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 disingenuous: 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 discrimination 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.

Above all, Rhode finds it most unfair that people should have to choose between career success and family time. To some extent, this is a childish complaint: It's also terribly unfair that people should have to choose between eating as much as they want and looking good in a swimsuit. Nevertheless, the work-family dilemma is real. The "second shift" of housework and child care does weigh more heavily on women (though men do much more than they are often credited with–and, as some other feminists recognize, the obstacles to shared parenting are posed not only by many fathers' reluctance to assume an equal role but by many mothers' reluctance to let them do so). And the work hours required in many prestigious, high-pressure fields do seem to be prohibitive for anyone trying to raise a family.

But as the two-income family becomes increasingly common, most women and men find ways to accommodate family and work responsibilities. They demand more flexibility from employers, switch to home-based work, and rely on extended family or friends for help with child care.

To be sure, the problem of gender inequality–or, more precisely, balancing work and home–has not been fully solved. Nor can it be, since any "solution" would require a world without trade-offs. But Rhode's call for a massive new commitment to feminist activism, including goals that many women do not support–from massive investment in government-run child care to laws that would prohibit the use of the alleged victim's sexual past in a rape trial even when it has a direct bearing on the innocence of the accused–remains not only unrealistic but unpersuasive. And, as her loose grasp of the facts suggests, the rationale for such a commitment turns out to be built mostly on quicksand.

If Speaking of Sex offers a bleak picture of the state of American women at the end of the millennium, Domestic Tranquility: A Brief Against Feminism, by F. Carolyn Graglia, paints that portrait in even darker hues. Graglia, who seems to be a rising star in the conservative movement–she has spoken at Federalist Society conferences and been published in The Women's Quarterly and The Weekly Standard–is also the wife of conservative University of Texas law professor Lino Graglia. (She was herself a lawyer in the 1950s before leaving her career to become a mother.) Graglia impatiently brushes aside recent dissident critiques of radical feminism. For her, they don't go far enough because they do not champion the cause of the "traditional" woman–whom, Graglia contends, feminists hate far more than they hate men.

Once, says Graglia, there was an idyll in which women enjoyed ample opportunities in the workplace as well as security and respect at home. This was achieved by an unspoken agreement between women (married or single) who pursued careers and those whose vocation was domesticity. The "women's pact" was to "let each other live peacefully without attacking one another's integrity": Housewives may have disapproved of career women and career women may have felt disdain for housewives, but they kept it to themselves. Then, in the 1960s, argues Graglia, a "revitalized feminist movement" shattered the pact, with Betty Friedan firing the first volley in The Feminine Mystique; women at home were left deprived of "female approbation," demoralized, and driven out into the work force.

The grain of truth in this is that many feminists did try to make the housewife a "pariah." (Recently, feminists have been quite sympathetic to homemakers' claims in divorce cases: Between aversion to traditional roles and solidarity with women against men, the latter usually wins.) But the notion of ample–let alone equal–job opportunity for women in the '50s is bunk. Indeed, most Americans at the time didn't think women should have equal opportunity, especially if they had a man to support them.

Graglia twists Friedan's words to suggest that all external barriers to women's careers had been removed; but Friedan was referring to formal barriers, such as company policies which explicitly prohibited the hiring of married women. Friedan also wrote that "[s]ubtle discrimination against women…is still an unwritten law today." Thus, the "unwritten law" at Time magazine was that a woman could be a researcher but could not rise to the rank of writer. As for the "women's pact," much of The Feminine Mystique is an account–unchallenged by Graglia–of the denigration of career women in the culture of the '50s, particularly in women's magazines.

There is also some truth in Graglia's description of the problems engendered by high divorce rates and the two-earner family. As a source of information, though, she is about as reliable as Rhode. Her account of the devastation easy divorce inflicts on women–based mostly on discredited feminist research, of all things–ignores the fact that two-thirds of the time, it's the wife who wants to end the marriage (and that in poll after poll, women are more likely to say that divorce is the best solution if a marriage isn't working out). Eager to insist that men are unfit to nurture children, Graglia vastly underestimates fathers' contributions to child care and asserts, contradicting every study I have seen, that "husbands of working mothers spend less time with their children than husbands of full-time housewives."

Unlike some conservatives, Graglia admits that most married women who work do so by choice. But like Rhode, she clearly believes that choices she dislikes are not authentic: These women have been seduced or bullied by feminists. Nor, despite her assurances to the contrary, is she quite willing to live and let live; if too many affluent, college-educated women pursue careers, she warns, it sends a bad message to the rest of society, and homemakers "suffer a tremendous loss of social prestige."

At its heart, Domestic Tranquility is not about social policy but about a grandiose vision of womanhood expressed in fittingly operatic terms: The suburban housewife becomes "the awakened Brünhilde," after the Wagnerian Valkyrie, who is roused from her magical sleep by Siegfried and yields to his passion, giving up her job as a warrior maiden. (Graglia never mentions that Siegfried then goes off to seek adventure and marries another woman, and that it all ends quite badly for everyone involved.)

