Forbes Magazine

Wednesday, April 14, 1999

Is feminism finished?

By Jennifer Roback Morse
Forbes Magazine

"RATIONALIZATION IS MORE IMPORTANT than sex. Have you ever gone two weeks without a rationalization?"

Feminist excuses for the inexcusable Bill Clinton keep bringing this line from The Big Chill to mind. The gap between the reality of the current feminist leadership and its image of itself has widened to the point of being comical.

Feminism is not a movement of radical youth. It is not a noble coalition of embattled idealists, boldly carrying the flag through the dangerous waters of male chauvinism. No doubt, the self-proclaimed champions of American women enjoy thinking of themselves as caped crusaders, flying through society, defending women from every manner of injury and insult. But just because they find that pose gratifying is no reason the rest of us should humor them.

What, then, is feminism? It is the ideological veil for a political special interest group. This group is able to influence the outcomes of elections and legislative deliberations, and to generate patronage political appointments for its members and pork barrel projects for its constituents. The unprincipled behavior of the establishment feminists makes perfect sense when viewed in this light.

Feminism's success relies in no small part on the time-honored political expedient of patronage jobs.

What principle could enable the National Organization for Women to continue to support a President who is certainly as much a sexual harasser as Clarence Thomas? None. But this President provided NOW with appointments like Norma Cantu in the Department of Education, who places the most expansive interpretation on definitions of discrimination and harassment. These expansive definitions, in turn, create numerous opportunities for feminist attorneys to generate cases and earn legal fees. NOW, in essence, is in the business of supporting feminist ambulance-chasing. Clinton signs legislation that creates jobs in rape crisis centers, battered women's shelters and sensitivity-training centers. In short, he provides pork barrel projects.

The label "women's groups" has never been particularly accurate in describing feminist organizations like NOW. There are simply too many American women who do not and cannot associate themselves with its objectives. But by a clever trick of political labeling, feminists manage to position themselves as representatives of half the population, with all the clout and moral capital that such a designation entails.

Exploiting this moral capital, radical feminists have enjoyed remarkable success in entrenching themselves in American society. Their success relies in no small part on the time-honored political expedient of patronage jobs. A small army of people depends upon feminism in some fashion for its livelihood. Some professional feminists are deeply committed to feminism in its most radical form. Virtually every university in America houses some of them in women's studies departments. The expansive but vague civil rights laws have created a flock of "diversity consultants" and "sensitivity trainers" to protect corporations from lawsuits. Some of these people's commitment to radical feminism probably goes no deeper than their mortgage payments. No matter. Generating a class of people who depend on the movement for their livelihood is a measure of the success of a political movement.

Don't get me wrong: Feminists have as much right to participate in the political process as anyone else. They have a right to organize politically, to try to elect candidates and to get their share of federal pork. My only gripe is that they pose as moral crusaders, whose motives are above question. In my view, their proposals are entitled to an ordinary hearing, not a privileged hearing.

We would all do ourselves a favor by taking a more hard-nosed look at the arguments and the behavior of the self-appointed spokeswomen for American women. Imagine, for instance, if the press treated feminists with the same scrutiny with which they treat other special interest groups, like the National Rifle Association or the tobacco lobby. Why not ask feminists the pointed questions they ask of businesses? When reporting on discrimination cases, don't just reprint the plaintiffs' press release. Ask how much the attorney stands to collect in fees.

Feminism as a moral force is finished. Its leadership's disgraceful defense of the President assures that. All that remains is the feminist establishment.

Jennifer Roback Morse is a Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution. E-mail:

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