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The New Mythology - Figuring Out Feminism

(Copyright 1994). Reprinted by permission of Simon and Schuster.

Figuring Out Feminism

"150,000 girls die of anorexia each year";
"40% more women are battered on Super Bowl Sunday";
"Women get paid 59 cents on the dollar"

When feminists quote statistics, reach for your common sense.

In "Revolution from Within", Gloria Steinem informs her readers that "in this country alone...about 150,000 females die of anorexia each year." That is more than three times the number of annual fatalities from car accidents for the total population. Miss Steinem refers readers to Naomi Wolf's "The Beauty Myth", where one again finds the statistic, along with the author's outrage. "How," she asks, "would America react to the mass self-immolation by hunger of its favorite sons.?" Although nothing justifies comparison with the Holocaust," she cannot refrain from making one anyway. "When confronted with a vast number of emaciated bodies starved not by nature but by me, one must notice a certain resemblance."

Where did Miss Wolf get her figures? Her source is "Fasting Girls: The Emergence of Anorexia Nervosa as a Modern Disease" by Joan Brumberg, a historian and former director of women's studies at Cornell University. She, too, is fully aware of the political significance of the startling statistic. She point out that the women who study eating problems "seek to demonstrate that these disorders are an inevitable consequence of a misogynistic society that demeans women...by objectifying their bodies." Professor Brumberg, in turn, attributes the figure to the American Anorexia and Bulimia Association.

I called the American Anorexia and Bulimia Association and spoke to Dr. Diane Mickley, its president. "We were misquoted," she said. In a 1985 newsletter the association had referred to 150,000 to 200,000 sufferers (not fatalities) of anorexia nervosa. What is the correct morbidity rate? Most experts are reluctant to give exact figures.

One clinician told me that of 1,400 patients she had treated in ten years, 4 had died - all through suicide. The National Center for Health Statistics reported 101 deaths from anorexia nervosa in 1983 and 67 deaths in 1988. Thomas Dunn of the Division of Vital Statistics at the National Center for Health Statistics reports that in 1991 there were 54 deaths from anorexia nervosa and no deaths from bulimia. The deaths of these three women are a travesty, certainly, but in a country of one hundred million adult females, such numbers are hardly evidence of a "holocaust."

Yet, now the false figure, supporting the view that our "sexist society" demeans women by objectifying their bodies, is widely accepted as true. Anne Landers repeated it in her syndicated column in April 1992: "Every year, 150,000 American women die from complications associated with anorexia and bulimia."

Will Miss Steinem advise her readers of the egregious statistical error? Will Mrs. Landers? Will it even matter? By now, the 150,000 figure has made it into college text books. A recent women' studies text, aptly titled The Knowledge Explosion, contains the erroneous figure in its preface.

Next Crisis, Please
The anorexia "crisis" is only one example of the kind of provocative but inaccurate information being purveyed by women about "women's issues" these days. On November 4, 1992, Deborah Louis, president of the National Women's Studies Association, sent a message to the women's Studies Electronic Bulletin Board: "According to [the] last March of Dimes report, domestic violence (vs. pregnant women) is now responsible for more birth defects than all other causes combined. Personally [this] strikes me as the most disgusting piece of data I've seen in a long while." This was, indeed, unsettling news. But it seemed implausible. I asked my neighbor, a pediatric neurologist at Boston's Children's Hospital, about the report. He told me that although severe battery may occasionally cause miscarriage, he had never heard of battery as a significant cause of birth defects.

I called the March of Dimes to get a copy of the report. Maureen Corry, director of the March's Education and Health Promotion Program, denied any knowledge of it. "We have never seen this research before," she said. I did a search and found that - study or no study - journalists around the country were citing it.

Domestic violence is the leading cause of birth defects, more than all other medical causes combined, according to a March of Dimes study. (Boston Globe, Sep. 2, 1991).

