Posts tagged Professional Antifeminists

Fathers for Lies: selective quotation and distortion of Catharine MacKinnon’s position

One of the easiest things to do in this life is to be an anti-feminist blowhard. It’s easy because you don’t have to know anything at all to do it: when it comes time for some dude to spout off about Women’s Lib, he can count on being taken seriously without having spent 5 minutes on even a casual attempt to find out what his target’s views actually are, whether he has represented them rightly or wrongly, whether he is saying something true or false, or whether he is musing about something that has already been mooted and already answered definitively many, many times before. You don’t have to know anything about the history or theory of the feminist movement (a lot of which is, mind you, less than 40 years old and widely in print); you don’t need to know anything about what particular feminists did or didn’t say; you don’t even have to know anything in particular about current affairs. As long as you are spouting off about feminism or some particular feminist, no-one in the mainstream media or culture is likely to bother checking up on a damn thing you say.

Given the complete lack of any kind of intellectual accountability, or felt need to stop for a moment and read up on what you’re talking about, that big-mouthed men have enjoyed when it comes to feminism, it shouldn’t be surprising that a broad spectrum of ill-informed lectures, factless tirades, half-truths, distortions, and outright lies spring up and spread from year to year. At the furthest, most degenerate end of the spectrum, you can find a particularly loathsome specimen: the anti-feminist horror file quote list that are circulated among Fathers’ Rights bully-boys and anti-abortion websites. As a case in point, I offer Fathers for Life’s compilation of quotes, apparently collected by Bill Wood (with interspersed commentary by an unnamed author) claiming to show that feminism has roots in communism.

Now, as far as the conclusion goes, it seems to me that this is a bit like marshalling all your forces—complete with cavalry, banners, and a booming great military band—into a massive charge to take a cowpatch that was never contested. Anyone who has spent five minutes reading a survey history of second-wave feminism—like Feminist Revolution or In Our Time—or some of the actual works, such as The Dialectic of Sex or Toward a Feminist Theory of the Statealready knows that many of the pioneering second-wave feminists came out of the radical wing of the New Left, and many of them were socialists, Marxists, or anarchists of various stripes. They are not particularly coy about the fact, and so what, anyway? Anyone who has taken the time to look up these basic facts before spouting off also knows that a lot of the New Left responded with hostility and contempt towards the emerging Women’s Liberation movement; they know that it eventually led to an acrimonious split and the abandonment or qualification of many classical Marxist doctrines as women came to shape an analysis grounded in their own experience of oppression and liberation. If you think that this is going to come as some kind of shock to people, then you are presuming a great deal of willing ignorance on the part of your audience about feminism. Depending on the audience, that may be a pretty safe assumption, but where it is, it’s pretty clear that the fault lies with the audience, not with the feminists.

No, the issue here is not that the conclusion of the horror file compilation is false (it may be false, if they mean to portray feminists as classical Marxists; it is true if they only make the more limited claim that feminist theory is deeply influenced by Marxism). It’s that the reasons given for this conclusion are deceptive. Nestled in between lengthy quotations from several anti-feminist polemics (among others, Slouching Towards Gomorrah and Professing Feminism), there are citations from a number of feminist authors and activists purporting to demonstrate connections between Marxism and feminism. The problem is that, even though the conclusion is true, the quotations used to bolster it are being used deceptively. They do not mean what Fathers for Life claims they mean. In some cases, they express a view that is the opposite of the one the author holds. In fact, it includes a quote which may be completely fabricated for all I can tell—more on that below. And these aren’t innocent mistakes, either. Fathers for Life has made it clear that they do not care whether the evidence they’re using to bolster their case is accurate or completely spurious. I know because I wrote them about it:

To: FathersForLife.org website contact form
From: Charles Johnson feedback@radgeek.com
Date: 25 February 2005

I was a bit puzzled to see some of the following quotes at http://www.fathersforlife.org/feminism/quotes1.htm#Femicommies, apparently intended to demonstrate that feminism is derived from Marxism:

Marxism and Feminism are one, and that one is Marxism — Heidi Hartmann and Amy Bridges, The unhappy marriage of Marxism and Feminism

Sexuality is to feminism what work is to Marxism…

— Toward a Feminist Theory of the State. Catharine A. MacKinnon, 1989, First Harvard University Press. Page 3.

I wonder whether anyone involved with this page has actually read Toward a Feminist Theory of the State, or The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism. In fact, one wonders if you have even read the title of The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism, since that puts it in a nutshell before you have even made it to the essay. I ask these things because the two pieces are extended discussions of the problems inherent in trying to combine feminist and Marxist politics. The first 1/3 of MacKinnon’s book is devoted to a lengthy feminist critique of Marxism and of attempted Marxist-feminist syntheses.

There are plenty of places to find Marxist influences on feminism, or attempts to combine Marxist and feminist politics. But MacKinnon and Hartmann’s essays are not among them. Frankly it’s hard to regard the selective use of these quotations as anything other than (i) incredibly sloppy, or (ii) dishonest.

Here’s the reply that I got:

Date: Fri, 25 Feb 2005 21:26:13 -0700 From: Walter Schneider misc@fathersforlife.org Subject: Re: Data posted to form 1 of http://fathersforlife.org/contact.htm
To: feedback@radgeek.com
Organization: Fathers for Life

Thanks for writing.

If you read all of the document, you must have read also who produced it and noticed that it contains many, many more quotes than just the couple that you found to be objectionable.

