The Faces of Feminism
The concern about credibility of information was the subject of a book by Christina Hoff Sommers entitled "Who Stole Feminism? How Women Have Betrayed Women". In the book she wrote of a few examples of how numbers travel. As an example she cited a quote from Gloria Steinems book "Revolution From Within" which stated that "in this country alone about 150,000 females die of anorexia each year." That statistic, which is more than three times the number of fatalities from car accidents in the U.S., was attributed to another feminist best-seller, Naiomi Wolfs "The Beauty Myth" in which she compares it to a holocaust. Her source was from the book "Fasting Girls: The Emergence of Anorexia Nevosa as a Modern Disease" by Joan Brumberg, a historian and former director of womens studies at Cornell University. Brumberg, too was fully aware of the political significance of the startling statistic. She points out that the women who study eating problems "seek to demonstrate that these disorders are an inevidable consequence of a misogynistic society that demeans women by objectifying their bodies. Professor Brumberg, in turn, attributes the figure to the American Anorexia and Bulimia Association. They in turn said that they were misquoted. In a 1985 newsletter, the association had referred to 150,000 to 200,000 sufferers (not fatalities) of anorexia nervosa. The National Centre for Health Statistics actually reported only 101 deaths from anorexia nervosa in 1983, 67 deaths in 1988 and 54 deaths in 1991.
Ms. Sommers writes that the false figure, supporting the view that our "sexist society" demeans women by objectifying their bodies, is widely accepted as true. Anne Landers repeated it in her syndicated column in April, 1992: "Every year, 150,000 American women die from complications associated with anorexia and bulimia." It also appears in the preface of a womens issues text book called "The Knowledge Explosion." As far as Ms. Sommers is concerned, the erroneous figure is out and no amount of correction or retraction will stop its perpetuation. It is a provocative statement that will live on despite the fact that it is inaccurate information.
In another case on November 4, 1992, the President of the National Womens Studies Association issued a statement on The Womens Studies Electronic Bulletin Board stating: "According to the last March of Dimes Report, domestic violence is now responsible for more birth defects than all other causes combined. Personally this strikes me as the most disgusting piece of data Ive seen in a long while." Sommers thought the assertion seemed implausible. On February 23, 1993, however, The President of The National Organization of Women claimed in a PBS interview that: "Battery of pregnant women is the number one cause of birth defects in this country."
Sommers contacted the March of Dimes to obtain a copy of the study or report backing up the claim. They claimed that they had never seen the research before. As expected the statement continued to appear in a variety of publications including Time Magazine. After tracking down a long string of sources, Sommers found Sarah Buel, a founder of the domestic violence advocacy group at Harvard University. It seems that when she was introduced as a speaker at a conference for nurses and social workers, the host mentioned that according to March of Dimes research she had seen, more women are screened for birth defects than are ever screened for domestic battery. Sarah Buel erroneously took it to mean that there was a link between domestic violence and birth defects and included it in an unpublished manuscript which was circulated to family violence professionals. They saw no reason to doubt the authority and repeated the claim to others. Needless to say the inaccurate information continues to circulate.
Sommers suggests that these two examples are typical of the quality of information that we are getting from feminist researchers, womens advocates and journalists. She goes on to speculate that a closer look at the supporting evidence on eating disorders, domestic battery, rape, sexual harassment, bias against girls in school, wage differentials, or the demise of the nuclear family will raise grave questions about credibility, not to speak of objectivity.
Journalists are usually thought to be on guard because they supposedly check sources and seek dissenting opinions. However, in January 1993, newspapers and television networks reported an alarming finding that the incidence of domestic battery tended to rise 40% on Super Bowl Sunday. NBC actually made special pleas on their broadcast for men to stay calm. Feminists also called for emergency preparations in anticipation of the expected increase in violence on January 31st. They also used the occasion to drive home the point that maleness and violence against women are synonymous. Nancy Isaac, a Harvard School of Public Health research associate who specializes in domestic violence, told the Boston Globe: "Its a day for men to revel in their maleness and unfortunately, for a lot of men that includes being violent toward women if they want to be." Journalists blindly accepted the 40% figure at face value and continued to report it. However it turns out that the story had no basis in fact. Super Bowl Sunday was in no way different from other days in the amount of domestic violence according to all the research available. Despite the subsequent finding of inaccuracy, millions of people are unaware that it was untrue and they still believe that males, particularly those who are sports fans are a dangerous and violent species.
All of this raises a number of questions. Are some women so predisposed against men that they will deliberately spread false information to support their cause? Are men so afraid of touching the issue of domestic violence that they will do whatever it takes to be seen not just neutral but compliant?
Christina Hoff Sommers also expressed some blunt thoughts in her book about active feminists. She suggests that American feminism is dominated by a group of women who seek to persuade the public that women are not the free creatures they think they are. The leaders and theorists of the women's movement believe that society is best described as a patriarchy in which the dominant gender works to keep women cowering and submissive. Those who hold this divisive view of our social or political reality believe we are in a war, and they are eager to disseminate stories of atrocity that are designed to alert woman to their plight. Some feminists believe that all our institutions, from the government, to the family, to the schools, perpetuate male dominance. Believing that they are virtually under siege, they seek not only recruits for their side of the gender war but also vindication and ammunition.
