Feminists, Puritans, and Statists

Kaminer, Wendy

FEMINISM'S ideological diversity makes fools of those who generalize grandly about the movement, but many critics are undeterred. A foolish view of feminists as a monolithic group of male...

...The drive to lessen sexual violence and bring some solace to its victims also aligned many activists with right-wing advocates of law and order in their efforts to restrict the rights of men accused of rape...
...Statism is a predictable temptation for civil rights activists, but among racial minorities it may be tempered by mistrust of prosecutors and police, grounded in hard experience...
...In part, the pundits relied on tenacious, popular caricatures of combat-booted harridans or spinsters...
...DISSENT / Spring 1999 n 15...
...The feminist movement has always been torn between demands for individual autonomy and the collective advancement of women...
...Perhaps the spectacle of the Starr investigation will awaken some feminists to the horrors of a prosecutorial state, with no respect for sexual privacy...
...Lately, autonomy has been in disrepute, associated with selfishness and anomie...
...He has been the victim of the kind of prosecutorial excesses his administration encouraged...
...It's no wonder that many feminists have looked upon the state more as a partner than a potential oppressor...
...Is it naive to hope that impeachment will revive respect for it...
...Yet many white women probably do...
...African Americans in New York City today are not apt to feel protected by police...
...Reviewing the prosecutions of Susan McDougal and Julie Hiaat Steele and the coercion of Monica Lewinsky, perhaps some will reconsider...
...Civil liberties and civil rights do sometimes conflict (consider the debate to regulate verbal workplace harassment), but intelligent activists can entertain and balance conflicting ideals...
...Clinton didn't betray feminists by fooling around with Lewinsky...
...It's true that before the passage of rape-shield laws some twenty years ago, complaining witnesses in rape cases were subject to brutal interrogations of their own irrelevant sexual histories (not entirely unlike the interrogations of defendants in harassment cases today...
...But, in fact, there have always been strains of puritanism within the women's movement, and in the past decade they have become quite pronounced...
...They can recognize the difference between government regulation of corporate or institutional behavior in the public sphere and the regulation of individual sexual proclivities or speech...
...But to suggest, as some activists do, that we should reflexively "believe the 14 n DISSENT / Spring 199 THOUGHTS AFTER IMPEACHMENT women" in rape cases is to endorse conviction by accusation and imbue prosecutors with awesome, unconstitutional power...
...Clinton's impeachment dramatized their dangers...
...As individuals, white women may have been treated unjustly, even cruelly, by law enforcement officials when they reported sexual assaults or beating by their husbands...
...They responded under force of law...
...Neither colleges and universities nor the marketplace responded voluntarily to women's demands for equality...
...Where did they get this idea...
...The feminist movement has always included civil libertarians and even libertines, but it has never really been defined by them, partly because so much historic progress for women has been secured through the intervention of the state: the criminal law gradually began punishing rape and other forms of abuse (within or outside of marriage), and civil rights laws have provided women with unprecedented educational and professional opportunities...
...But, as a class, they have virtually no history of being systematically brutalized by police or wrongfully prosecuted and convicted of crimes on account of their sex...
...The personalization of politics, the devaluation of privacy (long associated with family violence), and the prosecution of sexual sins have all been advocated by some feminists who locate female oppression in male freedom...
...Clinton has championed restrictions on due process and expansions of unaccountable police power...
...Confusing feminism with a sexual-purity movement, they naturally pronounced all of us guilty of hypocrisy for not abandoning Clinton, embracing Paula Jones, and fretting about the victimization of Lewinsky...
...M ISTRUSTING the state and embracing or at least appreciating liberty does not require feminists to abandon their drive for civil rights...
...WENDY KAMINEFt, a public policy fellow at Radcliffe College, is president of the National Coalition Against Censorship...
...Rejecting traditional feminine roles, feminists have always been dismissed by some as "anti-sex" or "unnatural...
...His politics, not his personal life, is what should make feminists shudder...
...They can demand restrictions on the power of the state when it is turned against individuals...
...A foolish view of feminists as a monolithic group of male bashers and prudes was eagerly adopted by impeachment pundits...
...In recent years, the media may have focused on sexuality debates because of their prurient appeal, but one popular school of feminist thought did identify the vigorous prosecution of sexual misconduct (and censorship of pornography) as essential to equality...
...The most predatory male in the impeachment saga was Ken Starr, not Bill Clinton...
...He betrayed the principles of liberty for which feminists should stand when he advocated and signed legislation drastically limiting appeals of wrongful state court convictions, expediting the summary deportations of legal immigrants and allowing for secret trials of suspected terrorists...
...It was as if women's-rights advocates had no mission but the policing of male sexual behavior, as if securing reproductive choice, economic equity, and political power were afterthoughts to the elimination of harassment and adultery...
...I suspect that middle-class white women, who populate the feminist movement, are more likely to see themselves as crime victims, allied with the state, than as suspects, wrongly accused...
...perhaps it will inject the movement with renewed regard for liberty, even when it is utilized by men...

Vol. 46 • April 1999 • No. 2


 
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