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“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Saturday, December 31, 2011

What Would Make Me a Feminist: Response to Comments and Criticisms

            My argument is that there is an important distinction between women’s rights as a goal and feminism as an ideology. I support women’s rights, though I prefer to advocate for universal human rights without exclusion or demarcation. The feminist ideology, however, is far too problematic for me to identify with. I write this fully aware that feminism has various strains.

            Feminism, in my experience, relies on an insultingly crude dialectic: men, women, and patriarchy. This formula leads to some facile and incendiary assumptions and claims. In my first post, I argued that too many feminists fly into rages over the income gap, even though differences in wages are the result of many complex factors and the role of discrimination may be vanishingly small. There is a report of a study that found 6.9 % of the income gap in 2004 was unaccounted for by other factors stemming from different preferences. But eight months after the paper was covered, it has yet to be published, suggesting it failed to make it through peer review. (It may still appear, but we should reserve judgment.)

            If the 7% figure holds up, I admit I’ll be surprised. But I doubt there will be many feminists who look at the twenty percent income gap and rush to remind everyone that over ninety percent of the difference is attributable to divergent preferences regarding fields, working conditions, and family management. (For a more sober discussion of the pay gap from a staunch conservative--strange bedfellow--go here.) I have to emphasize that my argument is not based on a complete absence of any pay gap; it focuses rather on the assumptions feminists make about it. Again, the vast majority of it can be attributed to choices freely made.

            My secondpost took on the feminist tendency to conflate male attraction with oppression. Many complained that the idea of “objectification,” though perhaps untrue, was nevertheless useful. Men who engage in harassment or sexual violence, they maintain, are not recognizing their victims’ humanity. These commenters are mistaking familiarity with usefulness. If objectification theory actually did identify factors that make violence more likely, then we could conclude it was useful. But it simply doesn’t. The theory points to media portrayals of women that emphasize body parts (objects) over emotions or intelligence and suggests such portrayals encourage men to dehumanize women, which might lead to violence. Psychological experiments find this not to be the case at all. Further, as the availability and consumption of pornography have exploded over the past decade, sexual violence has actually decreased. Objectification is an invalid theory with offensive implications about men. And there are better factors to target—like economic inequality—to address the issue of violence.

            My third post took on the ridiculously facile assumption that all gender differences stem from stereotypes and socialization. Many feminists charge anyone who suggests natural differences in behavior or career preference with essentialism. This is nonsense stemming from scientific ignorance. None of the commenters brought up any challenges that require addressing.

            While my problem with feminism begins with the term itself—because it comes freighted with tribal implications—I accept that unconditional opposition would be pretty much meaningless. So here are some things that would make me more accepting of feminism:

-         Evidence that people learning about feminism are systematically warned of the dangers of demonizing or vilifying men.

-         Evidence that feminism, as an ideology and not as an extension of Enlightenment ideals regarding human rights, has contributed valid or useful insights that have advanced science or benefited society.

-         Evidence that being a feminist has beneficial effects for individuals.

On this last point, a study that was published with much fanfare in 2007 reported that feminism had no ill effects on romantic relationships and that men in a relationship with a feminist were more likely to say their sex lives were satisfactory. The study, published in the journal Sex Roles, is titled, “The Interpersonal Power of Feminism: Is Feminism Good for Romantic Relationships?” The authors, Laurie Rudman and Julie Phelan, leave little doubt regarding the purpose of their study:

            What is particularly disturbing is that, by eschewing feminism, women themselves may
be participating in backlash. Thus, it is important to understand the reasons why women
today tend not to embrace feminism.

It’s amazing to me that something this blatantly ideological got published in a scientific journal. What the media coverage failed to mention is the study actually discovered that the female participants who labeled themselves as feminists actually reported higher levels of conflict within their relationships. Rudman and Phelan felt this was a statistical artifact, though, and dismissed it. I don’t understand their reasoning, and I have to assume if it wasn’t valid the reviewers would’ve picked it up. But it does suggest the methods they used might not have been sufficiently sensitive.

            The biggest issue I have with the study, however, is that it willfully conflates support for career women with feminism; in this study, I would have been counted as a strong feminist. The authors justify the move by pointing to a strong correlation between the actual label and attitudes toward women in high-powered positions. But the self-reports didn’t match up in many cases—as they wouldn’t have in mine. Using attitudes toward working women as a stand-in for feminism also opens the door to confounds like higher education and the benefits to a household of having two incomes.

            With regard to my concerns about ideological feminism, the Rudman and Phelan study is completely meaningless. Some studies I’d like to see: a comparison between academic departments measuring relationship satisfaction and stability; some objective measure of women’s support for feminist ideology, like knowledge of prominent authors, compared with attitudes toward men as measured by self-report and results from Implicit Association Tests; an objective measure of men’s exposure to feminism, like a test of their knowledge of feminist authors, and both their attitudes toward women and the satisfaction and stability of their relationships. I would also like to know more about how ideological feminism impacts young girls and boys.

