Nation Topics - Gender Issues
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What would the world look like if women had full human rights? If girls
went to school and young women went to college in places where now they
are used as household drudges and married off at 11 or 12? If women
could go out for the whole range of jobs, could own the land they work,
inherit property on equal terms with men? If they could control their
own sexuality and fertility and give birth safely? If they had recourse
against traffickers, honor killers, wife beaters? If they had as much
say and as much power as men at every level of decision-making, from the
household to the legislature? If John Ashcroft has his way, we may never
find out. After twenty years of stalling by Jesse Helms, the Senate
Foreign Relations Committee in early June held hearings on the
Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against
Women (CEDAW), an international treaty ratified by 169 nations.
(President Carter signed CEDAW in 1980, but the Senate blocked it.)
George W. Bush originally indicated that he would sign it--that was when
he was sending Laura onto the airwaves to blast the Taliban--but under
the influence of Ashcroft, he's since been hedging. Naturally, the
religious right has been working the phones: According to one e-mail
that came across my screen, the operator who answers the White House
comment line assumed the writer was calling to oppose CEDAW, so heavily
were the calls running against it. The reasons? CEDAW would license
abortion, promote homosexuality and teen sex and destroy The Family. In
2000, Helms called it "a terrible treaty negotiated by radical feminists
with the intent of enshrining their anti-family agenda into
How radical can CEDAW be, you may ask, given that it's been ratified by
Pakistan, Jordan and Myanmar? Genderquake is hardly around the corner.
Still, across the globe women have been able to use it to improve their
access to education and healthcare as well as their legal status. In
Japan, on the basis of a CEDAW violation, women sued their employers for
wage discrimination and failure to promote; the Tanzanian High Court
cited CEDAW in a decision to overturn a ban on clan land inheritance for
women. Given the dire situation of women worldwide, it is outrageous to
see US policy in the grip of Falwell, James Dobson and Ralph Nader's
good friend Phyllis Schlafly. Like the Vatican, which uses its UN
observer status to make common cause with Islamic fundamentalist
governments on behalf of fetus and family, on CEDAW the Bush
Administration risks allying itself with Somalia, Qatar and Syria to
promote the religious right agenda on issues of sexuality. In the same
way, at the recent UN General Assembly Special Session on the
Child--where the United States opposed providing girls with sex
education beyond "just say no," even though in much of the Third World
the typical "girl" is likely to be married with children--the Bush
Administration allied itself with Libya, Sudan and evil axis member
Iran. Some clash of civilizations.
Given this season's spate of popular books about mean girls and inhumane
women, it might seem starry-eyed to suppose that more equality for women
would have a positive general social effect. Where women are healthy and
well educated and self-determined, you can bet that men are too, but the
situation of women is not only a barometer of a society's general level
of equality and decency--improving women's status is key to solving many
of the world's most serious problems. Consider the AIDS epidemic now
ravaging much of the Third World: Where women cannot negotiate safe sex,
or protect themselves from rape, or expect fidelity from their male
partners, where young girls are sought out by older HIV-positive men
looking for tractable sex partners, where prostitution flourishes under
the most degraded conditions and where women are beaten or even murdered
when their HIV-positive status becomes known, what hope is there of
containing the virus? Under these circumstances, "just say no" is worse
than useless: In Thailand, being married is the single biggest predictor
of a woman's testing positive. As long as women are illiterate, poor and
powerless, AIDS will continue to ravage men, women and children.
Or consider hunger. Worldwide, women do most of the farming but own only
2 percent of the land. In many areas where tribal rules govern
inheritance, they cannot own or inherit land and are thrown off it
should their husband die. Yet a study by the Food and Agriculture
Organization shows that women spend more time on productive activities,
and according to the International Center for Research on Women, women
spend more of their earnings on their children than men do. Recognizing
and maximizing women's key economic role would have a host of
benefits--it would lessen hunger, improve women's and children's
well-being, improve women's status in the family, lower fertility.
And then there's war and peace. I don't think it's an accident that
Islamic fundamentalism flourishes in the parts of the world where women
are most oppressed--indeed, maintaining and deepening women's
subjugation, the violent rejection of everything female, is one of its
major themes. (Remember Mohammed Atta's weird funeral instructions?) At
the same time, the denial of education, employment and rights to women
fuels the social conditions of backwardness, provincialism and poverty
that sustain religious fanaticism.
