The Gender Battlefield: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Unfortunately, the state of feminism in 2013 may have hit a new low


2013 was something of an anniversary year for the modern women's movement, marking fifty years since Betty Friedan's best-seller "The Feminine Mystique"—which, while hardly without flaws, offered a bracingly positive vision of embracing female achievement and strength without demonizing men or sacrificing family. Some of this year's events reflect the remarkable progress women have made in those decades. Women claimed leadership at General Motors and Lloyd's of London, the world's top insurance market; Angela Merkel was reelected to a third term as German chancellor while widely recognized as Europe's leader. The Pew Research Center reported that women made up 40 percent of America's breadwinners in families with children—and nearly 40 percent of those were married mothers with median household incomes of about $80,000 a year.

Unfortunately, the state of feminism in 2013 may have hit a new low, with much of its energy spent on battles that are either trivial or destructive. Between gender-war feminism on the left and old-fashioned sexism on the right, picking the year's worst in relations between the sexes in easy; picking the best is much harder, but worth the effort.  Here's my personal list, by no means intended to be complete.

Overzealous crusade of the year: The "War on Rape." Who could be against efforts to combat this despicable crime? At the start of the year, anti-rape activists garnered widespread sympathy as they demanded justice for Steubenville, Ohio's "Jane Doe," a teenage girl sexually assaulted by two football players after heavy drinking at a high school party. The Steubenville case drew attention to genuinely troubling attitudes, including a tendency to excuse misbehavior by popular athletes and judge young women's reckless behavior (such as drinking too much) more harshly. Unfortunately, the noble cause quickly succumbed to over-the-top zealotry—with lurid rumors and harassment of innocent people in Steubenville itself, and a general indictment of America as a misogynistic "rape culture" whose men needed to be "taught" not to rape women.

In this crusade, the legitimate issue of sexual assault in the military was inflated into an epidemic by using a survey that made no distinction between rape and an unwanted pat on the backside and treated every failed rape prosecution (no matter how muddled the facts) as a failure of justice. And, on college campuses, the federal government weighed in on the side of the crusaders, using its muscle to push for lower standards of proof to discipline (mostly male) students accused of rape on the basis of a simple accusation.

By the end of the year, the campus crusade against rape had descended into utter absurdity. In August, Yale University, under fire for punishing "nonconsensual sex" with mere reprimands, released a document with examples of such "nonconsensual" acts—most of them involving no force, threat, incapacitation, or even clear refusal of consent. (In one scenario, the "offender" was guilty of failing to get an explicit okay before reciprocating oral sex.)  Jezebel.com, the feminist website that had earlier accused Yale of hiding rape behind euphemisms, continued to insist that these absurd tales showed Yale's leniency toward rapists.

And, in October, the Ohio University campus in Athens, Ohio was rocked by charges of a public rape caught on video and posted online. Actually, the video showed two drunk students engaging in a sexual act; after it went viral, the woman went to the police, claiming she had no memory of the incident and had been too intoxicated to consent. Both the video and eyewitness accounts made it clear that, far from being incapacitated, the woman was a fairly enthusiastic participant. The grand jury refused to indict the man. Nonetheless, both the university community and feminist bloggers such as Tara Culp-Ressler at ThinkProgress.org rallied behind the "victim" and denounced "rape culture." (Talk about trivializing rape.)

In one interesting development, several men expelled from colleges on what they say were phony charges of sexual assault have filed lawsuits claiming illegal sex discrimination under a system stacked against accused males.

The three silliest feminist outrages of the year. There's quite an embarrassment of riches to choose from. How about:

* Men taking up too much space on public transit by sitting with their legs too far apart. Seriously, feminists? After being enlightened about this so-called issue, I actually started watching for it on several trips on the New York subway. Alas, about three-quarters of the people I noticed taking up an inordinate amount of space were women (spreading out shopping bags or sitting half-turned with a backpack occupying the next seat). This is worse than silly: feminist tirades on the subject feature startlingly hateful language (with sneering references to male anatomy that would be considered vilely misogynist if directed by men at women) and the use of people's photos taken without their consent (something that the same feminist websites have railed against when it's men posting "creepshots" of sexy women).

Beef stroganoff vs. rocket science. The feminist blogosphere exploded over a New York Times obituary that opened thus: "She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children. … But Yvonne Brill, who died Wednesday at 88 in Princeton, N.J., was also a brilliant rocket scientist, who … invented a propulsion system to help keep communications satellites from slipping out of their orbits." It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that writer Doug Martin was not promoting stereotypes of feminine virtues but humorously subverting them, contrasting Brill's traditional homemaker image and her very non-housewifely achievements (as some feminist commentators did point out). It is just as obvious that Brill was being honored with a Times obit for the science, not the cooking. No matter: in response to the outcry, the obit was rewritten to cut the beef stroganoff. (Speaking of stereotypes, isn't there one about feminists and humor?)