Your complaint is noted, but two objectionable quotes about the strong ties between communism and radical feminism isn’t all there is at Fathers for Life. I suggest that you make a search for “feminism communism” at fathersforlife.org.

Amongst the more than a hundred pages containing information that relates to the connection between radical feminism and communism, there must surely be a few more that will irk you. I suggest that you narrow your search down by adding the following search term to the string:

Pizzey OR Hubbard

Enjoy,

Walter

Of course, this was not a response to the point and I was not (and am not) particularly interested in changing subjects to a general debate on the validity or invalidity of feminism with someone who can’t even be bothered to care whether or not the claims presented on his advocacy website are true or false. So:

Date: Sat, 26 Feb 2005 11:42:22 -0500
To: “Walter Schneider” misc@fathersforlife.org
Subject: Re: Data posted to form 1 of http://fathersforlife.org/contact.htm
From: “Rad Geek” feedback@radgeek.com
Organization: Rad Geek People’s Daily

. . .

Mr. Schneider,

I’m not sure that you quite understood my purpose in writing. I don’t dispute that there are real historical and intellectual connections between radical feminism and Marxism. Anyone who has read the history of the feminist movement knows this; radical feminists make no secret of the fact that substantial parts of their thought come from contemporary Marxist movements and that they themselves were often involved in revolutionary socialist movements (they went on to angrily break with most of these movements, but rarely gave up those movements’ fundamental goals—see for example Robin Morgan’s Goodbye to All That).

What I am concerned with is the fact that you cite the following three quotes, among others, as evidence for this fact:

Marxism and Feminism are one, and that one is Marxism —Heidi Hartmann and Amy Bridges, The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism (qtd. in MacKinnon 1989)

Sexuality is to feminism what work is to Marxism… —MacKinnon (1989) p. 3

Feminism, Socialism, and Communism are one in the same, and Socialist/Communist government is the goal of feminism. —MacKinnon (1989) p. 10

Hartmann’s and Bridge’s essay is a criticism of Marxism; the quote is a parody of Blackstone’s famous nutshell summary of the legal status of husband and wife in a marriage. Her argument is that, heretofore, Marxists have claimed to support feminist goals while actually ignoring them or distorting them in order to make them subordinate to the theoretical concerns and personal interests of Marxist men. This is obvious if you’ve read the essay; it should be clear that that’s where it’s going if you’ve so much as read and understood the title.

The use of the quotes from MacKinnon is even worse. Both quotes come from the first several pages of an extended critique of Marxism. The opening statement that sexuality is to feminism what work is to Marxism is used to set up a series of questions as to whether or not Marxism and feminism are, at the end of the day, compatible. (MacKinnon goes on to argue that they are not, and that feminist method must be, in some important sense, “post-Marxist”.) The second quote is not a statement of MacKinnon’s beliefs at all; it is a statement of a view with which she sharply disagrees; she thinks that the view is part of the anti-feminist strategy that some Marxists have tried to adopt in addressing feminist concerns. Again, these points are quite clear from a single reading of the opening chapter of Toward a Feminist Theory of the State.

Are there historical connections between feminism and Marxism? Of course there are. But the quotes that you intend to introduce as evidence for that conclusion aren’t evidence for it, and they clearly do not mean what you seem to be indicating that they mean by grabbing them out of their context and arranging them as you have. The problem is that the use of all these quotes is selective, and in being selective it is deceptive. I do not know whether the deception is by intent or by ignorance; in either case it is clearly the result of sloppy or nonexistant reading of the text.

Will these quotes be removed from your discussion of Communism and feminism?

Sincerely,
Charles Johnson

Here’s the reply:

Date: Sat, 26 Feb 2005 19:03:58 -0700
From: Walter Schneider misc@fathersforlife.org
Subject: Re: Bill Wood’s Testimony at the Ways and Means Committee
To: Rad Geek feedback@radgeek.com
Organization: Fathers for Life

Dear Mr. Johnson,

No, not at all, I have a fairly good appreciation of what you are getting at, but let me be more direct about your misperceptions, as there are more than just one.

You picked on three examples of quotes that don’t quite meet your exacting standards, and you picked on the wrong fellow to direct your complaint to.

Obviously, those three examples are only a small fraction of all of the quotes used by Bill Wood, the author of that article containing the evidence he presented to the Ways and Means Committee. Surely you understand that I can’t willy-nilly edit the things that other people stated, just to suit your preferences.

However, just because those three quotes don’t meet your standards, does that prove the basic premise wrong? Of course it doesn’t.
So, what exactly is your beef?

If it is nothing more than a complaint about the academic quality of the article with respect to the standards used for the documenting of sources, then you should address your concerns to Bill Wood.

If you are not happy with the manner in which Bill Wood formated his quotes, so as to make it clear as to who said what and that it would be unmistakable that some of the quoted phrases do not present the opinions of the authors that quoted them, write to Bill Wood.

If you think that I have editorial responsibilities that I did not exercize with due diligence, consider that I merely quoted another source that is clearly identified in the version of the document that concerns you. In that case you should write to the people in charge of that source.

The sole reason why I posted Bill Wood’s testimony is that I installed a hyper-text-linked index to the various entries, so as to make it easier to find them in the rather lengthy document. If it would not have been for that, I would have pointed people directly to the original source at which the testimony had been delivered and published. A link is so much less troublesome than to quote and format a whole large article, right?

This whole debate has taken far more of our time than it deserves. I don’t know whether you can afford to spend that much time on relatively inconsequential and misdirected criticism, but I do know that I can’t.

