Not Our Mothers' Feminism

By Marla Braverman


Has the “glass ceiling” been shattered? Judging by recent headlines on both sides of the Atlantic, the answer would seem to be a resounding “yes.” There was, for instance, American presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton’s near-miss candidacy for the Democratic nomination, followed by Republican candidate John McCain’s selection of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate. And then, short while later, Israel’s Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni eked out a narrow victory in her party’s primaries, bringing her a crucial step closer to securing the prime minister’s office—and the Jewish state to winning the distinction of being the only country in the world with a woman at the helm of its executive, legislative, and judicial branches. Whatever we may think of these particular women and their ideologies, personalities, or managerial qualities, there is no doubt that their meteoric rise to the top of their respective political hierarchies is an encouraging sign for proponents of women’s rights everywhere. Indeed, while their road to political ascendancy was forged, over the course of the last fifty or so years, by other female leaders—Golda Meir in Israel, Indira Ghandi in India, Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan, Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom, and Angela Merkel in Germany, to take just a few notable examples—each new name added to the list demonstrates just how far women have come in their fight for the recognition of female rights and abilities beyond the narrow confines of the family home.
And yet, it would be a mistake to abandon ourselves to unbridled optimism. For in most cases, a woman’s path is still beset with barriers and hurdles. And frequently, they are of the self-imposed kind. For proof of this fact, we need look no further than those places that raise the banner of equality the highest—and in whose attainment of this lofty ideal they seem to fall the farthest short.
A minor scandal that erupted this summer in the halls of Israeli academia provides a case in point. In July, Eyal Ben-Ari—professor of sociology at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University and outspoken critic of Israel’s “ultra-militarized culture”—was arrested on charges of sexual harassment. In what a colleague in the sociology department called a “reign of terror” stretching back nearly a decade, Ben-Ari allegedly extorted sexual favors from female students in exchange for promotions, funding for research, and invitations to academic conferences. The news was greeted in Israel with much cynicism: For a public still smarting from the last high-profile sex scandals—the charges of sexual harassment and indecent acts leveled at former president Moshe Katsav; the conviction of former justice minister Haim Ramon for forcibly kissing a female soldier; and, in 2001, the indictment of former defense minister Yitzhak Mordechai for sexual misconduct—this was merely the newest stain on Israel’s already sullied reputation as a place where powerful men’s libidos and disregard for women’s rights run both in tandem, and rampant.
Israeli feminist activists and organizations lost no time in seizing upon the Ben-Ari affair as proof that the Jewish state’s culture of male domination has taken root not only in the military and politics but in academia as well. And yet, however probable many feminists believe sexual harassment in the university to be, Ben-Ari’s students were, to all appearances, highly improbable victims. These were not, after all, fresh-faced first-year students, naïve to the ways of the world. Rather, they were master’s and doctoral candidates in a department known for its feminist leanings. They were well versed in feminist thought and frequently engaged in feminist-oriented, social-justice research. Surely, these are the women we might expect to be particularly sensitive to the possibility of harassment, and to protest the loudest should it occur. How is it, then, that these same women endured years of forced sexual relations in silence, complained only under protection of anonymity, and balked at cooperating with the subsequent police investigation—all this, despite the much-publicized existence in Israel of what feminist activists and legal scholars agree is the most progressive and broadly defined sexual harassment legislation in the world?
Understandably, most people are loath to ask this question. To do so, after all, seems distinctly callous: Sexual harassment is an attack on a woman’s sense of dignity and even, we might say, on her soul. Expressing an emotion other than outrage or disgust is thus to appear to blame the victim. Nonetheless, as the bitter irony of the Ben-Ari case makes clear, if we truly seek to address the problem of sexual assault and harassment in society, and to advance the cause of true and meaningful equality between the sexes in both personal and public life, we cannot be satisfied with the condemnation of perpetrators and their punishment. We must also attempt to determine why many women, among them feminism’s poster children, choose to behave in a passive, helpless manner in their dealings with men in positions of authority. We must ask why they allow these men to abuse them—physically or otherwise—without waging an all-out counterattack. Perhaps today’s generation of elite women has simply failed to internalize feminism’s message. Or perhaps, as a close look at that message reveals, the problem is that they have internalized it all too well.
