Feminism's Assumptions Upended

A uterus is not a substitute for a conscience. 
Giving women positions of power won't change 
society by itself.

By Barbara Ehrenreich

Barbara Ehrenreich is the author, most recently, 
of "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in 

May 16, 2004

KEY WEST, Fla. - Even those people we might have 
thought were impervious to shame, like the 
secretary of Defense, admit that the photos of 
abuse in Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison turned their 

The photos did something else to me, as a 
feminist: They broke my heart. I had no illusions 
about the U.S. mission in Iraq - whatever exactly 
it is - but it turns out that I did have some 
illusions about women.

Of the seven U.S. soldiers now charged with 
sickening forms of abuse in Abu Ghraib, three are 
women: Spc. Megan Ambuhl, Pfc. Lynndie England 
and Spc. Sabrina Harman.

It was Harman we saw smiling an impish little 
smile and giving the thumbs-up sign from behind a 
pile of hooded, naked Iraqi men - as if to say, 
"Hi Mom, here I am in Abu Ghraib!" It was England 
we saw with a naked Iraqi man on a leash. If you 
were doing PR for Al Qaeda, you couldn't have 
staged a better picture to galvanize misogynist 
Islamic fundamentalists around the world.

Here, in these photos from Abu Ghraib, you have 
everything that the Islamic fundamentalists 
believe characterizes Western culture, all nicely 
arranged in one hideous image - imperial 
arrogance, sexual depravity Š and gender equality.

Maybe I shouldn't have been so shocked. We know 
that good people can do terrible things under the 
right circumstances. This is what psychologist 
Stanley Milgram found in his famous experiments 
in the 1960s. In all likelihood, Ambuhl, England 
and Harman are not congenitally evil people. They 
are working-class women who wanted an education 
and knew that the military could be a 
steppingstone in that direction. Once they had 
joined, they wanted to fit in.

And I also shouldn't be surprised because I never 
believed that women were innately gentler and 
less aggressive than men. Like most feminists, I 
have supported full opportunity for women within 
the military - 1) because I knew women could 
fight, and 2) because the military is one of the 
few options around for low-income young people.

Although I opposed the 1991 Persian Gulf War, I 
was proud of our servicewomen and delighted that 
their presence irked their Saudi hosts. Secretly, 
I hoped that the presence of women would over 
time change the military, making it more 
respectful of other people and cultures, more 
capable of genuine peacekeeping. That's what I 
thought, but I don't think that anymore.

A certain kind of feminism, or perhaps I should 
say a certain kind of feminist naiveté, died in 
Abu Ghraib. It was a feminism that saw men as the 
perpetual perpetrators, women as the perpetual 
victims and male sexual violence against women as 
the root of all injustice. Rape has repeatedly 
been an instrument of war and, to some feminists, 
it was beginning to look as if war was an 
extension of rape. There seemed to be at least 
some evidence that male sexual sadism was 
connected to our species' tragic propensity for 
violence. That was before we had seen female 
sexual sadism in action.

But it's not just the theory of this naive 
feminism that was wrong. So was its strategy and 
vision for change. That strategy and vision 
rested on the assumption, implicit or stated 
outright, that women were morally superior to 
men. We had a lot of debates over whether it was 
biology or conditioning that gave women the moral 
edge - or simply the experience of being a woman 
in a sexist culture. But the assumption of 
superiority, or at least a lesser inclination 
toward cruelty and violence, was more or less 
beyond debate. After all, women do most of the 
caring work in our culture, and in polls are 
consistently less inclined toward war than men.

I'm not the only one wrestling with that 
assumption today. Mary Jo Melone, a columnist for 
the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times, wrote on May 7: 
"I can't get that picture of England [pointing at 
a hooded Iraqi man's genitals] out of my head 
because this is not how women are expected to 
behave. Feminism taught me 30 years ago that not 
only had women gotten a raw deal from men, we 
were morally superior to them."

If that assumption had been accurate, then all we 
would have had to do to make the world a better 
place - kinder, less violent, more just - would 
have been to assimilate into what had been, for 
so many centuries, the world of men. We would 
fight so that women could become the generals, 
CEOs, senators, professors and opinion-makers - 
and that was really the only fight we had to 
undertake. Because once they gained power and 
authority, once they had achieved a critical mass 
within the institutions of society, women would 
naturally work for change. That's what we 
thought, even if we thought it unconsciously - 
and it's just not true. Women can do the 

You can't even argue, in the case of Abu Ghraib, 
that the problem was that there just weren't 
enough women in the military hierarchy to stop 
the abuses. The prison was directed by a woman, 
Gen. Janis Karpinski. The top U.S. intelligence 
officer in Iraq, who also was responsible for 
reviewing the status of detainees before their 
release, was Major Gen. Barbara Fast. And the 
U.S. official ultimately responsible for managing 
the occupation of Iraq since October was 
Condoleezza Rice. Like Donald H. Rumsfeld, she 
ignored repeated reports of abuse and torture 
until the undeniable photographic evidence 

What we have learned from Abu Ghraib, once and 
for all, is that a uterus is not a substitute for 
a conscience. This doesn't mean gender equality 
isn't worth fighting for for its own sake. It is. 
If we believe in democracy, then we believe in a 
woman's right to do and achieve whatever men can 
do and achieve, even the bad things. It's just 
that gender equality cannot, all alone, bring 
about a just and peaceful world.

In fact, we have to realize, in all humility, 
that the kind of feminism based on an assumption 
of female moral superiority is not only naive; it 
also is a lazy and self-indulgent form of 
feminism. Self-indulgent because it assumes that 
a victory for a woman - a promotion, a college 
degree, the right to serve alongside men in the 
military - is by its very nature a victory for 
all of humanity. And lazy because it assumes that 
we have only one struggle - the struggle for 
gender equality - when in fact we have many more.

The struggles for peace and social justice and 
against imperialist and racist arrogance, cannot, 
I am truly sorry to say, be folded into the 
struggle for gender equality.

What we need is a tough new kind of feminism with 
no illusions. Women do not change institutions 
simply by assimilating into them, only by 
consciously deciding to fight for change. We need 
a feminism that teaches a woman to say no - not 
just to the date rapist or overly insistent 
boyfriend but, when necessary, to the military or 
corporate hierarchy within which she finds 

In short, we need a kind of feminism that aims 
not just to assimilate into the institutions that 
men have created over the centuries, but to 
infiltrate and subvert them.

To cite an old, and far from naive, feminist 
saying: "If you think equality is the goal, your 
standards are too low." It is not enough to be 
equal to men, when the men are acting like 
beasts. It is not enough to assimilate. We need 
to create a world worth assimilating into.