As new college graduates across America — nearly 6 out of 10 of them female — collect their diplomas, this is a good time to ponder what today’s university teaches young women, and men, about gender and society. Many generations of feminists fought for equal education, starting in an era when it was widely believed that higher learning for women was not just unnecessary but harmful. It is a battle that, by any standard, has been a brilliant success. But some feminist ideologues seem determined to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
Consider the recent controversy at the University of Connecticut after senior Carolyn Luby, a women’s, gender, and sexuality studies major, assailed the school’s revamped athletics logo in an open letter to UConn President Susan Herbst. The new Husky image had been praised for its “powerful and aggressive” look. Luby found this to be a terrifying reminder that “the face of real life UConn athletics is . . . capable of frightening college women.” This indictment of some 300 male athletes was based on two incidents in the past year: a domestic violence charge against a basketball player (who was at once suspended from the team), and another athlete’s “breach of peace” arrest over a yelling and shoving match with his girlfriend (who was also arrested).
Luby’s fellow students rallied to her side after she was targeted by the right-wing media and received abusive e-mails. Of course no one should be harassed for expressing an opinion. But this does not change the fact that Luby’s letter reflects a demeaning (to both sexes) view of women as powerless, ever-intimidated victims of dangerous men — at a school headed by a woman and boasting one of the nation’s top women’s athletics programs.
Sadly, it also reflects a mindset all too prevalent in the feminist classroom. Author Jessica Valenti credits a women’s studies class for teaching her that women live on a constant “rape schedule” — a hyperbolic metaphor for precautions against sexual assault. Never mind that men are hardly safe from violence, or that in a 2011 Washington Post poll women were only slightly more likely than men to worry about being victims of a violent crime. No one disputes women’s far greater vulnerability to sex crimes, but how “feminist” is it to turn it into the dominant fact of their lives?
A leading gender-studies textbook, “The Gendered Society” by State University of New York sociologist Michael Kimmel, offers young women a constant litany of how victimized they are by patriarchy and men more generally. Girls experience “systematic demolition of [their] self-esteem [and] denigration of their abilities” (in fact, claims about teenage girls’ self-esteem drop are strongly disputed by mainstream psychologists, and girls now outperform boys academically at every level). Women are so brutalized by men that “domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women in the nation” (in fact, government health statistics show women suffer about five times as many injuries from accidental falls and twice as many from car accidents as from all violence). Working women lose nearly half a million dollars in a lifetime to pay inequity (in fact, much of that gap is due to educational and employment choices the text barely mentions).
While not many students take gender-studies courses, their dispiriting and polarizing message seeps into other fields. It is also amplified by extracurricular programs, from student life workshops that convey a skewed, blame-the-males view of gender relations to performances of “The Vagina Monologues,” whose main focus is not female sexual empowerment but female victimhood.
The academy is a place to discuss and explore ideas — which makes the intellectual corruption of campus feminism especially unfortunate. Unlike many conservatives, I believe there are still important ideas and issues to explore when it comes to gender equality, from work-family balance to attitudes toward sexuality to stereotyped media images. But for such discussion to be productive, it must be free of dogma, committed to fact, and open to different sides of complex issues. And it must be willing to recognize that not all gender-based biases disadvantage women, or are perpetuated by men.
Unfortunately, at present, academic feminism fails on all of these counts — to the detriment of women and men alike.
Cathy Young is a columnist at Newsday and RealClearPolitics.com.