Feminism's Unfinished Business

SPEAKING OF SEX: The Denial of Gender Inequality
by Deborah Rhode.
Harvard University Press, 
341 pages, $29.95.

IT takes a real talent for overlooking the obvious to argue that women have achieved equality in contemporary America. After all, despite thirty years of feminist activism and much social change, virtually every important political, social, cultural, and economic institution is still dominated by men: legislatures, courts, corporations, labor unions, the news and entertainment media, education, science, medicine, religion. Study after study shows that women make less money than men even when they do the same or similar work, which they have a hard time getting; that they shoulder the bulk of child-rearing and housework, even in families where both husband and wife work full-time; that they are on the receiving end of a great deal of rape, domestic violence, abuse, and harassment. The pervasiveness of sexism is by now widely acknowledged, even on occasion in venues that are hostile to the organized women's movement: it was The Wall Street Journal, whose editorial page regularly inveighs against feminism as a form of "political correctness" and "social engineering," that in 1995 prominently featured the news that parents give daughters smaller allowances and more chores than they give sons. Riffling through my magazine basket on a slow day recently, I learned from Science News that scientifically gifted high school girls are more likely to drop out of the field in college than are comparable boys; from The Washington Post that most health-care plans won't pay for contraceptives; and from The New Republic that forced marriages and other oppressive customs persist in some immigrant communities without much objection from the legal system.
But if the evidence is all around us, why doesn't everybody see it -- or see it for what it is? In recent years a seemingly endless parade of social critics have achieved celebrity by portraying not sexism but feminism as the problem. Some frankly glorify male dominance, among them Camille Paglia, who being a woman can say things -- that the California high school date-rape gang known as the Spur Posse is "beautiful," for example -- that might make even Rush Limbaugh blanch. Others, such as Christina Hoff Sommers, Katie Roiphe, and the conservative Independent Women's Forum, argue that feminism has completed its real job -- overturning formal and legal barriers to equal treatment -- so women are either already equal (more or less) or don't wish to be, and all evidence to the contrary is false or trivial. Either way, women who feel victimized should, as Mary Matalin puts it, "stop whining!"

Deborah Rhode, a professor of law at Stanford University and the president-elect of the Association of American Law Schools, thinks the problem is that women -- and men who care about them -- don't whine enough. Women's second-class status, what Betty Friedan once called "the problem that has no name," has become "the 'no problem' problem." In Speaking of Sex, Rhode sets herself two tasks: to document gender inequality -- separate chapters cover child-rearing, the media, sexual violence, work, and marriage and divorce -- and to understand why so many of us are "in denial" about it. Although Rhode breaks little new ground, the sheer accumulation of data and her cogent analyses make this an excellent guide to sexism in our time. Exhaustively footnoted and sourced (seventy-nine pages of notes for 250 of text), it is unlike most general-interest books on any side of this debate in that it draws on a vast amount of real scholarship and ranges widely over the available literature in and out of academia. Although Rhode is not an exciting writer -- her attempts at humor are mostly quotations from others (including, I should mention, me) -- her calm, lawyerly, methodical approach lets the material speak for itself. And it does.

WE all know that divorced mothers are rarely awarded enough child support to cover the real costs of raising a child as a single parent, that toys are stereotypically sex-typed, that teachers call more often on boys. But did you know that "individuals give lower ratings to the same resumes, scholarly articles, or artistic works when they carry a female rather than a male name"? That "30 to 50 percent of surveyed Americans ... believe that women are to blame for rape if they dress provocatively"? That Hispanic female college graduates earn less, on average, than white male high school dropouts? That when an ABC documentary team sent a man and a woman with equal credentials to apply for the same advertised jobs, he got managerial offers and she got typing tests?

The picture that emerges from the hundreds of similar facts gathered here is pretty depressing, and even I, a connoisseur of bad news, wondered occasionally if Rhode wasn't determined not to look on the bright side. Which, for example, is more significant: kindergarten "graduation awards" that singled out girls as "All-Around Sweetheart" and "Cutest Personality" and boys as "Very Best Thinker" and "Most Eager Learner," or the fact that a father protested and the episode made headlines -- in The Wall Street Journal? In her discussion of child custody Rhode contends that mothers who don't fit the 1950s chaste-homebody stereotype are at a disadvantage, and that fathers get more credit than mothers for the same level of involvement with their children, and I believe her, because I hear these attitudes expressed in casual conversation fairly often. All her examples, however, are of widely publicized legal outrages: the judge who took custody from a lesbian mother and gave it to the father, a convicted murderer; the judge who barred a custodial mother from letting her male partner sleep over; the judge who transferred custody to a previously uninvolved father because the mother, a college student, enrolled her toddler in day care. Representative cases, or flukes, or something in between? More significant than these shocking anecdotes are studies suggesting that 20 percent of divorcing husbands use the threat of a custody fight to obtain financial concessions, and that half of Massachusetts judges surveyed believe that a mother should be home when school lets out, and many would shift custody to the father if she isn't.

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