« previous post | Main | next post »

February 22, 2005

oh those ridiculous feminists

Don Herzog: February 22, 2005

Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Women of 1792 produced all kinds of raucous and ribald jeers about the author's lack of femininity.  A political woman?  A woman who thought the status of women was a political problem, not a fact of nature or divinely mandated role?  Hmph.  As a young conservative, William Cobbett didn't think women should even read political pamphlets.  But write them?  Shudder:  it would desex the lovely ladies.  So in 1795 Cobbett pounced on the "well known fact" — it was false that writing and publishing the Vindication turned poor Wollstonecraft's hair white.  So too in 1833 the cranky Tory journal Fraser's asked, rhetorically, if women should write on politics.

Certainly not.  We feel a determined dislike of women who wander into these unfeminine paths; they should immediately hoist a mustache — and, to do them justice, they in general do exhibit no inconsiderable specimen of the hair-lip.

Director's cut:  we move to today's conservative columnists, assembled at townhall.  Conservatives, we know, cling to tradition.  Even, as it turns out, this unseemly one.  Those poor, misguided feminists, with their vain and frantic revolt against nature:  our columnists are happy to tut-tut them, all for the complacent pleasure of their readers.

In the runup to the election, Michelle Malkin assailed the "Sally the Sniveler[s]," the "Hysterical Women for Kerry," the "ultrafeminists who purport to speak for all women" who she thought were "an embarrassment to a nation at war."  Feminism is a contemptible luxury in a world wrestling with "Islamofascists."

In battleground states, the Kerry campaign has dispatched such incoherent nervous Nellies to scare the pantyhose off of young women and moms.

In those same weeks, Kathleen Parker explained why "security moms" were gravitating toward Bush.  Who knew she had such expertise in sociobiology?

When it comes to hearth and home, females vote their ovaries.  It's the nest, dummy.

On a deep-brain level, mothers want what they dare not utter aloud in a culture that pretends the sexes are the same.  They want a man to protect them and their helpless offspring.  And the alpha male will be recognized on a level too primitive to be measured by polls.

Oh, by the way, those tremors you feel?  Don't be alarmed.  It's just the hate-Daddy Metro crowd stamping their feet in protest.  This is not an unexpected response when long-buried truths bubble to the surface.  It will pass.  Sometimes they just need a nap.  Meanwhile, as campaign strategists try to paint a portrait of their candidate as the more intellectual, or the smarter strategist, or the morally superior man, or the more nuanced or the tougher hombre, they're missing the point. The real issue in the post-9/11 dating game is simple: Which is the truer man?

In the same vein, Suzanne Fields, scholar of feminine instinct, explained why Kerry's flip-flops drove women away:

Women find no greater sign of weakness in a man than a propensity to constantly change his mind.  Single or married, a woman wants to know exactly where the man in her life stands.  Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women, admonished the senator for weakness on women's issues and told him that he must apply more "muscle" to the pursuit of the women's vote.  Women instinctively mistrust nuancy boys.

Poor effeminate Kerry, waffling and fickle instead of decisive.  I don't know if Fields meant her "nuancy boys" to play on "nancy boys," an old phrase for gay men, but, um, when's the last time you ran into "nuancy" as an adjective?  (It's not in the Oxford English Dictionary.)

Meanwhile, Phyllis Schlafly just weighed in on the debacle surrounding Lawrence Summers's comments.  "The feminists, who have no sense of humor," and their "orgy of indignation" were exemplary of the intransigent stupidity of today's campuses.

The cornerstone of the political correctness that dominates campus culture is radical feminism.  And the first commandment of feminism is:  I am woman; thou shalt not tolerate strange gods who assert that women have capabilities or often choose roles that are different from those of men.

Fraser's would have grinned at her conclusion:

When will American men learn how to stand up to the nagging by the intolerant, uncivil feminists whose sport is to humiliate men?  Men should stop treating feminists like ladies, and instead treat them like the men they say they want to be.

But first prize for a sniggering condensation of this distinguished tradition's treasured wisdom has to go to Mike S. Adams for crafting a "new disability claim" to an imagined human resources director.  (Yeah, the man does a better job playing these venerable riffs than the four women do.  Go figure.)  After being shocked by the "angry ranting" of a woman coworker complaining about her husband's erectile dysfunction, the poor guy developed erectile dysfunction of his own.  Why?  Because he kept encountering those grim and strident feminists.

In 2001, I was jogging on campus when I passed a group of feminists marching in the annual “Take back the night” event.  After they marched by me shaking their fists and screaming, I first experienced ED.  They certainly took back that night!

In 2002, I read the book “Intimate Reading” by a feminist professor in the English Department at UNC-Wilmington.  After I read the section about her losing her virginity at age 16 (told in graphic detail), I again experienced ED.

In 2003 (February), when campus feminists marched around stage chanting “vagina, vagina” during the Vagina Monologues, I experienced ED again.  Even worse, it happened to me on Valentine’s Day (which, by the way, is not known as VD)!

The columnists' advice is clear.  Troubled by feminists?  Just laugh them off.  Mannish or hysterical, castrating bitches or not, all these feminists are at war with nature, idiotically trying to change what can't and shouldn't be changed.  So no, don't rouse yourself from your dogmatic slumbers, your nap is just fine, nothing to worry about, roll over, go back to sleep, feminism is absurd.

The columnists sound just like Cobbett and Fraser's jeering at the likes of Wollstonecraft.  But here's the irony — and it's a regular irony of conservative homage to tradition in a world where society has been changing very fast for centuries now.  The last laugh goes to Wollstonecraft.  Women (and not just the poor women who always have) work outside the home.  Women vote.  Women run for office.  Women get elected.

Women even write on politics and a conservative website is happy to post their work.  And we don't sneer that their hair greys or that they sprout mustaches.  So yesterday's feminists, scorned by yesterday's conservatives as crazy radicals vainly struggling against natural necessity, created the very traditions that today's conservatives take for granted and even prize.

Today's feminists may be creating tomorrow's traditions; they may not.  (And I am the last person to imagine that history has a direction or a one-way ratchet labeled "progressivism" against which "reactionaries" rail in vain.)  Their ideas may be good; they may not.  (And let's remember that feminism, like any other ism, is a big tent.)  But brushing them aside as struggling against natural necessity, biology or providence, is hopeless.  That time-honored conservative tactic is just a way of sweeping real political issues under the rug, pretending we don't have a choice when we do.  Lots more can be said in particular cases:  should the legislature or courts be involved? or should the issue be left to private struggles over culture?  And so on.  But I reject the view that as a general matter today's gender norms are natural or necessary.

