»  National Review

April 2nd, 2001

  A Poisonous Gift


In the style of Dwight Eisenhower's well-known valedictory warning to the American people, the editors of this magazine some months ago alerted us to the rising danger of a "celebrity-activist complex." A perfect illustration of what we meant occurred earlier this month, when it was announced that Jane Fonda has donated $12.5m to a gender studies center at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. You may think that this is just a case of a Hollywood airhead with more money than sense subsidizing a bunch of ivory-tower leftists. Why should anyone — anyone not a possible beneficiary of Ms. Fonda's will — be concerned? Listen, and you shall hear.

Fonda's gift is in honor of Carol Gilligan, Harvard's first Professor of Gender Studies, author of the feminist classic In a Different Voice (1982). In that book, Gilligan established herself as a "difference feminist," arguing that women and men have fundamentally different ways of thinking about themselves and those around them, the women's way being of course superior. Men, according to Gilligan, operate on an ethic of separation from others, building their view of the world on abstract principles and rules. Women, by contrast, use an ethic of connection to deal with moral issues, seeing them in terms of "caring" and "intimacy."

The book's effect on Jane Fonda was, by her own report, dramatic: it made her cry. Hence the donation, which includes provision for a chair to be endowed in Gilligan's name. Fonda is a keen supporter of feminist causes. She funded, to the tune of about a million dollars, the "V-day" event at Madison Square Garden last month, at which assorted feminist luminaries attempted to launch a re-definition of St. Valentine's Day as "'V' for 'Violence' (against women) Day," or possibly, depending on which feminist you talk to, "'V' for 'Vagina' Day" — the event included a reading, in which Fonda participated, of Eve Ensler's one-woman play The Vagina Monologues.

Gilligan's own main inspiration was an earlier feminist thinker, Nancy Chodorow. Back in the 1970s, Chodorow argued for "transforming the social organization of gender." She believed that men and women were equally capable of "masculine" and "feminine" behavior, but that capitalist society forced the familiar, traditional divergence of roles on them, so that a male "patriarchy" could lord it over downtrodden womankind. Chodorow's own intellectual lineage goes directly back to Karl Marx, of course. Society exists, therefore some class must be oppressing some other class. The first task of the social scientist is to identify oppressor and oppressed, to answer the question Lenin stated so very succinctly: "Who, whom?"

Such straightforward appeals to Marx will not do nowadays. Outside a small and dwindling number of intellectual bunkers, the old boy is no longer respectable. This does not, however, mean that the Left has changed its goal of a revolutionary transformation of society, nor its view of human nature as infinitely plastic. Gilligan's "difference feminism" was actually attacked from the feminist Left when it first appeared, on the grounds that any assertion of fundamental differences between men and women might undermine the dogma that gender is a mere social construct with no foundation in physical reality. The Left need not have worried, and in fact no longer seems to be worrying. I could not find in Gilligan's book any hint that the difference she is describing has any biological foundation. Her thesis is perfectly consistent with the gender-is-a-social-construct school of thought. We're not hard-wired to be this way. An oppressive patriarchal society forces these deformations on us.

Now, you might suppose that all this "gender studies" stuff is strictly for the girls — that males of our species are not much in evidence at the Gender Studies Center, and that the whole shebang is, in reality, nothing more than a respectable academic front for man-hating feminist agitation. You would be right on both counts, but things are changing fast. The Gender Studies crowd have discovered masculinity. They have, in fact, grasped a very profound insight, a way to transform what old-line Marxists would have called "the dialectic." You see, once you have dropped all references to classical Marxism, you can take a position that would never have occurred to Marx himself — that would, in fact, I think, have caused him to fly into one of his famous rages: you can sympathize with the oppressor class.

Men, from this kinder and gentler point of view, are just as much victims of what Chodorow called "the sex/gender system" as are women. They don't really want to be oppressors — human volition has no place in the pure-Leftist world view. Men are twisted and bent into being the way they are by impersonal forces, embodied in the child-rearing practices of "capitalist" society and in traditional models of masculinity. It is OK, even if un-Marxist, to feel sorry for them, and we should try to think of ways to alleviate their psychic pain. When Gilligan came up with this one — it is implicit in her book, and so I think can fairly be credited to her — she opened up broad new vistas for Gender Studies research. It was the insight that launched a thousand Ph.D. theses.

It is but a short step from this kind of outlook to asking: How can we de-masculinize males? Since women's personalities are crushed and stunted by patriarchal oppression, and since men themselves are driven mad by the psychic contortions necessary to make themselves into oppressors, would we not do everyone a favor by dumping the whole business of masculinity?

This step has indeed been taken, most notably by Dr. William Pollock, co-director of the Center for Men at Harvard Medical School. In his 1998 book Real Boys, Pollack turns around Professor Higgins's famous question: "Why can't a woman be more like a man?" It would be a jolly good thing, says Pollack, if men could be more like women. The way to accomplish this is to catch 'em young — to change the way we raise boys. Instead of the old "Boy Code" of inculcated stoicism, reserve and "manliness," we should show boys how to empathize, to get in touch with their inner feelings, to be more … girlish. The stoicizing, toughening process that boys have heretofore been put through — the process that found literary expression in Tom Brown's Schooldays, Captains Courageous, and that fine John Wayne movie The Cow Boys — was all a terrible mistake, says Dr. Pollack. It not only produced an oppressor class, it psychically maimed and traumatized the boys themselves.

Why should conservatives care about this stuff? Because the Gilligans and Pollacks do not conduct their labors unheard and unseen. Their influence is enormous, seeping down into the teacher-training colleges and schools of administration, and thence to actual teachers, actual children, and actual education bureaucrats. Pollack himself has delivered conference addresses to thousands of school principals, guidance counselors and PTA leaders.

That influence has been especially pernicious these past eight years. The United States has a Department of Education, that department has an Office for Civil Rights, and that office was for the entire duration of the Clinton presidency headed by a hard-Left feminist ideologue, Norma Cantu. Under Cantu's direction, the full power of her office — principally, the power to deny federal funds to schools and districts that defied her will — was employed in enforcing Gilligan-derived doctrines wherever possible, via sexual-harassment codes, the imposition on schools of "gender equity coordinators," and the most rigid, inflexible interpretations of federal civil rights statutes and court rulings.

The damage has been very great, though it has so far gone almost unnoticed by the general public. Everything was done in typically Clintonian fashion. Up front, there was the man, busily pandering and triangulating, throwing up a smoke screen of talk about drug-free zones, school uniforms and academic testing. Behind that screen Ms. Cantu and her armies of termites were chewing their way into the fabric of America's educational establishment. They, and their doctrines, are now securely imbedded in the educational bureaucracy, and will not easily be dislodged.

At the time of writing, Ms. Cantu's replacement at the Office of Civil Rights has not been named. The position is in the gift of Rod Paige, the new Secretary of Education. Though he did fine work in raising the standard of elementary and high-school education in the Houston district he supervised, Paige seems to have no strong opinions about gender issues, higher education, or the role of his Civil Rights Office, and was not questioned on these points during his confirmation hearings.

Given that neither Paige nor, so far as I can determine, his boss has any interest in these matters, the strong probability is that nothing will be done about them. While it is unlikely that Paige will appoint another Norma Cantu, it is equally unlikely that there will be any serious attempt to apply pest control to the Department of Education, flushing out those termites. Most probably we shall see another instance of what Margaret Thatcher calls "the ratchet effect." When the Left gets power, they aggressively advance their cause. When we get power, they lie low, hold their gains and wait patiently for better days, nourished by burning ideological conviction, and by the support and encouragement of wealthy celebrities like Fonda.