Volume > Issue > Briefly: September 1994

September 1994

Who Stole Feminism? How Women Have Betrayed Women

By Christina Hoff Sommers

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Pages: 320

Price: $23

Review Author: Celia Wolf-Devine

Sommers argues that the feminist movement, especially in the field of education, has moved away from the original goals of “eq­uity” feminism (with which Sommers identifies) toward what she calls “gender feminism.” Equity feminism (sometimes called “lib­eral feminism”) aims at obtaining for women the same rights and op­portunities men have. Gender femi­nists regard our society as perme­ated by “patriarchy,” which sys­tematically oppresses women, and advocate a gynocentric (women-centered) vision of the world which rejects the entire Western cultural tradition as patriarchal.

Sommers exposes the shoddy and inaccurate statistics dissemi­nated by gender feminists to sup­port their vision of American women as living in a virtual state of siege. One of the more shocking ex­amples was the totally erroneous statistic that domestic violence causes more birth defects than all other causes combined. The image of male brutality implied by this staggers the imagination, yet the press, as Sommers carefully docu­ments, has been irresponsibly gull­ible and spread this sort of statistic far and wide. Inflated statistics on rape contribute to an atmosphere of suspicion often bordering on paranoia, as illustrated by one of her stories about a feminist who was alone in a well-lit laundromat in the morning and went into a to­tal panic about how she was in dan­ger of rape, locked herself in her car in the parking lot between loads, and then went home angry about her victimization.

Gender feminists in academia are rewriting history through their own ideological lens, failing to expose their stu­dents to the great literature and art of the Western tradition, and often encouraging a mushy, therapeutic atmosphere rather than teaching students how to write and think analytically. One particularly sad story along these lines was that of Minnie, a Puerto Rican woman who lived with her divorced mother and took a freshman writ­ing course with a feminist profes­sor. She filed a complaint, saying she had learned no writing skills. She wanted her essays corrected so she could learn to write better English, but her complaint was smugly dismissed by the professor who spoke of how Minnie’s social­ization propelled her to a resistant posture, adding that Minnie de­sired an “academically gilded armor” rather than a “change of self.” What business does a fresh­man writing teacher have intrud­ing into her students’ psyches and adopting such a patronizing atti­tude toward their concerns?

Although I would like to think Sommers is being alarmist, I fear she is not. From my own experience and that of other academ­ics I know, there are a lot of people of the sort she describes out there, and her horror stories are not at all unrepresentative of their aims and tactics. Students are being short­changed, and the tendency of these feminists to try to intimidate critics rather than entering into dialogue with them has had a very harmful effect on the intellectual climate in many schools, already in poor shape.

I would have liked to have seen Sommers reflect more about why her opponents believe what they believe. Why have so many privileged, white women with rea­sonably prestigious jobs worked themselves up into such a state of rage about their victimization, and embraced a worldview hostile to everything associated with mascu­linity? She hints that feminism functions for some of them like a religion, but doesn’t pursue the point. She should have. Many of those most active in the cause are unchurched and cut loose from their communities of origin. For these women, feminism provides a supportive community with a shared worldview. There is also an associated “women’s spirituality” which includes goddess worship and Wicca rituals. Gender femi­nists seem to have fallen into a Manichaean vision of the world that identifies evil with the male principle and good with the female principle.

Unfortunately, Sommers as­sumes that the only two options are gender feminism and equity feminism, and that all right-think­ing Americans are equity femi­nists. But liberal feminism is not the only contender, and has been criticized on a number of grounds.

Its emphasis on careers as central to women’s fulfillment marks it as largely an upper-middle-class phe­nomenon; most women (and men) must work at jobs they don’t find particularly fulfilling because they need the money. The equity feminist ideal of “a fair field and no favors” for women seems inadequate to the needs of the many women who are struggling to combine job and family, and who would like to see feminists fight for a whole range of special family sup­ports like those won by European feminists (lengthy maternity leaves without loss of seniority, flexible work hours for parents of young children, and even outright financial grants to those engaged in the socially essential task of child rearing). Communitarians have expressed concern that the mass exodus of women from the home into the workplace has re­sulted in a terrible loss to their communities, since women have traditionally put their networking skills to work sustaining local com­munities and performing a host of essential tasks (you never value the water until the well runs dry). For­tunately, the feminist tradition in­cludes many women who are sen­sitive to such concerns.

