Six Years of Culture Wars

Cathy Young looks back on feminism, fathers and fraud in the 21st Century so far


After more than six years, this is my final column as a regular in the Boston Globe's pages, though I look forward to contributing to the section from time to time. These past six years have been eventful. The American and global political scene changed forever on Sept. 11, 2001, and we got into a war in Iraq whose ultimate consequences may not be known for years. These topics will no doubt continue to dominate the op-ed pages. But there have been other issues of special concern to me that will remain relevant in the years to come.

Gender issues from a "dissident feminist" perspective—pro-fairness and equal treatment, anti-gender warfare—have long been one of my areas of interest. The "Mommy Wars" of full-time motherhood versus career are likely to remain intractable, with some feminists accusing stay-at-home mothers of letting down the sisterhood, some conservatives accusing working mothers of letting down their children, and people in the middle calling for freedom of choice. If we can even begin to resolve this often acrimonious debate, it is by moving toward more genuine choice for men as well as women to scale down careers for family.

While feminists have called for more male involvement in child-rearing, the women's movement has also championed blatant favoritism toward mothers in child custody disputes, often to the point of vilifying fathers. This seems to be a clear case of putting solidarity with women over equity. While the fathers' rights movement has often been depicted as a patriarchal backlash, it is in many ways more faithful to the true feminist legacy than are the women's groups which endorse maternal chauvinism.

I am very proud of the support I have been able to give to equality for fathers, and particularly of my work in exposing the inaccuracies and bias in the 2005 PBS documentary "Breaking the Silence: The Children's Stories," which painted fathers who seek custody of their children as presumptive abusers.

The issue of mothers losing custody to alleged abusers has received more media coverage since then—much of it sensationalistic and slanted—and seems to be the next big battlefield for feminists and fathers' rights activists. Sadly, the fact that children's lives are at stake, not just the interests of men and women, often gets lost.

Another issue on which feminist concern with equity has devolved into knee-jerk female solidarity is the rights of accuser and accused in sexual assault cases. The apparent collapse of the rape charges against the lacrosse players at Duke University clearly illustrates the dangers of the "women don't lie about rape" stance adopted by victim-advocacy groups, whose credibility is likely to sustain serious damage.

While the gender wars have become somewhat less prominent on our cultural landscape, the "faith wars" have come to the fore. Though a secular agnostic myself, I have often been sympathetic to complaints about efforts to expunge religion from public life.

In my view, separation of church and state requires neutrality toward religious and secular viewpoints, not discrimination against religion or suppression of religious expression in the public sphere (such as banning mentions of God in speeches by high school valedictorians). More recently, however, complaints of "religious persecution" from the right have turned into a new culture of victimhood.

Many conservatives are demanding not simply neutrality but special treatment for some religious beliefs. We now hear that to criticize a judicial nominee's faith-based opposition to abortion is "religious bigotry," that a "Happy Holidays" sign at Macy's during the Christmas season is an assault on Christians, and that "people of faith" are oppressed if they are prevented from coercive proselytizing. In these matters, the religious right has become as hypersensitive and shrill as the cultural left has been on issues of race and gender. Like political correctness, religious correctness is not a pretty sight, and it's likely to continue to cause more rancor in public discourse.

As I say goodbye, I'd like to conclude with an issue that has become a subject of overriding concern for me: a tendency toward polarization and mutual demonization in American public life. I have often been embroiled in debates on whether the right or the left is more responsible for the politics of hate. This is fruitless. Things will not get better until people on both sides forget about the blame game and start ostracizing the hate-mongers in their own camp.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason. Her work can be found at cathyyoung.net.