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Webster defines feminism as both "the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes" and "organized activity on the behalf of women's rights and interests" (Webster 418). Equality of the sexes (in terms of rights) and the furthering of women's rights are seemingly positive aspirations; yet people tend to describe feminism using negative terms, and feminism today has acquired a bad reputation. "Radical" and "extremists" are adjectives commonly applied to feminism as a whole, when, in truth, feminists who adopt extreme positions constitute the minority. Moreover, these "gender feminists," or "militant feminists," as many call them, although they receive the most public attention because of their aggressive tactics and high visibility, alienate people in broadcasting their views. Their goal, to create a "sentimental priesthood" that will achieve collective power and retribution as oppressed "victims" of a white-male supremacy, seems unreasonable (Himmelfarb 20). In contrast, "equity feminists," or "academic feminists," embrace the basic principles of feminism. They celebrate women's achievements, work for the individual rights of all women, and, as Christina Hoff Sommers aptly says, "want for women what they want for everyone, equal protection under the law" (Himmelfarb 20). Though not all feminists agree on how to reach this goal, most argue for a reasonable, realistic, and positive method. By contrasting the differing feminist ideas of writers like Adrienne Rich, Gertrude Himmelfarb, and Camille Paglia, one defines a winning brand of feminism: a philosophy founded on equity feminist ideology and dedicated to the achievement of social, political, economic, and intellectual reform.
David Thomas and Camille Paglia, two contemporary cultural critics concerned with gender issues, share the belief that men and boys have aggressive tendencies that women must learn to understand and live with. Thomas, in his essay "The Mind of Man," asserts that women should accept boys' nature: "Boys are not on the whole, docile creatures who wish to live in harmony with one another, but are, instead, highly competitive, physically energetic creatures who hunt in packs" (341). Paglia shares this view: "There are some things we cannot change...hunt, pursuit, and capture are biologically programmed into male sexuality. Generation after generation, men must be educated, refined, and ethically persuaded away from their tendency toward brutishness" (50-51). Because Paglia believes that man's nature is inherently aggressive and poses a danger to women, she maintains that feminism of the academic type gives women a false sense of equality and ease.
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One can easily argue against the above brand of feminism. In the first place, Paglia cannot assume that men differ so radically from women, especially in a biological sense. One source reports that "[t]here is no research showing any gender differences in IQ," and also "there is very little information on any other inborn characteristics that may be identified as distinctly male or female" (Kelly 150, 146). Of course, biological differences do exist between the sexes; men innately have more strength than do women, and as Thomas points out, "The sexes differ in the types of mental tasks at which they excel" (338). Studies show, for example, that males have an aptitude for rotating three-dimensional objects in their heads, while women have better verbal skills. Nonetheless, many apparent differences between men and women--their contrasting skills, interests, attitudes, and personalities--stem from the family environment they grow up in, the people they associate with in their youth, and the influence of society in general. Research shows that boys and girls receive vastly different treatment beginning almost immediately after birth. Anthropologist Adamson Hoebel notes that "a major factor in the development of the child as a person is the accumulation of innumerable pressures, most of them subtle, others not so subtle, that shape his images and his feel for the surrounding world. He strives to act in accordance with these understandings" (38).
In the same way, society and culture subtly enforce stereotypes of how boys, men, girls, and women should act and think. Observes Gary Kelly, author of Sexuality Today, "The media play a major role in how women and men are portrayed in our culture. On television...the images of both men and women tend to be stereotypical and traditional. It is clear that some cultural messages emphasizing inequalities between men and women are still being given to children as they grow up" (156). Thus, by the time a person reaches adulthood, family and community together have had a large part in shaping his/her identity and perception of the world. And if people's biases, stereotypes, and attitudes result from their environment, then contrary to the beliefs of Thomas and Paglia, society has the power to change the type of men and women it produces. Women should never accept less freedom and security than men demand. Admittedly, the world will always contain men who use their advantage of strength to harm women, but women should not let this knowledge limit them. Instead, they should view the world realistically and use common sense in potentially dangerous situations. Like men, women can and should pursue formidable goals and overcome the challenges involved. A brand of feminism like Paglia's, that supports the idea that women are in constant danger and restricts their opportunities, is self-defeating. It breeds mistrust and fear of men and consequently promotes a feeling of inferiority among women.