PS:  Far be it from me to try to control the gleeful chaos of the comments on this or any other thread.  But astute readers will notice that they are not beginning to respond to anything I've said here if they inveigh against what they take to be feminist lunacies.


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference oh those ridiculous feminists:


Posted by: Jay Cline

So, Don, the right-wing's "girly-boys" anti-feminist slurs have delved into the realm of the left-wing's "macho-man" feminist slurs. Whaddasaying?

Are we talking mudfight here?

Posted by: Jay Cline | Feb 22, 2005 7:48:05 AM

Posted by: Don Herzog

No, nothing about or against macho men. In part, I'm saying: the idea that particular gender roles are assigned by nature or necessity or providence, that they are simply beyond our control, and so that we can simply mock those challenging them as ridiculous and confused, is 1/a long-running theme among conservatives and 2/makes no sense.

Posted by: Don Herzog | Feb 22, 2005 7:52:07 AM

Posted by: oliver

I find the word "conservative" especially confusing in discussions of feminity and feminism. I hope the women's studies people have more helpful categories.

Posted by: oliver | Feb 22, 2005 8:40:11 AM

Posted by: oliver

"astute readers will notice that they are not beginning to respond to anything I've said here if they inveigh against what they take to be feminist lunacies"

The direct response would be for men to start citing feminist women who give them hard-ons. Maybe a list of the ten sexiest feminists?

Posted by: oliver | Feb 22, 2005 8:50:21 AM

Posted by: Ken


I certainly agree that the right is mockable in thinking that biology determines appropriate gender roles in some direct and inflexible way. But I think those on the left who think that gender is socially constructed "all the way down'" and that culture sort of floats free of biology are mockable too. Though the latter is a more intellectually respectable view, actually backed by things that have the form and function of actual arguments, it still seems to me to deploy concepts of biology and culture that can't be sustained.

Think about it this way. There is a massive three way gender-coordination problem faced by ours and any other species that reproduces sexually. Males have to coordinate with males, so that they don't kill each other over the potential female partners. Females have to coordinate with females so that they don't kill each other over potential male partners. And females and males have to coordinate with each other so that mate selection strategies and preferences are convergent rather than divergent.

Now there are probably lots of solutions to the set of coordination problems that sexually reproducing species face -- some of them not very "demanding" to use not quite the right word. But in creatures like us who have the capacity for a complex form of social life, who remain immature and dependent on parental support for a comparatively long period of our lives, any "solution" to the three way coordination problem is going to be massively tied up all sorts of social structures, including facts about the distinctive structure of a characteristically human life.

Now even if you think, as I do, that both our capacity for a distinctive form of social life and the generlat sturcture of an individual human life are the result of some sort of evolutionary process -- the dynamics of group selection is my guess -- It certainly doesn't follow that evolution gave us a single solution to the three way coordination problem in the sense of giving a fixed set of gender roles once and for all. But it wouldn't surprise me at all if it turned out that evolution supplied us with cognitive and emotive make ups that in some way more or less tightly constrain the possible solutions to the three way coordination problems. How tightly? I can't say. But obviously not so tightly that gender roles are fixed across cultures. I suspect that not so loosely that just anything goes. But that's just a hunch in need of evidence and argument.

I'm not making any normative claim here. I don't know what would ground a priori any particular normative claim about what the distribution of gender roles should be. The only question for me is what, if anything, constrains the solutions to the gender coordination problems that really possible social/cultural orders can "settle" into. Probably history and culture and the distribution of power are sources of constraint. But probably too evolutionarily instilled facts about the very general structure of male/female cognitive/affective make ups play some constraining role too.

Can we easily separate out the contributions of the various constraining factors? Certainly not easily.

Is it worth trying? Do we have the methods, the data? I think it is worth trying. The problem with the methods and the data is that we have only one actual walk through the space of possibilities and we don't know in advance how large that space really is.

If we could freely employ the method of hypothesis testing and generation, we would be a lot better off. To some extent we clearly can -- since history provides us some alternative arrangements and social experimentation -- especially in an age like ours -- happens relatively constantly.

But it's hard to separate out the contributions of the different possible constraining sources when you can't manipulate the data and experiment to your heart's content.

Not to say it's hopeless. Just hard.

Anyway. that may not be directly a challenge to anything you said. And like I said, I agree that the right, at least the sort of rightist you have in mind here, is thoroughly mockable. Plus I respect many arguments from the left about the social construction of gender as really having the form and function of arguments rather than merely serving as ideological blinders -- though there are exceptions. But I'd really like to see this debate about biology vs culture vs politics vs history, etc entirely rephrased. I think it's beginning to be reconfigured. But it's not there yet.

Posted by: Ken | Feb 22, 2005 9:03:26 AM

Posted by: S. Weasel

Hm. That men two centuries ago absurdly mischaracterized the relationship between gender and intellect doesn't make any investigation of the topic absurd. It's becoming increasingly obvious that gender isn't a purely social construct, however fashionable that belief has been for the last few decades.

Ah, what was the name of that poor creature who offed himself last year? Born with indeterminate gender, so they made him a girl (or was it the other way around?) and declared it an entire success...when, in fact, he had spent his short lifetime miserably unhappy with his assigned gender, hormone injections notwithstanding? He was held up for years as proof that gender is malleable.

I've just realized Googling "hermaphrodite" and "suicide" from my work machine isn't a career-advancing behavior.

Posted by: S. Weasel | Feb 22, 2005 9:28:49 AM

Posted by: Paul Shields

Thoughtful post, Ken.

Posted by: Paul Shields | Feb 22, 2005 9:31:51 AM

Posted by: Don Herzog

Ken, thanks for your thoughtful comment. I'm not myself a big fan of this kind of speculative evolutionary argument -- it smacks too much of just-so stories told after the fact. But I'm not even a little bit opposed to empirical work on the biology of sex and what it means. Nor do I think, in your language, that gender is a social construction all the way down. I think in all these matters "nature or nurture" is a terrible framing. The two always interact, and we can deploy the economist's conception of elasticity to ask, say, how much variation you can get from a given natural endowment as you vary social setting across various parameters.

