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The Washington Post
Degrees of Separation
By Elizabeth Fox-Genovese
Why Women and Men Must
Join Forces to Achieve True Equality
By Cathy Young
Free Press. 360 pp. $ 25
JUST LIKE A WOMAN
How Gender Science Is Redefining
What Makes Us Female
By Dianne Hales
Bantam. 398 pp. $ 24.95
As the 1990s draw to a close, feminism, like many other movements of the 1960s, is facing scrutiny, most sternly from those who endorse much of the femi-nist agenda. From the start but especially since the battles over the ERA during the 1970s, conservatives have deplored and combated feminism and its policies. But the conservative opposition has done little to stem the feminist tide, and today a majority of Americans implicitly or explicitly support the core of the original feminist program, notably women's right to equal pay for equal work, equal access to promotion and credit, and equal educational opportunities. Many Americans also favor the right to abortion, easy (if not "no fault") divorce and swift prosecution of rape and domestic violence. The possibility that the Republicans will steal a march on the Democrats by becoming the first party to nominate a woman to run for president offers visible confirmation that few Americans wish to return to the world of the 1950s.
Today the more serious criticisms of feminism come from within rather than without the feminist ranks, and they cut a broad swathe. American feminists are challenging the legitimacy of making a distinction between men and women, al-though even they continue to invoke it when they believe it serves their inter-ests. But they refuse to countenance any difference between the sexes that would hold women responsible for specific social tasks, notably the nurture of chil-dren, and they take any evocation of women's distinct roles as proof of a male conspiracy to deprive women of full sexual, social, political and economic equality.
Most Americans, however, continue to wrestle with the question: What does "equality" or "equal rights" for women really mean? How much of it has already been achieved? Are further campaigns on its behalf warranted? If you credit feminist leaders, equality for women remains as elusive as ever. But to the many who recognize the visible gains women have made in a few decades, increasingly their claims ring hollow.
One indicator after another, as Cathy Young argues in Ceasefire, demonstrates dramatic improvement in women's position both absolutely and compared with men. Hence, it looks to Young as if the feminist leaders are waging a total, no-holds-barred war upon men in which their preferred weapons are the federal government and the law.
Young especially takes aim at the feminist inclination to depict all women as victims and all men as oppressors. Feminists, she argues, have secured a stran-glehold on our understanding of and public response to domestic violence, rape, and sexual harassment, insisting that, in each instance, the law must embody the presumption of men's aggression and women's innocence. In any instance, men may well be at fault and deserve punishment, but there are no grounds to assume that every woman who cries rape is, by definition, honest and objective. Deploring the feminist proclivity to beat men into submission, Young pushes for a new understanding between women and men -- a truce in the gender wars and a new commitment to cooperation between the genders.
Readers of Christina Hoff Sommers's Who Stole Feminism? and Naomi Wolf's Fire With Fire will recognize Young's line of argument, but Young pushes it further by venturing onto the terrain of men's and women's roles as parents. Young above all protests the feminists' determination to drag the state into the privacy of families, notably to free women from special responsibility to children. But demonstrably she shares their reluctance to imprison women within motherhood. If anything, she is more committed than they to full equality between women and men as parents. Feminists, she charges, cling to a perverse female chauvinism, according women a natural primacy as parents and a prima facie claim upon custody of children in the event of divorce.
The discussion of women's roles as mothers draws Young into the heart of the debate over the difference between women and men and exposes her deep reluctance to acknowledge its significance. Here, as throughout the book, she relies upon the variability among individuals to trump the difference between the sexes. Too sensible to deny difference entirely, she concedes a high probability that men and women will often tend to think and act like the other members of their sex, but she attaches more importance to the occasions on which they do not. Thus, she vigorously opposes any move to shape social policies in conformity with those tendencies, and doubts that we can expect much good from an armistice in the gender wars that "focuses on acceptance of collective but not individual difference. A world divided into pink and blue would be only marginally less op-pressive than a world of khaki uniforms."
In Just Like a Woman, Dianne Hales resolutely eschews politics of all kinds. An accomplished science writer, Hales focuses upon the implications of recent scientific research for our understanding of women and the ways in which they differ from men. She has a remarkable ability to translate complicated findings into accessible language and to ground them in the lives and experiences of women themselves, and a refreshing ability to do all of this without so much as a mention of feminism.
Yet her reticence about controversial topics should not be taken for a lack of interest. Hales's work is distinguished by her cheerful willingness to ac-knowledge forthrightly that the sexes do differ in significant ways. No more than Young does she believe that sexual difference should foreclose women's op-portunities, but her focus upon personal experience permits her a certain opti-mism. Hales believes that women should find strength and pleasure in their specific nature and that men, like her own husband, are adapting to women's expand-ing opportunities by picking up a larger share of domestic responsibility and child care.
In the end, notwithstanding differences in tone and focus, Young and Hales are on the same page. They are writing about the same upscale professional women for the same upscale professional audience. Hales may find the acknowledgment of sexual difference less threatening than Young does, but she shares her prefer-ence for individual rather than programmatic political solutions. Both know, as Young explicitly insists, that sexual intimacy is invariably messy and often conflicted. Neither wants or expects the government to referee women and men's private conflicts. Young's tone is more polemical, Hales's more conciliatory, but their agreement vastly overshadows the minor differences. Indeed, reading essentially the same story from such radically different perspectives, it is tempting to believe that we are all adjusting to the brave new world of gender equality, as indeed many of us are.
But ours is a story, as told by Young and Hales, that has yet to include less affluent Americans, single mothers, and too many children of all classes. Young and Hales cogently argue that cooperation between the sexes does not require a repudiation of difference and should benefit from a joyful acceptance of it. More likely than not, most American women agree. This new confidence in our ability to enjoy being women even as we compete in -- and help to shape -- "a man's world" introduces a welcome breath of sanity and humanity into the discus-sion and exposes recent feminist campaigns as partisan and shrill. But both Young and Hales maintain a cautious silence on the truly divisive issues, nota-bly abortion, maternity leave, federal funding for daycare, and women's roles in armed combat. That these issues are as likely to divide women among themselves as to divide women from men suggests that the most difficult struggles lie before us.
Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, who teaches at Emory University, is the author of Feminism Without Illusions.
March 07, 1999