The Call of Service

By Robert Coles

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Pages: 306

Price: 22.95

Review Author: Brett Webb-Mitchell

Like Robert Coles’s earlier book, The Call of Stories, which maps out how the use of stories shapes our moral character, The Call of Service focuses on how one’s response to the “calling” to serve others affects the server’s life for the better. Quoting Dorothy Day, Coles shows what can hap­pen when serving the poor: “They serve us by coming here — giving us the chance to serve, and so of­fering a service to us.”

Whereas in his other books Coles lets stories and other people’s narratives teach readers lessons about moral, political, and spiritual issues, Coles is more the direct educator in this book. His agenda is simple: to teach us the importance of service in this world. With this explicit curriculum pre­sented, Coles then draws the con­nection between community ser­vice and intellectual reflection by telling us about the paradoxically complex issues involved in a life of service. He accomplishes this by using the stories of his mentors, William Carlos Williams, Dorothy Day, and Anna Freud, as well as his students from Harvard and their community-service projects. First, he instructs the reader about the various kinds of service. Second, he outlines the pedagogy of ser­vice: namely, mentoring and hands-on learning by doing. Third, he weighs both the satisfaction and idealism of younger and older people’s service, yet also the haz­ards of giving care, like cynicism, arrogance, anger, bitterness, de­spair, and burn-out. Finally, Coles connects the life of service to the life of the mind, realizing that in the stories of the life of service, whether written by the great nov­elists or told by his students, we may learn to live better lives.

These richly illuminating sto­ries that call the reader to contem­plate caring for others form a provocative counter-story to society’s story, where much “service” is done for ulterior motives, usually to advance one’s career, the one who receives care becoming a pawn in someone’s game.

While Coles tells moving tales of lives transformed by caring ser­vice, he seems to have gotten “doing” and “being” turned around, which will be troubling for many Christians, and not only Protestants such as myself. For Coles, doing comes first, which then shapes our being (who we are). While Coles is certainly a Chris­tian, most Christians would prob­ably see it quite the opposite: God first informs us as to who we are, which then dictates what we do, and our gestures of care and ser­vice are ultimately done for the glory of Him.

Nevertheless, Coles can awaken people to see that one act of care may wondrously beget an­other, whose benefits may change the lives of both the care-giver and the care-receiver for the better.

Certain Trumpets: The Call of Leaders

By Garry Wills

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Pages: 304

Price: $23

Review Author: Jeffrey Trapp

Garry Wills’s Certain Trum­pets is the latest contribution to the subject of leadership, books about which are frequently among the bestsellers. Wills presents a muddled, semi-anecdotal, semi-theoretical account, which will satisfy few.

His project is, of course, not to be dismissed lightly. One frequently hears of the “crisis of leadership” and, especially since Watergate, the character issue has loomed large, evolving from the noteworthy to the tawdry. But as our respect for our leaders decreases, our respect for “leadership” seems to increase. Wills wants to sort through these contradictory impulses by provid­ing us with a definition of leader­ship, along with 16 biographies of those he believes will help illustrate his definition. Each of the leaders presented is paired with an “antitype,” who supposedly did not share his better’s peculiar qualities of leadership.

I must warn that this book is painful reading. Wills writes with a condescending style that is downright nauseating. He is usually ei­ther flippant or too technical, and he saves his best prose for subjects like Madonna or Andrew Young, while he indulges in social-scien­tific claptrap to discuss grander figures like King David or George Washington. It is obvious whom Wills enjoyed writing about, and they are the trendiest heroes: Harriet Tubman, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Andrew Young.

Wills defines a leader as “one who mobilizes others toward a goal shared by leader and by followers.” The goal does not have to be good (Hitler was a leader), and it does not have to be lofty (businessmen are leaders). But once it is established that one is a leader, how should we evaluate that leader? As good or bad depending on his character? No, says Wills, in terms of his goals. The result is a series of shallow essays that ignore the interesting moral questions about his subjects.

Wills’s “value-free” approach is the source of most of his confu­sion. He never gets a handle on how a study of virtue relates to the study of leadership. Wills maintains that it is better for a leader to try to dis­cover the people’s desires than to try to direct them toward virtue; a leader is the first among equals, not an exemplary person elevating the masses. The problem is of course that one cannot lead to any signifi­cant extent if the direction is deter­mined by the followers.

