The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

Re-Reading Susan Brownmiller
Confronting the Radical Facts of Feminism

Posted on | March 15, 2011 | 48 Comments

“God help us if she ever gets raped — we will be buried under an avalanche of rhetoric.”
James Wolcott, letter to the Village Voice, 1971

Little Miss Attila vowed Monday that she owes me an essay in response to a post I wrote, and she can write a damned book for all I care. Having begun by insulting me — “fiddle-faddle”! — she has repeatedly doubled down every time I’ve defended myself, and keeps treating my defenses as if they were acts of aggression: How dare you deny your inferiority!

This obviously isn’t about me, but about her, and I cannot be responsible for her feelings of indignation at my refusal to kowtow.

What began the dispute (those few who have followed it will recall) was my attempt to briefly recount the history of feminism, locating it as a movement of the Left. In particular, I called attention to Betty Friedan’s Communist history as evidence of feminism’s ideological orientation. Attila responded by throwing out the name Gloria Steinem as an “a-ha!” But this did not disprove feminism’s left-wing origins, as I explained, because Steinem was a somewhat opportunistic Janey-come-lately to the Women’s Liberation movement that began in 1967. It was not until 1969, when Steinem wrote a New York magazine article about this burgeoning movement, that she became publicly associated with the cause.

Given the fact that the actual founders of Women’s Liberation were all closely associated with the anti-war ’60s New Left — including SDS members and several “Red Diaper babies” like Kathie Amatniek, raised by Communist parents — how on earth could a reference to Steinem be thought to refute my original point? (And, it must be noted, Steinem was herself an anti-war liberal, having supported first Eugene McCarthy and then RFK in the 1968 Democratic primaries.)

Attila seems to have presumed my writing about feminism could only be based in ignorant sexist prejudice: No man could be both (a) informed about the history of feminism and (b) an anti-feminist. Thus I eventually felt obliged to mention that I was writing with a copy of Susan Brownmiller’s memoir In Our Time sitting on my desk.

Brownmiller is most famously the author of Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape, and was one of the organizers of a seminal January 1971 anti-rape “speak-out” event and a subsequent May 1971 Conference on Rape, both sponsored by New York Radical Feminists. The quote from James Wolcott that began this post is from a letter he wrote, as a college student, to the Village Voice in response to Brownmiller’s article, “On Goosing.”

The inspiration for that article was that Brownmiller had been helping pass out handbills to promote the rape conference when she was groped by a passing stranger. Well, as the feminists taught us, “The personal is political” (a slogan that Brownmiller explains was coined by her feminist friend Carol Hanisch). And so this incident led her to write a mini-manifesto of sorts, to which Wolcott supplied the rejoinder.

If my blog-feud with Attila has done nothing else, it has inspired me to re-read In Our Time. Perhaps I should explain how I came into possession of the book. Years ago, when I worked at The Washington Times, I was a voracious scavenger grabbing up books from the “discard” pile in the newsroom. Publishers flooded the book review editor’s office with their latest volumes, only a fraction of which were ever mentioned in the paper. The leftovers were picked through by the book editor and his assistant and what they didn’t want, they brought down from their office upstairs and dumped on a table in the newsroom.

Being a maniacal bibliophile, I would scoop up everything that seemed even slightly interesting to me. And it was through this process that I amassed a small collection of feminist memoirs.

For some reason, the years 1997-2001 unleashed a torrent of such works. Most were by obscure writers who, I guessed, were hoping to get their books onto the reading lists of university Women’s Studies programs. Skimming through the books during train-and-bus rides home, I discovered that most of these stories had a predictable narrative arc: Young woman goes to college; sleeps with boyfriend; has abortion; breaks up with boyfriend; gets involved with anti-war protests; is sexually exploited by a series of boyfriends from the anti-war movement; becomes involved in Women’s Lib; and, at some point past the prime of her promiscuous youth, discovers that she is in fact a lesbian.

