The Death of Feminism: What’s Next in the Struggle for Women’s Freedom

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The Death of Feminism: What’s Next in the Struggle for Women’s Freedom
Regular Contributor
By Nathan Alexander

After a decade of jousting with racist “shades,” campus multiculturalists now have a corporeal enemy: feminists. A review of Phyllis Chesler’s recent book, The Death of Feminism.

The Death of Feminism: What’s Next in the Struggle for Women’s Freedom
by Phyllis Chesler
Palgrave-MacMillan, 2005
Hdbk., 256 pgs.
ISBN: 1403968985

Since the late seventies, “race fever”1 has gripped the Ivory Tower. The usual humdrum associated with scholarly inquiry — sifting through yellowing documents, ruminating over matters abstruse and arcane –was replaced with the aggressive accusation that one’s opponent (or subject) was “racist.” To the ancient philosopher’s question, “How do I know the world,” the Ivory Tower replied, “I don’t know about that, but I do know it’s racist.” Schools of thought which once commanded the allegiance of intellectuals — Marxism, Indo-European languages, Surrealism (not least of all, conservatism) — were now dismissed by pious allegations that their founders possessed some form of racial prejudice. Marxism failed, not because capitalism triumphed, but because Marx said unpleasant things about Jews. The idea of an “Indo-European” language family could not be correct — because it excluded other languages from the family (the connection between this and “racism,” I confess, remains unclear to me, too). And so on. Indeed, entire countries and even continents were eliminated from the burden of being understood by this newfound verbal artillery. The late Edward Said, honored as president of the Modern Language Association, managed to dispatch all of Western Civilization as racist in a mere 300 pages. In fact, such was the enthusiasm academics felt for launching accusations of racist impiety (usually at one another) that the pedestrian mind, able to grasp the evil of a particular racist act, was rarely forgiven for being unable to grasp how such an accusation might be liberally splashed across an entire culture or epoch.

While the struggle against racism proved to unify much of campus thought, campus victories proved unfulfilling. The problem was that there was no one to fight.2 Indeed, the most obvious target, white males, were often the most vociferous — and visible — militants leveling accusations (for which, a cynic might point out, they might receive tenure and other accolades). The crusaders against racism in academia were an army without an infidel — though not for long.

It is in this tendentious climate that Phyllis Chesler has written her most recent book, The Death of Feminism. “Someone must tell the truth,” she writes, “about how feminists have failed their own ideals and their mandate to think both clearly and morally.” “Multicultural feminism has led to conformity, totalitarian thinking and political passivity.” And this passivity begins in the academy, where, under the influence of postmodernism,3 “ideology is often disassociated with reality and from activism.” Chesler argues without irony that academic feminists need to prioritize feminist ideals and spend less energy attacking feminists who speak out for women’s rights in non-western cultures. The struggle against racism, lacking any opponent, had found an enemy in those who speak out for women’s rights.

The phenomenon known as postmodernism was largely a conceit of French (or rather Parisian) intellectuals in the late sixties and early seventies. It made a brief appearance at Yale University in the late seventies — and quickly died.4 Its rhetoric, however, was expeditiously (mis)appropriated by America’s race warriors, who employed it to conjure up their much needed campus opponent.

Postmodernism in its American habitat generally served as an excuse to “expose” the racism that underlay the very texts which academics had naively taught their students for generations. Books that academics had previously deemed sacred were revealed, by postmodern theory, to be infected with a spectral racism which required exhumation and exorcism. The task required constant vigilance (through publications in abstruse journals), but was not overly divisive. After all, it’s one thing to expose someone who has been dead for 900 years as a racist, quite another to raise the wages of your minority employees to a decent level. While the nature of postmodern incantation was never clear (Franco-Teutonic jargon was used to summon and then dispel the spirits of racism), the outcome was never in doubt: the racism of writers from Shakespeare to Jane Austin to Helen Keller would be held up to the light of academic piety so that all might collectively hold their noses.

The Death of Feminism is not an “academic book,” if by that is meant impersonal prose and scholarly references. Chesler speaks frequently from her own experience, both as an academic feminist and as the wife of an Afghani Muslim who lived briefly in Afghanistan. She relates conversations with Muslim women, who are aghast at an American feminist establishment which seems to be more interested in not incurring the displeasure of their male masters. She writes of Muslim women in America, who face persecution because local law enforcement does not wish to upset male-dominated Muslim communities. Her stories are horrifying — and seemingly endless.

Misogynistic Islamic attitudes towards women are being secured in America’s courts system today under the guise that Islam is “persecuted.” Chesler writes of Muslim scholar, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross Ali Khan of Washburn University in Kansas, who argues that exposing the abuse of women in America’s Islamic communities should be against the law. In a recent publication, Professor Ali Khan argues that Islam is a form of intellectual property, hence its adherents have the right to protect its “integrity” from “innovations, repudiation, internal, disrespect, and external assaults.” In such situations, Chesler argues, “Islamic Shari’a law would actually replace American law when it came to those identified (by whom?) as Muslims.” Where is feminism when it comes to Muslim women, Chesler asks. It’s busy trying not to offend “Muslim culture,” so as not to appear “racist.”