Sincerely,
Walter Schneider

PS. Did you have a chance to look for the items I pointed you to? —WHS

Incidentally, the link he provides is not the source of the collection of quotes as it is presented on FathersForLife.org. It contains a few of the same deceptively out-of-context quotes that are repeated in the quotes page at FathersForLife.org, but wherever the latter came from, it was not from a copy of an address already given.

Date: Thu, 10 Mar 2005 21:55:42 -0500
To: “Walter Schneider” misc@fathersforlife.org
Subject: Re: Bill Wood’s Testimony at the Ways and Means Committee From: “Rad Geek” feedback@radgeek.com
Organization: Rad Geek People’s Daily

Mr. Schneider,

In your reply from several days ago, you seemed to be laboring under a couple of misunderstandings.

First, this is not a matter of “exacting standards”, “suiting my preferences”, or “academic quality”. And it’s certainly not an issue of “formatting”. This is a matter of factual accuracy.

The compilation of quotes and commentary on your site at http://www.fathersforlife.org/feminism/quotes1.htm#Femicommies lists three quotes, taken selectively from Catharine MacKinnon’s work, and insinuates that they represent her views (or the views of radical feminists broadly) on Marxism, when in fact they are (1) part of an argument that feminism and Marxism are in fact incompatible or (2) expositions of views that MacKinnon explicitly condemns. By stripping the quotes of their context, it attributes a view to MacKinnon that is the opposite of the one that she holds; that is to say, it presents demonstrable deceptions as fact.

I sent an e-mail through the fathersforlife.org contact page to whoever was responsible for the content on the website; since it was you who received that e-mail, and since you ask the following:

If you think that I have editorial responsibilities that I did not exercize with due diligence,

I gather that you are the person, or at least a person, responsible for deciding what content goes on your site. As such, you have a responsibility not to purvey false information to readers on the Internet in the name of your cause. You’re quite right that Bill Wood is identified as the compiler of the quotes in the article (although I might add it’s not at all clear from either the article or your remarks whether you have drawn these quotes from sources presented by Bill Wood, or whether he himself assembled the page as it currently appears on your site; nor is it clear whose commentary is represented by unquoted remarks such as Catherine A. MacKinnon is a University of Michigan FEMINIST LAW PROFESSOR!! Do you think her lawyers are learning Republican government OR are they learning Communism?)

You wonder why I did not contact Bill Wood about this. Well, I’d be glad to contact him in order to inform him of his (frankly either sloppy or dishonest) mistakes in describing MacKinnon’s views, but (1) I don’t have his contact information, and (2) you have responsibilities as an editor in this matter whatever Bill Wood has or hasn’t done. Given that whether or not the conclusion that this compilation puts forward is true, the grounds given for it are demonstrably false (by a simple reading of the plain text), your responsibility, as an editor, is to do one of the following, depending on the nature of the piece and the author’s wishes:

  1. Remove the offending quotes (with an editor’s note or ellipsis if necessary)
  2. Issue a correction
  3. Remove the piece from your site.

All three of these things are things that responsible editors sometimes do when authors make mistakes of fact. Simply leaving a piece with known factual errors online, as-is, for public consumption, while making no attempt whatsoever to avoid deceiving your readers, is not.

Second, this is not a “debate”. There is nothing to argue about. Your page, as it currently stands, is deceptive. That may be the result of negligence—in which case it is a sloppy error—or it may be the result of intent—in which case it is spreading lies. Which conclusion an observer should draw depends, in part, on how you deal with the matter now that it has been brought to your attention.

Sincerely,
Charles Johnson

And here’s Walter Schneider’s final word on the matter, for the time being:

Date: Fri, 11 Mar 2005 05:35:55 -0700
From: Walter Schneider misc@fathersforlife.org
Subject: Re: Bill Wood’s Testimony at the Ways and Means Committee
To: Rad Geek feedback@radgeek.com
Organization: Fathers for Life

Mr. Johnson,

Rad Geek wrote:

….You wonder why I did not contact Bill Wood about this.

I didn’t at all wonder, I suggested that you do.

Well, I’d be glad to contact him in order to inform him of his (frankly either sloppy or dishonest) mistakes in describing MacKinnon’s views, but (1) I don’t have his contact information, and

I can help you out with that. Try http://waysandmeans.house.gov/contact.asp, the first organization that published the quotes that you perceive to be misleading. They may be able to provide you with contact details for Bill Wood, which shouldn’t be that hard for them. Unfortunately, on account of two recent PC crashes I no longer have Bill Wood’s e-mail address. This clue may help you in contacting him: Representative Bill Wood, Charlotte, North Carolina.

(2) you have responsibilities as an editor in this matter whatever Bill Wood has or hasn’t done. Given that whether or not the conclusion that this compilation puts forward is true, the
grounds given for it are demonstrably false (by a simple reading of the plain text), your responsibility, as an editor, is to do one of the following, depending on the nature of the piece and the author’s wishes:

My responsibility as an editor is not to alter text taken from a document authored and published by other people. If you misconstrue such quotes and become offended on account of your misperception, that is your problem, not mine.

The best of luck,

Walter Schneider

Of course, Schneider does not anywhere make clear where the document in its current form was published or why he, as an editor, cannot indicate through the use of elipsis or editor’s notes that parts of the text are incorrect. Responsible editors of advocacy sites either remove pages that contain false information, or issue corrections on false information where people reading the misleading page can see them. Schneider, for his part, seems uninterested in any of this; at least, as of press time, FathersForLife.org continues to print the same quotes from MacKinnon without redaction, correction, or apology.