Especially grotesque is the brutality reserved for pregnant women: the March of Dimes has concluded that the battering of women during pregnancy causes more birth defects than all the diseases put together for which children are usually immunized. (Time Magazine, Jan. 18, 1993)

The March of Dimes has concluded that the battering of women during pregnancy causes more birth defects than all the diseases put together for which children are usually immunized. (Dallas Morning News, Feb. 7, 1993.)

I called the March of Dimes again. Andrea Ziltzer of their media-relations department told me that the rumor was spinning out of control. Governors' offices, state health departments, and Washington politicians had flooded the office with phone calls. Even the office of Senator Edward Kennedy had requested a copy of the "report."

When I finally reached Jeanne McDowell, who had written the Time article, the first thing she was, "That was an error." She sounded genuinely sorry and embarrassed. She explained that she is always careful about checking sources, but this time, for some reason, she had not. Time has since called the March of Dimes to apologize. An official retraction finally appeared in the magazine on December 6, 1993, under the heading "Inaccurate Information."

I asked Miss McDowell about her source. She had relied on information given her by the San Francisco Family VIolence Prevention Fund, which had obtained it from Sarah Buel, a founder of the domestic-violence advocacy project at Harvard Law School. She in turn had obtained it from Caroline Whitehead, a maternal nurse and child-care specialist in Raleigh, North Carolina. I called Miss Whitehead.

"It blows my mind. It is not true," she said. The whole thing began, she explained, when she introduced Sarah Buel as a speaker at a 1989 conference for nurses and social workers. In presenting her, Miss Whitehead mentioned that according to some March of Dimes research she has seen, more women are screened for birth defects than are ever screened for domestic battery. Miss Whitehead had said nothing at all about battery causing birth defects. "Sarah misunderstood me," she said. Miss Buel went on to put the erroneous information into a manuscript which was then circulated among family-violence professionals. They saw no reason to doubt its authenticity.

I called Sarah Buel and told her that it seemed she had misheard Caroline Whitehead. She was surprised. "Oh, I must have misunderstood her. I'll have to give her a call. She is my source." She thanked me for having informed her of the error, pointing out that she had been about to repeat it yet again in a new article.

Where Were the Skeptics?
Why was everybody so credulous? Battery responsible for more birth defects than all other causes combined? More than genetic disorders such as spina bifida, Down syndrome, Tay-Sachs, sickle-cell anemia? More than all these things combined? Where were the fact-checkers, the editors, the skeptical journalists?

To that question we must add another: Why are certain feminists so eager to put men in a bad light? I shall try to answer both these questions.

American feminism is currently dominated by a group of women who seek to persuade the public that American women are not the free creatures we think we are. The leaders and theorists of the women's movement believe that our society is best described as a patriarchy, a "male hegemony," a "sex/gender system" in which the dominant gender works to keep women cowering and submissive. The feminists who hold this divisive view of our social and political reality believe that all our institutions, from the state to the family to the grade schools, perpetuate male dominance. Believing that women are virtually under siege, the "gender feminists" naturally seek recruits to their side of the gender war. They seek support. They seek vindication. They seek ammunition.

Not everyone, including many women who consider themselves feminists, is convinced hat contemporary American women live in an oppressive "male hegemony." To confound the skeptics and persuade the undecided, the gender feminists are constantly on the lookout for the smoking gun, the telling fact that will drive home how profoundly the system is rigged against women. It is not enough to remind us that many brutal and selfish men harm women. They must persuade us that the system itself sanctions male brutality. They must convince us that the oppression of women, sustained from generation to generation, is a structural feature of our society.

Thus gender-feminst ideology holds that physical menace toward women is the norm. 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."

Miss Steinem's description of the dangers women face in their own home is reminiscent of the Super Bowl hoax of January 1993. Here is the chronology:

Thursday, January 27. A news conference was called in Pasadena, California, the site of the forthcoming Super Bowl game, by a coalition of women's groups. At the news conference, reporters were informed that Super Bowl Sunday is "the biggest day of the year for violence against women." Forty per cent more women would be battered on that day. In support of the 40 per cent figure, Sheila Kuehl of the California Women's Law Center cited a study done at Virginia's Old Dominion University three years before. The presence of Linda Mitchell, a representative of a media "watchdog" group called Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), lent credibility to the claim.

