Yes, that’s right–blame feminism. We’re not going to ascribe this one to the lack of Jesus in Brian’s life, or the lack of values in the public school system, or to the tax-and-spend liberals who are a minority in Congress, or to soft-headed judges who believe in holding accused criminals for trial instead of summarily executing them. No, pour all this blood onto Betty Friedan’s hands.
But in order to do that, of course, we’re going to have to ignore the fact that Brian Nichols was not handcuffed, a condition which, whether resulting from Deputy Sheriff Hall’s brain freeze or someone else’s, would seem to have more to do with a lack of common sense than her proprietorship of ovaries. Let alone her size. Ms. Hall may have been much smaller than her attacker, but given that the average height of the American male is 5’9”, so would most men; as nearly anybody who’s watched football can tell you, to block a linebacker, you’re going to need a tight end or a guard. Moreover, we’re also going to have to ignore the fact that the person who eventually calmed Brian Nichols and led to his peaceful surrender just happened to be a woman, the slightly built methamphetamine user Ashley Smith.
Whatever. Such subtleties are lost on author O’Beirne, who is the Washington editor of National Review and who for years could be counted on to appear on “Capital Gang” and denounce all things liberal in the archly miffed tone typically employed by mothers at PTA meetings who aren’t happy that Elaine and Jackie are always in charge of Pizza Day. The whole book is filled with examples of O’Beirne extrapolating generalities from specifics and explaining specifics with generalities and generally leaving nuance, context, and inconvenient facts out in the street.
O’Beirne’s beef is with “radical feminists” who “are ruining our schools, families, military and sports.” What this translates into is “I have book envy, and I need a target that I can easily drop-kick all over conservative radio.” With the Bush administration having made such a hash of things (“Uh, let’s see–can’t pick on big spending liberals. Can’t pick on liberal interventionists. Can’t pick on anti-war liberals. Can’t pick on the corrupt Democratic Congress. That pretty much leaves gays and feminists.”), O’Beirne has had to turn the dial of the Wayback Machine all the way to the mid-1970s, when such a species as a radical feminist did actually walk on her unshaven legs across this land. And while there are surely a few radical feminists still in existence, none has anywhere near the political or cultural influence that her ancestors once did, and none has a smidgen of the pernicious power to ruin our schools, families, military, and country that radical Christian fundamentalists and radical tax-cutters currently possess.
Of course, the reason that there are so few radical feminists around nowadays is that the movement they created has been so enormously successful. There may not be so many radical feminists, but by the standards of The Feminine Mystique‘s era, almost everybody is now a mainstream feminist. Women are everywhere they want to be, though perhaps not in the proportion that they desire, but that time will come. Women’s rights are so fundamental that George W. Bush included the liberation of women from the Taliban among his reasons for going to war in Afghanistan. Women’s rights are so fundamental that no one who aspires to be considered a serious person would suggest that a woman couldn’t possibly be a president or run a corporation or golf in a PGA tournament. Indeed, women’s rights are so fundamental that someone like O’Beirne can forget that she grew up in a world where the person who’d spout the kind of mush and twaddle she produces on TV would almost certainly have been a man.
Unwilling to take on the sea change, O’Beirne attacks the excesses at the margins. This is ridiculously easy work, not because Bella Abzug and Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan are ridiculous people, but because in the course of overthrowing an entrenched power structure, some crazy ideas will be embraced and some rhetorical excess will be committed. The funniest howler O’Beirne catches here comes from Gloria Steinem, who, in trying to justify hiring female firefighters who would be more likely to be weaker than male firefighters and less able to throw on their backs and carry to safety, say, a big fat guy like me, apparently said, “It’s better to drag them out, because there’s less smoke down there [on the floor]. I mean, we’re probably killing people by carrying them out at that height.” Nice try.
But if Gloria Steinem didn’t always know what she was talking about, O’Beirne is hardly one to take her to school. Her discussion of Title IX lacks all nuance. Yes, it’s true that some men’s programs are being dropped, and that’s sad, and it’s also true that along with being a piece of legislation that led to a flowering of athletic opportunities for young women, Title IX is a bit of a blunt instrument for helping to decide what to cut and what to fund when dollars are scarce. But the biggest problem in creating equal opportunities lies at schools that have big-time football programs, meaning that a disproportionate amount of the scholarships and other funds that go to men are locked into one sport, creating shortfalls when divers and wrestlers hold out their palms. O’Beirne doesn’t even discuss football.
There are points in her discussion when O’Beirne reveals that what bothers her is not radical feminism but mainstream equality. She is really bugged by the idea of women participating in the military to any degree beyond Army nurse. She describes in detail the attack in which Pvt. Jessica Lynch was captured and finds the wounds she suffered and the depredations that were committed upon her appalling. Well, hell yeah, of course they were. Whom shall we blame for that? George W. Bush? Saddam Hussein? Donald Rumsfeld? The adult person who volunteers for the Army without considering that she might be exposed to combat? O’Beirne chooses to blame those who believe that in an open society, withholding opportunity, however perilous, from qualified people who seek that opportunity is unacceptable. “A woman being brutally killed alongside men is a long-awaited feminist dream of equality,” writes O’Beirne, in a staggeringly ugly bit of rhetoric that approaches blood libel.
(Of course, ugly rhetoric seems to be O’Beirne’s specialty. “There were no feminist protests when there wasn’t a pleasing gender balance among the 343 brave firemen who died on 9/11,” she writes. Well, no, there were no protests, and I doubt anyone thought of protests except O’Beirne, who in this line exposes herself as possessing the sort of supremely cynical mind that can look upon a national tragedy and figure out how to twist it into narrow political argument. It’s true no women were among the FDNY’s fallen, but what does O’Beirne say to Captain Kathy Mazza, a Port Authority police officer who on 9/11 left the safety of her office in Jersey City and went to the towers, who helped people evacuate and who, witnesses say, shot out windows to create new escape routes, and who died with a group of firemen when the south tower collapsed? Does O’Beirne say to this hero “you are but a radical feminist’s dream”?)
O’Beirne cites the work of a lot of social scientists in discussing her points. These social scientists seem to fall into two groups: those who support O’Beirne’s theses, whom she admires, and radical feminist social scientists, whose work O’Beirne finds dangerous. O’Beirne quotes–selectively–from a lot of feminist researchers, making them seem ridiculous. And she’s isn’t always wrong. But the average reader might feel like he is witnessing a savage battle that is being waged way on the periphery of ordinary people’s lives. Most people, if they’re acquainted with this research at all, use it as an echo chamber that emphasizes their own fears, anxieties, and goals. Either way, these findings, many of which are interesting, are basically irrelevant. As even the former school board of Dover, Pa., can tell you, we don’t run our society based on scientific findings. We run it according to a belief system or an ideology or a theory that puts equality and freedom at the center of the human experience. Our glory is when we take that theory seriously, and our shame is when we don’t. It’s not always easy to live up to our ideals and we often make mistakes in trying to figure out the best way to achieve what we think is good. In this book, O’Beirne may offer some food for thought and may identify some zealous excess, but basically she’s just heckling people who have written a proud page in our history.