Civil Liberties

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.

Feminists Go to War

When feminists haven?t been waylaid by irrelevant distractions, their attitude toward the post-9/11 world has ranged from tepid support for the war to silly posturing. Gloria Steinem, Alice Walker, Susan Sarandon, Eve Ensler, and about 80 other members of the Worldwide Sisterhood Against Terrorism and War circulated a petition last fall protesting the bombing of Afghanistan on the grounds that it "would only punish suffering people and increase the hatred on which terrorists feed."

The Feminist Majority Foundation has also been stuck in a bog of moral equivalency over the war on terrorism. In December its Web site,, touted an online chat with its founder and president, Eleanor Smeal, "connecting U.S. and International Terrorism." The connection Smeal sees concerns not extremist American mullahs indoctrinating terrorists intent on murdering thousands but (and she?s not kidding) anti-abortion protesters. There was also a link to Scarves for Solidarity, a group urging all women to wear the hijab (the Islamic headcovering for women) in support of traditional Muslim women—as if the most pressing social problem right now is the possibility that some Muslim women might be stared at.

Multiculturalist feminists have been complaining that "forced uncovering is also a tool of oppression," as two members of the Muslim Women?s League wrote in a January Los Angeles Times op-ed piece. "As an expression of their opposition to [the Shah of Iran?s] repressive regime," they continued, "women who supported the 1979 Islamic revolution marched in the street clothed in chadors. Many of them did not expect to have this ?dress code? institutionalized." Oops!

Turkey, the freest nation in the Islamic world, takes a different tack, forbidding women to cover their heads at public institutions, just as Germany bans Nazi regalia. These countries recognize their vulnerability to particular toxins and ban them to avoid a descent into fascism, not as an expression of it. Of course, head coverings don?t need to be illegal in America, and neither do swastikas. But feminists defending the former as just another "choice" should expect little more sympathy than those who defend the latter.

Another lesson to be learned from organized feminism?s reaction to 9/11 is that no tragedy is too great, no issue too important, not to be reduced to the most simple-minded identity politics. Those 343 firemen who sacrificed themselves at the Twin Towers? NOW is upset that there were no women among them. Its Legal Defense and Education Fund (NOW-LDEF) is demanding its share of federal disaster relief money. Never mind the widows and orphans; what the world needs now, goes the NOW-LDEF thinking, is more affirmative action.

"The critical thing is role models," Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) told The Washington Post after viewing NOW-LDEF?s Women at Ground Zero video, part of the group?s lobbying campaign to steer funds toward recruiting more female firefighters, police, and construction workers.

NOW?s activities offer a good reading on the state of organized feminism. It is the movement?s largest organization, claiming 500,000 members. (A Boston Globe story puts the figure at 275,000.) The second largest is Ms.?s new publisher, the 60,000-member Feminist Majority Foundation. FMF deserves great credit for publicizing atrocities against women in Afghanistan years before anyone else cared. But it?s worth noting that Mavis Leno, who used her celebrity connections (she?s Jay Leno?s wife) to spotlight the situation, originally joined FMF?s board in 1996 because she wanted to help defeat California?s Proposition 209, which banned racial and gender preferences in state universities and other public institutions. That proposition won by a wide margin overall and garnered more than half the female vote. Yet the organizations that purport to speak for women were fiercely against it. Little wonder most women feel free to ignore organized feminism.

Girls Don?t Need Special Help

It?s not hard to figure out why so many women dislike affirmative action, even if official feminists don?t get it: Girls are generally better students than boys, and it?s insulting to suggest that they need special help getting into college. They certainly don?t need rigged policies that keep them out in the name of social justice. The passage of Proposition 209 meant, among other things, that black or Hispanic male applicants could no longer be admitted to California?s top public universities over better-qualified Asian or white females. This policy affects many more women than the small number who might hope to be firefighters.

Although feminism?s party line about affirmative action is out of touch with the needs of actual women, it continues to be part of the standard patter about "women?s issues." I went to hear Los Angeles City Councilman Eric Garcetti during his campaign last year, and he launched into the usual pandering spiel about "gender equity." Garcetti cited as an example of unfairness that only around 13 percent of city contracts go to women, even though at least half of all new businesses are started by women.

Actually, women are becoming self-employed at something like 12 times the male rate, as Daniel H. Pink pointed out in his 2001 book Free Agent Nation. Many, perhaps most, are work-at-home types like me. City contracts are the last thing on our minds. When we think of the government at all in relation to our business, it?s usually because we don?t want it interfering with how we earn our (quiet, nonpolluting) livings.