At about the same time a very large media mailing was sent by Dobisky Associates, FAIR's publicists, warning at-risk women: "Don't remain at home with him during the game." The idea that sports fans are prone to attack their wives or girlfriends on that climatic day persuaded many men as well: Rober Lipsyte of the New York Times would soon be referring to the "Abuse Bowl."

Friday January 28. Lenore Walker, a Denver psychologist and author of "The Battered Woman", appeared on 'Good Morning America' claiming to have compiled a ten-year report showing a sharp increase in violent incidents against women on Super Bowl Sundays. Here, again, a representative from FAIR, Laura Flanders, was present to lend credibility to the claim.

Saturday, January 29. A story in the Boston Globe written by Lynda Gorov reported that women's shelters and hotlines are "flooded with more calls from victims [on Super Bowl Sunday] than on any other day of the year." Miss Gorov cited "one study of women's shelters out West" that "showed a 40 per cent climb in calls, a pattern advocates said is repeated nationwide, including Massachusetts."

In this rolling sea of media credulity was a lone island of professional integrity. Ken Ringle, a Washington Post staff writer, took the time to call around. When he asked Janet Katz - a professor of sociology and criminal justice at Old Dominion, and one of the principal authors of the study cited by Miss Kuehl - about the connection between violence and football games, she said: "That's not what we found at all." Instead, she told him, they they had found that an increase in emergency-room admissions "was not associated with the occurrence of football games in general."

Mr. Ringle checked with Lynda Gorov, who told him she had never seen the study she cited but had been told of it by FAIR. Linda Mitchell of FAIR told Mr. Ringle that the authority for the 40 per cent figure was Lenore Walker. Miss Walker's office, in turn, referred calls on the subject to Michael Lindsey, a Denver psychologist and an authority on battered women. Pressed by Mr. Ringle, Mr. Lindsey admitted he could find no basis for the report. "I haven't been any more successful than you in tracking down any of this," he said. "You think maybe we have on of these myth things here?"

Later, other reporters pressed Miss Walker to detail her findings. She said they were not available. "We don't use them for public consumption," she explained, "we used them to guide us in advocacy projects."

It would have been more honest for the feminists who initiated the campaign to admit that there was no basis for saying that football fans are more brutal to women than are chess players or Democrats nor any basis for saying that there was a significant rise in domestic violence on Super Bowl on Super Bowl Sunday.

Ken Ringle's unraveling of the "myth thing" was published on the front page of the Washington Post on January 31. On February 2, Boston Globe staff writer Bob Hohler published what amounted to a retraction of Miss Gorov's story. Mr. Hohler had done some more digging and had gotten support of the claim. "It should not have gone out in FAIR's materials," said Mr. Rendell.

Linda Mitchell would later acknowledge that she was aware during the original news conference that Miss Kuehl was misrepresenting the Old Dominion study. Mr. Ringle asked her whether she did not feel obligated to challenge her colleague. "I wouldn't do that in front of the media," Miss Mitchell said. "She has a right to report it as she wants."

The shelters and hot lines, which monitored the Sunday of the 27th Super Bowl with special care, reported no variation in the number of calls for help that day, not even in Buffalo, whose team (and fans) had suffered a crushing defeat.

But despite Ken Ringle's expose, the Super Bowl "statistic" will be with us for a while, doing its divisive work of generating fear and resentment. In the book How to Make a Better Place for Women in Five Minutes a Day, a comment under the heading "Did You Know?" informs readers that "Super Bowl Sunday is the most violent day of the year, with the highest reported number of domestic battering cases." How a belief in that misandrist canard can make the world a better place for women is not explained.

