Monthly Archives: December 2013

Was I unfair to Gloria Steinem?

Dusting off my blogging hat, at least for now.

The occasion:

Last weekend, RealClearPolitics.com ran my column on Gloria Steinem, her Presidential Medal of Freedom, and her role in twentieth and twenty-first century  feminism.  It is, shall we say, not complimentary.  Barry Deutsch of Alas, a Blog, with whom I’ve crossed reasonably friendly swords before, comments and raises some points that require a response.  Sorry it’s taken me a week to put this up; it’s been a bit crazy lately, time-wise.  (And will continue to be, so I warn in advance that I probably won’t have time for a lot of back-and-forth.)

Barry thinks my column on Steinem is an unfair, one-sided hit piece (though I’m glad to see he agrees with some of my criticisms, particularly on Steinem’s deplorable role in the child sex abuse mania of the 1980s and early 1990s and its particularly grotesque offshoot, the satanic ritual abuse panic).  You know what? I’ll concede that this is not the most, ahem, fair and balanced article I’ve ever written.  It was not a complete overview of Steinem’s career; it was a critique, based on my belief that Steinem bears a lot of responsibility for the woeful misdirection of feminism—from a philosophy of gender equity, individual rights, and gender-role flexibility to what Betty Friedan called “sex/class warfare” and, in particular, a focus on various male horrors visited upon women.  Obviously, Steinem did not single-handedly steer the women’s moment in that direction, but her influence was huge.

And now, I’m going to address what Barry believes are unfair or petty criticisms.

1.  I wrote that, as evidenced by her appearance on John Stossel’s 1997 ABC News special, “Boys and Girls Are Different: Men, Women, and the Sex Difference,” Steinem verges on what Daphne Patai and Noretta Koertge termed “biodenial” in her insistence that innate psychological/intellectual differences between the sexes are nonexistent and physical ones are almost entirely irrelevant.  Barry suggests that Steinem’s line which I quoted, referring to scientific research on brain differences between men and women as “anti-American crazy thinking,” may have been taken out of context. The full Steinem quote, on this page linked by Barry from Stossel’s book (where it’s misattributed, presumably due to a typo, to Heritage Foundation analyst Kate O’Beirne, Steinem’s conservative adversary on his program) is, “It’s really the remnant of anti-American, crazy thinking to do this kind of research. It’s what’s keeping us down, not what’s helping us.”

Is it possible, as Barry suggests, that Steinem was referring to some specific research project that was genuinely outrageous (for instance, one that set out to prove that women shouldn’t be able to vote or attend college because of differences in the “wiring” of their brains), and not to any of the studies reported in the special?  Perhaps, but it is worth noting that Steinem was surely aware of the program and has never claimed to have been quoted out of context.

Barry also chides me for ridiculing Steinem’s assertion that strength tests requiring prospective firefighters to carry a dummy—challenged and discarded in many urban fire departments as discriminatory toward women—are unnecessary and that, when rescuing someone from a burning building, it makes more sense to drag them along the floor than to carry them, since “there’s less smoke down there.”

Here, I have to give a point to Barry and concede that Steinem’s statement, which has earned her a lot of conservative derision, is not quite as risible as it first appears.  Barry cites evidence that dragging rather than carrying has actually been the preferred rescue method in firefighting for a while, in part because there are fewer noxious/toxic fumes at the lower level.  I did not know this, and I will readily admit that I should have done better research rather than rely on a recycled criticism.  So, to quote a famous Dead White Male: A hit, a very palpable hit!

I will add that even without this information, when I first saw Stossel’s program, I was put off by O’Beirne’s gibe about being “dragged by my ankles as my head hits every single stair going down three stories.” It sounded like she was deliberately reducing the opposing view to caricature; there was no reason the rescuer couldn’t grab the person under the arms, which is indeed the standard technique (this article on fire engineering, which describes the drag as the preferred method, specifically states that dragging by the feet is a no-no).

But here’s why I still think Steinem is not only wrong but dangerously wrong.  As the article linked above points out, dragging is not always possible; for instance, if the stairs are inaccessible and you must get an unconscious person down a fire ladder, there is no option other than to carry them.

