AIDS and complained of being "locked" into monogamy, although her somewhat older boyfriend was assuring her that the promiscuity really hadn't been that much fun. Men are not alike in their sexual (and nonsexual) needs and desires, any more than women are; the neotraditionalist image of "liberated men" cheerfully hopping from bed to bed is as simplistic as the radical feminist image of all men as potential rapists.

As the issue of promiscuity illustrates, the same experiences can mean many different things. One woman who gets breast implants may feel so much in control of her life that she wants to choose even her body shape; another may be a doormat whose boyfriend threatens to dump her because of her insufficiently ample bust. A single woman involved with a married man may be a sap who keeps trusting his promises to leave his wife, or a work-centered professional who consciously chooses a relationship that will make few demands on her time and her autonomy. And if one man may selfishly push his girlfriend to get an abortion, another may be deeply hurt by having no say whatsoever in the fate of a child he fathered—deeply enough, in some cases, to join Operation Rescue.

In The Content of Our Character, Shelby Steele observes, "Like all victims, what blacks lost in power they gained in innocence—innocence that, in turn, entitled them to pursue power….Victimization is a broad, somewhat sloppy word that one can apply to oneself in the most subjective of ways….Our innocence is restored because an injustice was done to us." And the guilt of others becomes something to hold over them.

Parallels between the condition of women and that of blacks in America are often misleading. Apart from the differences in historical background, there is certainly more intimate social interaction between the sexes than there is between the races, and gender separatism is a far more difficult thing to preach (let alone achieve) than racial separatism. Not surprisingly, the victim mentality seems much more common among blacks than among women. But to the extent that women embrace it, what Steele says is also true of them.

The feminist ideologues who sell the image of woman as victim, and, in a different way, their antifeminist counterparts, are after power—the power to impose a social agenda, both on men by intimidation through guilt and on women by telling them what is good for them. The conservatives are obviously less fashionable and less culturally influential; radical feminists, on the other hand, have successfully intimidated the academia, and much of the media as well, by wielding the weapon of gender guilt.

Victimhood can be a very effective shield. To quote Steele again, "when blacks take the floor and point to their difficulties as evidence of victimization, refutation is not easy—it feels like a continuation of the act of victimizing, like blaming the victim." Confronted with pain, obviously sincere and deeply felt, logical arguments seem cold, heartless, insensitive. "How dare anyone question a woman who claims to have been raped?" snarls the rag, Harvard's feminist magazine. (It doesn't work quite as well for politically incorrect victims—e.g., "victims" of abortion—but they're relatively new at this game and trying hard to catch up.) At a conference of the National Council for Research on Women last June, when one of the participants suggested that the insularity and abstruseness of feminist theory was partly responsible for its poor public image, another woman immediately protested, "Isn't it too much of a burden on the oppressed to ask that they not only develop a theory of their oppression but that they make sure it's understood?" To all the rights of victims, add the right to be incomprehensible.

Those who are not power seekers may also have a stake in victim status: It absolves them of responsibility for their own failures and problems. The right-to-life movement has a much better chance of winning converts if it tells women who have had abortions that they deserve pity as victims of surgical rape than it would if it told them they are selfish, sinful, evil. As the traditional American notion of a right to the pursuit of happiness mutates into one of an entitlement to happiness, a conviction takes root that unhappiness is an unnatural state of affairs and therefore someone else's fault. The right to be safe from sexual violence becomes a right to trauma-free relationships.

It is easy to persuade some people to see themselves as victims because, after all, is there anyone who does not feel he or she has been sometimes treated unfairly? Blaming it on sexism—or on women's liberation—can make it seem easier somehow, less arbitrary and more remediable; one's suffering can even be dignified by making it a political cause. Denouncing the unfairness of life—let alone taking a hard look at some of your own decisions that may have contributed to your unhappiness—is far less appealing than denouncing men, or feminists, or both.

Many women, especially professional women, could relate to the feelings of frustration and vulnerability described by Anita Hill. Among them is Linda Chang (not her real name), a 35-year-old New York attorney, who had her own brush with unwanted sexual advances nine years ago: Straight out of law school, she had "a really plummy job" at a Washington lobbying firm when one of the partners made a pass at her in a hotel hallway after an out-of-town company picnic. Shocked and disgusted, Chang decided, urged on by her friends, to make a complaint—which she believes ended up costing her the job. In retrospect, however, she sees things quite differently from Hill's partisans.

Had she been savvier at the time, she says, she would not have reported the incident—not because she would rather have suffered in silence, but because she would not have allowed it to bother her: "Really, the guy was coming on to me and he was being a jerk, so big deal! There are many much more traumatic things that you have to handle if you're a responsible adult. Life is hard. Life is much harder than that." She does not think much of legal remedies (except in cases of persistent, aggressive unwelcome advances) or "sensitivity training" for men: "Women are much stronger if they learn how to deal with it themselves. And it's usually easily dealt with."

Empowerment through victimization has obvious drawbacks. As Steele notes, it encourages the exaggeration of injustices and the perpetuation of victim status. Individual identity becomes replaced by a group identity based on victimhood; if a woman does not perceive herself as a victim, she can no longer speak for women and is no longer seen as speaking in an "authentically female" voice.

"Victim power" promotes suspicion and hypersensitivity. Campus surveys on sexual harassment and discrimination usually include such categories as "perceived hostility," "negative evaluations," "favoritism," "insensitivity," "being ignored," and "sexist teaching materials." Naturally, if 10 percent of the women surveyed feel victimized by sexist teaching materials, but the other 90 percent who use the same materials do not, the conclusion is not that the 10 percent are paranoid but that the 90 percent are in a state of woefully unraised consciousness. Audrey Schauss, a student at New York University Law School, recalls her astonishment when, after a class in which a professor tested her with a trick question (which she answered successfully), two or three female classmates came up and urged her to file a complaint, saying, "He had no right to ask you tough questions like that! Don't you see he was trying to humiliate you in front of the guys?" When Schauss replied that she didn't want to be paranoid about it, the women gave her a pitying look.

"Young women are being indoctrinated into [the victim mentality] in the universities," says Linda Chang. "Luckily, most people have a reservoir of common sense tucked in somewhere." Most women may escape unscathed; but for many who feel discouraged by the hardships of life, the temptation of victimhood may be too great. This dodge is a bit tougher for men: For them to define themselves as victims of oppression may not be either a traditionally masculine or a politically correct thing to do.

But there's always hope. The men's movement, its bibles riding the best-seller lists right next to Susan Faludi's opus, seems to be mostly about one great truth: Men are victims too. They are victimized by an industrial civilization, by their fathers, by their mothers, by feminists. They are victimized by the stripper they hire for a bachelor party because she makes them horny while remaining sexually unavailable. (Really.) It seems we're just a few steps away from a brave new world in which everyone is everyone's victim and no one is to blame.

Contributing Editor Cathy Young is a writer living in Middletown, New Jersey.