Vincent is co-author of ``The Instant Intellectual: The Quick and Easy
Guide to Sounding Smart and Cultured.'' By Nora Vincent
Special to The Baltimore Sun Distributed by the Los Angeles
Times-Washington Post News Service
Are you a feminist? It's a question that every American female who has come of age since the 1970s has been asked at least once in her lifetime, and it's a question that most thoughtful girls and women have a hard time answering.
If you say ``no,'' you're conceding that women are inferior _ or, at least you've been conditioned by the reigning feminists of the world to think so. If you say ``yes,'' those same feminists have, to their detriment, convinced you that you're allying yourself with a group of mostly hateful, hysterical demagogues whose aim for women has never been equality, but power. The word ``feminist'' reeks of jingoism; but the word ``misogynist'' seems to be its only antonym. What's a girl to do? Or say?
The only thing left to do is break the stranglehold that hard-line feminists have on the minds of young women, and encourage them to think and speak for themselves.
The Cato Institute's Cathy Young (``Ceasefire!: Why Men and Women Must Join Forces to Achieve True Equality,'' Free Press, $25, 400 pp.) has coined the term ``dissenting feminist.'' Young argues that one of the worst outgrowths of '70s feminism has been the conviction that women are not simply equal to, but superior to men. In dissenting from this point of view, Young emphasizes the common humanity of men and women.
This is an admirable stance, but the term ``dissenting feminist'' describes what you are only by saying what you are not. We need a neologism of the type that postmodern and p.c. academics are so fond of coining. Perhaps something such as ``heteroequiandrogynist'': a person, such as Young, who believes that though men and women are different they are equal and should be treated as such in the eyes of the law. ``Neohumanist'' may be a less clumsy way of saying the same thing, but it lacks specificity.
For, if we call ourselves ``humanists,'' do we mean that though men and women are different, they are both human, and being human is what guarantees rights in America? Or do we mean by humanist that men and women are androgynous _ that is, that they are made of exactly the same stuff, through and through, but only seem different in our socially constructed world?
The right favors the first interpretation that equal does not mean the same _ that is, being human will get women the same basic rights as men, but it will not obliterate gender (F. Carolyn Graglia, ``A Brief Against Feminism,'' Spence, 1998).
The left favors the second interpretation that gender is a fiction _ that is, if you admit differences, those differences will be used against women, as they have been throughout history (Judith Butler, ``Gender Trouble,'' Routledge, 1990).
So, on the right you have the heart of rights-based Anglo-American democratic politics, while on the left you have what, for simplicity's sake, might be called the shared ideal of communism, socialism and Jacobinism: radical equality.
The right insists, and rightly so, that equal opportunity is the most governments and laws can guarantee _ this is freedom, there is no other _ whereas the left insists that equal outcome is the ideal that governments and laws are made to enforce.
But radical equality has always been susceptible to one tragic flaw, and it is the reason the French and Russian revolutions failed. Possibly it's also the reason post-feminism has stalled: freedom and radical equality are incompatible.
You can't enforce radical equality without repressing all forms of dissent or difference. This is fundamentally illiberal, not to mention deluded (differences exist, there is no denying them). Hence, what began historically as an experiment in enforced freedom for the weak and strong alike, ended in totalitarianism (Stalinism , Maoism, Robespierre's Reign of Terror), and more recently the kind of mind control that is so typical of the American left.
Orwell said this succinctly in ``Animal Farm,'' when the slogan ``all are equal,'' became ``some are more equal than others.'' This has happened to feminism as well. It began by saying that all men and women are equal, but has ended up saying that women are superior to men.
In her latest screed, ``The Whole Woman'' (Knopf, $25, 384 pp.), Germaine Greer is so churlish toward men that New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani called the book ``as sour as `Eunuch' was exuberant, as dogmatic as `Eunuch' was original, as slipshod in its thinking as `Eunuch' was pointed ... a castrated book.''
Likewise, Margaret Talbot, writing in a recent issue of the New Republic, called Greer a misogynist and, in uncanny agreement with Kakutani, pronounced ``The Whole Woman'' ``a sour and undiscriminating litany of charges against men - all men, men as nature created them _ wrapped around the willfully obtuse argument that little or nothing has improved for American and European women over the last 30 years.''
All of this sounds bad enough, but there's more. Feminism has fomented male-bashing, but it has also reinforced misogyny. In her recent book, ``A Return to Modesty'' (Free Press, $24, 291 pp.), Wendy Shalit sees this as one of feminism's most pernicious legacies: feminist pioneers embraced the wrongheaded notion that for women to be equal to men, they must become men and erase all signs of womanhood, especially the biologically determinative ones.
(This is why abortion has been and remains so important to feminism: abortion is the denial of reproductive capacity. Without it, women are left with the patent truth that they, unlike men, have fructifiable wombs.)
But writers such as Betty Friedan (``The Feminine Mystique,'' 1963) and Simone de Beauvoir (``The Second Sex,'' 1949) went even a step further in the wrong direction, says Shalit. In making women into men, and indicting ``women's work'' as parasitism, they told us, in essence, to hate what so many women were and (now by choice) still are: mothers, nurturers and homemakers.
For feminists, it seemed, the only real woman was a simulated man: this often meant a working woman. Hillary Rodham Clinton expressed this sentiment best when, in response to criticism of her worldly lifestyle, she sniped that she guessed she could have just stayed home and baked cookies.
Even Friedan's recent hagiographer, Judith Hennessee (``Betty Friedan: Her Life,'' Random House, $27.95, 320 pp.), concedes that Friedan preferred the company of men and was, at bottom, a hyper-competitive, megalomaniacal misogynist: in short, exactly the kind of man she decried.
It seems, then, that the ideological legacy of feminism is a mess. It's rife with proposals that are not viable, and condemnations of men and women that will do neither sex any good.
Now, things are so corrupt that Gloria Steinem and most feminist spokespeople are defending a president who has been accused by several women of sexual harassment and by still another of rape. And why? Journalist Nina Burleigh gave the all-too-honest answer when she said she would gladly have performed oral sex on Clinton just to thank him for keeping abortion legal. In response to Burleigh's gaffe, New York Times op-ed columnist Maureen Dowd proclaimed the death of feminism to be a mass suicide.
So, is feminism dead? If so, where do we go from here? Should we abandon it, or can we give it a new name and a new direction that will disavow its mistakes but embrace its founding principles? The answer is a resounding yes: we must remake feminism with our fresh ideas. After all, pace our foremothers, we are, like it or not, liberated women.