For myself, I do have a bit of a correction to make: since I wrote the first couple notes while on vacation, and didn’t have my copy of Toward A Feminist Theory of the State with me, I assumed that this quote, attributed to page 10 of MacKinnon’s book, was an explanation of one of the anti-feminist Marxist approaches to the woman question that she was criticizing:

Feminism, Socialism, and Communism are one in the same, and Socialist/Communist government is the goal of feminism. —MacKinnon (1989) p. 10

I was wrong about that. The sentences I was remembering were similar sentences from Chapters I, II, and IV of the book in which she does set out and then demolish views that come out roughly to that (e.g.: the view that women’s subordination to men, when acknowledged, is seen as caused by class dominance, its cure as the overthrow of class relations [p. 62]). If MacKinnon did say what she is quoted as saying, then it was surely in the context of elaborating an opposing view in order to criticize it, and the quote is deceptively taken out of its context and passed off as a statement of belief in propia voce. But after going through the opening chapters of Toward a Feminist Theory of the State several times, I cannot for the life of me find where she did say Feminism, Socialism, and Communism are one in the same, and Socialist/Communist government is the goal of feminism in the first place. It is not on page 10 of Toward A Feminist Theory of the State. Nor is it on page 9 or 11. Nor is it anywhere to be found anywhere in Chapters I or II. Nor is it on page x in the Introduction, nor on likely candidates for a typographical error—you won’t find it on page 19, or on page 20, or anywhere in pages 100-110. A Google search returns only anti-feminist websites with the same quote and the same claim that it appears on page 10. All three quotes are gravely misunderstood if they are accurate quotations, but this one may very well be a complete fabrication. (If you have a bibliographic reference to where the quote actually occurs, drop me a line—I’d appreciate being able to print the quote in its actual context!)

Fathers for Life is spreading deceptive information on their website in an attempt to further their cause. This may have originally been the result of carelessness and sloppiness. That’s bad enough in itself—there is far too much misleading through carelessness or sloppiness in public debates today. But whatever the original cause, they continue to spread deceptions knowingly, without correction.

That’s lying.

Sounds Familiar

Ol’ Jerry Falwell is at it again; the latest, from his 21 November Old Time Gospel Hour broadcast, is the following incisive tidbit:

And we’re going to invite PETA [to Wild Game Night] as our special guest, P-E-T-A — People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. We want you to come, we’re going to give you a top seat there, so you can sit there and suffer. This is one of my special groups, another one’s the ACLU, another is the NOW — the National Order of Witches [sic]. We’ve got — I’ve got a lot of special groups.

Ouch! As Jessica put it over at feministing, Yeah, I bet all the ladies over at NOW were huddled around their cauldrons just fuming over that one. Please.

On the other hand, we shouldn’t be too hasty to pile on. Perhaps poor Jerry wasn’t trying to be insulting. Maybe he just got confused, and mixed up NOW with another famous feminist organizing effort:

WITCH was born on Halloween, 1968, in New York, but within a few weeks Covens had sprung up in such diverse spots as Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, North Carolina, Portland (Oregon), Austin (Texas), and Tokyo (Japan). They’re still spreading. A certain common style—insousciance, theatricality, humor, and activism, unite the Covens—which are otherwise totally autonomous, and unhierarchical to the point of anarchy. …

Washington, D.C. WITCH—after an action hexing the United Fruit Company’s oppressive policy on the Third World and on secretaries in its offices at home (Bananas and rifles, sugar and death / War for profit, tarantulas’ breath / United Fruit makes lots of loot / The CIA is in its boot)—claimed that WITCH was a total concept of revolutionary female identity and was the striking arm of the Women’s Liberation Movement, aiming mainly at financial and corporate America, at those institutions that have the power to control and define human life.

Chicago WITCH Covens showered the Sociology Department at the University of Chicago with hair cuttings and nail clippings after the firing of a radical feminist woman professor, and the Chicago Witches also demonstrated against a transit fare hike. They, as well as Witches in New York, San Francisco, North Dakota, and New England, disrupted local Bridal Fairs. The fluidity and wit of the Witches is evident in the ever-changing acronyms: the basic, original title was Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell, but on Mother’s Day one Coven became Women Infuriated at Taking Care of Hooligans; another group, working at a major Eastern insurance corporation, became Women Indentured to Traveler’s Corporate Hell; still another set of infiltrators, working at Bell Telephone, manifested themselves disruptively as Women Incensed at Telephone Company Harrassment. When hexing inflationary prices at supermarkets, a Midwest Coven appeared as Women’s Independent Taxpayers, Consumers, and Homemakers; Women Interested in Toppling Consumption Holidays was another transfigutory appellation—and the latest heard at this writing is Women Inspired to Commit Herstory.

For Rebellion Is As The Sin Of Witchcraft. —I Samuel, 15:23

— Robin Morgan, Sisterhood is Powerful (1970)

photo: Feminist activists dressed as witches storm the Chicago Metro system

Chicago WITCH hexes the Transit Authority (photo by Louise Brotsky)

Double, bubble, war and rubble
When you mess with women, you’ll be in trouble
We’re convicted of murder if abortion is planned
Convicted of shame if we don’t have a man
Convicted of conspiracy if we fight for our rights
And burned at the stake when we stand up to fight
Double, bubble, war and rubble
When you mess with women, you’ll be in trouble.
We curse your empire to make it fall—
When you take on one of us, you take on us all!

—Women’s Independent Taxpayers, Consumers, and Homemakers (W.I.T.C.H.)