Perhaps Wills stumbles upon a solution to his problem in his sketch of Dorothy Day and his discourse on “saintly” leadership. “This is the paradox of saintly lead­ers,” he says, “this kind of leader is the least accommodating to fol­lowers…. The ancient prophet must deliver the message God gives him, whether it has any effect or not.” This kind of leader shapes his followers; they become better by following him. They take their direction from him, not he from them. Wills cannot escape the fact that who this leader is is impor­tant, not just his goals. “The saint,” he says, “draws followers for what he or she is as well as for what he or she does.” Wills’s mis­take is in presenting this leader as just another type of leader rather than the prototype.

Wills’s own description of the saintly leader contradicts his asser­tions about the nature of leadership. We are drawn to a true leader because of his authentic authority and superior virtue, not because of what he guesses to be our desires. We care about his character. In the highest cases, we want him to change us as he has changed him­self or has been changed. Wills’s focus on goals obscures this truth and deflects attention from where it belongs: on what we need to learn from our greatest leaders, past and present, and, more im­portantly, how to obey.

Lives on the Edge: Single Moth­ers and Their Children in the Other America

By Valerie Polakow

Publisher: University of Chicago Press

Pages: 222

Price: $22.50

Review Author: Mary Meehan

Before I sound like a crank, complaining about what’s wrong with this book, let me first say what’s right about it.

Valerie Polakow cares deeply about poor women and their chil­dren. She admires the “spunkiness” of single mothers who struggle with the welfare sys­tem while trying to hold jobs and raise young children.

Those who judge welfare mothers unkindly should ponder Rose Haggerty, a poor woman from the 19th century whom Polakow quotes: “let God almighty judge who’s to blame most — I that was driven, or them that drove me to the pass I’m in.”

“Them that drove me” now include boyfriends who fail to take responsibility for their children, and parents who refuse to help their pregnant daughters.

Polakow explains the frustra­tions of dealing with a welfare sys­tem that, one young woman felt, is here “just to keep you right where you’re at — to be poor — to make you psychologically dependent.” She added: “they want you to work — but then they take away what you make and they cut you off just as you get going….”

What of the children of pov­erty? “Are they viewed as children at risk,” Polakow asks, “or as chil­dren of promise?” All too often the former, she believes. Polakow is right when she says that “a class­room can become a buffer world, firm ground on which to stand, a place to belong….” She describes two classrooms that fit this de­scription, including one where a saintly teacher is so kind to a troubled child that she may save the little girl’s whole future.

What, then, is wrong with the book? First, there’s a certain knee-jerk feminism about it. While Polakow notes cases of missing fa­thers, for example, she does not seem especially anxious to have them back in the picture. Nor does she suggest that many single mothers should change their own behavior. She describes “mothers of resilience rather than mothers of defeat.” But what about the stories she has not told? Do the “mothers of defeat” include, perhaps, some drug addicts and alcoholics and child abusers? Surely, men are not the only problems in the welfare picture.

I admire the spunky mothers, too, and I consider myself a “born feminist” (of the Feminists for Life schoob~ Yet feminism has become very tiresome with its one-sided presentation of reality.

Polakow resents suggestions that the unmarried should refrain from having sex. Instead, she proposes the same “solutions” that have done nothing to reduce the teenage pregnancy rate but have done so much to increase teenage promiscuity and socially approved homicide: “teen clinics that supply contraception” and abortion “as a choice for all.”

Second, Polakow — in one of those triumphs of hope over expe­rience — counts on the government to bail out all concerned. While she believes that govern­ment has failed in major ways with welfare and the schools, she none­theless believes that it can fix ev­erything by providing universal healthcare, housing, child allow­ances, national childcare, and so on. She does not place a price tag on all of this, or explain how it could be done by a government that is already hopelessly in debt. She fails to acknowledge that many non-welfare Americans are not too far above poverty them­selves. Taxes are extracted from them, too, like blood from so many turnips. It is a liberal illusion that we can have a mammoth govern­ment financed by taxes on the af­fluent alone. It is also illusory to think we can have a mammoth government that only does good things. The U.S. government has sponsored atrocities ranging from slavery and “Indian removal” to Hiroshima, abortion, and fetal re­search. Euthanasia is now waiting in the wings, anxious for its turn on stage. Anyone who wants to turn healthcare over to such a government really should stop and think things over.