While doing my own actual research, I came across this very interesting 1984 article from The Pittsburgh Press, discussing objections to a revised physical test for firefighters that eliminated the requirement of lifting a 125-pound sandbag and carrying it on one’s shoulders while going up and down a staircase. (It was replaced with dragging a 145-pound dummy around an obstacle course.)  Interestingly, one person objecting to the change—made with the express purpose of allowing more women to qualify—was the city’s lone female firefighter, Toni McIntosh, who was concerned that lowering the standards could endanger everyone.

One of McIntosh’s male co-workers pointed out that there were many situations in which dragging was highly inadvisable: “There may be broken glass or other debris on the ground … or your partner may have fallen through a week floorboard and you’ll need to lift him out.”  Fire Chief Charles Lewis, who supported the new exam as a way to meet federal non-discrimination guidelines, was quoted as saying that “a drag would not work in all rescues, but neither would a lift” and that both techniques were included in the training. But why not in the test? Because, said Lewis, “Women’s groups are likely to challenge an exam when there are things in it they can’t do.”

As far as I know, no fire department has ever dropped the lift-and-carry test for any other reason than concerns about sex discrimination—either to comply with a court order or to avoid lawsuits.  And that, I think, is a problem as far as giving feminism a bad name.  The perception is that feminists like Steinem are willing to dilute the standards for physically demanding jobs to accommodate women even if it endangers public safety.  Is this perception is based on right-wing misinformation, as I’m sure Barry would say?  I think it would have been fair for Stossel to acknowledge that the drag method of rescue is a widely accepted firefighting practice, not some weird figment of feminist fantasy.  But, for the reasons explained above, I think the point still stands.  For Steinem to suggest that the lift-and-carry test is based on nothing more than some silly idea of “macho” is glib and unfair, and a cheap shot at male firefighters.

2.  Barry defends Steinem’s advocacy of the American Association of University Women study on the “crisis” in girls’ self-esteem as well as the study itself, and specifically notes that the article I linked for reference, by Amy Saltzman in U.S. News & World Report, does not describe the AAUW study as “shoddy” (as I do). Yes, I am aware of that, and I actually hesitated for that very reason about using that reference. I ended up using it because (1) the article is a pretty thorough overview of the debate and (2) it does state that the bulk of research does not support the claim that adolescent girls suffer a drop in self-esteem compared to boys (except for body dissatisfaction).

For the record, I did review the AAUW dataset back in 1994 when Christina Hoff Sommers challenged the study in Who Stole Feminism?, and I think her critique is entirely on target.  I also think Saltzman is flat-out wrong in her assertion that using only “always true” responses to “I’m happy the way I am” as a measure of self-esteem (as the AAUW did) was “standard practice” and that including “sort of true” and “sometimes true/sometimes false” responses would have been “bad science.”  The Pew Research Center, for instance, routinely combines the “extreme” responses—“very,” “always,” “completely” etc.—with “somewhat” and “mostly” ones as an overall measure of agreement; see here, for example. (Also for the record, I would not be inclined to think well of anyone over the age of twelve who was always happy with him- or herself.)

3.  Barry takes issue with my assertion that Steinem has a tendency to vilify men. Specifically, he says that the quotation I use from her 1992 book, Revolution from Within: A Book of Self-Esteem—“The most dangerous situation for a woman is not an unknown man in the street, or even the enemy in wartime, but a husband or lover in the isolation of their own home”—is taken out of context and refers only to the statistical probability that a woman is more likely to be murdered by an intimate partner than a stranger.   He also accuses Sommers of using the same quotation in a downright “dishonest” manner.

Sommers writes:

Gloria Steinem’s portrait of male-female intimacy under patriarchy is typical: “Patriarchy requires violence or the subliminal threat of violence in order to maintain itself…. The most dangerous situation for a woman is not an unknown man in the street, or even the enemy in wartime, but a husband or lover in the isolation of their own home.”

According to Barry, “Sommers took a partial sentence from page 259 of Steinem’s book, put it next to a sentence about crime statistics from page 261, and then pretended the two separate passages formed a single thought,” supposedly altering the meaning of the passage.

As Barry says, it is true that American women are more likely to be murdered by a current or former male partner than by a stranger—partly because stranger homicide for women is an extremely rare event. (I also suspect that the 2009 Bureau of Justice Statistics report Barry cites, Female Victims of Violence, inflates the percentage of female homicide victims killed by partners and ex-partners, which it places at about 45%.  A footnote in that paper notes that about one in three homicides reported by local law enforcement to the FBI are missing information about the offender—often because the offender is not identified.  The analysis assumes that the distribution of homicides with missing offenders is roughly the same as for ones with known offenders.  But surely stranger homicides would be far more likely to remain unsolved?)

