Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Born Again Feminism for the 21st Century

March is Women's History Month, with a focus on the past raising questions about the future. Gender or left-wing feminism has defined the mainstream movement for decades, but can it carry feminism into the 21st century and away from the accusation of irrelevancy? 2006 is a fine year in which to ask that question. It is far enough into the new century for gender feminists to have provided a rough answer if one is coming. I believe the answer has arrived.

On a personal level, you may not care. You may be fed up with decades-long arguments that all seem to run in an endless loop toward the same conclusion: Women as a class are oppressed by men as a class through the institutions of society such as the free market and the family. On a political level, however, you should pay attention. Those same tiresome arguments have dramatically reshaped the institutions with which you and your children live every day.

For example, in 1980, the term "sexual harassment" was virtually unknown. Today, it is a legal reality that every campus and workplace confronts. If gender feminism successfully recreates itself, then your day-to-day life may continue to reflect its vision, not yours. Linda R. Hirshman, co-author of the book Hard Bargains: The Politics of Sex, offers a glimpse of that vision. She recently published an article titled "Homeward Bound" in the liberal magazine American Prospect (12/20/05). "Home" does not refer to the hearth. Quite the opposite. Home is the ideological starting point to which Hirshman believes feminism must return in order to become effective. The much discussed article is a clear snapshot of gender feminism's present dilemma over irrelevancy and the need for redefinition.

Hirshman bluntly acknowledges the failure of feminism by pointing to one phenomenon. Many educated women are rejecting successful careers to become mothers and embrace the domesticity that Betty Friedan compared to animal life and a Nazi concentration camp in her 1953 bestseller The Feminine Mystique. How did this happen? In a word, choice is to blame: "[L]iberal feminists abandoned the judgmental starting favor of offering women 'choices'. The choice talk spilled over from.'abortion', and it provided an irresistible solution to feminists trying to duck the mommy wars. A woman could work, stay home, have 10 children or one, marry or stay single. It all counted as 'feminist' as long as she chose it."

Hirshman dismisses what she calls "choice feminism." Instead, she argues for a return to "a judgmental starting point" by which incorrect choices are to be shunned, choices like the traditional role of wife and mother. Hirshman writes, "Now the glass ceiling begins at home. Although it is harder to shatter a ceiling that is also the roof over your head, there is no other choice."

The 20th century gender war was fought largely in the workplace and on campuses; the 21st century's battleground is the traditional family. According to Hirshman, failure to deconstruct that one institution is the explanation for feminism's failures elsewhere.

I profoundly disagree with Hirshman's conclusions and many of her particulars. For example, I don't believe all of women's choices have been sanctioned as 'feminist'; sex work is a counter-example.

I also don't believe feminism ever ceased being judgmental. Nevertheless, the article is a fascinating glimpse into gender feminism's struggle to reinvent itself. The broad themes of this reinvention are: a rejection of the 'c-word' (choice) as the standard of feminism; the substitution of correct choices as feminism's touchstone; a renewed focus on deconstructing the traditional family; and, a reaching backward into "the golden age" of feminism in order to understand and correct mistakes.

As the reinvention occurs, the gender feminist approach to specific issues will inevitably shift as well. Without a crystal ball and with recognition that feminism is not a monolith, the following are some of the changes (or not) in approach that I expect to see: On abortion. The words choice and pro-choice will be de-emphasized. Instead, stress will be placed on weighing the rights and health of the woman against those of the unborn with the clear message that the woman takes precedence.

On sexual harassment. The argument will not change because it has proven successful but the approach will be broadened to include male victims, especially boys. For example, the latest survey from the American Association of University Women on school and campus harassment reports on male victims. I believe the shift is largely strategic. It is no longer possible to ignore male victims of harassment. Thus, the championing of boys will be co-opted and recast within gender feminism's established framework of sexual harassment.

On domestic violence. The argument will not change and the approach will not be broadened significantly. In gender feminist theory, domestic violence is key to establishing that traditional marriage is a dangerous place for women. "Staying the course" is not only an ideological matter, it is also strategic. To the extent male victims are acknowledged, the focus will be on gay male victims. A lot of funding is on the line.