If women's rights were acknowledged as the key to human progress that
they are, we would look at all these large issues of global politics and
economics very differently. Would the US government have been able to
spend a billion dollars backing the fundamentalist warlords who raped
and abducted women and threw acid at their unveiled faces while
"fighting communism" and destroying Afghanistan? At the recently
concluded loya jirga, which featured numerous current and former
warlords as delegates, a woman delegate stood up and denounced former
President Burhanuddin Rabbani as a violent marauder. For a moment, you
could see that, as the saying goes, another world is possible.
Perhaps there's a limit to female masochism after all. To the great
astonishment of the New York Times, which put the story on page
one, Creating a Life, Sylvia Ann Hewlett's book deploring the
failure of female professionals to have as many children as she thinks
they need to be happy, is a big commercial flop ("The Talk of the Book
World Still Can't Sell," May 20). Out of a 30,000-copy first printing,
perhaps 8,000 have sold, despite a publicity campaign from heaven:
Time cover story, 60 Minutes, Oprah, Today,
wall-to-wall radio. The UK edition, Baby Hunger (Hewlett's
original choice of title--gag me with a spoon!), is also piling up in
The Times quotes numerous bewildered publishing people--could it
be the cover? women's "deep level of anxiety"?--but it's no big mystery
why the book isn't selling. Except when right-wing foundations buy up
truckloads of copies, antifeminist tracts usually do poorly despite
heavy attention. The media love them--this week's newsstand features
New York with "Baby Panic" and Us with "Will They Ever
Have Babies?" in which Jennifer Aniston and other nulliparous stars
bemoan their lot--but book buyers don't bite. Hewlett follows in the
steps of Katie Roiphe, who got great press but few readers for The
Morning After, which argued that date rape was just "bad sex."
Partly the reason is that these books tend to be so flimsy that the
media campaign gives away their entire contents, but the main reason is
that nobody but women buy books about women--and women who buy hardcover
books are mostly feminists. They know date rape isn't bad sex, and they
don't need Hewlett to tell them their biological clocks are ticking.
(Apparently not as fast as Ms. Hewlett claims, though. Dr. Alan
DeCherney told the Times a woman's chances of getting pregnant at
40 are better than Hewlett makes out.) Why buy a book that tells you to
smile, settle and rattle those pots and pans? That's what your relatives
By the way, my friend Judith Friedlander, coiner of the immortal phrase
"a creeping nonchoice," was surprised to find herself on Hewlett's list
of tearful women whose careers got in the way of childbearing. "I've had
a great life," she told me, "with no regrets, and I spent a long time
telling Hewlett just that."
* * *
What if a woman ran for President who had great progressive politics
except for one thing--she believed that any man accused of rape or
sexual harassment should be castrated without a trial? How many
progressive men would say to themselves, Oh well, she's got great
positions on unions, the environment, the death penalty, and all the
rest, and besides, women really like her, so she gets my vote! Ten men?
Of course, no progressive woman would ever put this crazy notion
forward. Our hypothetical candidate would understand all too well that
she couldn't propose to kick men in the collective teeth and expect them
to vote for her. Back in the real world, however, this is precisely what
some progressives apparently expect women to do for Dennis Kucinich,
whose anti-choice voting record was the subject of my last column.
Besides numerous e-mails thanking me for "outing" him and two or three
upholding the "human rights" of the "itty bitty zygote," I heard from a
few readers like Michael Sherrard, who urged "liberals" to "get over
their single-issue abortion orthodoxy." Instead of asking women to give
up their rights, why not pressure Kucinich to support them? To get that
"broad based multi-issue progressive movement" Sherrard wants, Kucinich
is the one who needs to get real, to face the demographic truth that
without the votes, dollars and volunteer labor of pro-choice women and
men, no Democrat can win the White House. His anti-choice votes may suit
his socially conservative Cleveland constituents, as his supporters
claim, but America isn't the 10th Congressional District of Ohio writ
What Kucinich's fans may not understand is that for pro-choice women,
abortion is not just another item on the list. It goes straight to the
soul. It is about whether society sees you as fully human or as a vessel
for whom no plan or hope or possibility or circumstance, however
desperate, matters more than being a nest for that "itty bitty zygote."