Chesler’s critique of the new academic “male Muslim sensitive” feminism goes beyond a debate of ideas. Many of these “institutional feminists,” she argues, lack the psychological independence and objectivity that was an ideal of the early feminist critic. Academic feminism’s unwillingness to even entertain the realities that Chesler and other Muslim women underwent and continue to experience in Islamic countries is less an intellectual choice than a pathology. She relates that several “feminists” from Columbia University today insist that feminists must focus on the “colonial legacy” of third world countries rather than ongoing abuses to women. Chesler is incredulous. Part of the legacy of patriarchy was putting its own agenda (be it God, country or apple pie) before the rights of women. Where does the allegiance of Columbia feminism lie?

Chesler is trained as a psychologist, and her sharp critique of academic feminism does not stop at accusations of political opportunism. Why is it, she asks, that feminists who “receive tenure, promotion and funding tend to be pro-abortion, pro-pornography, pro-prostitution (pro-sex worker), anti-colonialist, anti-imperialist and anti-American?” She believes it has to do with simple conformity: “Those who get ahead within institutions tend to be politicians and bureaucrats and not independent thinkers. They are loyal to their careers and to their cliques, not to the truth.” Today within academic feminism, “true dissent and diversity are gone.” The university offers no resistance to values anathema to feminists. While it is hard to gauge what influence the powerful pornography industry or Islamic militancy has on academic feminism, it is undoubtedly a reality. And while there is something wrong, Chesler says, with Playboy claiming to be supportive of “pro-pornography feminists,” it seems clear that there are academic feminists willing to make Islam and Playboy part of their portfolio. The issue here is not truth, but the accommodation of power. And if “feminists” are no longer willing to speak to the problems of individual women — especially out of deference to, for instance, Islamic male patriarchy — to what degree is this feminism worthy of the name?

Chesler’s anger with academic feminism comes from the clash of priorities between modern ethnic “group thinking” (which largely defined itself by accusing its opponents of “racism”) and individualistic feminism. Ethnic thinking substituted the need for racial solidarity for the particular needs of individuals — including women. Chesler finds it appalling that a woman may be beaten in an Islamic country — and Columbia University’s feminists rush to defend the perpetrators so as to not “perpetuate the racism of 19th century colonialism.” Today, by speaking out on behalf of women, Chesler is in danger of being accused of racism.

While most Americans were indifferent to the convulsive righteousness of some of their children’s professors, the same cannot be said for the Iranian mullahs. Glancing away from their appropriately veiled women for a few moments, they quickly absorbed the significance of the promiscuous application of the term “racist” by America’s cultural representatives. Donning the guise of scholarship, they were able to dispel several centuries of western approbation towards the dictatorial Pasha and his harem.5 The mullahs were quick to point out (citing postmodern academics employed at American universities, no less) that it was not they who oppressed women. It was the racism of the westerner which oppressed the mullah.

While few accepted the mullahs’ argument, the issue forced western academics to choose whether they would continue the long standing western tradition of “judging a civilization based upon how it treats its women;”6 or reducing western civilization to “racism.” It is unclear at present which stand academics will take. It is clear that after a decade of jousting with racist “shades,” campus multiculturalists now have a corporeal enemy: feminists.

The Death of Feminism returns to a question that was at the heart of Chesler’s previous book, The New Anti-Semitism. Encountering the crude ethnic thinking that lay at the heart of modern anti-Semitism, she courageously was led to question how useful it continued to be to use the idea of “Jewishness” in a similar “ethnic” fashion. The Death of Feminism asks something similar about the concept “woman.” What happens when the concept itself is used by academic feminists to prevent criticism of the abuse of women? In both cases, Chesler seems to suggest that a return to individualism, a skepticism towards ideological thinking, and a willingness to debate ideas seriously may prove the best safeguards for the preservation of both Judaism and feminism.

The Death of Feminism concludes by proposing how feminist criticism should engage the Islamic world. First, Chesler insists that academic feminists should pay attention to gender issues in the Islamic world: the “legacy of colonialism” should not serve as a “battered third world shelter” for Islamic patriarchy. Second, feminism has a positive role to play in Islamic countries as they begin to entertain equality seriously: feminism must pursue the “psychological relationship between voting, gender and democracy” to ensure that there is a reality behind the rhetoric of equality. This means that scholars should pay careful attention to the psychological reality behind ideological thinking and truth. Third, feminists should not hold one another to be above criticism: there is a “feminine tendency to minimize woman’s inhumanity to women,” she writes.

The Death of Feminism is vintage Chesler. It is written in an over the top style and when you’re not strongly agreeing with her insights, you are irritated by her hyperbole. Chesler doesn’t help her cause by citing tendentious sources in making some of her claims or by going on about the alleged prevalence of homosexuality and pederasty among Arab communities. Sometimes her outrage at the intolerance of the Islamic world strikes one as less Western or even American than Manhattan. The book’s main point, that academic feminism seems to have more in common with patriarchical Islam, is made relentlessly and without apology. Nevertheless, Chesler is not really calling for an end to feminism; rather, a regime change.

11-21-2006 06:20 PM

Re: The Death of Feminism: What’s Next in the Struggle for Women’s Freedom

The article is understandable, even though it says the book isn’t.
I haven’t read many of the references made, I’m not a college educated person. But I do agree that large groups have a tendancy to get so concerned with what’s PC and not offending anyone that they forget what they were fighting for in the first place. Time to get back to the roots.

01-08-2007 12:43 PM

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