In the beginning, feminism had a noble aim: equal treatment of the sexes before the law. From its inception in the suffragist movement of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, “classical-liberal” feminism emphasized women’s ability to achieve equality by means of the choices they make and the actions they employ in their service. Significantly, by imbuing every woman with the power to effect political and legal reform, this brand of feminism held that society could be changed in the here and now, without the alteration of its basic underlying structure. This view was largely replaced in the late 1960s and 1970s, however, with the introduction of radical feminism, which arose from within the movement’s “second wave.”
Radical—meaning, literally, “going to the root”—feminism saw women’s political and cultural inequalities as intimately linked. It encouraged women to see aspects of their personal lives as deeply, even irreversibly politicized, reflective as they are of modern capitalist societies’ male-dominated power structures. While liberal feminism strove to effect equality within existing political and legal frameworks, second-wave feminism took as its mission the exposure of the countless ways in which social institutions and cultural norms combine to keep women in a subservient state. This was a narrative of systematic, global male oppression stretching back thousands of years, deeply embedded in all social relations: economics, psychology, popular culture, even science. French feminist theorists took this notion of subjugation one step further, claiming that not only social institutions, but even the very acts of speaking and writing were intrinsically “phallocentric.”
By insisting that so long as this sexist system and its values remained in place, no real or meaningful change was possible, this ideology brought about a marked shift in feminists’ self-image. Rather than agents of change, women were now victims of “patriarchy.” Moreover, radical feminism insisted that their oppression was so ubiquitous, so manipulative, and so all-inclusive that women were often not even aware of it; indeed, they frequently, if unconsciously, shared in it willingly. From this perspective, the myriad ways in which women expressed their femininity and experienced their sexuality were in truth reaffirming their domination by male society. The late Andrea Dworkin, to quote a famous example, maintained that even consensual sexual relations between adults were in truth a “violation of boundaries, taking over, occupation, destruction of privacy, all of which are construed to be normal and also fundamental to continuing human existence.”
This discourse, which quickly became the dominant strain in feminist thought, was totalitarian in both its insistence on male sexual destructiveness and its denial of female agency. And nowhere is it more evident than in feminism’s claims of a so-called rape crisis. Through a combination of feverish rhetoric and contestable data, mainstream feminism has propagated the belief that, in the words of Susan Brownmiller’s 1975 classic Against Our Will, “Rape is a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear.” Indeed, across America (and in Israel), feminist groups hold marches, rallies, and date-rape awareness meetings in which women who have not been raped are referred to as “potential victims” (or “survivors”), and their male counterparts as “potential rapists.” They encourage all women to identify with victims of rape and to see themselves as victims in the metaphorical, if not literal, sense. In this way, the rape-crisis phenomenon has succeeded in placing sexual assault within a long pattern of general oppression in society directed toward women. As Katie Roiphe explained in a 1993 New York Times essay, “Date Rape’s Other Victim”:
Preoccupied with issues like date rape and sexual harassment, campus feminists produce endless images of women as victims—women offended by a professor’s dirty joke, women pressured into sex by peers, women trying to say no but not getting it across.
This portrait of the delicate female bears a striking resemblance to that 50’s ideal my mother and other women of her generation fought so hard to leave behind. They didn’t like her passivity, her wide-eyed innocence…. They didn’t like her excessive need for protection… they worked and marched, shouted and wrote to make her irrelevant for their daughters. But here she is again…. Only this time it is the feminists themselves who are breathing new life into her.
Roiphe points out the essence of the “rape crisis” problem: In almost paradoxical fashion, those most intent on protecting women have ended up infantilizing them. At the heart of the matter is the hotly debated issue of consent, on which claims of rape and its prosecution hinge. Many feminist activists argue that anything short of explicit consent is not a “yes.” Yet, as Roiphe points out, denying the validity of “unspoken consent” promotes the notion that women are unable to communicate their sexual desires—and are thus, in matters sexual, a priori victims until proven otherwise. Similarly, when radical feminists claim that “verbal coercion” or “manipulation” constitutes rape, they promote the notion that men are more powerful not only physically, but intellectually and emotionally as well. It is clear, then, how feminist legal theorist Catherine MacKinnon could arrive at the argument that all sex is, in a sense, subjugation, even if a woman enters into it freely: “The assumption,” she explained in a 2006 interview with the Guardian, “is that women can be unequal to men economically, socially, culturally, politically, and in religion, but the moment they have sexual interactions, they are free and equal…. I think it ought to be thought about, and in particular what consent then means. It means acquiescence. It means passivity.”

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