What do I think is the real feminist line for the 21st century? Your peaceful choices are yours alone and no one else's business. Be a housewife, love your children without a time schedule.or dive into a 24/7 job that you get on merit. Live your own dream. Be your own woman. And, yes, that makes me a "choice feminist."


The War on Big Soda

"Warning: The Surgeon General has determined that drinking soda can be hazardous to your health."

Look for that warning label on bottles and cans of Coke, Mountain Dew, Dr. Pepper and even Hawaiian Punch in stores near you in the not too distant future ... that is, if the Health Nannies and the Trial Lawyers get their way. An Associated Press story this week reports that nutrition "experts" are "escalating the fight" against obesity, and they appear to be changing their focus from fast-food to soft drinks. "In reports to be published in science journals this week, two groups of researchers hope to add evidence to the theory that soda and other sugar-sweetened drinks don't just go hand-in-hand with obesity, but actually cause it," the AP reports. "Not that these drinks are the only cause, but that they are one cause, perhaps the leading cause."

And once "science" takes that leap, the AP predicts the results could be "higher taxes on soda, restrictions on how and where it is sold -- maybe even a surgeon general's warning on labels." As Barry Popkin, a "scientist" at the University of North Carolina boasted, "We've done it with cigarettes."

Yes, they did. And many of us fought the three-headed hydra of government bureaucrats, trial lawyers and junk scientists in their war against Big Tobacco. The bottom line for our side was simply that no one was pointing a gun at anyone's head and MAKING them smoke cigarettes -- just as no one is MAKING anyone drink sodas today. But that didn't matter to a lot of fair-weathered conservatives who willingly joined the War on Tobacco simply because they didn't like cigarettes. Freedom and responsibility? Fuggetaboutit. Let's just get rid of Joe Camel, right?

Well, we tried to warn you people. And I'm not hesitant in the least to say, "I told you so." You allowed the hydra to get its nose under the tent. And now, flush with cash and success in "getting" Big Tobacco, they're coming for your Yoo-Hoo and your Pepsi. Serves you right. Of course, some of you will STILL blow off this encroachment on freedom as nonsense. The government would never crack down on Gatorade the way it did Marlboros, right?

Wrong. They're already doing it. In legislatures and local governments across the country, a quiet but growing movement is already well underway to ban soda machines in schools. After all, what self-respecting social engineering project would dare move forward without a "for the kids" component, right? In California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger -- who should know better -- signed two bills last fall banning vending machine sales of sodas, chocolate bars, crackers, chips, candy and other "junk" foods. The bills' sponsor, Democrat/Socialist state Sen. Martha Escutia, justifies her Big Brother bill thusly: "The benefits of having kids in class who are not on a sugar high, who are going to be able to concentrate and learn better - that's just as important as the obesity aspect."

Yes, dear reader, you read that right. The War on Soda is actually an effort to help kids learn better! Forget about hiring competent teachers, paying them more, raising standards, dumping No Child Left Behind, getting back to basics, breaking up the government monopoly on education, providing school choice and kicking the teachers union out of the classroom. No, all we really need to do to raise student performance is kick the Coke machine out of the school cafeteria. Good grief.

The California bans take effect in July 2007, and let me tell what's going to happen. Kids will continue to drink their favorite beverages. They'll continue to eat Snickers and Ding-Dongs. And if they can't purchase them on campus, they'll purchase them off campus. In addition, a black market in Fritos and Reese's Peanut Butter Cups will pop up under the gymnasium stands, as young entrepreneurs recognize the new demand and fill it from their back-packs. Psssst. Wanna buy a Twix?

Eventually, the Dudley Do-Gooders such as Sen. Escutia and Gov. Schwarzenegger are going to pursue legislation to crack down on the Twinkie black market, banning not just the vending machines on campus, but penalizing mere possession, thus equating snacks with the likes of marijuana, which is already sold on campuses and the use of which only fuels an even greater demand for potato chips and donuts. Hmm. I guess marijuana IS a gateway drug after all.

Eventually, our kids are going to be sent to the principal's office or suspended for getting caught sneaking a Hershey's bar between classes. Somehow I don't think this is what the Founders had in mind when they promoted the need for an educated populace in order to maintain our liberty. But does anyone care any longer?


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