Gender Truce


Ceasefire! Why Women and Men Must Join Forces to Achieve True Equality, by Cathy Young, New York: The Free Press, 368 pages, $25.00

Reality is inconvenient. Especially for that much vaunted and much maligned whirligig, the Western mind, which, we all agree, tends to think too much. We, the plodding possessors of such minds, are determined to organize our world and make sense of it. Even the declared nonrationalists among us (though they'd rather die than admit it) are living by the rules of reason: still counting their chickens, still putting too many of their eggs in that one basket, and, like everybody else, still mulling over which came first. But to make sense of something complex is always to oversimplify it, curtail it, misrepresent it. Invariably, there are stubborn loose ends in experience that never quite fit the patterns we've devised for them. So, for the sake of clarity or logical consistency, we just snip them off or tuck them away somewhere.

Not surprisingly, intellectuals are always doing this; and of course they're the very people who should know better. But they don't. So we end up with shelves and shelves of briefs and dissertations, polemics and apologia, all of them designed to convince us that the answer to A, B, or C must be X, Y, or Z–and all of them wrong. Kant explained why a long time ago: Reason is just too crude, too curtly organized, to reflect the world as it really is. And yet how could it be otherwise? Like Churchill's democracy, rationality is the worst kind of thinking we have, except for all the others.

Which brings us to Cathy Young. Though it may seem so at first, her new book, Ceasefire!, is not ultimately about sexual equality. It's more about this messy thing called reality, and how in sexual politics–as in race politics, gay politics, and all manner of other special interest politics in America–we've lost sight of it. Young's explanation for this harks back to Kant: Our diagnoses of the race problem, the woman question, and the gay agenda are too simplistic. Our arguments on both sides, left and right, are mired in the same unhelpful mentality: Us vs. Them. As Young writes in the early pages of Ceasefire!, "Life confounds all dogmas, whether of sameness or difference."

Since the publication of Susan Faludi's Backlash in 1991, we've seen a rash of vehement books about the collective female in society, many of them written by young newcomers, or "third wave feminists," as they've since been dubbed. The rough (and by no means all-inclusive) chronology goes like this: The same year Faludi published Backlash, Naomi Wolf made her debut with The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women. In 1993, a young graduate student named Katie Roiphe came on the scene with her indictment of hysterical attitudes about date rape, The Morning After: Sex, Fear, and Feminism on Campus.

A more recent string of books about women included lesser follow-ups by Wolf (Promiscuities, 1997), Roiphe (Last Night in Paradise, 1997), and the bad girl of Prozac Nation (1994) fame, Elizabeth Wurtzel (Bitch, 1998). What seemed to link these books was a newfound sexual confidence and an irreverence toward the physical fears and constraints of girlhood. These were young women to be reckoned with, femmes who'd found their boots; and propriety be damned, they were going to walk all over us to prove it. You might say they (especially Wurtzel) were bookish versions of Veruka Salt, the pubescent brat in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory who, upon seeing the geese who laid the golden eggs, sang with petulant abandon the refrain, "I want it now."

Lately, just when we've all been getting bored with black bra feminism, the good girls have begun striking back with a third wave of their own. Wendy Shalit has come charging out of the gate with her prescription to let girls be girls and make boys be gentlemen: A Return to Modesty: Rediscovering the Lost Virtue (Free Press, 1999). Meanwhile, former Women's Quarterly Editor Danielle Crittenden offers a newfangled take on customary sex roles in What Our Mothers Didn't Tell Us: Why Happiness Eludes the Modern Woman (Simon & Schuster, 1999). Her prescription: Marry young, have kids, then go back to work in your 30s; otherwise, you'll turn into the Wicked Witch of the West and die woefully unhappy, with only a brood of monkeys to your name. Cathy Young's Ceasefire! completes the triad of this year's dissenting woman books, though to link her ideologically with Shalit and Crittenden or the mainstream right would be a mistake.

Even Shalit and Crittenden cannot be lumped together so haphazardly. They both make cogent use of women's magazines (Mademoiselle, Glamour, Vogue, Redbook, Cosmopolitan) as cultural indicators of widespread female unhappiness, and both are avowed traditionalists, but their prescriptions for how to redress women's woes are quite different. Shalit wants us to listen when women say they're unhappy, rather than dismissing them as whining feminists, while Crittenden wants feminism to wake up and see that it has dug its own grave, becoming a cause of female unhappiness.

