Last week, President Obama awarded a whole bunch of people, including Gloria Steinem, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Cathy Young is unhappy with this development, because Steinem, Cathy says, represents the very worst of feminism.
What’s most striking about Cathy’s list of seven ways Steinem is just sooooooo awful is how incredibly petty a lot of the list is. Cathy’s implicit, ludicrous thesis is that it’s wrong to honor a public figure for their fifty-one year career if they’ve ever made a mistake.
Although Cathy calls for an end to “gender warriors,” is her own approach – one-sided as a prosecutor, nuanced as a jackhammer – going to lead to a better conversation? Does Cathy genuinely believe that Steinem has done nothing in fifty years that justifies honoring her?
I have mixed feelings about Steinem myself. She’s from a generation of white feminists that really didn’t grapple enough with racism, homophobia, and trans bigotry.1 And her anti-porn ideology led her to flirt with censorship, something I disagree strongly with (and said so often during the 80s and 90s, when feminist anti-porn censorship was, you know, a live issue). Worse, like many radical feminists, Steinem was taken in by “Satanic Ritual Abuse” hoaxes, and lent her celebrity and name to that disgusting cause. (Cathy calls Steinem out on both these matters, and I agree with her.)
But although there are legit criticisms to be made of Steinem, for the most part Cathy engages in criticisms that are wrong, petty, or both. Cathy writes:
In 1997, interviewed for John Stossel’s ABC News special, “Boys and Girls Are Different: Men, Women and the Sex Difference,” Steinem derided scientific research on sex differences in brain functioning as “anti-American crazy thinking.”
Actually, we have very little idea what Steinem was responding to when she said “anti-American crazy thinking,” because Stossel is famous for distorting through out of context quotes. Steinem’s quote might have been, as Cathy says, talking about all research on sex differences in brain functioning. Or maybe she was talking about all sex differences research, as Stossel claimed in his book, although in that book he (bizarrely) attributed the quote to Heritage’s Kate O’Beirne. Or maybe – to give Steinem the benefit of the doubt, something neither Stossel or Cathy cares to do – she was criticizing a particular study, not an entire field of study. We just don’t know, because (afaik) Stossel has never made the unedited footage public.
She also suggested that upper-body strength tests requiring firefighters to lift heavy loads were sexist. What about situations when firefighters have to carry injured or unconscious people out of burning buildings? Steinem insisted, with a straight face, that it was better to drag them, since “there’s less smoke down there.”
I love that phrase “with a straight face,” as if saying there’s less smoke near the floor is so profoundly ridiculous it doesn’t even require rebuttal, merely a sarcastic sneer. Cathy’s certainly not alone in believing that: Steinem’s statement that dragging is preferable to carrying has been brought up again and again and again by anti-feminists, and has become sort of a canonical example of what fools these feminists are.
From Wikipedia (emphasis added):
The technique was commonly used by firefighters to carry injured or unconscious people away from danger, but has been replaced in firefighting due to the drawback that smoke and heat are greater higher up, and may be fatal to the person being carried.[...]
Currently, the technique preferred in firefighting involves dragging a person by the shoulders or upper clothing in a supine position across the floor or ground. This uses the rescuer’s upper legs (the strongest muscles in the body) to push against the floor for leverage in order to pull the person towards an exit. This technique is also easier for rescuers who may be younger or of smaller size or stature. In addition, dragging, especially feet first, helps avoid stressing a potentially injured spine.
If you don’t believe Wikipedia, here’s Brenda Berkman, a career firefighter and Captain in the NYC fire department, discussing “the test” when her career began: (pdf link):
I decided to take the test and as Richard said, I trained very hard for the test, I was a marathon runner. I went out and chopped wood. I carried my husband up and down the stairs of our apartment building.
No joke – and of course you know in reality firefighters don’t put victims up on their shoulders and carry them around in fires. We drag them out, and usually more than one of us drags them out.
That’s one of only many things that were part of the then current New York City Fire Department tests that had absolutely nothing to do with the way that we perform the job of firefighting, and in many cases were just put in there because a bunch of guys sitting around a table thought, “Hm, you know, my daughter can run a mile in eight minutes, therefore we have to make the pass mark for the mile run seven minutes.” That was the way that the job validation was going on in 1975, 1976 when they were developing the first tests that women were going to be allowed to take.
So Steinem was arguably correct in everything she said. But Cathy, and anti-feminists in general, can’t be bothered to do five seconds of Googling to find that out.
Cathy also says it’s wrong to honor Steinem because Steinem is supportive of men in theory, but refers to “actual” men as “dangerous brutes.” Cathy’s evidence:
In her 1992 book, Revolution from Within: A Book of Self-Esteem, Steinem writes, “The most dangerous situation for a woman is not an unknown man in the street, or even the enemy in wartime, but a husband or lover in the isolation of their own home.”
That’s not really a very damning quote, is it? Note that Cathy doesn’t make the slightest attempt to refute Steinem’s quote; like the fireman’s carry, Cathy believes Steinem’s quote refutes itself.
But look at the quote in context (page 261). Steinem was talking about crime statistics. Shouldn’t Cathy have told her readers that?