Polakow is right when she suggests that many Americans have a double standard on welfare. She notes that many oppose wel­fare for single mothers, yet support unemployment compensation, a form of welfare. In fact, I recall sev­eral middle-class acquaintances who in the 1970s used unemploy­ment compensation for long, paid vacations; they were not looking for work, but pretended they were. Transferring assets, so parents can qualify for Medicaid in nursing homes while protecting their es­tates for their children, is another example of middle-class welfare. So are the farm subsidy program and many others.

We will never come to grips with the welfare problem until we face its true magnitude. Certainly, part of the solution is for individu­als and families to stop running away from their responsibilities.

Second Sight

By Robert V. Hine

Publisher: University of California Press

Pages: 222

Price: $20

Review Author: Christopher T. Dodson

Robert V. Hine was 50 when the effects of a childhood illness led to the loss of his eyesight. He spent the next 15 years in the world of the blind until surgery re­stored his sight. Second Sight is Hine’s account of his journey from sight into blindness and back to sight again. He does not hesitate to note the times when blindness is a hindrance and when there is no substitute for sightedness. Nor does he fail to recognize the unique world that only the blind can “see.”

Hine is a professor of history, and much of his story revolves around his efforts to continue his career despite his blindness. Inter­estingly, for example, he gave the impression of always having an entire lecture memorized when he was actually reading it from Braille-typed notes hidden in his pocket.

Upon regaining his sight, he saw a beauty in ordinary things that we usually fail to see. His jour­nal notes, for example, recount his first lecture after the operation: “When I entered the lecture room…I could see all [the stu­dents’] faces in front of me, tiered row upon row. The lights glowed. It took me a while to start, and then I could only say, ‘You’ll never know how beautiful you are.’ I couldn’t bring myself to explain anything more.”

I was a student in that class, and Professor Hine was right — we didn’t know how beautiful we were. For my part, I was beginning my last quarter before graduation, had already been accepted into law school, and was simply putting in my time. Except for one student whom I was dating, I didn’t know or care much about my class­mates. I’m sure I hardly looked at them. But Professor Hine saw us and saw beauty. He began to see what Walker Percy calls the “ex­traordinary ordinary.”

Perhaps this ability to see the uniqueness in the ordinary had a spiritual impact. Although Hine is careful not to minimize the experi­ences or abilities of the blind, he is honest about his feelings. He writes: “Diderot in the eighteenth century thought that the sighted have an easier time proving the existence of God because they can readily see the vast order created by his deistic Deity. Back we are again with that other stereotype of the poor, unfortunate blind, in this case not even able to discern their God. Yet somehow I feel…that my restored sight has brought me closer to the music of the spheres.”

Hine considers whether his regained sight was a miracle or the success of medical science. He states: “Call my sight, any sight, what you will; I know and feel ut­ter, overwhelming gratitude that cannot be far removed from a re­newed faith in a purpose larger than science itself.”

For some, Hine’s book will be more than a story of one person’s experience with blindness and sight. It will be a call to appreciate the order and the beauty in the or­dinary that escapes us, like the faces of those students when Hine recovered his sight.

The Great Church Year

By Karl Rahner

Publisher: Crossroad

Pages: 396

Price: $29.95

Review Author: David Hartman

Karl Rahner is arguably the most influential Catholic theolo­gian of the 20th century. But un­like some latter day theologians, his work was grounded in a deep spiritual life centered around prayer and arising from his con­suming love for God. Rahner did more than compose weighty tomes for the edification of his peers. He preached. And could Rahner preach! My, oh my, the man could preach.

The best of Rahner’s homilies and meditations have been com­piled in The Great Church Year. Arranged according to the Church year, it enables any interested Christian to sample Rahner’s thought, one homily at a time.

This is a very useful book. But it is much more than that. It is a splendid book, a beautiful book, a book to be cherished all of one’s life.

The Problem of Hell

By Jonathan L. Kvanvig

Publisher: Oxford Uni­versity Press

Pages: 182

Price: $24.95

Review Author: Brendan Sweetman

The traditional doctrine of Hell — which portrays Hell as a place “where some people are punished eternally with no possibility of es­cape” — is out of fashion. Although secularism and moral relativism are partially responsible for this, there is also a philosophical reason for the widespread rejection of the doc­trine: its apparent incompatibility with the perfect goodness and all-loving nature of God. As Jonathan Kvanvig argues, this is a moral ob­jection to Hell: If God is perfectly good and loving, then God could not permit eternal punishment to befall some people, because it is un­fair (not everyone is equally guilty) and unjust (not all sin, if any, de­serves infinite punishment).