In fact, the last time I had reason to consider my work in connection with local government was a few years ago. L.A. was then threatening to enforce a $25 annual home office registration fee and collect city income tax on a percentage of home office earnings. You can imagine how that went over here in Hollywood, home of the bathrobe-clad screenwriter.

Some have argued that the feminist establishment?s major problem is that its leadership is heavy with aging baby boomers, stuck in the outdated concerns of their youth. But the Third Wave Foundation, an organization of feminists up to the age of 30, is equally dedicated to parroting the same out-of-date platform, except they?re bossier and remarkably clueless.

"Hey! Been to a movie? Walked down the street? Spy any sexism lately?" asks the foundation?s "I Spy Sexism" campaign, which suggests sending postcards informing the wrongdoers of their wrong deeds. Third Wave isn?t just against the usual age, gender, sexual orientation, and race inequities; it includes "economic status or level of education" in its list of unfair discrimination. Presumably you should send a postcard to your bank if you were denied a loan just because you have no income.

Left Out

Looking at dominant feminist concerns now, you might think that abortion is illegal, that Muslim women are being arrested in the U.S. for wearing head scarves, that girls are unfairly kept out of college, and that women?s fears about crime have more to do with right-wing nuts attacking lesbians than street rapists or garden-variety wife beaters. Woe to anyone who questions this received wisdom. Consider the case of Tammy Bruce, whose experiences with NOW highlight how feminism has been almost totally subsumed in the general morass of non-gender-related leftist concerns.

Conventional wisdom has it that feminists began losing credibility during the Clinton scandals. But I first noticed the slide into absurdity in 1995, during the O.J. Simpson trial. Bruce, then head of NOW?s Los Angeles chapter and a local talk radio host, had criticized Simpson on the air as a wife beater for months. After the not-guilty verdict, she organized a protest rally that attracted 5,000 people.

Surely using the Simpson case to focus on domestic abuse was exactly what an L.A. feminist should have been doing. But NOW?s national leadership, furious at Bruce for damaging feminist alliances with black leaders, called their L.A. renegade "racially insensitive" and "insidious" in multiple press releases.

"I was a thorn in the side of NOW from the beginning," says Bruce, who describes herself as a "gun-owning, openly gay, pro-choice, pro?death penalty, liberal feminist who voted for Ronald Reagan." Bruce?s recent book, The New Thought Police: Inside the Left?s Assault on Free Speech and Free Minds, details her disillusionment with the women?s movement, which she describes as "socialism masquerading as feminism, group rights as opposed to the individual."

One cliché about women is that they put everyone?s needs above their own. NOW?s behavior during the Simpson trial, which put racial sensitivity before the women?s issue of domestic abuse, was an object lesson in how this cliché can be true. So are organized feminism?s stance on affirmative action and its multiculturalist worry about offending the Muslim world by criticizing its reactionary traditions regarding women.

The women?s movement remains deeply rooted in the soil of the orthodox left. As Bruce notes, Betty Friedan belonged to the Communist Party, Gloria Steinem is honorary chair of the Democratic Socialists of America, and immediate past president of NOW Patricia Ireland wrote about her support of the Communist Party in her 1999 autobiography, What Women Want. It causes problems "when you attach a social activism agenda like feminism to one side of the political spectrum," Bruce told me. "As I argued to NOW, if we had not attached women?s rights to one party, we would not be having these [relevancy] problems."

Race and multiculturalism aren?t the only issues that feminists have put before women?s interests. They have done the same with the gay agenda, specifically its push for hate crime laws. A woman may need hate crime legislation like a fish needs a bicycle, but feminists never seem to worry that demanding stronger punishment for "hate" crimes risks a return to the bad old days of men getting light sentences for "love" crimes of the old "Ruby, Don?t Take Your Love to Town" variety by making one?s emotional motive dispositive in criminal sentencing. (Historically, enraged, cuckolded men who committed crimes of passion against their wives or girlfriends often were viewed fairly sympathetically by judges and juries.) The sad fact is that far more women are killed by angry husbands or boyfriends—1,218 in 1999, according to the U.S. Department of Justice—than gays are killed because they are gay. The FBI reported 17 "hate-motivated" murders of any type in 1999, the latest year for which data are available.

Bruce makes a strong case that an obsession with uncommon tragedies like Matthew Shepard?s killing by strangers obscures the far more common situation of women being killed by men they know. She points out that in 1998, the same year that Shepard was left to die on that fence outside of Laramie, Wyoming, another grisly murder happened there. But you?ve probably never heard of 15-year-old Daphne Sulk, who was stabbed to death by her 38-year-old boyfriend after he got her pregnant. Daphne ended up just as dead as Matthew, even if her death never made the national news. And while Matthew?s killers were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, Daphne?s was convicted only of voluntary manslaughter. (See "The ?Hate State? Myth," May 1999.)