Still, the best evidence that something is possible is that it's actual. And it's impossible to spend any time with historical and anthropological sources without realizing that there's lots and lots of flexibility about gender.

And all this, as you acknowledge, is miles away from a public debate in which a columnist can suggest that the millions of moms who voted for Kerry are mysteriously out of touch with their ovaries.

Posted by: Don Herzog | Feb 22, 2005 9:36:34 AM

Posted by: Dallas

No, nothing about or against macho men. In part, I'm saying: the idea that particular gender roles are assigned by nature or necessity or providence, that they are simply beyond our control, and so that we can simply mock those challenging them as ridiculous and confused, is 1/a long-running theme among conservatives and 2/makes no sense.

Hypertrophic extension of an adaptive behavior to the point it becomes maladaptive tends toward extinction. Let's face reality here: incipient humans develop in a woman's womb. Not much we can do about that.

Posted by: Dallas | Feb 22, 2005 10:31:10 AM

Posted by: Don Herzog

Um, Dallas, which were the feminists proposing that men become pregnant? Let's distinguish sex and gender. Sex is a biological category: it's all about XX and XY, hormones, genitals, lactation, and so on. Gender is a social, cultural, political category: it's all about what's properly feminine and properly masculine.

Posted by: Don Herzog | Feb 22, 2005 10:33:15 AM

Posted by: Don


I take your point about elasticity. Same thing applies for example in heritability studies. You have to distinguish between l point heritabilities and heritability functions. Point heritabilites are heritabilities defined over a fixed range of environments. Add a new environment to the mix and point heritabilites can change. What you really want to know are not point heritabilites but heritability functions or maybe even the slope of the heritability function.

About "just so" stories and evolutionary speculation. I'm a fan, but only if the distinction between having a novel style of hypothesis generator and a style of hypothesis tester is kept always in mind. Generating evolutionary hypotheses is sort of easy. Testing and confirming them is a REALLY HARD THING. That I admit. Not even completely sure it can be done. The main problem with evolutionary arguments is that people sometimes mistake the hypothesis generator for the hypothesis tester.

One might think that since testing evolutionary hypotheses is so hard, and generating them is so easy, maybe we should just set evolutionary hypotheses to one side as more trouble than the are theoretically worth. I think that would be a mistake. What really is required is just a little modesty -- well, maybe a lot of modesty about what you can and can't actually establish at this stage in the history of inquiry.

Of course, culture formation doesn't wait on scientific progress. So we will go on trying to construct our culture, even if science can't tell us anything terribly deep about the possibility space we are walking through. But that happens all the time. Unfortunately, lot's of time when science "catches up" it turns out that we are attempting to construct a culture on a foundation that wouldn't support it. But we're pretty good at living in castles built on sand for generations.

But I'm beginning to digress.

Plus I gotta get back to work.

Posted by: Don | Feb 22, 2005 10:34:11 AM

Posted by: ken

oops that name should have ben "Ken" in the last post. Don't know how that happened.


Posted by: ken | Feb 22, 2005 10:35:22 AM

Posted by: Tad Brennan

"Let's face reality here: if you clog up your arteries, doctors can't go in and clean them out for you."
"Let's face reality here: you've only got one heart: it's not like they can be transplanted."

It's funny how reality manages to make way for technology in so many areas where men's health is concerned. But where women's health is concerned--especially their reproductive health--we get lines like:
"Let's face reality here: incipient humans develop in a woman's womb. Not much we can do about that."

Completely false about the future, not so accurate about the present, either.

If we wanted to create artificial gestation environments, this would not be the greatest technological challenge that medicine has faced. We can do lots about it. Whether we would want to or not is a different question.

And face it--we have already done lots about it. Incipient humans need many fewer months in the womb now than they did a hundred years ago, exactly because there has been a concerted effort to study the technology needed to make preemies viable.

What's the record for earliest gestational age of a surviving preemie now? Any reason it cannot be brought down to zero, i.e. move straight from in vitro fertilization to a viable infant? I rather doubt it. It's not reality that constrains us here. It's just attitudes. Maybe this future isn't one we want to move towards. But then we should say that out loud: what prevents us from going there is our values, as perhaps should be the case with cloning. That would be an honest thing to say. But to say that reality prevents it is simply false.

Posted by: Tad Brennan | Feb 22, 2005 10:47:57 AM

Posted by: john t

"Astute readers"etc. Nothing like heading them off at the pass I always say. I would think a counter argument would presuppose citations as to why conservatives feel as they do as Don H cited quotes to support his position. Oh well I guess I better retreat and save what's left of my astuteness lest I stand accused of,among other things,that mysterious affliction known as "whataboutery". A couple of thoughts before I disappear into the dark night of illiberal ignorance;it is a unhappy fact that more women are staying home to raise children,having found that the workplace is not the land of milk and honey,equally unhappy is the weaker commitment to abortion that organized feminists believe in. So to that as women mature ,get married,face household expenses,and of course face the IRS inthe face of these expenses,the female voting patterns tend to change.That is more women vote Republican,now that's really unhappy! Ialso note with interest that one of Don H's colleague's specializes in something called female epistemology[paging Larry Summers]. This wouldn't be a singular indication of innate and unchanging gender difference would it? I did like the line about"society has been changing very fast for centuries". Yes for centuries now change has been a veritable blur,but only for centuries.

Posted by: john t | Feb 22, 2005 10:54:06 AM

Posted by: Dallas

Um, Don, if you presume that social, cultural, and political categories are something entirely apart from biology, you don't fully appreciate our evolutionary heritage.

I never cease to be amazed that adamant opponents of intelligent design in the biological arena are generally the ones who turn to it most fervently in the cultural arena.

Posted by: Dallas | Feb 22, 2005 11:39:39 AM

Posted by: Lynn Sanders

David Reimer, aka John/Joan, who died a suicide last year, was indeed for years held up as proof that gender was malleable. But it is incorrect to link his case to any kind of feminist celebration of this claim of malleability.