As I've written before, despite the claims of "pro-life feminists" and
"seamless-garment" Catholics, progressive social policies and abortion
rights tend to go together: Abortion bans flourish where there are
backwardness, poverty, undemocratic government and politically powerful
patriarchal religion, where levels of education, healthcare and social
investment in children are low, and where women have little power.
Instead of asking women to sign over their wombs for the cause,
progressives should demand that "their" politicians add abortion rights
to their agenda. No progressive would vote for someone who opposed
unions or wanted to bring back Jim Crow. Why should women's rights
matter less? It's disgusting that the AFL-CIO supports anti-choice
politicians--as if their members aren't getting (or causing) abortions
in vast numbers--and it backfires, too. In Pennsylvania's Democratic
gubernatorial primary, pro-choice centrist Democrat Ed Rendell trounced
anti-choice labor-endorsed Bob Casey Jr., 56 to 44 percent.
* * *
A French committee is promoting Ahmed Shah Massoud, the assassinated
Northern Alliance commander, for the Nobel Peace Prize (among the
signatories: actress Jane Birkin, Gen. Philippe Morillon and that
inevitable trio of trendy philosophes, Bernard-Henri Levy, Alain
Finkielkraut and Andr&eacute; Glucksmann). I know what you're thinking:
If Henry Kissinger could be awarded this honor, why not the
CIA/Russia-backed Tajik warlord who helped set up a fundamentalist
government in 1992, destroyed Kabul by fighting with his erstwhile ally
Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and helped create so much havoc, including
documented massacres of civilians, that Afghans welcomed the Taliban?
Still, there's something repellent about proposing to award Massoud,
thanks in part to whom Afghanistan is riddled with landmines, the same
prize won by anti-landmine activist Jodie Williams in 1997. Maybe they
should call it the Nobel War Prize.
A long time ago I dated a 28-year-old man who told me the first time we
went out that he wanted to have seven children. Subsequently, I was
involved for many years with an already middle-aged man who also claimed
to be eager for fatherhood. How many children have these now-gray
gentlemen produced in a lifetime of strenuous heterosexuality? None. But
because they are men, nobody's writing books about how they blew their
lives, missed the brass ring, find life a downward spiral of serial
girlfriends and work that's lost its savor. We understand, when we think
about men, that people often say they want one thing while making
choices that over time show they care more about something else, that
circumstances get in the way of many of our wishes and that for many
"have kids" occupies a place on the to-do list between "learn Italian"
Change the sexes, though, and the same story gets a different slant.
According to Sylvia Ann Hewlett, today's 50-something women
professionals are in deep mourning because, as the old cartoon had it,
they forgot to have children--until it was too late, and too late was a
whole lot earlier than they thought. In her new book, Creating a
Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children, Hewlett claims
she set out to record the triumphant, fulfilled lives of women in
mid-career only to find that success had come at the cost of family: Of
"ultra-achieving" women (defined as earning $100,000-plus a year), only
57 percent were married, versus 83 percent of comparable men, and only
51 percent had kids at 40, versus 81 percent among the men. Among
"high-achieving" women (at least $65,000 or $55,000 a year, depending on
age), 33 percent are childless at 40 versus 25 percent of men.
Why don't more professional women have kids? Hewlett's book nods to the
"brutal demands of ambitious careers," which are still structured
according to the life patterns of men with stay-at-home wives, and to
the distaste of many men for equal relationships with women their own
age. I doubt there's a woman over 35 who'd quarrel with that. But what's
gotten Hewlett a cover story in Time ("Babies vs. Careers: Which
Should Come First for Women Who Want Both?") and instant celebrity is
not her modest laundry list of family-friendly proposals--paid leave,
reduced hours, career breaks. It's her advice to young women: Be
"intentional" about children--spend your twenties snagging a husband,
put career on the back burner and have a baby ASAP. Otherwise, you could
end up like world-famous playwright and much-beloved woman-about-town
Wendy Wasserstein, who we are told spent some $130,000 to bear a child
as a single 48-year-old. (You could also end up like, oh I don't know,
me, who married and had a baby nature's way at 37, or like my many
successful-working-women friends who adopted as single, married or
lesbian mothers and who are doing just fine, thank you very much.)