Similarly, gender feminist thought is unrealistic and misguided. According to Sommers, in her Figuring Out Feminism, "Equity feminists point with pride to the gains women have made toward achieving parity in the workplace," whereas gender feminists disparage these gains and talk about "backlash" (334). This gender feminist attitude seems contradictory in a time when people should recognize and celebrate the accomplishments of women. Of course, gender feminists describe society as "a patriarchy, a `male hegemony'...in which the dominant gender works to keep women cowering and submissive" (Sommers 331). However, part of their belief about women's low position depends on misquoted "facts" and other faulty evidence. They argue that women's eating disorders "are an inevitable consequence of a misogynistic society that demeans women...by objectifying their bodies" (328). Many times, however, the movie and fashion industry's portrayal of women isn't the cause of eating disorders. Anorexia, for example, stems from a chemical imbalance that translates into a negative mind-set and an unrealistic drive to please others at one's own expense. Psychologist and author of Secret Language of Eating Disorders, Peggy Claude-Pierre asserts that "With this mind-set in place, the slide toward eating disorders can easily be triggered by family problems, sexual abuse, a breakup, or typical teenage angst. Anorexics turn away from food unconsciously because food is life and their negative minds tell them that they don't deserve to live" (222).
Moreover, gender feminists constantly look for ways to convince others that society is male-dominated and rigged against women, and that they have a right to retribution. Says Gertrude Himmelfarb in her article, "A Sentimental Priesthood," gender feminists believe that "[i]f women are victims generically, by the same token men are culprits generically...Each man is inherently and potentially guilty...by virtue of being a man" (20). Equality feminists, by contrast, declare that women will get nowhere by the gaining of power, or by relying on the past for guidance as Adrienne Rich champions in her essay, "What Does a Woman Need to Know?" Women should not seek to overpower men and "punish" them for generations of oppression. They must instead understand that they cannot rightfully blame today's men for biases, attitudes, and traditions that people have passed down since the first established societies, or for the sexist sins of their ancestors. Gender feminists might respond that all men share the accumulated guilt that they inherited from their forefathers. But this argument relies on a distorted interpretation of the past. Instead of taking the "dimmest view of the past" as the gender feminists do, John Ellis takes a sensible approach to reform. He asserts, "successful reform requires that the past be viewed in a sober and accurate way" (65). The past should serve solely to illuminate the achievements and mistakes of previous reformers. Feminists must realize that they can only change the current trend by acknowledging the past and focusing on the future. Women as individuals should continue to challenge social and political structures in reaching their full potential, but they must look ahead to educate the next generation and instill in them new ideas in order for intellectual reform to occur. Intellectual reform establishes a basis for progress, and only when it prevails can bigotry and social and political injustice cease to exist, not just for women, but for all people.
As the twenty-first century looms closer, equity feminists, the same breed that began the "women's movement" over one-hundred years ago, emerge as the best choice to lead modern feminism into its next stage. The coming years represent a critical time for equity feminists. Though they feel confident and encouraged about the progress already made on women's behalf, they realize that they need more support to accomplish equal partnership with men and a realization of men's opportunities and rights. Gender feminists and similar feminist groups make these aspirations more difficult. They mask sensible goals of feminism by "constantly raising the stakes," and seeking "not mere reform or revision...but revolution" (Himmelfarb 20). In this way, they isolate themselves and lose support among both men and women for the entire feminist cause. John Ellis concludes that gender feminism "poisons relations between the sexes, and catapults into leadership roles in the women's movement angry, alienated women who divert that movement from the necessary task of exploring feasible changes" (74). People need to know that feminism, based on its essential ideals and goals, has broad appeal, and that they should not dismiss it because of a specific sector. They must look beyond the extremists to find a branch of feminism that welcomes all people and focuses on a positive and reasonable goal: a society that affords everyone the opportunity and right under the law to reach his or her potential.
Claude-Pierre, Peggy. "The Miracle Worker." Cosmopolitan October 1997: 221-223.
Ellis, John M. Literature Lost. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997.
Himmelfarb, Gertrude. "A Sentimental Priesthood: The Aggressive Tactics of `gender feminists'" TLS 11 November 1994, 20.
Hoebel, E. Adamson. Anthropology: The Study of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1972.
Kelly, Gary F. Sexuality Today: The Human Perspective. Guilford, Connecticutt: The Dushkin Publishing Group, 1992.
Paglia, Camille. Sex, Art, and American Culture. New York: Vintage Books, 1992.
Rich, Adrienne. "What Does a Woman Need to Know?" The Presenceof Others: Voices that Call for Response. Eds. Andrea Lunsford and John J. Ruszkiewicz. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997. 44-50.
Sommers, Christine Hoff. "Figuring Out Feminism." The Presence of Others: Voices that Call for Response. Eds. Andrea Lunsford and John J. Ruszkiewicz. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997. 328-335.
Thomas, David. "The Mind of Man." The Presence of Others: Voices that Call for Response. Eds. Andrea Lunsford and John J. Ruszkiewicz. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997. 337-342.
Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary. Springfield, Mass: G. & C. Merriam Co, 1981