Instead, cases like David Reimer's are regarded as tragedies attributable not to feminism but to misguided scientific authority. Dr. John Money, a sex researcher who operated on David Reimer and advocated raising him as a girl, worked for years at Johns Hopkins, where he was a very powerful shaper of medical practice. (He was also the model for Dr. Peter Luce, a character in Jeffrey Eugenides novel Middlesex.) For years, Money believed that true men needed good equipment: that without sufficient material for a big-enough penis, it was better to make intersexed infants into girls. Money had strong ideas about gender, and he shaped many lives, but I don't think very many people would embrace him as a feminist. As far as I know, he never promoted his ideas about intersexuality as feminist.

A good way to get a quick lesson in some feminist thinking on intersexuality, and on the work of John Money too, is by reading Suzanne Kessler's 1990 Signs article "The medical construction of gender: case management of intersexed infants." (available from JSTOR). Kessler also wrote a book called "Lessons from the Intersexed" http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0813525306/102-2407325-5120964

On some other issues raised by Don's post: How peculiar that Michelle Malkin sees feminism as a dispensible luxury in a war with Islamofascists. I thought feminism had become a tool in that war. That is, our President is never so feminist as when he's talking about what's good about our political culture compared to theirs. Ours is good because we give rights to women.

On that note - feminism in the context of our international adventures - I'm currently fascinated by this administration's efforts to combat sex trafficking. http://www.state.gov/g/tip/
These efforts are a product of a political coalition between conservatives and radical feminists, indeed the very folks who brought you Take Back the Night marches. And ED! I'm not sure whether or not clicking that State Department link will cause ED - I don't have the equipment to make that kind of assessment - but I did notice that the State Department will want to set a cookie.

Posted by: Lynn Sanders | Feb 22, 2005 11:49:12 AM

Posted by: oliver

See! Who can deny that that post from Professor Sanders was hot! A woman like that I bet could mother a whole mess of children too, especially with the affordable child care and enlightened partner she's liable to demand. I'm starting to sweat just thinking about it.

Posted by: oliver | Feb 22, 2005 12:06:22 PM

Posted by: pedro

Ken: very thoughtful comments indeed. I particularly like this piece of personal disclosure:

About "just so" stories and evolutionary speculation. I'm a fan, but only if the distinction between having a novel style of hypothesis generator and a style of hypothesis tester is kept always in mind. Generating evolutionary hypotheses is sort of easy. Testing and confirming them is a REALLY HARD THING. That I admit. Not even completely sure it can be done. The main problem with evolutionary arguments is that people sometimes mistake the hypothesis generator for the hypothesis tester.

But the rest is very good as well. Evolutionary speculation may be fun, but the problem is that laymen think it is every bit as scientific as anything else out there, and so it can be effectively used in the pursuit of disgusting political agendas. Now, we may all feel quite free to believe that culture, economics and socialization are not entirely to blame for group inequalities in the world, but it is entirely a different thing to use those intuitions as the scientific basis for policy-making. On the other hand, what Don Herzog has called elasticity is so well documented, that it does indeed deserve a place in our considerations of policy. Knowledge that elasticity is a fact of life, it is harder to implement exclusionary policy. As a rule of thumb: when biologically essentialist arguments about group differences make it to the public sphere, they are invariably tied to political agendas (like in the nazi case).

Dalls says: "Um, Don, if you presume that social, cultural, and political categories are something entirely apart from biology, you don't fully appreciate our evolutionary heritage."

I say, if you presume that social, cultural, and political phenomena are somehow reducible to evolutionary heritage, then you understand neither culture nor evolution, and you probably have a meager understanding of History.

Posted by: pedro | Feb 22, 2005 12:29:19 PM

Posted by: Don Herzog

I'm with pedro. I'd add that it's an open and interesting question in what ways or to what extent gender is linked to sex. I introduced the distinction only to head off the complaint that it is indeed ludicrous to think men could give birth: that's about sex, not gender.

Posted by: Don Herzog | Feb 22, 2005 1:03:24 PM

Posted by: Nick


If I read Dallas correctly, she wasn't saying that, "social, cultural, and political phenomena are somehow reducible to evolutionary heritage", just that they are connected and saying they aren't is rather stupid (my words). Nature/nuture isn't a one or the other affair and neither side should argue that it is.

- Nick

Posted by: Nick | Feb 22, 2005 1:21:14 PM

Posted by: Dallas

Thanks, Nick; you saved me the trouble.

Posted by: Dallas | Feb 22, 2005 1:47:27 PM

Posted by: abab man

"Sniggering condensation" is not limited to conservative authors. What is your point? Is it that in general todays gender norms are neither natural or necessary? why just come out and say it? I'm not sure that pointing out extreme views on the conservative side and belittling them to show how reasonable your view is does much to advance any discussion. Or maybe you do not believe these views are extreme, but they seem extreme to me. At the risk of not being astute, could not several excerpts from radical feminists be posted, then belittled, with the conclusion that you reject the thought that todays gender norms are either unnatural or unnecessary. Not really much of a way to have a discussion. Maybe there is some truth to be found in both positions. Reasonable people can disagree, but concensus and understanding must be reached from some common ground. I thought that was the point of this blog, not more rehashes of how stupid the other side is. Why not accord some respect to the other side?
I do not have much difficulty accepting your premis in general. On the other hand there things my wife can do much better than I ever could. Taking care of our kids seems to be one of them. Is this natural or just the result of my wife being a better person than I am? Hard for me to say. Necessary? Well someone has to do it. If she had decided to work could I have raised our kids as her husband? Probably yes, I have most of the domestic skills down. Would I have done it? I doubt it, I have neither the selflessness or dedication.

Before our first child was born I wanted my wife to go back to work after the delivery. She wisely refused and became our children's primary caregiver. I won't bore you with "Times were tough" stories because for us it has been worth twice as much struggle. To the extent that her choice and contributions to society as the caregiver of our children is minimized by femninists and traditional conservatives I am angered. The femninists seem to say she should have been doing something more meaningful, and the conservatives she is unfit to do anything else.

So in my world neither you or "conservatives" seem to have a clue. To the extent my wife has been a stay at home mom we fall under cultural gender norms. Division of houlhold chores, who controls the money, maybe we fall outside. Our lives are certainly as much different from our parents as they are the same concerning gender roles. You seem to be fighting a 300 year old battle when a lot of the rest of us have moved on.