Who says that feminists don’t have a sense of humor?

If Jerry F. is trying to get our goat, he’s going to have to try a lot harder than that. You should feel free to let him know that at his contact page.

Update 2004-11-29: Looks like flea had the same idea at One Good Thing (thanks, Amanda):

This, sadly, is what passes for wit in those circles. They’ve been calling feminists “witches” for literally twenty years, possibly more. I think more. I think second wave feminist icon (and one of my heroes) Robin Morgan started a group called WITCH in response to it, where they ran around and did Abbie Hoffman-esque stunts like casting a spell on the New York Stock Exchange to shut it down at the beginning of the day. When the Wall Streeters tried to open the doors, they found that they could not. The WITCHes took full credit for their spell working, of course, and they were indeed responsible, as they had superglued the locks shut the night before.

She Said, She Said: the misinterpretation of Susan Brownmiller on anatomy and rape

Feminism — and I mean radical feminism here, although much of what I’ll mention has been inflicted on socialist and liberal feminists too — is not a matter of little-known historical arcana. It’s a vibrant movement that has had world-shaking consequences within the living memory of most adults. So it’s sad, to say the least, that the history of feminism over the past 35 years has been almost entirely enveloped in a fog of historical amnesia; that the recent history of the movement is simply not discussed in schools or the press, and that legions of blowhard self-proclaimed experts (take Nicholas Kristof — please!) feel free to weigh in periodically on feminist works and feminist organizing without actually bothering to find out what the feminists they are attacking actually said or did.

Now, I don’t care very much about setting straight the Kristofs of the world; but one unfortunate result of the memory-hole treatment of radical feminism is that there are a lot of distorted critiques of particular radical feminists running around, which seep into the writing even of those who want to give fair and sympathetic historical accounts. It’s understandable that this should happen: if you’re trying to give a survey view of feminist history, you couldn’t possibly read every single feminist work that will be touched on; you’re inevitably going to rely on some glosses from other sources, and if those glosses are inaccurate then those inaccuracies will creep into your work without you realizing it. Nevertheless, understandable errors are still errors; and I hope that they can be set straight.

Consider the case of Susan Brownmiller, the New York radical feminist journalist who is best known for her landmark work on rape, Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape. Her work is remarkable, ground-breaking, vitally important, and also, at times, flawed. There are, to be sure, reasons to disagree with Brownmiller; but this is not one of them:

Of course, there have been a number of feminists who, disturbed by what they saw as an assimilationist tendency in feminism, asserted a more positive notion of femininity that was, at times, undoubtedly essentialist. Susan Brownmiller, in her important book Against Our Wills, suggested that men may be genetically predisposed to rape, a notion that has been echoed by Andrea Dworkin.

— Pendleton Vandiver, Feminism: A Male Anarchist’s Perspective [Infoshop.org]

Or:

Against Our Will was controversial from the moment it was published. In it Brownmiller advances the theory that rape is biologically determined. Because she called attention to anatomy as the basis of rape, she was accused of letting men off the hook, and, more recently, her work has been picked up by conservatives to undermine the antirape movement.

— Rosalyn Baxandall and Linda Gordon, Second Wave Soundings [The Nation]

But the criticism here is a bit off-base, because, well, Susan Brownmiller never said anything of the sort.

Brownmiller has argued at length against biologistic accounts of rape. She argues against them in Against Our Will; she argued against them again in her smack-down review of Craig Palmer and Randy Thornhill’s A Natural History of Rape.

photo: AGAINST OUR WILL: MEN, WOMEN, AND RAPE by Susan Brownmiller

Where did this misunderstanding of Brownmiller come about? It seems to be based on a brief passage toward the end of the first chapter of Against Our Will, where she says:

Man’s structural capacity to rape and woman’s corresponding structural vulnerability are as basic to the physiology of both our sexes as the primal act of sex itself. Had it not been for this accident of biology, an accomodation requiring the locking together of two separate parts, penis into vagina, there would be neither copulation nor rape as we know it. Anatomically one might want to improve on the design of nature, but such speculation appears to my mind as unrealistic. The human sex act accomplishes its historic purpose of generation of the species and it also affords some intimacy and pleasure. I have no basic quarrel with the procedure. But, nevertheless, we cannot work around the fact that in terms of human anatomy the possibliity of forcible intercourse incontrovertibly exists. This single factor may have been sufficient to have caused the creation of a male ideology of rape. When men discovered they could rape, they proceeded to do it.

— Susan Brownmiller, Against Our Will pp. 13–14

But all that Brownmiller is saying here is that it is a fact of physiology that it is anatomically possible for men to rape women; and that is obviously true, since anatomically impossible things don’t usually happen. She goes on to argue throughout Against Our Will that rape is not a biologically foreordained fact; it is a political choice that men use against women because they benefit from the power that it gives them. As she writes just a few paragraphs later:

Man’s discovery that his genitalia could serve as a weapon to generate fear must rank as one of the most important discoveries of prehistoric times, along with the use of fire and the first crude stone axe. From prehistoric times to the present, I believe, rape has played a critical function. It is nothing more or less than a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear.

— Susan Brownmiller, Against Our Will pp. 14–15

That is a straightforwardly materialist theory: rape and the threat of rape are taken to be instruments of power that men choose to use against women because men benefit from it at women’s expense. Whether it is the correct theory or an incorrect theory, it is certainly not a biological determinist theory about rape (much less a specifically genetic theory).

