Kathryn Olivarius’s column last Friday (“Back off, faux feminists,” Oct. 29), enthusiastically upbraided “conservative feminists” in the mold of Sarah Palin and Christine O’Donnell. But it did little to illuminate the real disagreements between liberal and conservative claimants to the title of feminism. Instead, it was an exhibition of half-arguments and complacent assumptions, which illustrated, above all else, the intellectual laziness that so animates social discourse on Yale’s campus.
Throughout the op-ed, the author mistook assertion for argument, almost always choosing to breezily dismiss rather than engage with the positions of those conservative women with whom she disagrees. She implied that Palin is guilty of inconsistency for holding a pro-life stance on abortion while supporting the war in Iraq and the use of the death penalty. The equivalence is obviously false; those who support the war and the death penalty do so not out of wanton disrespect for human life, but for the sake of certain other goals — namely, national and domestic security — which hardly relate to the question of abortion.
In another place, Olivarius stated correctly that Senator Harry Reid’s Republican opponent, Sharron Angle, is against abortion even when the pregnancy is a result of rape or incest. What Olivarius did not do was put forward a reason why Angle’s opinion should be considered anti-feminist. Given that Olivarius had already (albeit with much hesitation) declared that the feminist tent is open to pro-lifers, such an explanation would have been welcome — just as she would have done well to explain why O’Donnell cannot “celebrate her femininity” while at the same time “opposing masturbation, homosexuality, the existence of female soldiers in the army, the legality of contraception and especially the legality of abortion.” If there is a contradiction, it’s not self-evident.
Despite Olivarius’s tepid acceptance of pro-life feminism and her assertion that feminism “means a lot of different things to a lot of people,” her basic attitude — that feminists’ goal of “achieving gender equality” commits them to social and sexual liberalism — is too easy of a conclusion. For “equality” is also a word with many meanings, and it wouldn’t be impossible for a conservative feminist like O’Donnell to argue that her notions of gender norms are perfectly egalitarian. The charges about masturbation and homosexuality are particularly easy to rebut; after all, she’s against them for men as much as women.
What really lies behind O’Donnell’s “feminism” — and conservative feminism in general — is the truly radical belief that men and women can have different and complementary roles without either being higher or lower than the other. When O’Donnell says she “celebrates her femininity,” she is asserting that femininity is something different from masculinity but equally necessary and noble, and that part of what needs to be celebrated in femininity is the miracle of fertility. (Hence, though not exclusively hence, her opposition to contraception and abortion.) This attitude is not self-evidently correct, but neither is it obviously false; it simply represents a fundamentally different understanding of equality from the liberal feminist one.
Though she didn’t offer a definition of gender equality, Olivarius seems to have understood the term as largely synonymous with “gender sameness.” This is the surest way to explain her reflexive certitude that, say, opposing admitting women to military academies is an anti-feminist position, without so much as weighing the arguments that O’Donnell has put on the record. Those arguments are both pragmatic and aesthetic: she worries that co-ed combat training will distract the male students, and that it will erode the differences that, as she has put it, “are what make the relationship between men and women beautiful.”
It would take a longer space than I have left to explore, in any meaningful depth, the arguments for and against the conservative feminists’ attachment to gender norms. I simply hope to leave readers with the impression that there exists a real argument worth having: that which understanding of gender equality is “better” is up for debate.
Here at Yale, alas, we are too ready to take the question as settled. Enlightened intellectuals that we are, we deny in theory and practice that there are any significant differences between the sexes, save the physiological (for however long that lasts). The one exception — that we recognize that men are likelier to be the perpetrators of sexual violence, and women its victims — was recently the subject of a spate of editorials on this page, following a spectacle of vicious buffoonery on Old Campus. Perhaps that recognition should lead us to ponder whether other, less adversarial differences exist as well.
Bijan Aboutorabi is a sophomore in Trumbull College.