Ms. Sommers also asserts that not everyone, including many women who consider themselves to be feminists, believe that women live in an oppressive "male hegemony". To confound the skeptics and persuade the undecided, she says that gender feminists are constantly on the lookout for proof of the smoking gun or the telling fact that will drive home to the public how profoundly the system is rigged against women. To rally women to their cause, it is not enough to remind us that many brutal and selfish men harm women. They must persuade us that the system itself sanctions male brutality. They must convince us that the oppression of women, sustained from generation to generation, is a structural feature of our society.
The allegations made by Ms. Sommers are serious and the examples given tend to support her case. However these are the views of one person, and therefore caution should be taken. The views do, however, raise a context in which potential consequences could be considered. If a man were to pose these allegations, it would not be surprising that a backlash would present itself. In this case, we have not just a woman, but a well-known feminist leading the charge. It appears that her general position is that feminism has spawned an extremist element which uses the guise of traditional feminism to cloak other motives. These could have devastating impacts on the fragile gains already achieved by the feminist movement.
There are also other consequences to consider if the facts are not known or are not fairly represented. Regarding legislation, it could be possible that the scope or tone could be biased and the intent could be less comprehensive than would otherwise be warranted. This applies not only to domestic abuse but also to child and elder abuse. With regard to divorce involving children, there have often been judgments based on allegations of abuse. In most cases, the allegations are usually enough to decide a case of custody. Recent data suggests that two-thirds of alleged abuse have ultimately proven to be false. The real issue is whether judges are able to fairly make their judgments when the stream of social opinion is so strongly in support of women. Some legislators, such as M.P., Roger Gallaway, have suggested that those guilty of making false allegations should be dealt with in the criminal justice system and face charges of perjury, obstruction of justice or mischief. The legal profession is also under scrutiny for taking advantage of social pressures to view women as oppressed victims. Generally accepted views based on narrow or misleading information can and do have serious implications which should not be ignored.
In July 1997, The Globe and Mail published an interesting feature on feminism titled "You've, come a long way, baby. . . And for what?". The marquis statement read as follows: "Most women love their husbands, fathers, brothers and sons. No wonder they feel little attachment to the women's movement that is plagued by anti-male hostility, intolerance and extremism."
Author Donna Laframboise writes that in her view, women have come as far in three decades as they have in the last three centuries. Long held convictions about female inferiority have all but evaporated during our lifetime. She also asserts that the belief, that women are equal to men and deserve the same opportunities, now dominates the way our society thinks about gender.
Her assessment is that feminism has triumphed. However, she also feels that begrudging the widespread cooperation from men, the movement is more likely to express dissatisfaction than to celebrate its success. Undermined by intolerance and extremism, and guilty of propagating dubious statistics, its credibility and relevance are now in question.
The article also does a brief assessment of the major feminist groups in North America. The author writes that while the vast majority of women regularly tell pollsters that they support female equality, only a few are willing to call themselves feminists and fewer still want anything to do with the organized movement that claims to speak for them. For example, there are more than one hundred million females in the United States, yet the National Organization for Women only has a membership of 270,000 willing to pay annual dues. By comparison, the National Rifle Association claims a membership of three million people. Regarding the National Action Committee on the Status of Women in Canada (NAC), the author suggests that the organization would have to close if it had to depend on dues from individual woman. Long supported by the government grants, NAC has described itself as an umbrella organization of 550 member groups representing three million Canadian women. But dozens of those groups are union locals whose members may never have heard of NAC. Also included are people who belong to the Anglican and the United churches, the YWCA and the Women Teachers' Federation.
NAC claims that in 1996, its fee-paying member groups, including rape crisis centers and University women's groups, swelled to 670. But only 173 of these groups sent delegates to its last annual convention. Attendance at locally organized international women's days events is another way of measuring support for the movement. In 1996, between five thousand and eight thousand people participated in Torontos annual women's day parade held in early March. In the 1997, those numbers dwindled to a couple of thousand. That doesnt necessarily reflect on the level of support of women. It is not enough to be right. You have to be right at the right time and in the right way.
There are also growing signs that feminist groups are not only beginning to disagree with one another but they are also experiencing substantial internal dissension. The author noted that as early as 1977, noted feminist Betty Friedman warned that conflicts within the movement were becoming so vicious that only those who can devote 24 hours a day to the movement can play. These are women who have made the women's movement their profession, their career and even their personal life. In other words, women with jobs and families, and a sense of perspective and proportion have long been at a disadvantage in the movement. This insularity explains why active feminists are often more extremist or left-of-center than the average woman.
Every social movement has its extremists. Whats different about the womans movement is that these extremists have not been shifted to the margins but remain highly influential. As such we should not be surprised to find that some people think that feminism is about hating men and we should not be surprised to wake up to a world where all men are seen to be violent and dangerous. Because the careers and often the personal and social lives of active feminists have been built on the idea that contemporary women are hopelessly oppressed, they are not about to suddenly lay down their arms and declare victory. In fact some have suggested that the extreme feminists have no interest in winning but rather are interested in perpetuating an endless war in which women are pitted against men.
There is however a big risk in writing about the flaws of feminism. Some fear it will be used by some to characterize all women while others fear it will jeopardize the fragile gains made by women to date. Sensitivity is necessary because there are many effective womens groups who are working hard to address domestic violence and gender equity. Exposing the extremist elements should not, however, undermine their achievements. Battered women do not need false information and exaggeration to gain the support of a caring public. The extremists do not have a grass roots constituency and therefore broad-based public advocacy is the best approach to addressing womens issues.