The personal is the political, you see, and by the mid- to late 1990s, the personal was also frequently published, as these middle-aged Baby Boomer women felt compelled to share with a waiting world the tales of their “journey” — God, how they over-used that phrase — toward feminist (and usually also lesbian) enlightenment.

Brownmiller’s In Our Time is both personal and political, but it is also professional. Like both Freidan and Steinem, Brownmiller was a full-time working journalist before becoming a feminist. In Our Time is well-written and well organized and, while the narrative is built around Brownmiller’s own story, it is a comprehensive history of the “revolution” it chronicles.

The book, the author, and the movement are all unapologetically and defiantly left-wing. Attila’s notion that there is some species of feminism that is “universal” — a non-left-wing movement — is utterly refuted by Brownmiller’s book.

Here, I think, is the bone of dispute: The question is not whether there were once widely-tolerated forms of discrimination against women that even conservatives today would find shocking.

Certainly, there were many, many things going on in 1967 that we would find shocking in 2011. To cite one obvious example, 9,378 U.S. troops were killed in action in Vietnam in 1967. By comparison, in 2007, the worst year for U.S. casualties in Iraq, 904 American troops were killed. Young men were being drafted to serve in 1967, and only left-wing hippie freaks opposed it, whereas today we have an all-volunteer military and even most conservatives would oppose a re-institution of the draft. But that doesn’t mean the conservative movement is beholden to the left-wing hippie freaks who were burning their draft cards in 1967, just as the changes in our sexual culture do not require conservatives to make obeisance to the feminist movement.

“My attitude toward progress has passed from antagonism to boredom. I have long ceased to argue with people who prefer Thursday to Wednesday because it is Thursday.”
G.K. Chesterton, 1913

Well, today is Wednesday, and I do not suppose that whatever small amount of social change will take place between now and Thursday must automatically deserve applause as Progress. No one can deny that in 1967, women were excluded from certain professions and their career advancement impeded in many areas of employment. Yet neither can we deny that very few women aspired to be, inter alia, fighter pilots or corporate executives in 1967. “Well, why should they have aspired to career paths that were not open to them?” comes the response. We might answer by asking why it was so militantly insisted that all professions must be equally open to women, creating (at least in legal theory) a supply of opportunities as truck drivers and ditch-diggers for which, even to this day, there is not much female demand.

No need to offer such an argument — which the enraged Attila will note that I describe only as a hypothetical (“might”), rather than actually making that argument. However, I wish to point out is that the most ferocious female advocates of workplace equality tend to be also the direct beneficiaries of that equality: College-educated professional women, employed in office jobs of one sort or another. For the high-school dropout waiting tables at Waffle House, the benefits of a rigid enforcement of “equal opportunity” are more difficult to locate.

The collective solidarity of the radical sisterhood, however, insists on telling us that the personal advantages of the professional feminist vanguard are somehow a victory for all women. There is something familiar in that assertion, to anyone who has read Orwell’s Animal Farm: “Some animals are more equal than others.”

The radical feminists of the late 1960s brought with them to the Women’s Liberation Movement the collectivist, anti-hierarchical notions of participatory democracy that they had picked up in the civil-rights crucible of SNCC and the anti-war movement of SDS. There were undertones of Maoism in the insistence of these women that every dispute must be hashed out in long, open-ended discussions, every proposal put to a vote, every publication approved by the group. Everything was organized on an all-volunteer basis — no paid staff, no executive directors, etc. (In Our Time tells of women contributing their welfare checks to pay the printing costs of the newspapers produced by their feminist collectives, which didn’t pay a cent to the women writers whose work they published.)

Women’s Liberation radicals adamantly insisted that there could be no “stars” in the movement, and one of the victims of that egalitarian anti-“star” ethic was Susan Brownmiller. She easily could have been the feminist superstar that Steinem became. By the time Steinem published her first article about the movement — “After Black Liberation, Women’s Liberation,” April 1969 — Brownmiller had been active in the movement for more than seven months. Brownmiller started attending meetings of New York Radical Women in September 1968 in the offices of the Southern Conference Education Fund where, she discovered, part of the furniture was a second-hand sofa she’d given to Carol Harnisch. A writer for the Village Voice and ABC News, she later was asked to write an article about the Women’s Liberation Movement for the New York Times Magazine. “Sisterhood Is Powerful” was published in March 1970.

