Feminism's Slide Since September 11


On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, I was busy finishing a column about actress Anne Heche's briefly sensational claims to have recovered repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse and about the fact that such assertions were no longer accorded the nearly uncritical reception they once were once. Two or three minutes after turning on the television, I knew there would be no need to file the column. At the time, it seemed that no one would ever care about such topics again.

A year later, we know that things have not changed as much as was once expected Reports of the death of the celebrity culture, the death of moral relativism, and the death of irony had been greatly exaggerated. David Letterman still offers his wry perspective on current news, the lives and loves of Britney Spears and Brad Pitt still attract attention, and politically correct college professors still frown at "simplistic" notions of good and evil.

The post-Sept. 11 spirit of unity proved even more ephemeral than the upsurge in religious sentiment: In recent months, the spectacle of Democrats and Republicans trying to blame each other for the tragedy has been a staple of political talk shows.

Partisan bickering and celebrity worship may be alive and well, but we are, perhaps, more likely to put these things in their perspective. Moral relativism may still be preached but it is likely to find fewer takers.

There has been a subtle shift, as well, in relations between the sexes.

Some conservative commentators have argued that the attack on America and the war on terrorism have ushered in a restoration of traditional gender roles, and in particular an era of "manly men": the firemen and police officers who became the heroes of the World Trade Center, the male passengers of United Airlines Flight 93 who foiled the hijackers' plan to use the plane as a missile.

After years of male-bashing, it is good to see some appreciation for male heroism and even for the fact that traditional machismo always included not only dominance but protection and rescue. But one senses that some champions of the manly man would have been almost disappointed if the heroes of Flight 93 had included a woman. (In fact, at least one female flight attendant almost certainly did help fight the hijackers.) Meanwhile, feminists who bemoan the lack of attention to the heroines of Sept. 11 tend to sidestep the fact that it's overwhelmingly men who put their lives on the line in dangerous jobs.

The cultural messages that have emerged from the crisis are too complex to be marshaled into the cause of gender nostalgia. The military action in Afghanistan is taking place at a time when there are more women in the military and at the highest levels of government than during any previous American war—from Condoleezza Rice to the women who flew combat missions over Afghanistan.

But while America may not be embracing traditionalism, it is true that the feminist movement, already at low ebb, has slid further into irrelevancy.

For one, the post-Sept. 11 sense that we're all in this together has not dissipated entirely. It may not have proved strong enough to bridge political or even racial polarization (though it has probably diminished such differences), but gender polarization has never been as deep.

Probably, too, the plight of women under the Taliban made many American women realize what real oppression looked like and made some preoccupations of the American women's movement (such as policing sex jokes at work) seem rather trivial.

Perhaps most damningly, many feminists' allegiance to the left made them reluctant to endorse the West's liberation of Afghani women from tyranny. A statement issued in June by prominent American leftists, including feminist luminaries such as Gloria Steinem, novelist Alice Walker and "Vagina Monologues" author Eve Ensler, denounced "the war and repression … loosed on the world by the Bush administration." It mentioned the "attack" on Afghanistan but not the consequences to that nation's women.

Maybe the real gender-related message to be gleaned from Sept. 11 is this: However much we would like to see women's liberation as a natural right, it is the achievement of a complex, advanced civilization. Recent events remind us that this civilization is fragile and that its enemies are hostile to freedom for anyone—but especially women. Feminists, perhaps more than anyone else, should realize that the West is worth defending. Perhaps if they did realize it, they wouldn't be so irrelevant.