Feminism's Unfinished Business

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.

by Deborah Rhode.
Harvard University Press,
341 pages, $29.95.

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.

So why is gender inequality the no-problem problem? Rhode sees three kinds of denial at work. People fail to see how unequal women are, or they see it but "rationalize [it] as the result of women's own choices and capacities," or they see it but believe they have no responsibility to work for change. Doubtless there's much truth to this analysis. Many people have a hard time seeing that lifting a prohibition is a far cry from making something accessible or even possible, whether it's an equal shot at tenure or an abortion (some studies show that one in five women seeking an abortion is frustrated by economic or legal hurdles -- those "undue burdens" theoretically forbidden by Supreme Court rulings). For many reasons, too, and in many areas of life, Americans have a curiously shallow understanding of the relationship of the individual to society: we greatly underestimate the role of social forces in making us what we are and in limiting our real, as opposed to abstract, choices. We tell ourselves that obstacles exist to be overcome, citing the handful of people who manage to overcome them as proof that everyone could if she chose. Moreover, in all fairness, some patterns of gender bias are genuinely hard to see: perhaps I, too, give my daughter a smaller allowance than I would give her if she were a boy -- but since I don't have a son, how can I tell? If you don't know how much your colleagues earn (a taboo subject in the American workplace), how do you know if you're being underpaid because of your sex? As Rhode points out, lots of decisions -- who gets a promotion, who wins a prize -- are close calls involving many factors. If each decision seems reasonable, it may not be easy to pinpoint the bias, even if the overall pattern heavily favors men.

RHODE'S psychological perspective also leaves out a lot, however. Gender inequality is, after all, not just a social phenomenon about which people have more or less carefully reasoned and well-informed ideas, such as they have about capital punishment, or gun control, or the draft. It's one of the fundamental aspects of the American social and economic system. Not only psychological comfort but actual concrete interests are at stake. To equalize the standings of men and women would cost billions of dollars, require the overhaul of many institutions, and destabilize many kinds of personal and professional relationships. It would threaten many men, and some women, with increased competition, while depriving men as a group of the important psychological bonus of feeling superior to women. There would be losers as well as winners. This would all be true whether or not people denied the existence of gender inequality, just as economic inequality exists independent of our fitful bouts of awareness of it. Denial is not an explanation of a social fact but an adaptation to it.

And do most people even deny that gender inequality exists? The studies Rhode mentions suggest that denial is mostly the privilege of those who benefit, or hope to benefit, from the status quo. Judges may be astonished when state commissions publish reports documenting widespread discrimination against women in the legal system (the male judge who co-chaired California's Gender Bias Task Force joked, "Until I was on this ... Task Force, there was never any bias in my court"). I suspect that female lawyers, witnesses, plaintiffs, and defendants are rather less thunderstruck. More than 90 percent of female senior managers believe that men's and women's opportunities remain unequal; 40 to 50 percent of female workers believe that an old-boy network persists, and that they would have higher salaries if they were men. These figures and many others -- the large numbers of women who report having experienced sexual harassment, for example -- suggest that plenty of women see their circumstances rather plainly. At least in surveys, it's men who hold rosy beliefs about equality, like the two thirds of fathers in one study who claimed to share child care equally with their wives -- an outcome wildly inconsistent with virtually all the research, not to mention the experience of most mothers.

That last item raises the question of how much denial is sincere and how much is a matter of convenience or rhetorical strategy or political agenda. When Alan Dershowitz, not only a famous trial lawyer but also an immensely knowledgeable professor of law, claims that rape is "the most overreported serious crime in America" because 8.4 percent of reported rapes are "unfounded," one suspects he knows that "unfounded" means not false or fabricated but failing to meet the legal statute, lacking in the kind of evidence that fits the requirements of the law, or unlikely to prevail in court -- hardly the same thing. (As Rhode says, the overwhelming consensus among researchers using government statistics is that only two percent of rape complaints are false -- no more than for other crimes.) Similarly, the conservative antifeminist pundits and talking heads who are all over the news media right now -- Laura Ingraham, Mona Charen, Christina Hoff Sommers -- represent mostly themselves and the right-wing think tanks and foundations that fund them. Rhode is concerned that out of 90 million adult American women, only 250,000 belong to the National Organization for Women -- but maybe this says less about women's denial of sexism than it does about NOW. In any case, only about a thousand belong to Laura Ingraham's home base, the Independent Women's Forum, an anti-feminist group that claims to favor women's rights.

Rhode's hope is that people awakened to gender injustice will take action against it. I share her hope, but a century of muckraking journalism should have taught us the limits of this model for social change. America is full of certifiably innocent victims whose desperate straits persist despite repeated publicity: the homeless mentally ill, children in foster care, old people confined to substandard nursing homes. People seem able to live with a considerable amount of awareness of other people's hard luck -- and even of their own. Feminism is, after all, no more stymied -- and maybe less -- than movements that seek a fairer piece of the pie for African-Americans, labor, or the 70 percent of Americans whose wages have stagnated or eroded over the past two decades. Why so many people are politically passive, and under what conditions they might rouse themselves, are fascinating questions, but I don't think the concept of denial will take us far toward an answer. The problem is not so much, as Rhode argues, that people mistakenly believe the world is just; actually, only the privileged think that. It's that they believe they are powerless. And much of the time they're right.

The rather tepid kinds of action that Rhode urges on her readers underscore this powerlessness: angry letters; consumer boycotts of products that are sexist or advertised in ways insulting to women; contributions to feminist organizations, which will presumably lobby for the "model initiatives" and "projects" she believes will point the way toward wider change. None of these are bad ideas, exactly. But they're not likely to draw in new troops or energize old soldiers for a renewed assault on inequality -- who joins a social movement in order to get a form letter back from a senator? And if inequality is as pervasive and entrenched as Rhode argues, these activities aren't going to make enough of a difference. Rhode herself seems to understand that women's inequality is tied to other features of the status quo: she explains Congress's inattention to gender justice with Pat Schroeder's observation "There's no money in women's issues." But this moment of realism yields immediately to a renewed bout of wishful thinking: feminists, Rhode suggests, must therefore make a "central priority" of campaign-finance reform, that elephants' graveyard for civic-minded activists.

What would a revitalized feminist movement look like? What made the movement so compelling in the 1970s was in part the clarity of the demand it made on America to live up to its own values: fair play, equal treatment under the law, respect for individual merit and difference and so forth, and the responsibility of government to ensure that women receive an equal helping of these important social goods. This is the strand of feminism Rhode emphasizes, as one would expect a law professor to do, and it's clear that we still have a long way to go in making even these modest goals a reality. But there was another, more radical side to the movement, which had to do with the promise feminism held out to women of a life not just with more justice but also with more freedom, more self-respect, more choices, and more pleasure. Feminism promised that one could become more conscious of the social forces limiting one's life, and that from this new awareness positive change could come. That is what the much-maligned slogan "The personal is political" meant. This aspect of feminism was the opposite of "model initiatives" and sending in $50 so that someone else could be paid to lobby your congressman to vote your way on a few high-profile bills. It was a do-it-yourself, direct-action social movement. It might take a revival of this spirit to get us beyond "denial."

The Atlantic Monthly; November 1997; Feminism's Unfinished Business; Volume 280, No. 5; pages 160-164.