In that article, Brownmiller disputed Betty Friedan’s warning against the lesbian “lavender menace” to feminism’s mainstream acceptance. Showing solidarity with the radicals, Brownmiler mocked Friedan’s fear as a “lavender herring.” But instead of making her a hero to the radicals, Brownmiller’s article (and subsequent media appearances as a feminist spokeswoman) made her the object of a petition drive at a women’s conference. The petition condemned Brownmiller as “seeking to rise to fame on the back of the women’s movement by publishing articles in the establishment press.” Among those who supported the anti-Brownmiller petition was Rita Mae Brown, a lesbian who had resigned from NOW after Friedan’s “lavender menace” remark. Her argument against Brownmiller concluded: “We don’t need spokespeople and we don’t need leaders!”

In 1971, when the media were elevating Germaine Greer to superstar status and Brownmiller was asked to appear with Greer on the David Susskind show, Brownmiller’s fellow radicals in the audience yelled at her on the stage: “You shouldn’t be up there, Susan.” Brownmiller writes: “My movement sisters were saying: Germaine comes to us as a star so we accept her status and protect her, but you have no right to the spotlight unless we all do.” Since 1969, Brownmiller had been attending a weekly feminist consciousness-raising group, known as West Village One. In 1973, after she had already spent two years working on Against Our Will, she shared with her group the good news that the manuscript was at the point where she could see the light at the end of the tunnel. Brownmiller was shocked and hurt when another group member responded: “Dou you have to put your name on the book? Rape doesn’t belong to you, it belongs to the movement.”

Envy is the root of the egalitarian ethos, and it was inevitable that any woman who enjoyed particular success or distinction as a member of the radical-egalitarian Women’s Liberation movement would be hated for her achievements. Brownmiller had worked for years as a journalist, and fought to expand opportunities for women journalists (among other things, helping organize the famous 1970 sit-in at the offices of Ladies’ Home Journal). Yet the distinction of having her name on a book — a book that it ultimately took her nearly four years to finish — made her a target of these egalitarian resentments. And the woman whose criticism so wounded Brownmiller? She was not herself a writer but, as Brownmiller says, “a gifted organizer.”

Writers get bylines and organizers don’t. This is just the way of the world. But who could explain that in the context of a radical movement whose avowed purpose was to overturn the way of the world?

Sic simper hoc. Why, after all, had Leon Trotsky been demonized by Stalin? As any historian of the Bolshevik movement must conclude, Trotsky was hated for his virtues and accomplishments: A writer of clarity and wit, a persuasive speaker, a charismatic and successful leader of the Red Army. Trotsky’s prominence and popularity made him a natural target of Stalin’s paranoid resentments. All Trotsky’s prior services to the revolutionary cause were, in essence, part of the case against him, and none of his comrades dared defend him. The ice-axe that fatally crushed Trotsky’s skull was wielded by Ramon Mercader, but the assassin acted on behalf of the egalitarian spirit of the revolution Trotsky himself had done so much to advance.

Well, harsh words within a consciousness-raising group are a poor analogy for an assassin’s ice-axe, but the underlying principle — the egalitarian envy of achievement, the resentment of personal distinction, no matter how hard-won — was exactly the same. After all, the full title of Brownmiller’s book is In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution and, by the time Women’s Liberation raised its banner, nearly 200 years of history told the inevitable progress of such radicalism.

“Those who attempt to level never equalize. In all societies some description must be uppermost. The levellers, therefore, only change and pervert the natural order of things; they load the edifice of society by setting up in the air what the solidity of the structure requires to be on the ground.”
Edmund Burke, Reflection on the Revolution in France

Sic semper hoc. As with the Jacobins of Burke’s era, so too with the feminists of our own era. Robespierre must yield to Napoleon, Trotsky to Stalin, and Brownmiller’s radicals ultimately yielded to Gloria Steinem.