Statistically, the man most likely to physically attack or even murder a woman is not a stranger, but someone to whom she is romantically attached. The most dangerous situation for a woman is not an unknown man in the street, or even the enemy in wartime, but a husband or lover in the isolation of their own home.
Is Steinem right? It seems clear that American women – the subject of Steinem’s book – have little to fear from invading hostile forces. (That bit seems like overblown rhetoric, frankly.) But for the rest, Steinem seems on the money, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (pdf link):
• Females are generally murdered by people they know. In 64% of female homicide
cases in 2007, females were killed by a family member or intimate partner. In 2007, 24% of female homicide victims were killed by a spouse or ex-spouse; 21% were killed by a boyfriend or girlfriend; and 19% by another family member.
• In an additional 25% of cases in 2007, females were killed by others they knew. An estimated 10% of female murder victims were killed by a stranger.
Surely Cathy isn’t saying that Steinem is anti-male, and shouldn’t be honored, for correctly reporting uncontroversial crime statistics. Wait – that’s exactly what Cathy said. Oy.
By the way, as far as Google can tell, I am the first person on the entire internet to quote that “most dangerous situation for a woman” passage with context. The context-free version Cathy used is online thousands of times, nearly always in the writings of anti-feminists.
For instance, in Christina Hoff Sommers’ anti-feminist blockbuster Who Stole Feminism?, Sommers writes:
Gender feminist ideology holds that physical menace toward women is the norm. The cause of battered women has been a handy bandwagon for this creed. Gloria Steinem’s portrait of male-female intimacy under patriarchy is typical: “Patriarchy requires violence or the subliminal threat of violence in order to maintain itself…. The most dangerous situation for a woman is not an unknown man in the street, or even the enemy in wartime, but a husband or lover in the isolation of their own home.”
Sommers took a partial sentence from page 259 of Steinem’s book, put it next to a sentence about crime statistics from page 261, and then pretended the two separate passages formed a single thought. Of course, all writers use ellipsis – but it’s dishonest to use ellipses to change the meaning, as Sommers does.2
Speaking of Sommers, Cathy cites Who Stole Feminism? on anorexia mortality:
Steinem’s dissemination of faux facts is not limited to distant history. In Revolution from Within, she asserts that 150,000 women and girls in the United States die from anorexia every year — multiplying the actual number by about 1,000. (As Christina Hoff Sommers documented in her 1994 book, Who Stole Feminism?, the claim of a 150,000 death toll was based on a feminist professor’s mangling of a statistic referring to anorexia sufferers.)
To recap: Cathy is now arguing that it’s inappropriate for Steinem to be honored for her fifty-year career of fighting for women’s rights and equality because on page 222 of a minor book written in 1992, Steinem quoted a statistic someone else had messed up.
The same book discusses an alleged crisis in girls’ self-esteem based on a single shoddy study from the American Association of University Women.
Did Cathy actually read her link? The writer, Amy Salzman, doesn’t call the AAUW study “shoddy,” although she points out that the findings are stronger for appearance-based self-esteem than other areas. (Salzman also calls Christina Hoff Sommers’ critique of AAUW “bad science.”)
That aside, does Cathy seriously believe that because a 1992 book referred to a 1991 study by the AAUW that Cathy dislikes, it would be wrong for Gloria Steinem to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom?
What next – we can’t give Steinem the Medal of Freedom because big sunglasses?
Cathy goes on:
Steinem’s solidarity with women stops at the party line. In 1993, she flew to Texas to campaign against then-Senate candidate Kay Bailey Hutchison, a moderate pro-choice Republican, and slammed her as “a female impersonator.”
The “female impersonator” line was appalling, and transphobic. (Steinem recently apologized for her past
support history of transphobia.)
But for the rest of it – what? Cathy seems to be saying believe that Steinem is required by feminism to judge candidates on their sex, rather than their political views. But feminism doesn’t require that sort of blatant sexism. In fact, if Steinem said what Cathy just said, Cathy would be the first to point out the sexism.
Cathy’s article is petty, poorly thought out, and substitutes sarcasm for argument. To say that it’s wrong to honor someone’s lifetime of achievement and activism because they quoted a bad statistic in 1992 shows only that Cathy, when it comes to feminism, lacks a sense of proportion.
Gloria Steinem is not someone I agree with on everything. She’s a radical feminist, and I’m a liberal feminist with dashes of socialist feminism, and basically it’s Judean People’s Front versus People’s Front of Judea time. But giving the Medal of Freedom to the most prominent living representative of feminism’s second wave seems appropriate. Steinem, unlike Cathy, seems to have a pretty healthy perspective on what this award means. As Steinem said of the award, “I’d be crazy if I didn’t understand that this was a medal for the entire women’s movement.”
- Actually, neither has the current generation of us. [↩]
- By the way, I just asked three very smart, well-educated feminists if they could say who wrote the book Revolution From Within. None of them had a clue, or had heard of the book. It’s a minor and largely forgotten work, among feminists. But because Christina Hoff Sommers had the book at her elbow for quote-mining while writing Who Stole Feminism?, the book – or, rather, a few selected out-of-context quotes from the book – perpetually lives on among anti-feminists. I think that’s hilarious. [↩]