Posted by: abab man | Feb 22, 2005 2:03:18 PM

Posted by: Steve Horwitz

Abab man wrote:

To the extent that her choice and contributions to society as the caregiver of our children is minimized by femninists and traditional conservatives I am angered. The femninists seem to say she should have been doing something more meaningful, and the conservatives she is unfit to do anything else.

So in my world neither you or "conservatives" seem to have a clue. To the extent my wife has been a stay at home mom we fall under cultural gender norms. Division of houlhold chores, who controls the money, maybe we fall outside. Our lives are certainly as much different from our parents as they are the same concerning gender roles.

I'm not so convinced that this point "scores" against Don's original post, but in any case, I think it's right on target and describes my own situation pretty well. In fact, my wife has moved back into the labor force on a part-time basis in the last several years as my youngest has gone full-time to school. Neither one of us regret the choices we made *together* and our kids are better off for it. At the same time, we both realize that the ability to make that choice was something of a luxury of both my income and living in a cheap rural community. And I, certainly, am grateful for the ways in which her being at home have enhanced my career.

For me, the real advance of the last 100 years comes in the ability for these things to be done increasingly as a matter of choice, thus forcing us to recognize that there's nothing "natural" here. The life I've led as the working spouse of a stay-at-home mom is different from that of a man in the same situation 100 years ago in that this was a collaborative choice and that my gratitude for its impact on me and my career derives precisely from the recognition that it cannot and should not be taken for granted. And I would say the same thing about marriages in which the gender roles are reversed. That very flexibility and the choices it offers are the advance.

Posted by: Steve Horwitz | Feb 22, 2005 2:29:21 PM

Posted by: duus

very good point, Tad Brennan.

Posted by: duus | Feb 22, 2005 2:35:41 PM

Posted by: Tad Brennan

abab man's post is I think a very important one for the editors of this blog to hear.

It illustrates how the success of the left's agenda has gone hand in hand with increasing resistance to--indeed hatred of--the left's rhetoric and explicit ideology. The left is winning like never before, and losing like never before.

What abab man describes does, just as he claims, sound like a marriage that is "as much different from our parents as they are the same concerning gender roles." From the perspective of Mary Wollstonecraft, or Emma Pankhurst, or even Eleanor Roosevelt, huge, breathtaking progress has been made. Social and economic forces have made possible new lives for women that older generations would have envied. They have also made possible new and better lives for men who are open to the possibilities. Many of the old molds are broken.

But just when the left should be celebrating the broken molds, it finds itself despised instead, for sounding like a broken record. The very beneficiaries of its efforts are just *sick* of hearing it. Someone like abab man is not finding kindred spirits among the left-ish writers of this blog; he is finding nags and scolds.

So too, young women today are the beneficiaries of many of feminism's struggles. And yet very few of them are willing to identify themselves as feminists. The most notable feminist-bashers have themselves been the direct beneficiaries of its efforts, as e.g. the Ph.D.-earning Schlafly demonstrates. (And as the original post demonstrates: bashing feminism used to be an all-male job, and it is an index of progress that it is now a gender-neutral career option).

This dynamic--of winning most of the substantive battles while losing the war for affiliation and membership--is probably more important for the left, and more worthy of the site's attention (in light of its stated aims), than are the details of any particular issue (feminism, atheism, missionary zeal) it could address.

Shorter version: abab man is someone whom the classical liberal feminist tradition should count as a story of huge, incremental progress and success. So why is he so fed up with feminism? Left2right should ponder.

Posted by: Tad Brennan | Feb 22, 2005 2:36:18 PM

Posted by: duus

abab man wrote:

"I'm not sure that pointing out extreme views on the conservative side and belittling them to show how reasonable your view is does much to advance any discussion."

I don't think townhall represents extreme views of modern conservative thought. Many of the contributors to townhall are nationally recognised and/or syndicated authors and mainstays on talk shows, etc. I think this is some of Don's point: these points of view that may seem extreme analytically are actually quite mainstream. I think this is part of the modern conservative leadership's strategy: the mainstreaming of radical rightwing thought.

The thinkers/writers/etc that would have, in my opinion, equally extreme views on the left are much less empowered in their access to power and means of widespread contribution to mainstream thought. Ward Churchill (admittedly, a different topic) is an example of a fringe member of the left: no talk show appearances, no nationally syndicated column, no national bestseller. His comments were dug up and given national coverage by the right so that they could portray him as equivalent of, I don't know, Ann Coulter or something, when any reasonable metric of fame would not remotely equate the two.

If you find these positions extreme, abab man, perhaps you ought to reconsider where you fall on the modern American conservative/progressive divide.

Posted by: duus | Feb 22, 2005 2:52:32 PM

Posted by: Achillea

Let me see if I've got this straight ... male supremacists and female supremacists (to speak more accurately than the 'conservative' and 'liberal' labels) disagree on standards of masculinity and femininity, and say disparaging things about one another as a result. This is not exactly news. My own belief is it's best if individuals decide their identities, incorporating whatever their concept of whatever their gender is, themselves. I may well be in the minority in that, but there you are.

Person trumps gender, at least for me. However much or little an individual sees his/her/its gender as defining his/her/its identity is irrelevant to me. I deal with the final result. A jerk is a jerk, male or female notwithstanding. A saint is a saint, likewise. As far as Bush vs. Kerry, you could've changed neither, either, or both of their genders, and wouldn't've made a whit of difference to me. I voted for President Bush not because his opponent was an indecisive man, but because his opponent was indecisive, period. (Kerry partisans, please save your He-is-not-a-flip-flopper! screeds, I've heard them all before.)

Men should stop treating feminists like ladies, and instead treat them like the men they say they want to be.

I know this was a quote and not something Prof. Herzog said, but I had to make a comment regarding it. A man cannot make a woman more or less 'a lady' with his reaction to her, all he can do is make himself more or less a gentleman. And the reverse is also true. How we treat others says far more about ourselves than about them.

Posted by: Achillea | Feb 22, 2005 3:07:35 PM

Posted by: Matt

Tad Brennan: I like your point. What's interesting is that various editors here have a tendency to quote old time conservatives as a way to criticize conservative views- which is exactly what Don Herzog does in this post. Part of the problem is the way the editors seem to identify voices like the townhall w/ people who are fed up w/ leftist thought. I don't know about abab man, but I find townhall difficult to stomach. But at the same time I have no patience for academic leftist thought. The goal of this site should not be to speak to the people who like townhall. It should be to speak to all the people in the center who may identify themselves as a democrat or republican now, but could go either way over the next 20 years. The republicans have built a following by slowly convincing those people. And the democrats have helped them out b/c their rhetoric has alienated a lot of mainstream americans. As for myself, I could vote for either a republican or a democrat but unfortunately its the lesser of two evils that I'm choosing b/w. I hold out more hope for academia than the townhall b/c the latter seems strongly anti-intellectual- so its harder for them to come around.