Telegenic and extroverted, already a famous liberal journalist who had made many television appearances, Steinem successfully seized the opportunity created by Women’s Liberation. Her attractiveness made her popular with male journalists. “[M]ost of the men I know are in love with Gloria Steinem,” New York Post columnist Pete Hamill wrote in 1970, “and it isn’t difficult to understand why.” A year later, a Newsweek cover feature promoted Steinem as the “unlikely guru” of Women’s Lib, an acclaim that Brownmiller describes as “an insult to the thousands of women across the country who were making the revolution.” In 1970, Brownmiller and some of her fellow radicals had proposed the idea of a national feminist magazine, but were unable to raise the necessary financial backing, In 1972, however, Steinem secured Warner Communications’ backing for Ms. magazine, which debuted as a special supplement to Clay Felker’s trendy New York magazine. Thus did Steinem become the celebrity symbol of the movement.

Brownmiller writes: “During the seventies, I often grew cross as I saw hard-won, original insights developed by others in near total anonymity be turned by the media into Gloria Steinem pronouncements, Gloria Steinem ideas, and Gloria Steinem visions . . .”

What was for the unsung radicals a cause became for Steinem a career — Feminism, Inc., as it were — and I marvel that so many women who still proudly call themselves feminists don’t grasp that concept. Brownmiller, Steinem, Friedan — call the roll of professional feminist leaders on down to the present day and permit yourself to ask the cynical question, “What’s in it for them?”

Whatever any self-identified feminist may consider the general benefits of the women’s movement, can you deny that its benefits were and are greatest to the women who earn their living on the payroll of Feminism, Inc.? How many women today enjoy full-time employment as university professors of Women’s Studies, with tenure, six-figure salaries, and a teaching load of perhaps two classes per semester? What are the salaries of the top officials at NARAL and NOW and the other feminist non-profits? (Memo to liberals: Just because it’s non-profit doesn’t mean nobody gets paid.)

Nor should the searing scrutiny of this cynical calculus be limited merely to the professionals of Feminism, Inc. The dogma of “equal opportunity” and “non-discrimination” is not of equal benefit to all women. The previously example of the Waffle House waitress calls to attention how little working-class women have benefitted from the feminist cause. However, even among the college-educated middle-class careerists who are, as a category, the chief beneficiaries of the women’s movement, the benefits of “equal opportunity” are by no means distributed equally. Every time there is an opening for a promotion in the office, and a (usually male) executive decides he needs to promote a woman — under the aegis of “diversity,” a defensive rationale to forestall the possibility of a discrimination lawsuit — some women will be passed over in favor of the lucky woman chosen for that elevation. Talk to women (and, believe it or not, I do), and you discover that they are well aware that a certain type of woman tends to prosper under the ”diversity” regime. And the majority of working women don’t really like that type of woman.

Something else the feminists seldom mention: There are lots of women who hate working for a woman boss, and dislike working in any female-dominated environment. Someone remarked in the comments here recently that one definition of “misogyny” is when a man treats a woman the way women treat each other. And if you listen to women (which again I must assure you that I often do), you are familiar with many different varieties of women’s cruelty to women.

Consider the hard-working dynamo, hired by a women’s non-profit with an indecisive, passive-aggressive boss. Her fellow employees, the dynamo quickly discovers, are prone to sitting around in endless discussions about what they should do, rather than actually doing anything. The dynamo rolls up her sleeves and gets to work, accomplishing wonders for the organization with her aggressive results-oriented approach. Inevitably, however, her colleagues resent the dynamo’s go-getter attitude. She sometimes skips their interminable staff meetings — where they talk, talk, talk about possible projects they should undertake — because she’s too busy doing actual work. And, strange to say, the dynamo actually expects them to help out with the work part of the job (for which they have neither appetite nor aptitude) as opposed to the let’s-hold-a-two-hour-meeting part (at which they excel). Eventually, the talk-talk-talk faction begins whining to their boss, complaining that the dynamo isn’t a “team player” because she missed a meeting, or didn’t file some bit of inter-office paperwork, or said something rudely honest to one of her lazy-ass co-workers. The talkers eventually make the dynamo’s life such a living hell that she quits the organization, rather than continue toiling in an environment that seems to punish hard work.