Female Gains or Male Backlash?
HOW a feminist reacts to data about gender gaps in salaries and economic opportunities is an excellent indication of the kind of feminist she is. In general, the equity feminist points with pride to the many gains women have made toward achieving parity in the workplace. By contrast, the gender feminist makes it a point to disparage these gains and to speak of backlash. it disturbs her that the public may be lulled into thinking that women are doing well and that men are allowing it. The gender feminist insists that any so-called progress is illusory.

By most measures, the Eighties were a a time of rather spectacular gains by American women - in education, in wages, and in such traditionally male professions as business, law and medicine. The gender feminist will have none of this. According to Susan Faludi, in her much ballyhooed book, the Eighties were the backlash decade, in which men successfully retracted many of the gains wrested from them in preceding decades. And since any criticism of Miss Faludi's claim is apt to be construed as just more backlashing, one must be grateful to the editors of the New York Times business section for braving the wrath of feminist ideologues by presenting an objective account of the economic picture as it affects women.

Surveying several reports by women economists on women's gains in the 1980's, New York Times business writer Sylvia Nasar rejected Susan Faludi's thesis. She pointed to masses of empirical data showing that "Far from losing ground, women gained more in the 1980's than in the entire postwar era before that. And almost as much as between 1890 and 1980."

The Times report that the proportion women earn of each dollar of men's wages rose to a record 72 cents by 1990. But the Times points out that even this figure is misleadingly pessimistic, because it includes older women who are only marginally in the work force, such as "the mother who graduated from high school, left the work force at twenty, and returned to a minimum wage at a local store." Younger women, says the Times "now earn 80 cents for every dollar earned by men of the same age, up from 69 cents in 1980."

None of these facts has made the slightest impression on the backlash-mongers. For years, feminist activists have been wearing buttons claiming women earn "59 cents to a man's dollar." Some journalists have questioned this figure. Miss Faludi calls them "spokesman" for the backlash and says: "By 1988, women with a college diploma could still wear the famous 59 cent buttons. They were still making 59 cents to their male counterparts' dollar. In fact, the pay gap for them was now a bit worse than five years earlier."

The sources Miss Faludi cites do not sustain her figure. The actual figure for 1988 is 68 cents, both for all women and for women with a a college diploma. This is substantially higher, not lower, than it was five years earlier. This most recent figures, for 1992, are considerably higher yet: 71 cents for all women and 73 cents for women with a college diploma.

Economists differ on exactly how much, if any, of the remaining gap is discrimination. Most economists agree that much of it simply represents the fact that, on average, women have accrued less workplace experience than men of the same age. One recent scholarly estimate shows that as of 1987, females who were currently working full-time and year-round had, on average, one-quarter year less of work experience than comparable males.

These data are important in understanding the oft-cited claim of a "glass ceiling" for women. Promotion in high-powered professional jobs often goes to those who have put in long hours in evenings and on weekends. Husbands may be more likely to do so than wives, for a variety of reasons, including unequal division of responsibilities at home, in which case the source of the difficulty is at home, not in the marketplace.

Obviously, the experience gap also reflects the fact that many women choose to move into and out of the work force during child-bearing and child-rearing years. This reduces the amount of experience they acquire in the workplace and naturally results in lower earnings, quite apart from any possible discrimination. Some evidence of this is provided by data on childless workers, for whom the experience gap should be much narrower, resulting in a narrower earnings gap. This, in fact, is the case: as of 1987, among childless white workers aged 20 to 44, females' hourly earnings were between 86 to 91 per cent of males' hourly earnings.

Robert Reich, the U.S. secretary of labour, wrote a blurb for Backlash describing it as "spellbinding and frightening...a wake-up call to the men as well as the women who are struggling to build a gender-respectful society." One can only hope that Mr. Reich was too spellbound to have read Backlash with a discriminating mind. What is more alarming than anything Miss Faludi has to say about an undeclared war against American women is the credulity it has met in high public officials on whose judgment we ought to be able to rely.

National Review Magazine

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