These inaccurate criticisms of Brownmiller aren’t coming from Cathy Young-style charlatans. Vandiver is well-versed in feminist history, and trying to give a sympathetic survey of recent feminist history for anarchists; Baxandall and Gordon are the editors of Dear Sisters: Dispatches from the Women’s Liberation Movement, an absolutely indispensible compilation of historical material from radical and socialist feminists in the first decade of the Second Wave. Unfortunately the patina of distortions spread over the real history of feminism by uncharitable critics sometimes also trips up those of us who are sympathetic and want to get a clearer understanding of it. Here’s hoping this post has helped us get a step forward towards clarity.

For further reading:

The Weird, Wild World of Anti-feminism

As a preface to this post, you might want to take a glance over a mostly complete but rather alleatory sampling of the books that I was assigned to read during my high-school English career, which occurred during the heady crest days of the feminist education movement in the 1990s.[1] (Note to English teachers: I am not complaining about this lineup in the least; the English program at AHS is one of the best parts of the school. This is intended merely as a counterpoint to certain claims made in the article being discussed.)

So, then, what have we here? Yet another heaping helping of Christina Hoff Sommers from Salon. I swear to God there must be some kind of law requiring Salon to publish one sloppy lovefest for media creation antifeminist Christina Hoff Sommers once every year (2/5/2002, 3/9/2001, 6/21/2000).

And it’s the same old thing they’ve been insisting in the last three articles: feminist education efforts in the 1990s have somehow slighted boys’ aspirations to a good education, and now it’s time to start tilting the balance back the other way or somesuch nonsense. At hand is boys’ lower performance in verbal / literary subjects, compared with the narrowing of the advantage they once enjoyed in science and mathematics classes.

In this article, at least, the author allows voices other than Christina Hoff Sommers to speak (not the case in Befner’s regrettable Battle of the Celebrity Gender Theorists, an article allegedly about Jane Fonda and Carol Gilligan, which nevertheless consisted entirely of a sympathetic interview with Christina Hoff Sommers). However, it just so happens that Hoff Sommers and those who agree with her are given the last word in every case; allowed to skewer interpretations of data by Gilligan and other feminists, but given a free pass on truly bizarre statements.

This, for example, is reported without any comment from an opposing voice:

Our English classes are strongly feminized, even in boys schools, says Hoff Sommers. We want literature to make boys more sensitive. But I’m not sure that we need to invest in literature as a form of therapy.

This claim is not just contentious; it’s downright bizarre. Look over my reading list[1] again and ask yourself how much it’s really feminized. The reading list is packed with literature of boys, by boys, and for boys. It used to be that learning from a reading list not very different from this one was expected to be part of the ritual of a boy growing up into manly adulthood in a civilized society.

She points out that a majority of English teachers still assign fiction in the classroom, while she believes that boys prefer nonfiction. (In the PISA study, girls and boys were asked to self-report on the kind of reading materials they preferred. Boys reported reading more comic books, Web pages and newspapers, while girls read more novels.)

Of course they primarily assign fiction. It’s an English literature class! If you want more nonfiction reading in schools, push to have more primary sources included in History, Science, Mathematics, etc. classes. That’s where it belongs. (And for God’s sake. Comic books? Please.)

Boys love adventure stories with male heroes, says Hoff Sommers. Many would love books by Stephen Ambrose and Tom Clancy. Since they are so far behind in reading, why not give them texts they enjoy? Some teachers are promoting political correctness at the expense of the basic literacy of their male students.

Hoff Sommers mistakenly assumes here that the reason for not including Tom Clancy pulp in the English class is because teachers are craven p.c. slaves. This is false. The reason Tom Clancy pulp is not included in English literature class is because it’s pulp fiction written on a third grade level. And no, encouraging Reading at all costs is not worth it—what in the world is developing an appreciation for Tom Clancy novels going to do for you, other than make you spend more money at the bestseller rack and get you a knowledge of military gadgetry? Similarly, boddice-rippers and Harlequin romance novels do not deserve to be, and are not, included in the English curriculum, either, even though they are intended for, and often written by, women.

My own son had to struggle through Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club when he was in the 10th grade, she adds. It has some attractive features, but it is full of annoying psychobabble about women and their self-esteem struggles. He disliked it. If teachers are going to assign books in popular literature, they should consider the needs and interests of boys.

Hoff Sommer’s vehemence about The Joy Luck Club makes it pretty clear that she just hates the book and is projecting her own feelings of distaste for it onto a generation of boys. If she hates the annoying psychobabble so much, then isn’t her real issue that it’s simply bad literature, not that it’s cutting against boys in particular?

Moreover, for Christ’s sake, in any English curriculum, there are going to be many books which you find absolutely dreadful and which bore you to tears. I, for example, was forced to wade through such dreary wank-a-thons as A Separate Peace and A Farewell to Arms. If the mere presence of some books you find boring is enough to turn you off to all literature, then you need to learn how to stop whining and get through to the next book.

Meanwhile, Tom Mortensen makes the astoundingly bad suggestion that

If I were teaching, says Mortenson, I would get boys out of the classroom. Take them to a swamp, dig through the muck, look for pollywogs. Then maybe take them back and have them look at pond water through slides and write up a lab report. They need hands-on activities. They get bored and distracted if you ask them to sit down and reading a chapter and writing up a paragraph — the kind of work that girls excel at.