With regard to the actual message in this post, I think people get weighed down in the nature/nurture argument unnecessarily. Take Sumner's recent comments for example. He's speaking about a salient political issue on campus's today. As an MIT grad I am very aware of the recent issues that Nancy Hopkins brought up there recently. But as far as I understand from her report, all Hopkins showed was that male professors receive more compensation, lab space, etc. But she didn't show that this was independent of their performance. The mere existence of an inequality does not imply the existence of discrimination. And you don't have to take any particular side in the nature/nurture debate to see that in the pool of candidates to MIT professors there may be many more well-qualified male candidates than female candidates- and the evidence strongly suggests that this is so. Whether its biological or cultural, the difference has already set it. I don't see why the university should be trying to remedy that in its hiring practices.

Posted by: Matt | Feb 22, 2005 4:02:00 PM

Posted by: LPFabulous

Don, just one quick thing. I think you're a little unfair to Kathleen Parker. You lump her in with the other women-who-hate-feminists crowd, but I'm not so sure I agree. I think Parker is probably the closest thing (and yes, that does actually mean she's pretty close) to a feminist you'll find in conservative circles. But she is a distinctly conservative feminist. At my blog, I've taken to referring to her as the "luminary of Town Hall". She's really much better than you give her credit for.

This is not all that relevant to your post. I just felt it needed saying.

Posted by: LPFabulous | Feb 22, 2005 4:49:51 PM

Posted by: Cole

Just a point on how terms are used:

Sex involves the basic biological differences between males and females (and the various borderline cases).

Gender is socially constructed by definition of 'gender'. That is, gender is supposed to be a matter of the different social norms associated with sex differences. But given that human beings aren't magical, our social norms are (presumably) a product of genetics and environment.

Of course, these days 'gender' is used as a substitute for 'sex' on official forms, I suppose because 'sex' sounds so very naughty.

Posted by: Cole | Feb 22, 2005 4:52:41 PM

Posted by: Don Herzog

LPF: I like some of Parker's work just fine. All I say here is that the particular "argument" she makes here is absurd. More generally my point is not that these women columnists dislike feminists. I mount no objections here to arguing against feminism: of course people are free to object to feminist proposals. My point is that the appeal to natural necessity to underwrite political positions about gender is hopeless.

Posted by: Don Herzog | Feb 22, 2005 4:54:11 PM

Posted by: Dave B.

Tad Brennan wrote:

"It illustrates how the success of the left's agenda has gone hand in hand with increasing resistance to--indeed hatred of--the left's rhetoric and explicit ideology. The left is winning like never before, and losing like never before."

I don't think that this contradicts Don's post. One hypothesis goes as follows: the left consistently pushes for change in ways that make many people uncomfortable. This will engender resentment against the left even as its ideas are slowly incorporated into the mainstream. In Mary Wollstonecraft's day, pushing for change meant arguing that women should be able to publish political opinions. Today it may mean arguing that our current perceptions of gender as being substantially based in biology are still largely inaccurate. That doesn't mean that the left has not gone too far at times, or pushed too hard with bad results. But it does mean that the left will be consistently out of line with the mainstream of the time, even as the mainstream becomes more comfortable with leftist ideas from previous generations. This is not to say that ideas from the right never challenge the status quo. Hence popular discontent with pressure from the right to change the current social security system. But the left has largely defined its role as one of challenging the status quo, and the right, its role of maintaining it. I think what rankles many conservatives most is to have their faces rubbed in it, so to speak, by triumphalists on the left pointing out the ways in which the mainstream has absorbed the ideas of the left (this approach leaves out the many aspects of society that have remained unchanged, that each succeeding generation has reincorporated or reaffirmed, that conservatives typically champion).

Posted by: Dave B. | Feb 22, 2005 4:55:16 PM

Posted by: Tad Brennan

Dave B.

Yup, fair enough--none of what I said was intended to contradict anything DH said. Instead, I was aiming at a target above anything he said in particular, more like something about the whole dynamic of this blog and other efforts like it. It's a point about the sociology of groups, rather than about any one particular issue. And you responded on the same level, which I appreciate.

You suggest that maybe the reaction of resistance and resentment that the left inspires is only to be expected, and a predictable consequence of its attempts to make change. I'm not sure I'm happy with that outcome.

It's not just my liberal desire to be loved (though I think that any liberal who said "so the right-wingers don't like us? Tough--we're winning all the same!" would do well to consider how they feel when Bush & co. take this line on foreign policy).

It's rather that liberalism has been, at its best, the conscience of this country: when it was fighting for fair labor conditions, against child labor, for black emancipation, for votes for women, in its many many fights, liberalism has been a force that attracted adherents because it had a compelling vision of how America and the human race could be better, more noble, and more admirable.

We need to gain that back. Winning--in some sense--while being identified as an object of hatred and contempt, is no kind of winning. I believe that about foreign policy, and I believe it about domestic policy too.

Posted by: Tad Brennan | Feb 22, 2005 5:16:14 PM

Posted by: Dave B.

Tad Brennan:

I don't think that casting the left/right debate in terms of "winning" or "losing" will attract much support for either side from anyone who wasn't already convinced.

I think that those traditional moral struggles that liberals hearken to--civil rights, labor reform, etc.--were almost always fought from a minority position. That is to say that for most of the duration of those struggles, and for a long time after in many instances, there was serious pushback from the mainstream. While it's nice to idealize a time of liberal glories past, I don't think there was ever such a thing. Sure, FDR and LBJ used the political pendulum to marshall sufficient majorities in Congress to institute long-lasting reforms--but, especially in the case of the Civil Rights Act, that was in the face of massive resistance from much of the country. Only long afterwards (except in the case of some of FDR's economic reforms, many of which are now under attack) did the mainstream rally around those liberal ideas. And, to the degree that liberal ideas were ascendant among policy makers at times (and I'd argue that those times were short--a Democrat has been in the White House only twice since LBJ), I think right now we are going through a reaction to those rosy times. People who try to shake things up will rarely be popular in the mainstream until much later--e.g. Jesus or every other major Biblical prophet.

