A Feminist Flare-Up

Is the "Year of Conservative Women" bad for women?


Perhaps all the talk of the "Year of the Conservative Woman," sparked by the crop of fairly conservative Republican women running for office, has slightly unhinged some feminists on the left. Or maybe it's a flare-up of the Palin Derangement Syndrome caused by Sarah Palin's galling insistence on calling herself a feminist. For whatever reason, the Feminist Dogma Police is out in force, handing down edicts on where the party lines must be drawn—and, for whatever reason, they have been getting a platform for these edicts not in specialty publications but in the mainstream media. The loser, ultimately, is feminism itself.

First, The Washington Post ran blogger Jessica Valenti's diatribe against Palin and other women who, in her view, were trying to usurp the feminist mantle. Sure, Valenti allowed, diversity of opinions is good—but goddess forbid there should be feminists who dissent from the sisterhood's orthodoxy on abortion or pay equity, or who believe that women in America today are not oppressed by "the patriarchy." Then, Slate published a piece by another big gun of the left-wing feminist blogosphere, Amanda Marcotte, titled "A short history of 'feminist' anti-feminists" and painting Palin as the latest in a line of "women who call themselves feminist" while opposing the feminist movement.

Marcotte's account, which identifies three generations of "feminist anti-feminists," is pretty shoddy history. For one, her first generation—the Eagle Forum's Phyllis Schlafly or Concerned Women for America founder Beverly LaHaye—consists of women who never called themselves feminists and explicitly opposed gender equality as counter to the God-given roles of the sexes. (Bizarrely, Marcotte even calls this first wave "plain ol' anti-feminism.") And her third generation, which includes Palin and is clumsily labeled "co-opting feminism anti-feminism," is a random list of women and organizations whose only common feature seems to be that they either oppose abortion or believe that women are ill-served by a sexually permissive culture.

Then there's Marcotte's attack on what she classes as the second wave of feminism's critics: "'Independent Feminism' Anti-Feminism," of which I myself have been a part. Arising in the early 1990s, "independent feminism" embraced the feminist challenge to women's traditional place but also asserted that the major battles for women's rights had been won—and not only celebrated feminist achievements but questioned exaggerated claims of female oppression and male evil. Among other things, this dissident feminism criticized the tendency to redefine rape (particularly "date rape") so broadly as to include miscommunication due to mixed signals or sex under the influence of alcohol.

Marcotte sarcastically asserts that one of the major "victories" of "independent feminism" was "maintaining a cultural and legal framework that made it difficult to prosecute rape." What does this mean? Her previous writings on the subject provide some context. In 2006-2007, Marcotte emerged as a leader of the cyber-lynch mob in the Duke University rape hoax. On her blog, anyone questioning the guilt of the three lacrosse players charged with sexually assaulting an exotic dancer at a team party was branded a "rape apologist." In a particularly vicious broadside, she sneered at syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker for arguing that "unless the victim is 9 years old and a virgin and white and blonde … rape isn't so much a crime as a feminist plot to put all men in jail." This wasn't so much hyperbole as outright distortion: while Parker had deplored the "rush to judgment" in the Duke case, she had explicitly condemned the notion that the alleged victim was less deserving of sympathy because she was a stripper. (Parker is one of the "independent feminists" on Marcotte's Slate blacklist.)

The true extent of Marcotte's hate-filled zealotry is evident in a profanity-laced rant she posted about a CNN special report on the Duke case aired after the rape charges were dismissed. (She later deleted the post when it became an issue in the controversy over her short-lived appointment as blog coordinator for the John Edwards' presidential campaign.) Slamming CNN as "pure evil," Marcotte vented her outrage at having to "listen to how the poor dear lacrosse players at Duke are being persecuted just because they held someone down and f***ed her against her will," and concluded sarcastically, "Can't a few white boys sexually assault a black woman anymore without people getting all wound up about it? So unfair."

It seems that, in Marcotte's eyes, the real crime of the "independent feminists'" is helping preserve the idea that the presumption of innocence applies even in cases of rape and sexual assault. If so, that is indeed a victory. Depriving men of their civil rights is no victory for women—both as a matter of principle and because most women have men in their lives whom they would not want to see face a false charge of rape under Marcotte-style standards of justice.

The real mystery is why a publication of Slate's stature, and its "women's section," Double XX, would run an article whose main purpose is to exclude dissent from feminist discourse and smear the dissenters. (Whether any respectable media outlet would extend such courtesy to a blogger who wrote about women, gays, or black men with the kind of vitriol Marcotte shows toward white males is another question.) What happened to letting a hundred flowers bloom?

For the record, I strongly disagree with some of the women on Marcotte's enemies list, right-to-life feminists in particular. Aside from the issue of government control over people's bodies, I am troubled by their tendency to portray women who have abortions as victims of predatory males—rhetoric that echoes the "victim feminists" of the left. But that doesn't mean there should be no place at the feminist table for women who genuinely believe that abortion is the taking of a human life, no dialogue or search for compromise. Yes, even the biggest tent must have some boundaries: to expand "feminism" to include advocacy of male superiority or female submission would strip the concept of all meaning. But, last time I checked, women who held such views were in no rush to appropriate the term. And if the question is how best to achieve gender equity and how much of it has been achieved already, why not try debate rather than excommunication?

Cathy Young writes a weekly column for RealClearPolitics and is also a contributing editor at Reason magazine. She blogs at http://cathyyoung.wordpress.com/. This article originally appeared at RealClearPolitics.