Revisionist Feminism

Dear Susan,

       Well, I first have to thank you for proving one of the points in my book: You clearly fear honest debate. Instead of engaging even one of my ideas, all you’ve done is criticize me for statements I haven’t made, distort statements I have made, try to trivialize my arguments, and attack me personally–all the while offering absolutely no evidence to support what you have to say. You also returned as soon as you could to the snide and condescending tone you seem to reserve only for women with whom you disagree.
       Your newest tactic is to say that I’ve been “distancing” myself from my book. Well, you’ve now backed yourself into a corner because you can’t make a statement like that without offering examples. What exactly have I said here that is in any way inconsistent with what I wrote in the book? (While you’re looking, please find the sentence that led you to write that I “call for an end to feminist work in the political arena.” As you well know, I have repeatedly said the opposite.)
       You say it’s a contradiction to believe that women are individuals, with our own unique opinions, values, and goals, and to also believe that some of our behaviors are rooted in biology. Actually, that’s not a contradiction but a complexity. For every trait, both biology and culture seem to have placed women and men somewhere on a continuum. On the “nurturing” continuum, for example, more women than men still appear to be on the more nurturing side, while on the aggression continuum, more men than women are clearly on the more aggressive side. Just because two friends happen be more nurturing than a third friend doesn’t mean those two are alike in any other way–they are still individuals, products of their unique genetic code, experiences, choices, and luck. (If you’re going to say that the new studies on cognitive and psychological differences between the sexes are “wildly contradictory,” you’re going to have to give some examples.)
       You write that I engaged in “coercive behavior” by wishing that some women writers and entertainers didn’t feel a need to be verbal exhibitionists, to want to be just as vulgar, as “bad,” as the next guy. But as you well know, I never say that feminism demands that women shouldn’t do this. The only demand feminism makes of women is that they make rational choices and are not self-destructive. I was expressing an opinion–that real sexual strength doesn’t need to be constantly exhibited and externally reinforced, that there is much to be said for privacy. Just because you have trouble making the distinction between your opinion and a dictate of feminism doesn’t mean everyone else does. (By the way, I’ve always admired your own desire not to offer up salacious details about your personal life in exchange for media attention.)
       You say that the only things the media are going to repeat from my book are “all the cruddy things” I wrote about orthodox feminists. Actually, that’s not been true at all. Nearly every radio and newspaper interview has focused on the main points of my book: That feminism is about choice, that knowledge of biological differences is useful, and that women need to work on emotional autonomy. In fact, the only journalist so far who has focused exclusively on my critique of orthodox feminists and virtually ignored everything else has been yourself.
       Perhaps the media (like the vast majority of women) have stopped caring about orthodox feminist theories because they are so outdated, casting women as Stepford feminists–identical in their choices and politics and powerless in the face of patriarchal forces. I’m sorry to say that each of your letters has only reinforced the obsolescence of orthodox feminist theories. The fact is, we no longer live in “a society that tells women that the only choice they have is to be a secretary.” And saying so implicitly denigrates every woman who is perfectly content with her secretarial job. Wake up, Susan, it’s 1997. Yes, “scads of women after World War II were booted from high-wage defense jobs into the secretarial pool.” But that was 50 years ago. Do you really believe that women still need to be freed from exactly the same “forms of bondage, of custom, dependence, superstition” that they did in Stanton’s day?
       Funny that you should bring up Naomi Wolf’s hair. Yes, she’s well known for spending an inordinate time on her hair and makeup before public events in which she criticizes the time women spend on their appearance. She is also well known for posing seductively for profiles in which she criticizes how society is forcing women back into the role of sex objects, and for placing her beautiful face prominently on the front or back covers of various editions of The Beauty Myth. The point is, even she can’t live with the disempowering theories she has promoted (which is why she tried to backtrack on most of them in her second book, Fire With Fire).
       It seems that you still fundamentally misunderstand the definition of feminism. Changing underlying socioeconomic conditions “for men as well as women” is a worthy goal, but it doesn’t fall under the mandate of feminism. Again, feminism–like liberalism–requires equality of opportunity, not equality of result. As Janet Radcliffe Richards writes in The Sceptical Feminist, “Feminism is not concerned with a group of people it wants to benefit, but with a type of injustice it wants to eliminate.” In academia, what you are promoting goes by the name of Marxist feminism, and is considered a radical departure from liberal feminism (a term that is actually redundant).
       If you sincerely want to discuss real issues, then you’re going to have to drop the high-school debating tactics and accept that I am just as devoted as you to advancing the cause of feminism. Don’t you see how important it is to show that women who fundamentally disagree can nonetheless engage in a rational debate?
Karen Lehrman