It?s rare to find a feminist group that ever mentions Daphne Sulk. Yet they regularly beat their drums about hate crimes legislation, even—especially—when it has little to do with women.

>The Red Herring of Abortion

One reason feminist groups didn?t turn Daphne Sulk into their new poster girl may be because she?d refused to have an abortion. As Bruce notes, this is "not exactly the kind of person the left wants to immortalize."

Three decades ago, feminist activist Flo Kennedy said that if men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament. In the days of ineffective or unavailable birth control and back alley abortions, that statement packed a lot of punch. Not any more. Abortion has become a sacrament. I am not now, nor have I ever been, against abortion rights. It?s hard not to notice, though, how feminists continue to place abortion above issues with a bigger effect on women?s lives. Surely one reason the feminist movement has lost credibility is precisely because women are beginning to notice.

George W. Bush is not exactly a right-to-life crusader. As Andrew Sullivan pointed out during the 2000 presidential campaign, the 100-plus judges Bush appointed while governor of Texas actually extended abortion rights in that state. The Texas Right-to-Life Committee called the Texas Supreme Court?s 1999 ruling in favor of a 17-year-old?s right to an abortion without informing her parents "shocking." Laura Bush has stated that she thinks abortion should be legal; Attorney General John Ashcroft has said that he considers Roe v. Wade "settled law." But feminists still paint Bush as a pro-life zealot and ally themselves relentlessly and totally with the Democratic Party.

Anti-anti-abortion paranoia helped defeat former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan?s gubernatorial hopes last spring. Although the liberal Republican believes abortion should remain legal, his opponent, Gov. Gray Davis, brought up some old personal statements against abortion that Riordan, a Roman Catholic, made in the early ?90s. I remember feminists using similar scare tactics during Riordan?s mayoral campaign 10 years ago—as if the mayor of Los Angeles, who can?t even control the city council, actually has the power to ban abortion.

All this was especially bizarre because abortion has been a nonissue in California dating back to six years before Roe. Ronald Reagan, of all people, signed into law the most liberal abortion rights act in the country in 1967, when he was California?s governor. The law made abortion completely legal for any reason in the first 20 weeks of pregnancy—well into the second trimester. (Roe calls for some restrictions after the first 13 weeks.) Since the beginning of this year, women don?t even need a prescription to get emergency postcoital contraception from California pharmacies. Yet the feminist movement seems determined to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

When President Bush expanded a government health care program to include pregnant women in February, he classified the fetus as an "unborn child" eligible for health care. The feminist Web site Women?s Enews made this its "Outrage of the Week." But if the result is that poor pregnant women get prenatal care, is that such a terrible thing? More women would like free medical care from the government than would like an abortion, but you?d never know it from listening to feminist organizations.

Instead they provide dramatic but misleading statistics, such as the fact that some 80 percent of U.S. counties have no abortion providers. This says as much about the state of rural health care as it does about abortion: Most of the 3,143 counties in the U.S. are thinly populated "nonmetropolitan" counties, as the Census puts it, and almost half have no obstetricians or gynecologists at all. If classifying the fetus as an unborn child makes it easier for poor women to get health care, it seems strange for feminists, of all people, to be outraged.

Granted, you can?t expect abortion rights activists to want a fetus described as anything but a fetus. But this seems to be more a matter of semantics than an omen of abortion restrictions to come. Feminist groups were similarly up in arms last year because of the federal Unborn Victims of Violence Act, which increased penalties against criminals who attacked pregnant women. But the law specifically exempted legal abortion, and one criminal law professor told The New Republic that he saw nothing in it "that would undermine Roe v. Wade." The protests against such semantic transgressions seem hysterical in the most basic sense of the word.

Foot-In-Mouth Disease

Another major problem with the women?s movement, aside from its mindless fealty to leftism and obsession with abortion, is that its spokeswomen just haven?t sounded very smart lately. The moribund situation of the movement?s flagship magazine Ms. is just the most obvious example. For another, turn to Boston University journalism professor Caryl Rivers. Last winter she railed against the notion of liberal bias in the media, arguing in The Boston Globe that leaders of the tiny (600-member) Independent Women?s Forum (IWF), a conservative women?s group, appear on talk shows and the op-ed pages of major newspapers regularly, while NOW and FMF leaders don?t.

Rivers brought up a good point, even if it wasn?t exactly the one she was trying to make. Mainstream media are generally sympathetic to the NOW and FMF platforms. They are also unsympathetic to IWF. So if feminist leaders aren?t appearing on the op-ed pages, the most likely reason is that they?ve failed to provide a fresh or convincing argument.