Cathy Young is just as preoccupied as Shalit and Crittenden with the real lives of average women. But she finds the bulk of her evidence in court cases, professional surveys, and research projects. You might say that Ceasefire! is the rational mind's rebuttal of Faludi's Backlash. Like Faludi, Young pelts us with statistics and anecdotes that bolster her claims about the current state of the gender wars, her basic claim being that there is indeed a gender war but, contra Faludi, men aren't really winning it.

For every (often false or exaggerated) feminist statistic about unnecessary hysterectomies, domestic abuse on Superbowl Sundays, and gender bias in schools, Young offers a barrage of counter-statistics and contrary examples. Though this doesn't make for facile or speedy reading, it gives Young's assertions a much needed solidity. There are no straw men here. Young's seemingly exhaustive research and the sensible arguments she builds on it are both necessary and impressive. Her tireless rigor is almost enough to make you think reason can be reasonable after all.

Young is, in essence, a humanist, which, in sexual politics at least, is the only sensible thing to be. If you scrape away all of Young's evidential frosting, you find that her book is telling us something that should be obvious: We're human. And being human (for both men and women) is an almost infinitely complicated state of affairs that cannot be reduced to so crude a model as beauties and beasts. The prevailing feminist paradigm, argues Young, makes men into pillaging Huns and women into forbearing nuns, and it's getting us nowhere, not to mention invalidating the founding principle of feminism itself.

After all, the women's movement, like the civil rights movement and every other call for social justice, won its earliest victories on a humanist platform, by appealing to the American sense of equity: We deserve the vote and equal treatment because we, too, are human beings. Now the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction, the voguish assumption being that women are more than human, and men less. Feminism, in Young's estimation, has become little more than a cheerleading squad for women (right or wrong), having thrown equality and fairness to the winds of the gender war.

The proof that Young may be right–i.e., that extremist feminism is both prevalent and warped–lies in the fact that she has to work so hard to convince us that men and women are, in fact, both human, both capable of wrong, both capable of right. You'd think this point would be uncontroversial. Yet Young takes nearly 400 pages to make her case, anticipating the copious objections she knows will greet her. Even so, few people's minds are likely to change under Young's influence, though by all rights they should.

Young is very thorough. She broadsides the prevailing wisdom on domestic abuse (citing a 1975 National Family Violence Survey finding that "by both men's and women's reports, women hit their mates as often as did men" and noting that "55 percent of parents who kill their children are mothers"); the glass ceiling (refuting a claim in The New Yorker that "the average salary of a black female college graduate is less than that of a white male high school dropout"–actually, it's 80 percent higher); sex crimes (noting that women cry wolf in matters of rape more often than we admit and that innocent men are convicted more often than we think); gender stereotypes (reporting that recent studies debunk the notion that girls are more cooperative while boys are more controlling); the supposed androcentrism of medicine (arguing that it's not true that breast cancer is underfunded and underresearched as compared with prostate cancer); paternity (noting that most fathers who are financially able do pay child support); sexual harassment (citing, among other things, "the 1996 story of Johnathan Prevette, the six-year-old suspended from school for a day for smooching a girl on the cheek"); and divorce (observing that "two out of three divorces are initiated by mothers…Most often, wives cite such nebulous reasons as `not feeling loved and appreciated'").

Without doing the kind of fine-tooth checking Young seems to have done herself, it's impossible to know for sure that her statistics are more accurate than Faludi's. But her criticisms of Faludi's claims seem valid. Her research is more extensive, and her arguments are more grounded in hard data rather than anecdotes and generalizations. Regardless, Young's ideas remain sound. It's consoling to see someone so radical that she's willing to be moderate–someone able to insist that to see the whole picture, you have to take pieces of truth from both the left and the right. Young writes:

"A conservativism that came to terms with women's (and men's) new roles would have much to contribute to the discussion of the issues of the day. So would a feminism that repudiated victimhood, gender warfare, and a knee-jerk alliance with the left….When it comes to our essential relationship to the world, our moral reasoning, our duties to ourselves, our families and our society, we should not be defined by sex. We must move toward a culture in which men and women are seen first and foremost as human beings with equal rights and equal responsibilities."

See how reasonable that sounds? Yet how far we are from making it a reality. Sadly, Young's world is too simple by virtue of being reasonable–too optimistic about human nature (which seems somehow to need "selves" and "others," "us" and "them") ever to work in practice. Still, her take is worth our considered attention, if only because it's something we haven't yet tried in earnest. Now if she could only get her tome serialized in Mademoiselle.

Norah Vincent (nvincent@ix.netcom.com) is a freelance writer in New York City.