Danielle Crittenden, move over! Hewlett calls herself a feminist, but
Creating a Life belongs on the backlash bookshelf with What
Our Mothers Didn't Tell Us, The Rules, The Surrendered
Wife, The Surrendered Single (!) and all those books warning
women that feminism--too much confidence, too much optimism, too many
choices, too much "pickiness" about men--leads to lonely nights and
empty bassinets. But are working women's chances of domestic bliss
really so bleak? If 49 percent of ultra-achieving women don't have kids,
51 percent do--what about them? Hewlett seems determined to put the
worst possible construction on working women's lives, even citing the
long-discredited 1986 Harvard-Yale study that warned that women's
chances of marrying after 40 were less than that of being killed by a
terrorist. As a mother of four who went through high-tech hell to
produce last-minute baby Emma at age 51, she sees women's lives through
the distorting lens of her own obsessive maternalism, in which nothing,
but nothing, can equal looking at the ducks with a toddler, and if you
have one child, you'll be crying at the gym because you don't have two.
For Hewlett, childlessness is always a tragic blunder, even when her
interviewees give more equivocal responses. Thus she quotes academic
Judith Friedlander calling childlessness a "creeping non-choice,"
without hearing the ambivalence expressed in that careful phrasing. Not
choosing--procrastinating, not insisting, not focusing--is often a way
of choosing, isn't it? There's no room in Hewlett's view for modest
regret, moving on or simple acceptance of childlessness, much less
indifference, relief or looking on the bright side--the feelings she
advises women to cultivate with regard to their downsized hopes for
careers or equal marriages. But Hewlett's evidence that today's
childless "high achievers" neglected their true desire is based on a
single statistic, that only 14 percent say they knew in college that
they didn't want kids--as if people don't change their minds after 20.
This is not to deny that many women are caught in a time trap. They
spend their twenties and thirties establishing themselves
professionally, often without the spousal support their male
counterparts enjoy, perhaps instead being supportive themselves, like
the surgeon Hewlett cites approvingly who graces her fiancé's
business dinners after thirty-six-hour hospital shifts. By the time they
can afford to think of kids, they may indeed have trouble conceiving.
But are these problems that "intentionality" can solve? Sure, a woman
can spend her twenties looking for love--and show me one who doesn't!
But will having a baby compensate her for blinkered ambitions and a
marriage made with one eye on the clock? Isn't that what the mothers of
today's 50-somethings did, going to college to get their Mrs. degree and
taking poorly paid jobs below their capacities because they "combined"
well with wifely duties? What makes Hewlett think that disastrous recipe
will work out better this time around?
More equality and support, not lowered expectations, is what women need,
at work and at home. It's going to be a long struggle. If women allow
motherhood to relegate them to secondary status in both places, as
Hewlett advises, we'll never get there. Meanwhile, a world with fewer
female surgeons, playwrights and professors strikes me as an infinitely
inferior place to live.
Afghan women are free of the Taliban, but liberation is still a distant dream.
Back in 1994, Christina Hoff Sommers accused The New York Times Book Review of unfairly assigning her attack on the women's movement, Who Stole Feminism?, to the distinguished scholar of Victorian literature Nina Auerbach for review. Sommers claimed that Auerbach was an unethical choice: Although not named in the book, she had been present at one of the many feminist academic conferences disparaged in its pages and was allegedly the author of a rather overbearing comment, cited in the book, scribbled on a paper written by Sommers's stepson, who had taken a course with Auerbach at the University of Pennsylvania (Auerbach denied writing the comment and suggested it was the work of a TA). Sommers's absurd bid for publicity stirred up a media chorus of sympathetic harrumphs about feminist conspiracies (the Review was at that time edited by a woman, Rebecca Sinkler): Columns ensued by Jim Sleeper, Howard Kurtz, Hilton Kramer. Rush Limbaugh accused the Times of trying to "kill this book."
None of these mavens of literary ethics saw fit to note that Cathy Young raved about the book in the Philadelphia Inquirer and in Commentary despite being vice president of the right-leaning Women's Freedom Network, where Sommers was on the board, or that Mary Lefkowitz gave it high marks in National Review despite being Sommers's very good friend. The Times Book Review ran two weeks' worth of letters (including a particularly rabid one from Camille Paglia, bashing Auerbach as if she were some PC criminal and not an important academic whom any author in her right mind would feel honored to be reviewed by, and who had been, in point of fact, much too high-minded and polite to give Who Stole Feminism? the pasting it deserved).