But that quibble aside: is it “dishonest” to accuse Steinem of using homicide statistics to support her view that male brutality toward women is close to a norm “under patriarchy” (which includes modern Western societies)?  Well, let’s look at the actual context of the first part of the quotation used by Sommers:

And, of course, [domestic] violence also has the larger political purpose of turning half the population into a support system for the other half.  It polices and perpetuates gender politics by keeping the female half fearful of the moods and approval of the male half.  In fact, patriarchy requires violence or the subliminal threat of violence in order to maintain itself.  Furthermore, the seeming naturalness of gender roles makes male/female violence seem excusable, even inevitable.  As G.H. Hatherill, Police Commander of London, put it: “There are only about twenty murders a year in London and not all are serious—some are just husbands killing wives.”

Oy vey.

So, in the Steinem worldview, American (and, generally, Western) society in the late 20th Century is one in which male batterers act as enforcers for the patriarchy; the female half of the population (I’m hoping that Steinem doesn’t mean the entire female half and is resorting to hyperbole) is cowed and terrorized by the male half; and murders of wives by husbands are dismissed as trivial.  (Steinem’s quote from George Hatherill, Detective Chief Inspector of Scotland Yard in the 1940s and ’50s, is sourced to something called The Lovers’ Quotation Book by Helen Handley, published in 1986; I have not found it anywhere else and have no idea if it’s genuine.)

Is this really the kind of feminism we want to be promoting?

I will concede (having re-read parts of Revolution from Within the other day, for the first time in twenty-plus years) that I was oversimplifying when I said that Steinem’s writings usually depict men “under patriarchy” as dangerous brutes; it’s certainly not true, for instance, of her discussion of Rochester in Jane Eyre.  Except … except that Steinem has made comments that do paint men, collectively, in just such a light.  Here’s one particularly outrageous example. While stumping for Hillary Clinton in Austin, Texas in 2008, Steinem told an interviewer that many Americans want to vote for Obama because they “want redemption for racism, for our terrible destructive racist past”—but not as many “want redemption for the gynocide.”  For instance, she noted, while Americans generally “acknowledge racism—not enough, but somewhat,” they are not as ready to acknowledge that “the most likely way a pregnant woman is to die is murder from her male partner.”

Leaving aside the obscene suggestion that America is guilty of “gynocide,” Steinem’s claim about murderous men as the biggest danger to pregnant women is a blatant falsehood.  According to a 2005 report in The American Journal of Public Health, of some 7,300 deaths of American women during pregnancy or in the postpartum period in 1991-1999, 57 percent were for medical reasons while 27 percent were due to various injuries.  Among the injury deaths, 44 percent were car accidents while 31 percent were homicides—not always by male partners, of course.  (While some researchers believe these statistics undercount homicide of pregnant women, their analysis indicates that all pregnancy-related mortality may be undercounted, since death certificates don’t always mention pregnancy.) To suggest that men are routinely slaughtering their pregnant wives and girlfriends is a pretty grotesque slander.

(Oh, and on that same trip to Austin, while speaking to a Hillary Clinton campaign rally, Steinem made comments ridiculing John McCain’s military service and captivity in Vietnam—and slamming military service in general—that the Clinton campaign was forced to publicly disown.  If Hillary runs in the next election, as I hope she does, could Steinem do her a big favor and stay off the trail?)

My objection to Steinem’s the Medal of Freedom is not that she has used some shoddy statistics and made dubious claims. It’s that she often promotes a toxic brand of gender-war feminism that unfortunately tends to cancel out her achievements.  And that’s even aside from her support for the child sex abuse witch-hunts, the recovered memory movement and the Satanism craze—all of which left untold numbers of wrecked lives in their wake. (Like this woman, who was brainwashed into believing that she grew up in a family of baby-murdering, child-raping Satanists; the “therapist” responsible for this atrocity and others like it, Dr. Bennett Braun, is named by Steinem is the acknowledgments for Revolution from Within.)  For that, Steinem has never apologized.

I think I’ll stop before this blogpost balloons to a magazine-length essay.  I’m glad Barry’s article prodded me to do some more research (and, just maybe, to get back to blogging a bit!). I stand by my basic points, but I also agree that I should have done my homework better.  If nothing else, I could have used better quotes.

 

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