"Blurred Lines." Robin Thicke's hit single has been denounced as a virtual anthem for rape because of the "I know you want it" lyric—even though the woman addressed in the song is repeatedly invited to make a move on the man and explore her "bad girl" side. (There's even a disparaging reference to a previous male partner who tried to "domesticate" her.) Despite feminist voices in its defense, the song has become so associated with the "rape promotion" label that it has been banned from several British college campuses and targeted for at least two censorship attempts in the United States. A particularly ridiculous blog item compared lyrics from "Blurred Lines" to actual words used by rapists to their victims; never mind that, as some commenters pointed out, rapists may also have said things like "You're beautiful." (Oh, and "I know you want it"—addressed to a man—was sung by a girl band, The Pussycat Dolls, in their best-selling 2005 single, "Don't Cha." Those rapists!)

Top three conservative caveman moments of the year. While feminists charges of a conservative "war on women" often target entirely reasonable arguments (for instance, that the gender gap in pay is due mainly to women's personal choices), there are those pundits who seem insistent on living down to that particular stereotype. Among them:

RedState.com meets Animal Planet. Discussing female breadwinners on Lou Dobbs's Fox News panel, RedState.com blogger Erick Erikson asserted that such practices were unnatural and "anti-science" because, in the animal kingdom, it's normal for males to be in "the dominant role." (It's also "normal" for females to raise their young on their own.)

* "Know your role and shut your mouth." That was from conservative radio host Bill Cunningham to Fox News analyst Tamara Holder on Sean Hannity's show, in a debate over whether Attorney General Eric Holder (no relation) had committed perjury. Granted, the argument had been contentious on both sides, with mutual finger-jabbing and Holder being the first to tell Cunningham to "shut up"; but the "know your role" part (followed by an "Are you going to cry"? taunt) takes Cunningham's remarks way over the line.

Head injuries are manly, cancer awareness is girly. Rush Limbaugh—the gift that keeps on giving to the left—has slammed not only the use of breast cancer awareness ribbons but safety regulations to prevent head injuries in the National Football league as signs of the "chickification" of America.

Most obnoxious gender neologism of the year. "Mansplaining," a coinage of the feminist blogosphere to describe the conduct of condescending men who presume to lecture women on how to think about gender issues (because, obviously, condescension is an exclusively male vice and men are forbidden to have opinions on gender issues). It's been around for a few years—here's one feminist's excellent take on why she doesn't use it—but has lately entered the mainstream. British comedienne and writer Paula Wright suggests "femsplain" as a counterpart.

Two gender-barrier breakthroughs undermined by gender politics. Sometimes, feminist special pleading can compromise genuine female achievement by casting doubt on its legitimacy. Two cases in point: Janet Yellen's appointment as chair of the Federal Reserve, undoubtedly meritorious but preceded by activist demands that Yellen, in effect, be appointed because of her gender. Meanwhile, the effort to integrate women into combat roles in the military has run into problems because most female recruits in the Marines can't meet the necessary standards of physical fitness. 

Three true feminist heroes of the year:

* Malala Yousafzai, the fearless Pakistani girl who has continued her fight for girls' education after being shot in the head by Taliban terrorists, for reminding us of how urgent the battle for women's basic rights still is in many parts of the world.

* Margaret Thatcher, the former British prime minister whose achievements, after her death, elicited grudging respect even from many left-wing feminists who couldn't abide her in life—for being a model of a truly liberated woman who did not conform to traditional or feminist scripts.

* Marissa Mayer, Yahoo's CEO, for charting a similarly independent course in business. Mayer defied expectations of soft and cuddly female leadership when she banned telecommuting—causing much criticism but boosting company stock. Later, she instituted paid parental leave for both mothers and fathers.

Top wish for 2014: a "true equality" movement. In 2013, there was a fair amount of attention to men's rights groups—which often raise legitimate issues but have a regrettable tendency to mirror the gender antagonism, hyperbole, and victim mentality of radical feminism. But, with men's issues on the table, perhaps the next year will see more calls for a balanced approach that promotes fairness and goodwill toward both sexes. That would make a good, if optimistic, New Year's resolution.

This column originally appeared on Real Clear Politics.