Fast-forward to the Washington Post Book World, which has landed in hot water for publishing a review of David Brock's Blinded by the Right by Bruce Bawer. Much of Brock's book deals with skulduggery at the Scaife-funded American Spectator--a magazine for which Bawer was a movie critic for several years prior to Brock's own stint there as, he now confesses, a hired mudslinger and fabricator of slanders against Anita Hill, President Clinton and others. Bawer did not mention his connection to the Spectator when offered the assignment, nor did he mention it in the review, even parenthetically, and having spent several years as The Nation's literary editor, I'm not a bit surprised: Reviewers were always neglecting to tell me that the author under consideration was their colleague, best friend, former lover or the editor of the magazine that was publishing their fiction. When I would belatedly find out and confront them, were they embarrassed? Dream on. One even wrote me an outraged letter comparing his panegyric on the poetry of his department chairman to Shelley writing about Keats. Caveat editor, indeed!
Did the Washington Post engineer a pan for Brock by knowingly choosing a reviewer too closely allied with the people and politics he attacks, as claimed by the Media Whores Online website, which is calling for the public beheading of the Book World editor, Marie Arana? Bawer is mentioned (briefly and favorably) in the book, but there is no index and--I hate to be the one to break this to MWO--"previewing" a book before assigning it is not the same as reading every page. (Truth in advertising: I've written a few reviews for Arana and think she's an excellent editor and swell human being, even if the Book World didn't review my last book.) Still, it's a little hard to believe that nobody at the Book World knew that Bawer is a pretty conservative fellow, and, as MWO points out, there is a bit of history here: Two years ago, the Post assigned Joe Conason and Gene Lyons's The Hunting of the President to James Bowman, who was also associated with The American Spectator. On the other hand, Bawer, who, like Brock, is gay, says he left the Spectator over its slurs against homosexuals. Gee, two gay guys who both quit the same rightwingnut magazine--had Bawer loved the book, conservatives would be claiming the fix was in. In fact, Bawer's review was fairly trivial; mostly he made fun of Brock in a feline sort of way--slyly noting his love of elegant tailoring, fancy parties, attention and money, and observing that Brock is still talking trash, only now his targets are his erstwhile friends on the right. Compared with Helen Vendler, whose poetry criticism Bawer skewered in the Hudson Review some years ago with such relish and in such detail that anti-Vendlerites bought up the entire print run within minutes, Brock got off easy.
But then Helen Vendler's taste, like all taste, is open to question, while so far no conservative, Bawer included, has seriously disputed Brock's revelations beyond expressing a general skepticism that this self-confessed liar and suck-up artist has changed his spots. Is Brock lying when he describes how wealthy right-wing foundations created and fueled a media apparatus devoted to smearing liberals, feminists and Democrats, especially the Clintons, with whatever mud it could find or fabricate? Are his unflattering characterizations of his former cronies false? Brock portrays peroxided pundette Laura Ingraham as an ignorant drunk who does not own a single book; he charges Ann Coulter with "virulent anti-Semitism"; he says Spectator editor-in-chief R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. urged him to attack women because that sold papers. He claims the only thing Simon & Schuster publisher Jack Romanos wanted to know before handing him a million dollars to write a hatchet job on Hillary Clinton was whether she was a lesbian. He says Ricky Silberman, vice chairman of the EEOC under Clarence Thomas and one of his most stalwart supporters, was thoroughly persuaded by Strange Justice, in which Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson validate Hill's claims, but helped Brock savage the book anyway. Virtually every page of Blinded by the Right makes an assertion that is, if true, embarrassing, and if false, libelous. The silence is curious, to say the least.
After much urging, the Post acknowledged that Bawer's review was inappropriate. Meanwhile, you can be sure that none of the pundits who raked Nina Auerbach and the New York Times over the coals will be firing up the barbie this time.
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This is a special selection from The Nation Digital Archive. If you want to read everything The Nation has ever published on the women's rights movement and feminism, click here for information on how to acquire individual access to the Archive--an electronic database of every Nation article since 1865.
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