Posted by: Dave B. | Feb 22, 2005 6:01:01 PM

Posted by: Tad Brennan

Dave B.

Agreed that there has always been resistance to liberal positions, and that hindsight can err by minimizing it. But at times it has appealed to the vast center, and recently the advocates of liberal views have been doing a bad job making that appeal. That's exactly what abab man's post brought out. There is a big country out there that is open to persuasion. This blog is intended to make liberalism plausible, compelling, and attractive. If you're not persuading abab man, you're not getting the job done. (Not you Dave B., but the L2R crew, and liberals in general, myself included).

Posted by: Tad Brennan | Feb 22, 2005 7:00:09 PM

Posted by: pedro

Tad Brennan is right. But why we liberals are not making a compelling case for the plausibility of progressivism has possibly more to do with the popularity of the caricature that the right has made of liberalism than with our own rhetorical weakness. Methinks people are more easily mobilized against what they despise than for what they stand.

Posted by: pedro | Feb 22, 2005 7:57:07 PM

Posted by: Perseus

"Pretending we don't have a choice" is a tactic that plenty of astute politicians throughout history have used to further their political ends--not just conservatives. It may very well be "hopeless" to brush aside feminist ideas "as struggling against natural necessity, biology or providence," (though an extraordinary Prince might be able to do it), but as Herzog admits, history is not unidirectional, and so there is no "necessity" that renders the current state of affairs permanent.

Posted by: Perseus | Feb 22, 2005 8:31:28 PM

Posted by: oliver

In reply to Pedro, I think we should remember that in rhetoric as in other things the best defense is a good offense. So for example, Democrats cannot deter attacks if they show no capacity to effectively caricature Republicans in return. In particular, Republicans make effective use of the nuance-stripping, semi-subliminal, focus group-tested slogan as a blunt instrument both for argument and refutation. Then after they swing it, they paint the Democrats as tone deaf elitists for presuming to argue for policies in more explicit and forthright terms. Whenever Democrats lack a good sound-bite--good rhetoric, in other words--that paint sticks. So I do think there's a rhetorical challenge to be met. Unfortunately, I'm afraid you meet it more by stooping and sinking than by rising to it.

Posted by: oliver | Feb 22, 2005 8:41:13 PM

Posted by: Will

"Women (and not just the poor women who always have) work outside the home."
Do you find working outside the home more virtuous than working within the home?
As you noted, many women across many cultures have worked for hundreds of years before the feminists showed up.

"Women vote." Yes, and their vote changes little because the vast majority vote for the same people as their husbands and father's do. Whether you give each household a vote or each member, you don't change the outcome only the total size of the tally.

"Women run for office." Again, this wasn't the feminists doing. Women have a long tradition (Cleopatra, Queen Elizabeth, Catherine the Great) being rulers.

I guess I don't see the point here Don. Women and men are different. That biological difference informs *to some degree* their role in family and societal life. Do liberals not get this?

Posted by: Will | Feb 22, 2005 10:45:23 PM

Posted by: Don Herzog


No, I don't think working outside the home is "more virtuous" than working within. I'm with Steve Horwitz: I think men and women alike should have choices on this.

Think about whether you'd ever say, "no matter if men get the vote, because the vast majority will vote for the same people their mothers and wives do."

Women inheriting the throne is quite different from women running for office, and even the former was often met with howls of outrage.

I'm sorry if you don't see the point; I'm writing as clearly as I know how. We plain don't know how biological difference plays into gender roles in society, and I think it absurd to try to defend current arrangements, or resist change, by claiming that what we have now reflects biological necessity. Now you may not agree with that point: fine; fire away. My protest is against utterly mystifying claims of the sort Parker presses: moms are voting their ovaries in supporting Bush. This is utter nonsense. And it is deeply reflective of a conservative tradition that has for centuries tried to defend all kinds of social arrangements, not just gender roles, by casting them as the dictates of natural necessity.

Posted by: Don Herzog | Feb 22, 2005 11:18:01 PM

Posted by: Perseus

Don Herzog: Your wording is not very clear. You use the following terms, which are not completely interchangeable (nor are they without some ambiguity): "nature," "natural necessity," "biology," "biological necessity," "providence," and "divinely mandated role," among others. I assume that to the extent that "providence" and "divinely mandated role" are dependent on particular interpretations of revelation, then they are not really applicable to your argument. "Nature" and "natural" are perhaps the most ambiguous terms, particularly among so-called conservatives. Some use(d) it in strictly biological terms, but plenty of others use(d) it in teleological terms. In the latter case, even though modern arrangements are obviously possible, that doesn't make them "natural," or consistent with natural right or natural law. Also, the modern development of technology or, more accurately, the *conquest* of nature (which is also a momentous choice) has arguably been a necessary condition for the widespread changes in what were regarded as "natural" "gender roles" (which were born of "natural necessity").

Posted by: Perseus | Feb 23, 2005 12:43:51 AM

Posted by: DBCooper

Don Herzog,

If you make the statement that “We plain don't know how biological difference plays into gender roles in society …” what than do you base your conclusion that the statements cited in your original post are absurd? How do you know they are wrong conclusively? Isn’t it really just a hunch you have that they are wrong based on your political ideology? If that's the case what's the difference between their claim and your claim of their claim?

Posted by: DBCooper | Feb 23, 2005 1:03:45 AM

Posted by: Jim Hu

pedro and oliver,

I often hear my liberal friends make similar arguments - "we don't stoop as low as those nasty Republicans" - moments after they suggest in all seriousness that Republicans would send other people's children to war, or throw babies and grandmothers out on the street for nothing more than personal profit, racial animus, and/or traitorous fealty to Israel. The notion that people on the Left and the Right might have honest disagreements about means while sharing ends (peace, justice, freedom, clean environment, jobs etc.) is alien to them. I'm not talking about you two personally, but if you don't see that from plenty of mainstream voices on the Left then you're in denial. From my perspective, the idea that Democrats have not been trying caricature, nuance-stripping etc. for years is laughable. I grant you that they have not been effective at it.