Sound familiar? C’mon, ladies: You have your own henhouse horror stories to tell. Every woman does. I know this because, believe it or not, I actually do talk to women. (And I occasionally even listen to them!)

As I have often had occasion to remind readers, when my dissections of feminist claptrap make me the target of the inevitable accusations of sexism and misogyny — depicting me as someone who hates and wishes to oppress women — my argument isn’t with women, but with an egalitarian ideology. Feminism is merely one variety of egalitarianism, and I oppose all such ideologies, which would have us believe that “inequality” is a synonym for “injustice.”

“We have so many people who can’t see a fat man standing beside a thin one without coming to the conclusion the fat man got that way by taking advantage of the thin one.”
Ronald Reagan, 1964

Friedrich Hayek once wrote a book called The Mirage of Social Justice, a penetrating analysis of the delusional pursuit of an abstract notion of “fairness,” an ever-elusive phantom goal, an impossible ideal that has never existed in human affairs and never will. While I am not aware that Hayek ever addressed himself directly to feminism as a species of the “social justice” snipe-hunt, nevertheless the Hayekian insights still apply, and I will apply them.

For example: It is one thing to address an acknowledged evil like rape, and to decry the fact that in the 1960s and ‘70s, male-dominated law-enforcement agencies and a male-dominated court system routinely let rapists go free because of prejudicial attitudes toward women. Brownmiller tells the tale of a woman who got gang-raped while hitchhiking in the 1950s:

The worst part of her ordeal had been at the police station. “Aww, who’d want to rape you?” an officer teased. Another said she was too calm to be credible — in his view she should have been crying hysterically. After several postponements there was a trail that Sara did not attend, and the men were given suspended sentences.

We can see that such an attitude permitted criminals to go free, undermined public safety, and humiliated women who had been brutally victimized. No conservative would endorse such laxity in enforcement of the law. However, neither would any conservative deliberately distort public discourse about crime and punishment in such a way as to undermine the basic due process rights that protect defendants against wrongful prosecution. And this is what feminism has done, insisting that women never — never! — lie about rape, so that the Duke University lacrosse team was convicted in print by the New York Times, and subjected to prosecution by an unscrupulous district attorney, on the say-so of a dishonest accuser who was subsequently revealed to be a common criminal.

Whereas reasonable reforms of the criminal justice system — and, OK, I’ll even grudgingly acknowledge the utility of “consciousness-raising” on the issue — would suffice to remedy the genuine wrongs in the legal system’s approach to rape, the radical impetus of a revolutionary movement can never accept piecemeal reforms as sufficient. Moreover, it is difficult to credit the demand for more stringent law enforcement when those presenting such a demand are part of an antinomian radicalism that openly espouses the cause of criminals who kill cops, a radicalism that even defends terrorist bombers. That this was the case with the Women’s Liberation Movement, no one can argue.

Deeply entwined with the New Left, the feminists of the 1960s and ‘70s routinely took the side of the Black Panthers, the Weather Underground and various cause célèbre criminals of that radical era. Feminists aided and abetted the fugitive Jane Alpert. As a 22-year-old Columbia University graduate student, Albert became involved with a 35-year-old divorced radical, Sam Melville. (“The combination of sexual love and radical ideology was more than irresistible. It consumed me. After a few weeks with Sam, it was obvious to me that I was going to quit graduate school.”) In 1969, Alpert helped Melville commit a string of at least eight bombings in New York, including one blast that injured 19 people.