Graglia's "awakened" woman, purged of "striving" and "aspirations of her own," is described as "luxuriating" in passive contentment. Except for a jab at feminists' disregard for the educational and civic activities of homemakers, such activities are conspicuously absent from Graglia's paeans to the "domestic vocation." Motherhood is presented primarily as a "biological role," reduced almost entirely to its physical aspects.

Indeed, it seems that Graglia's main objection to mothers' involvement in "market production" is not the time spent away from children but the unwomanly traits associated with it. Achievement in the workplace requires maintaining too much of a separate self and "keeps the woman's analytical mind racing"; and, "when a woman lives too much in her mind, she finds it increasingly difficult to live through her body."

This amazing portrait of true womanhood raises many questions. For one, it has little to do with historical reality: Most of our foremothers did not spend "long, tranquil hours of child care" but were very involved in economic production (sometimes in the house, sometimes outside of it). In fact, some scholars have made the interesting argument that feminism, in its classical sense of the movement for equality in endeavors outside the home, was the consequence of the removal of economically vital work from the home and the reduction of women's role to "personal relations with husband and children." Graglia also never quite explains feminism's ability to win women over, except for the suggestion that men had grown "effete" while women's maternal competence was undermined by an education which trained them to rely on thinking rather than intuition.

But the real paradox is that, while Graglia decries feminist calumnies against the housewife as passive, absorbed in tasks "unconnected with mental ability," and even "less than fully human," her "Brünhilde" evokes that very stereotype. Graglia even likens the maternal woman in her contentment to a bovine lying blissfully in a field of flowers, an image hardly less insulting than the comparison to brain-damaged patients for which Graglia indicts Friedan.

I am, of course, "responding with the constricted emotions of a spiritual virgin" (that is, a woman who keeps her "maiden self" intact) as well as showing my Western prejudices. In yet another irony, to defend her vision of traditional womanhood, the conservative Graglia has to denigrate the West, which overvalues "male mental creativity" and undervalues "physiological maternal creativity." Some segments of Western culture, apparently, are especially at fault: Graglia asserts that "Jewish men [are] more likely than others to disdain a woman's domestic endeavors and condition their respect upon her market accomplishments," which is why "Jewish women have been disproportionately represented in the women's liberation movement." (Beyond the question of whether this statement is anti-Semitic, it is certainly bizarre in view of the importance placed on the woman's role in the home in traditional Jewish culture.)

Challenging feminists on the subject of sex, Graglia goes far beyond arguing that promiscuity robs sex of meaning, or even that sexual freedom robs women of the "bargaining power" to withhold sex until men agree to marriage. For her, nothing less will do than to restore a view of female sexuality as essentially submissive: The path to bliss is to be "compliant" to the husband's desires but to refrain from initiating sex. Proving that conservatives are not immune to the disease of gratuitous exhibitionism, Graglia occasionally bursts into Naomi Wolf-like rhapsodies about the "sexual ministrations" of her husband, to whom she refers at one point as her very own "Siegfried." She finds deep truths in Andrea Dworkin's description of sexual intercourse as an act in which the woman is dominated and her independent self is wiped out–if only Dworkin would understand that it's a good thing.

Filled with hyperbole to rival the rhetoric of the most radical feminists (The Feminine Mystique is compared to Mein Kampf; abortion is "at least as great a violation of women's bodies as rape"; sexually active unmarried women are in a state of "sexual servitude"), Domestic Tranquility is also exceptionally mean-spirited. Despite Graglia's pious assertion that she bears nontraditional women no ill will, she more than once refers to them as "male clones" and compares their marriages to the cohabitation of homosexual couples–which, in this context, is definitely not a compliment. And her portrait of frazzled, unsexed, Prozac-popping modern career women is certainly no less vicious than any feminist caricature of the traditional woman.

This tome, which can be kindly described as eccentric, may not seem worth discussing–except for the glowing blurbs from William Kristol ("stunningly bold and deep") and Danielle Crittenden of The Women's Quarterly, who praises Graglia as "a courageous thinker." Well, I suppose it does take courage to argue that it's not good for women to think too much, or to suggest that female genital mutilation is just a slightly too "draconian" way to achieve the worthy goal of curbing female sexual assertiveness and affirming male mastery in sex.

A few years ago, when Christina Sommers published Who Stole Feminism?, one reviewer snidely wrote that Sommers was "the sort of woman the political right can completely uphold," since "her feminism consists in celebrating what women have achieved, and all the wonderful men who made it possible." Could it be that the right would much rather uphold a woman who views everything women have achieved as a social catastrophe, and the men who made it possible as pathetic wimps? So much the worse for conservatives: A mass exodus of women from the work force is about as likely as a massive upsurge in support for feminist political activism–and Carolyn Graglia-style anti-feminism is about as relevant to the lives of most women as is Deborah Rhode-style feminism.