However, one wonders if, in stating this objection, Kvanvig has not overemphasized the idea of God punishing people at the ex­pense of the key claim of the tradi­tional view: that if people freely choose estrangement from God, then God will grant them their wish. So, it is not clear that Kvanvig’s moral objection works. Yet, the traditional view does sug­gest that estrangement from God will involve serious punishment (or is the estrangement itself the punishment?), and it is against this point that Kvanvig also raises the moral objection.

His aim is to retain the doc­trine of Hell while avoiding eternal punishment. Kvanvig believes it would be improper to abandon the notion of Hell altogether, because to explain adequately the point of Christ’s intervention in history, it is necessary to offer some account of the destiny of humanity apart from salvation through Christ.

According to Kvanvig, the main problem with the traditional view is its retributive character, the emphasis on punishment and re­venge ultimately gives rise to the moral objection. What is required, Kvanvig holds, is what he calls an issuant conception of Hell, a con­ception of Hell which both issues from, and is required by, the nature of God. (One wonders whether the traditional view isn’t such an issuant conception of Hell!)

The doctrine of Hell provides an account of what happens to someone who rejects God. There are two possible views, according to Kvanvig — exile from God or annihilation by God. Kvanvig ar­gues in favor of annihilation, be­cause then Hell will not involve eternal suffering. In order to prove that annihilation is to be preferred to exile, Kvanvig argues that the freedom of an individual is more valuable than the existence of an individual. He points to capital punishment and suicide to illus­trate that freedom outweighs existence. He argues that life impris­onment can be worse than capital punishment, and that there are cases where suicide can be a ratio­nal choice for an individual, and where others are not justified in interfering. This shows, Kvanvig argues, that God’s loving nature requires not the eternal exile but the annihilation of a person who rejects God, and also that self-anni­hilation may result from a rational choice. However, in the last part of the book, Kvanvig highly qualifies even this view of Hell. For example, he suggests that Hell would result only from “a settled, rational” choice, and perhaps nobody ever rationally chooses Hell.

Kvanvig’s key argument is the move from conclusions about capital punishment and suicide to conclusions about the nature of Hell, and this transition is problem­atic. First, one can make a very strong argument that, however ra­tional suicide might appear in some cases, never is it moral to al­low suicide — and this is a strong Christian belief. Second, the rea­sons why some people would end up in Hell (i.e., why some people reject God) are not the same as the reasons why some people commit suicide. So even if it were rational for people to choose, and moral for us to allow, their suicide, it does not appear to follow that it would be rational for people to choose, and moral for God to grant, their annihilation (rather than eternal exile). So in the end, Kvanvig’s claim that Hell is annihilation and not eternal exile is not convincing.

Ecumenical Faith in Evangelical Perspective

By Gabriel Fackre

Publisher: Eerdmans

Pages: 230

Price: $17.99

Review Author: John Dool

For many, the joining of the terms “ecumenical” and “evangelical” seems unlikely, if not oxymoronic. The tendency among most non-evangelicals like myself is to see evangelicals as among the most insular of Christian groups. Gabriel Fackre’s book provides a corrective to this view. Fackre, who calls himself an evangelical ecumenical, accomplishes the difficult feat of writing simultaneously for two audiences: He shows ecumenicals what they have missed in their relative ignorance of evangelicals, and shows evangelicals that ecumenicals have not completely failed to en­gage evangelical thought.

Fackre, who wants to be true to evangelical principles while be­ing open to innovation, reveals the diversity in the evangelical com­munity, too often understood as monolithic. He lays out a typology of evangelical positions on biblical hermeneutics: All evangelicals agree that Scripture is authorita­tive, but disagree on how it is so. He does the same with political funda­mentalism, something we hear much about in the media but about which we learn little. Here again Fackre points to a broad spectrum of positions. He also notes the con­tradiction in much of political fun­damentalism between its expecta­tion of an imminent apocalypse and its political activism.

As a Catholic, I found Fackre’s book stimulating. I disagreed with him on some points, but this is a book that invites respectful, intelli­gent disagreement. Furthermore, it gives the non-evangelical the eyes to see a richness in the evangelical community, too often obscured by caricature.

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