As a fugitive from justice — during which time she participated in the Weather Underground’s terror-bombing campaign — Alpert was harbored by various feminists. Her “Mother Right” manifesto was published in Ms. magazine, and Gloria Steinem herself helped Alpert get a lawyer when she finally surrendered to police in 1974. One of her radical-bomber colleagues was arrested three months later and Alpert, whom the Left suspected of having informed on her former comrade, was denounced as “a high-level pig” by famed feminist Ti-Grace Atkinson.

So, while feminists were anti-rape, they were pro-bombing, as long as the bombers were their allies in the Left and unless the bombers were suspected of cooperating with law enforcement. And if you see any contradiction in that stance, then you must be a sexist, a misogynist, a male supremacist, a supporter of the oppressive patriarchy.

Like me.

What has been at the heart of my dispute with Little Miss Attila (the reader sighs, recognizing that there might be a light at the end of this 4,000-word tunnel) has always been this question: Is feminism by definition a movement of the Left? Knowing the history of the movement as I did from my own reading years ago, this dispute began when I criticized Barbara Kay’s attempt to re-write that history:

The feminist revolution began as a necessary reform movement, but unfortunately evolved into a marxism-imbued, revolutionary one. Second-wave feminism’s focus soon shifted from women’s equal rights (which are limited to those defined by law) to women’s interests (which are limitless), as perceived through a victim’s lens.

This is a lie. The mythical “evolution” or “shift” of which Kay speaks is directly contradicted by historical fact. Second-wave feminism began with Friedan, a Communist of the Old Left, and was carried forward by anti-American radicals of the New Left. No honest person who has actually studied the movement can deny this and, in attempting to describe a “universal” feminism that nearly all women embrace (or at least, should embrace), Attila is describing a feminism that never existed.

No man can be permitted to say this, however, especially a man whose skill in persuasive writing is so advanced that Attila fears he might persuade her friends that she is in some sense wrong to dismiss his writing as “fiddle-faddle.”

And now Attila says she owes me an essay? She can keep her essay, or write a damned book for all I care. The only thing I’ve ever wanted is whatever modicum of respect my labors might deserve.

It’s gonna be cold day in hell before I get any respect from some of my so-called “friends,” it seems, but at least I dare hope that when I say, “Hit the tip jar,” my real friends will help recompense the hours I’ve spent mired in this tedious argument, when the stubborn facts have always been on my side.

For crying out loud, can’t you see that I’m a victim? I even read Susan Brownmiller, so you don’t have to. That ought to be worth something. Now hit the freaking tip jar.

UPDATE: Thanks to commenter Alec Leamas for supplying further evidence:

“Feminism, Socialism, and Communism are one in the same, and Socialist/Communist government is the goal of feminism.”
Catharine A. MacKinnon, Toward a Feminist Theory of the State (First Harvard University Press, 1989), p.10

“Everyone who knows anything of history also knows that great social revolutions are impossible without the feminine ferment. Social progress may be measured precisely by the social position of the fair sex (plain ones included).”
Karl Marx, letter to Ludwig Kugelmann

While I quickly located the original source for the Marx quote, the MacKinnon quote — though widely cited in many secondary sources online — is more difficult to verify. However, I was able to find online an entire chapter of Toward a Feminist Theory of the State. A thoroughgoing radical, MacKinnon utterly rejects the classical-liberal (Lockean) theory of government:

State power, embodied in law, exists throughout society as male power at the same time as the power of men over women throughout society is organized as the power of the state. . . .
Perhaps the objectivity of the liberal state has made it appear autonomous of class. Including, but beyond, the bourgeois in liberal legalism, lies what is male about it. However autonomous of class the liberal state may appear, it is not autonomous of sex. Male power is systemic. Coercive, legitimated, and epistemic, it is the regime.

My critics will answer, of course, that MacKinnon is an extreme example, that we cannot use her to define “feminism,” that there are other feminists who have written more agreeably. But MacKinnon cannot be dismissed as a marginal figure, a kook on the fringe. She is a tenured professor of law at the University of Michigan, and her influence in defining what is or is not “feminism” must be reckoned much greater than our own.


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