That feminism seems to have lost its voice can be seen in the recent implosions of Naomi Wolf and Susan Faludi, who reigned during the ?90s as the movement?s major intellectual media darlings. But if they came in with a bang in 1991—Wolf with The Beauty Myth and Faludi with Backlash—they?ve gone out with a whimper. The decline of Faludi began in 1998, when the British novel Bridget Jones?s Diary, which was very popular with women, if not with feminists, arrived in the U.S. (It was first published in the U.K. in 1996.) The novel?s running joke was that Bridget was always meaning to read Backlash, but just kept getting bored. A media icon?s days are numbered once she?s perceived as simultaneously worthy and dreary.

Still, the severe media backlash against Faludi and her last book, Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man (1999), was remarkable. If Backlash revived American feminism, Stiffed began hammering the nails into the coffin. The premise of Stiffed was that men were "in crisis," "in agony," and that something must be done.

Like what? Like "learning to wage a battle against no enemy," Faludi suggested vaguely (and with one hand clapping, no doubt). That was pretty much it, except that the argument was extended for some 600 pages. Even those generally on Faludi?s side got impatient. "She should have said she was talking about class," Judith Shulevitz wrote grumpily in The New York Times. "She said she was talking about gender." Despite the sort of massive publicity send-off authors dream about, including a 5,000-word excerpt in Newsweek, the book sank without a trace.

Even deadlier was the reaction last fall to Naomi Wolf?s Misconceptions, a mesmerizingly nutty polemic about what she calls "the hidden truths behind giving birth in America today." (That?s compared to the sheer delight of giving birth in the rest of the world, of course.) The bland trade journal Publishers Weekly, which hardly has an anti-feminist ax to grind, irritatedly dismissed the book as "a weirdly out-of-touch bid for personal attention."

Now that the standard polite flip-through of the neighbors? hospital baby pictures means viewing a bloody color close-up of baby?s emerging head and mom?s genitalia, you may wonder just what truths about giving birth are still hidden. But perhaps you had no idea that pregnant women "in our culture" (to use Wolf?s favorite phrase) often have Cesareans, even when they?d hoped not to; that they are typically exhausted and sometimes feel like they?re losing their minds; that new moms still get up more than new dads to deal with howling infants in the middle of the night; or that maternity clothes tend to be unstylish, with a cruel lack of selection in Western wear.

Yes, she?s serious about that one. "You could not be a cowgirl and a mother," Wolf observes glumly, describing another day "mourning the loss of the young woman I had been" while rifling the racks at the mall. "You could not be a heartbreaker and a mother….You could not, in our culture, easily pair motherhood with many other alluring archetypes."

As opposed to what other culture? Are there really maternity shops selling Annie Get Your Gun outfits in Iraq or India? But Wolf remains starry-eyed about the obstetrical wonders of the non-American world. In Europe and Belize, she instructs one annoyed obstetrician, episiotomies are less necessary because midwives massage the perineal area with warm oil. There?s hardly anywhere on the planet, in fact (except the bad old U.S.A.), that Wolf doesn?t imagine as a garden of perineum-massaging delights.

"In Greece, Guatemala, Burma, China, Japan, Malaysia and Lebanon," she tells us, "women who have given birth are expected to do little more than lie in bed" for a long, leisurely postpartum. And in Hartford, Hereford, and Hampshire, hurricanes hardly happen—to cite another statement that sounds good but makes little sense. "Cross-culturally," Wolf continues, "women?s pregnancy is marked by ceremony: a festive meal in China, a visit to a Shinto shrine in Japan, a blessing in Malaysia." Or maybe by a stoning in Nigeria if they?re pregnant and unmarried, or a forced march to the abortion clinic in China if they?re pregnant with another daughter instead of a son. But Wolf doesn?t get into any of that. To quote Publishers Weekly again, "What stands out with embarrassing clarity is [Wolf?s] emphasis on the sufferings of a privileged minority."

Precisely. One of the minor casualties of 9/11 was patience for listening to privileged Americans complain, in distinctly anti-American terms, about their privileged American lives. If feminism doesn?t want to completely wear out women?s patience—and men?s, too—it had better find a new agenda. Perhaps one that is, to start with, less blatantly foolish, and more engaged with the issues that women regularly tell pollsters they care most about: crime, the economy, child care, balancing work and motherhood, their children?s schools. It might help if organized feminism recognized that, among other things, legal equality already exists. If feminism wants to become vital again, it must first acknowledge the successes that it helped to achieve.