Take them to a swamp? Dig through the muck? If I were subjected to this kind of treatment in school, I would have dropped out by fifth grade. You know what I love? Sedentary desk work. Reading a chapter and writing up a paragraph about it. Boring, dry textbooks. Who does he think he is teaching, the Lost Boys from Peter Pan? This is not a way to encourage serious education amongst boys; it’s a way to get a lot of boys goofing off and throwing mud at each other. Christ, man. Pollywogs?

(Furthermore, Mortensen’s proposal about how to change science education neglects the fact that boys are doing just fine in science education relative to girls. What hands-on activities does he propose we use to deal with disparities in literature? Take boys out to the moor to muck around and fetch wittles while they read Great Expectations?)

Meanwhile, Christina Hoff Sommers ridicules the perfectly reasonable hypothesis by Carol Gilligan that In American culture, says Gilligan, children learn to associate math and science with masculinity; knowledge of the human world and emotional lives are associated with femininity. Why should this be so surprising? It’s definitely true that English curricula are perceived as feminized. But this is not a matter of the reading list being somehow weighted heavily towards girl-power-chic titles, because, well, that’s crap. There is no such bias in English curricula. The issue, rather, is that in boy culture, reading literature and poetry is seen as a feminine activity, and it’s a good way to get yourself derided as a sissy, faggot,geek, dweeb, and otherwise un-manly boy. This, I think, is the only explanation that even remotely makes sense: why else would anyone think that, say, reading John Donne in English class is a feminized curriculum? And if this is the case, then jamming Tom Clancy pulp or comic books into the curriculum isn’t the way to solve the problem. The way to solve the problem is to address the boy culture nonsense which sees reading as girly, and sees being perceived as girly as a curse to be avoided.

Finally: let’s drop the crisis rhetoric, and let’s forget this nonsense about feminist educators being responsible for the situation. Why? Because the disparity in literature education has existed as long as the Department of Education has records, since 1969 (when the organized feminist movement barely existed in politics, let alone in education). The gap has not opened out or widened in the past 10 years; there is no new crisis of boys’ verbal / literary education from feminist educators in the 1990s. There’s merely a disparity which was there before and which has not been addressed yet.

But, of course, Salon has a long history of providing an uncritical platform for media-created anti-feminists including Christina Hoff Sommers, Cathy Young (a regular columnist), Camille Paglia, and Warren Farrell. I can’t put it better than Jennifer Pozner of FAIR did, in her letter to the editor of Salon (located at the bottom of the page):

After listing worthy topics from drug law imbalances to welfare policy to educational and workplace biases, Sweeney asks, Where is a feminist when you need one? On a beach somewhere, apparently … With all due respect, it is easy to find feminists working on those issues and a wide range of others if you look beyond what is represented in carping book reviews and academic arguments. But it is unsurprising that Sweeney or Salon readers in general might believe feminists missing in action: Salon provides a regular platform for anti-feminist pit bull Camille Paglia and feminist ankle-biter Cathy Young, but has no feminist columnists addressing the many ways in which women’s rights advocates are tackling violence against women, poverty, health care, child care, reproductive rights, media representation, workplace issues, sweatshops, trafficking in women and a host of other issues on a national and international stage (from a variety of sometimes opposing liberal, progressive and radical perspectives).

I couldn’t agree more with Sweeney’s assertion that neurotic rationalizing and self-conscious crowing is a profound waste of time in the face of the continued biases women (especially women of color and low-income women) face. To that end, I’d encourage Salon to publish fewer hit pieces on feminists, more articles about sexism in Life and in the news sections, and to balance columnists like Paglia, Young and Horowitz with a few progressive feminist writers like Molly Ivins, Laura Flanders, Katha Pollitt, Farai Chideya, Barbara Ehrenreich or Julianne Malveaux. Salon, which is often a valuable resource for perspectives not found elsewhere (Greg Palast’s election pieces were a great example), could benefit from broadening its approach to gender politics.

— Jennifer L. Pozner, Women’s Desk Director, FAIR

P.S.: While women are excelling boys at verbal and literary subjects, and now make up the majority of college students (college students being, in the majority, liberal arts students), engineering and science departments are still about 80-90% male, and men still make more money than women for equal work (the gap has widened in at least some fields, despite Salon’s claims to the contrary) and still make up the overwhelming majority of high-paid executives — whereas women still make up the overwhelming majority of low-wage service workers. So, something tells me that this educational crisis is perhaps not the biggest gender equity issue on the table right now.

For further reading:

  1. [1] Sidebar: An aleatory sampling of my high school reading list

    • The Odyssey (abridged) - male author, male protagonist
    • Great Expectations - male author, male protagonist
    • The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet - male author, male and female protagonists
    • Mutiny on the Bounty - male author, male protagonists
    • Animal Farm - male author, male protagonists
    • To Kill a Mockingbird - female author, female and male protagonists
    • A Separate Peace - male author, male protagonists, all male school, boy culture coming-of-age wank-a-thon
    • The Tragedy of Julius Caesar - male author, male protagonists
    • Oedipus the King - male author, male protagonists
    • Antigone - male author, female protagonist
    • Edith Hamilton’s Mythology - female author, but from all male sources, male protagonists
    • excerpts from Sundiata and Ramayana - male authors, male protagonists
    • One Hundred Years of Solitude - male author, mostly male protagonists
    • Ficciones - male author, male protagonists
    • The Lost Steps - male author, male protagonist
    • Ethan Frome - female author, male protagonist
    • A Farewell to Arms - male author, male protagonist, same old swaggering Hemingway crap
    • The Awakening - female author, female protagonist, proto-feminist
    • The Cherry Orchard - male author, male and female protagonists
    • The Great Gatsby - male author, male protagonist
    • Death in Venice - male author, male protagonist
    • A Streetcar Named Desire - male author, female protagonists
    • The Crucible - male author, male protagonist
    • Native Son - male author, male protagonist, overly apologetic for brutal violence against women
    • The Inferno - male author, male protagonist
    • The Taming of the Shrew - male author, male protagonist, ragingly misogynistic
    • Hamlet - male author, male protagonist
    • The Bachelor of Arts - male author, male protagonist
    • Heart of Darkness - male author, male protagonist
    • Pygmalion - male author, female protagonist
    • The Importance of Being Earnest - male author, male protagonist, strong female characters
    • Their Eyes Were Watching God - female author, female protagonist, proto-feminist
    • Things Fall Apart - male author, male protagonist
    • Bread and Wine - male author, male protagonist
    • The Metamorphosis - male author, male protagonist
    • Richard III - male author, male protagonist
    • Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead - male author, male protagonists
    • One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich - male author, male protagonist