            We shouldn’t keep giving this tribal ideology a free pass because we assume it’s in the service of a good cause. We shouldn’t celebrate studies designed to produce congenial results. Feminism, like any other idea, needs to pass empirical muster if it is to be taken seriously. Unfortunately, policies inspired by it continue to be implemented in the absence of any tests or challenges.


gillt said...

None of the commenters brought up any challenges that require addressing.

wait, so whose was whining on and on about all the atrocities perpetrated on hapless little boys steamrolled by the global Feminist (TM) cabal?

Dennis said...

The commenter is refering to a lengthy exchange prompted by an observation about a program called Bridge to Tech in Okland CA.
I pointed out that the program focuses on girls even though boys are in fact doing worse in school. The word I actually used was "odd".
The exchange went on to consider the causes behind women being underrepresented in STEM fields.
The widely accepted view is that the biggest factor contributing to the underrepresentation is preferences--but the cause of those preferences could include cultural factors that socialize young girls to believe they can't or shouldn't pursue science or math careers. The evidence isn't overwhelming.
Fair enough. But, as I suggested in the original post, there's also evidence for biological factors in the different preferences.
Whining? Since I was speaking on behalf of others (boys in school), I naturally think that term inappropriate.
But I don't think the idea of global feminist cabal is as absurd as the commenter suggests--though it's not exactly secret.
Anyway, I still haven't seen any evidence that makes me feel a need to reconsider my arguments in the post on socialization and stereotypes.

gillt said...

"But I don't think the idea of global feminist cabal is as absurd as the commenter suggests"

Is that like the global atheist cabal for Christians?

Or is it more like the global IPCC cabal for libertarians?

At least tell us who the ring-leaders are.

Dennis said...

I concede cabal isn't the right word--of course, I wasn't the one who used it first. Cabal suggests a secret group who acts in a coordinated way. I do think there are feminist organizations that are similar to conservative think tanks.

Research with a political agenda is not science--it's propaganda. Of course, some think tanks allow for more independence than others. Anyway, the AAUW is a good one. And the IPFW English department is another.

gillt said...

The AAU runs on propoganda

This argument runs into the inconvenient fact that the first and best-known study documenting patterns of male underachievement in school was sponsored by none other than the AAUW, in a follow-up to their study of girls' performance. It's an inconvenient fact that a women's organization led the way in studying the problems of boys, so Sommers attacks the AAUW for underpublicizing the study (Sommers cites no data to support this charge).

Do you have any data to support this view?

Dennis said...

Yes, I read that review while still reading Sommers' book. It's pretty ridiculous.
"In a follow-up to the girls' study," which the AAUW spent $150,000 promoting, they responded to critical scholars, who charged that the girls' study was based on pretty sketchy methods by commissioning another study.

Not surprisingly, this better designed study yeilded the opposite results. They published, but didn't promote the results. And even after they had the findings in hand they continued to promote the idea of the "shortchanged girl." (34-5)

Shortly after that second report, another, much bigger study, sponsored by MetLife, corrobated the findings that boys were doing worse.

The first article you link to counters a claim Sommers never makes about a "crisis" for boys. She in fact says the opposite. On her final page, her call to action, to she writes, "We must put an end to all the crisis mongering that pathologizes children: we must be less credulous when sensationalistic 'experts' talk of girls as drowning Ophelias or of boys as anxious, isolated Hamlets" (213).
Apparently, the WP is open to shitty PR people.
Anyway, I'm not sure about some of Sommers' education ideas, but it's an important book.

More recent, in-depth stats from the department of ed paint a less rosy picture for men than the second article too.

gillt said...

Could you cite your sources and use some quotes?

Dennis said...

You quoted from E. Anthony Rotundo's review of Sommers to the effect that she "cites no data" to support the claim that the AAUW underpublicized the study on boys, which the same review refers to as having the opposite results.

First, the term "data" is problematic here. Rotundo is a humanities scholar and clearly has difficulty with scientic concepts. Second, his claim is simply inaccurate. Sommers, in fact, does cite evidence. Rotundo could have faulted her research methods or sources--but instead he simply misrepresents them, suggesting he was counting on his review to keep people from actually reading Sommers' book, and not actually engaging her argument in all its nuances. Hence my pronouncement of "shitty PR."

Sommers gets her figure for how much the AAUW spent publicizing the first (wrong) study from an Education Week article: (You have to have a subscription to view the whole article.)

She then describes a AAUW convention she attended (uninvited) that took place after the second study. Several of the speakers encouraged attendees to continue spreading the misconception of the "shortchanged girl."

A good quote is from the former secretary of education Diane Ravitch. When asked about the first study which got all the attention, she replied, "The AAUW report was just completely wrong. What was so bizarre is that it came out right at the time that girls had just overtaken boys in almost every area. It might have been the right story 20 years earlier, but coming out when it did it was like calling a wedding a funeral... There were all these special programs put in place for girls, and no one paid any attention to boys." (pg 22 of TWAB)

It's from a pretty interesting article:

More broadly that review, like most feminist apologists I've encountered, responds to evidence about biological factors leading to gender differences by crying BIOLOGICAL DETERMINISM! Sommers' case, and mine, are more nuanced than that. The review is a shitty straw man.