COMMENT: Feminism's Assumptions
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 America."
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 stomachs.
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
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
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
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 unthinkable.
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 emerged.
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
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 herself.
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