Journalism, Diversity, and the Promise of the Internet

I wrote this letter in response to a FAIR action alert concerning the lack of diversity in Yahoo! News’s editorial content. While I greatly agreed with the sentiment, and cheered at their boosting for Independent Media Center, my letter took a bit different tack from what they were focusing on; while I followed FAIR in encouraging Yahoo! to publish a wider range of columnists and cartoonists, I think that real structural changes in the way news is presented have to be made, not just adding some progressives, women, people of color, etc. to the roster of Established Journalists. So, I urged Yahoo! to take the next step by opening up its news sources to more diverse and democratic forums, by taking news off the completely democratized IMC newswire and establishing a review of weblogs, much like The Weblog Review (as opposed to Slate’s phony attempt at a weblog feature, where the only weblogs they featured were the daily content sites of their established media buddies). Of course, the chances are probably zilch that Yahoo! is going to care, but I figured I should get the idea out nevertheless.

Dear Yahoo! News Editor,

The great promise of the Internet lies in its abilities to break down barriers of communication. Whereas offline it takes millions of dollars and contacts throughout the industry to achieve mass global distribution of a work, on the Internet it requires only a little web space, a computer, and the time and energy to write. We have the potential to move into an age of democratized mass communication, in which information and opinion flow without the artificial barriers of class, gender, and race erected by traditional publishing and distribution methods.

Unfortunately, this potential is not yet being fully realized. Sites like the worldwide Independent Media Centers (www.indymedia.org), FreeRepublic.com, and thousands of individual weblogs through tools like Blogger (www.blogger.com) have revolutionized news and commentary for those who read them and produce them. Yet large corporate news sites, such as yours, continue to be dominated by traditional models of media access. Focusing on mainstream, celebrity columnists, your Op-Ed’s featured columnists are heavily skewed towards those classes of people which traditionally have dominated the print media. Two thirds of your featured columnists are conservatives; two thirds are male and ninety percent are white. The overwhelming majority of the women and people of color who are featured are conservative tokens such as Phyllis Schlafly and Ann Coulter. The editorial content of Yahoo! could hardly be described as balanced.

Yahoo! can become a leader in Internet journalism by opening the doors to a broader array of journalists and columnists. Among already-established journalists, more diversity, of ideology, as well as of gender and race, could be found by featuring well-regarded columnists such as Farai Chideya (“Pop and Politics”), Judy Mann (Washington Post), Katha Pollitt (The Nation), Naomi Klein (Toronto Globe and Mail), Salim Muwakkil (Chicago Trib) or Alexander Cockburn (Beat the Devil). The complete lack of female Op-Artists could be remedied by featuring the work of artists such as Alison Bechdel, Lynda Barry, or Nicole Hollander.

Yahoo! would also benefit by keeping close track of the media alerts published by watchdog groups such as Fairness and Accuracy in Media (http://www.fair.org/), Project Censored (http://www.projectcensored.org/), and MediaWatch ( http://www.mediawatch.com) and responding in a public and responsible way to the critiques presented and the stories uncovered.

Finally, Yahoo! should begin to take the lead in promoting new ways of getting and distributing news. By adding the global Independent Media Center newswire (http://www.indymedia.org/front.php3; featured stories at http://www.indymedia.org/) to your use of traditional sources such as the Associated Press, Reuters, and The New York Times, you could immediately widen and democratize the field of breaking news that you report. You could also widen your scope by instituting something along the lines of what is done by The Weblog Review (http://www.theweblogreview.com/) which publicizes and reviews individual’s weblogs from all over the Internet. Although Slate Magazine recently began a feature called Mezine Central: The Best Political Weblogs, its content, disappointingly, has consisted entirely of established media insiders such as Andrew Sullivan, Micky Kaus, Virginia Postrel, and Matt Drudge. If you can take one step ahead and, like the Weblog Review, get the information out about the best weblogs by everyday people, from your position as an industry-leading news source you could create an overnight revolution in the way that information flows over the Internet.

Yahoo! paved the way for the Internet to become what it is, and the service that it originally provided — an online directory with search capabilities — has long been based on the value of diversity and democracy in publishing; the Political Opinion section of Yahoo!’s directory points to pages with information and opinion from liberals, conservatives, civil disobedience groups, anarchists, and more. It was just this kind of free-wheeling, open space that made Yahoo! what it is today. I hope that you can once again take the lead.

Thank you for creating one of the Internet’s best news sites, and for taking the time to read my letter. I hope that you might consider ways to make your service even better and more socially responsible.

Yours,
Charles W. Johnson