Monday, February 14, 2005

I just don't agree

with this LA Times piece in which Charlotte Allen attributes the lack of female public intellectuals to the ascendancy of feminism. Here's her argument:

Still, there is no shortage of well-known male intellectuals. Besides Wolfe and Wills, we have Richard Posner, Louis Menand, Francis Fukuyama, Ian Buruma and Henry Louis Gates Jr., to name some, along with scientists who write provocatively for a general readership: Stephen Hawking, Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins and Jared Diamond. In books and magazines, these intellectuals, who represent a wide variety of ideological perspectives, debate a broad spectrum of topics: science and politics, high and low art, literature, evolution, the Iraq war, campus sexual mores, the origins of the universe.

There are female intellectuals with stellar credentials and bestselling books: Germaine Greer, Gloria Steinem, Barbara Ehrenreich, Naomi Wolf, Susan Faludi, Deborah Tannen, Natalie Angier. But there's a big difference between these women and their forebears. They are all professional feminists. They don't simply espouse feminism; they write about little else. Feminist ideology forms the basis of their writings, whether it's Greer on the infantilization of women by a patriarchal society, Tannen on how the sexes are socialized to communicate differently, Faludi on how white men have reacted to women's progress, Ehrenreich on how the male medical establishment intimidates female patients, or Angier on how humans ought to be more like bonobos, the female-dominated, sexually liberated cousins of chimpanzees.

These lists of names seem to me highly tendentious. (And they also beg the question of why there are so many more high-profile male writers than female in prestigious places like the New Yorker, the NY Review of Books, etc.) What about--on the more academic side of things, anyway--Elaine Scarry and Martha Nussbaum? What about Katha Pollitt? What about Anne Fadiman, surely as perceptive if not as high-profile a cultural commentator as Menand? What about Toni Morrison and Anne Carson and Diane Ackerman and Margaret Atwood (counting North American more generally, rather than US only)? What about Jamaica Kincaid and Lani Guinier and Patricia Williams and Amy Gutmann? What about Leda Cosmides? Yes, this list skews rather more towards writer-intellectuals than towards commentators on public policy. But it's roughly commensurate with that list of male intellectuals, no? The argument just feels like a depressingly familiar knee-jerk anti-feminism. And anyway, what if "best-selling" and "high-profile" aren't the best test of who's doing really interesting commentary? What if publishers give bigger contracts to men writing on gender-neutral subjects and women writing on woman-related subjects than to women writing about gender-neutral subjects? What if this kind of skew is reproduced when it comes to assigning reviews or topic pieces in the more intellectual magazines like Harper's and the New Yorker? (Link via Maud Newton.)


  1. Thank you for this. I saw this at Maud's, too and find it depressingly self-perpetuating for all the reasons you outline. I don't have the energy to get my hackles up about it, but oy! it's so boring to have people consistently ignore women intellectuals and then wonder where they are!

  2. Yes, and it's hardly a fair characterization even of the women it lists--I mean, Barbara Ehrenreich is super-wide-ranging... and so are a number of the others.