Posted by: Jim Hu | Feb 23, 2005 1:24:33 AM

Posted by: Jim Hu

To get back on topic, Don wrote: "But I reject the view that as a general matter today's gender norms are natural or necessary."

Shorter Hobbes: Natural is overrated. Necessary? I'm not even sure what that means in this context.

Posted by: Jim Hu | Feb 23, 2005 1:36:09 AM

Posted by: Tad Brennan

Jim Hu:

"The notion that people on the Left and the Right might have honest disagreements about means while sharing ends (peace, justice, freedom, clean environment, jobs etc.) is alien to them. "

Well said, and I agree that this sort of attitude should be rejected. It is vital to our survival as a unified country that we avoid interpreting our disagreements as fundamental ones when they may only be local or instrumental ones. Strive for consensus on means, as well, but assume consensus on ends as long as you can. We all want a prosperous, just, and truly admirable America.

That is what I believe about the voters who went to the polls last November--I do not believe that tens of millions of Americans, my fellow citizens, have become morally corrupt.

But I do believe that there is a moral corruption at the heart of the current Republican leadership: I do believe that Rove and Bush and DeLay have abandoned the ends of "peace, justice, freedom, clean environment, jobs etc." for the sake of unchecked power, plain and simple.

We can have that argument a different time: right now I just want to point out that not all of the liberals who rail against those "nasty Republicans" are railing against their neighbors; some of them are railing only against a small but frighteningly corrupt leadership that has systematically perverted the deepest principals of the Republican party itself, as well as betraying my Republican neighbors up and down the block.

Posted by: Tad Brennan | Feb 23, 2005 2:19:29 AM

Posted by: pedro

Jim Hu: I'm perhaps being a bit insular here, but I don't hear that sort of rhetoric from mainstream voices on the left. I hear it constantly--well not so constantly anymore, now that I'm not watching TV--on Fox News, and cable news programs in general, which have become very deft at (1) finding a few outrageous claims by leftists who do not fairly represent the ideas of the mainstream left (particularly the leftist academy, which consists largely of very thoughtful people, and which is caricaturized constantly even by our fellow commenters here on this blog), and (2) misrepresenting the beliefs of mainstream leftists. When someone like Michael Moore says something stupid, it's reported all over the media. When Howard Dean screams, the clip becomes an effective way of beating down a straw man. But somehow, when Ann Coulter opens her mouth, it's not news: it's commentary. My point being that the often outrageous statements that Coulter, O'Reilly, Hannity, Limbaugh, Savage, Malkin, etc. profer are somehow acceptable (in fact, pointing out their stupidity is considered whining), even to some otherwise thoughtful people, whereas the slightest faux pas of leftists is reported as indication of paranoia, silliness, or nastiness.

In fact, when it comes to issues of race, gender, sexuality, etc., it is understandably easy to find people who will get incensed at the positions of the mainstream right. But it isn't that these people are being nasty to moderate conservatives, nor is it the case that these people would necessarily think it impossible to have a civil disagreement over economic strategies with libertarians: it is simply the case that these people have perfectly legitimate grievances against the conservative movement. Unfortunately for those of us on the left, their indignation is used effectively to mobilize both righteous conservatives and sensitive moderate republicans against what they perceive as the loony left.

I think we can have civil and intelligent disagreements not only about ways of achieving common goals, but about social goals as well. In fact, I often try to point out some rhetorical excesses on the right by pointing what the analogue excess would be on the left--and I get in trouble for doing that. (I think the question you posed about whether it is sensible for universities to be in the business of cultural engineering is a great question, and a serious one.)

Posted by: pedro | Feb 23, 2005 2:26:11 AM

Posted by: pedro

I'm afraid my comment about mobilization against what one despises may have been interpreted as a statement of strategy. Nothing of the sort! I agree with Tad Brennan. I made that statement in a descriptive way--attempting (admittedly clumsily) to understand why so many of our neighbors have been mobilized to vote against the democrats, and to think of liberals as nasty, silly, and loony. I don't for a moment believe, for example, that the academy is full of intellectually lazy, politically irresponsible, and often ridiculously silly radicals, but if I weren't living in its midst, it would be impossible for me to know that academics are largely innocent of the charges made against them in the popular culture. The role of propaganda, talking points, and Bill O'Reilly's righteous indignation, etc. cannot be regarded as trivial in making sense of the perceptions that the public at large has of certain groups of people.

Posted by: pedro | Feb 23, 2005 2:42:41 AM

Posted by: Jen

This is a general remark, and not necessarily a comment on this post in particular. Are we still trying to have a fruitful discussion on this blog regarding how the left can get through to the right? Or has this site become a forum for the release of witty invective?

Posted by: Jen | Feb 23, 2005 4:06:02 AM

Posted by: Will


As far as women's role in society -- if the end that you seek is a world where women have choice in their role, then I totally agree. What many conservative women resent is a demeaning and belittling attitude that is much more prevalent on the Left regarding the role of wife,mother,homemaker. I see many of the comments on your post as a reaction to radical feminism and the hard feelings that some of their rhetoric induces in the (majority?) of women who *choose* a traditional gender role.

For example, my lovely and intelligent wife has elected to be a stay-at-home mom. Yet she sometimes feels "looked down on" from women who have chosen other roles, and this creates a feeling of antagonism in both me and my wife towards the liberal agends with regards to women's roles.

Ultimately, there won't be free choice among women if the traditional role is commonly viewed as inferior or an unenlightened choice.

Posted by: Will | Feb 23, 2005 7:56:14 AM

Posted by: oliver

Jen writes: "Are we still trying to have a fruitful discussion on this blog regarding how the left can get through to the right? Or has this site become a forum for the release of witty invective?"

Some things deserve denouncing and though I'm not sure exactly what Jen means by "witty invective," to me it sounds more appealing and more likely to "get through" to people than inveighing without wit. Unfortunately, people often seem to think they're being witty when they're not--or they imagine that the sugar of their wit justifies dispensing any old poison. Really one wants a way to nicely alert someone in a specific instances in which he or she is being a stupid jerk. To me, "witty invective" sounds like good language for that, but if we're naming a category of expressions we'd better off without, I think it's far too broad.

Posted by: oliver | Feb 23, 2005 9:47:13 AM

The comments to this entry are closed.

« previous post | Main | next post »