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Playing the Politics of Feminism

Author Crittenden Typifies A New Breed of ‘Nonfeminists’

Julia C. Lipman

Marry young. Don’t expect your husband to share equally in child-rearing. Always dress attractively for men. These helpful hints come from Danielle Crittenden’s What Our Mothers Didn’t Tell Us. They sound a lot like they are from an even stricter version of The Rules, but while The Rules was a straightforward dating manual, Crittenden’s work purports to be serious political analysis. Blaming feminism for everything from stressed-out working mothers to gaunt high-fashion models, Crittenden has achieved fame in an era of nostalgia worship. Swing dancing, lounge music, and vintage shopping are today’s retro fads. Crittenden and her antifeminist sisters are there to provide political views that won’t clash with that smashing ’50s dress.

Much of the media coverage of such writers has a tone of feigned astonishment: “Look -- these are women, and they’re against feminism!” A recent Boston Globe article -- on page 1 -- gushes, “Calling [Crittenden’s work] contrarian is an understatement.” Even Betty Friedan criticizes Crittenden as “an enfant terrible, going against the grain.”

But what grain is there to go against? A whole host of antifeminist women attained prominence in the early ’90s. Camille Paglia, a self-described feminist with a penchant for self-quotation, broke onto the scene with Sexual Personae, her broadside against modern feminism. (In her column last Wednesday, she described Harvard’s recent dismissal of an admitted rapist as “paternalistic hand-holding.”) Christina Hoff Sommers’ book Who Stole Feminism accused contemporary feminists of hijacking a movement that was once about equality. Katie Roiphe achieved fame with her book The Morning After, which attempted to debunk the crazy idea that acquaintance rape is a real problem. Countless others got on the antifeminist bandwagon.

Antifeminist women date back further than the early ’90s. In Boston, some of the chief opponents of women’s suffrage were the women socialites of Beacon Hill. Women formed organizations to oppose the Nineteenth Amendment. These anti-suffrage women were so prominent that an editorial cartoonist of the day represented the pro-suffrage and anti-suffrage movements as women coyly flirting with an undecided male legislator.

The 1960s brought us Phyllis Schlafly, the “sweetheart of the silent majority” who opposed the Equal Rights Amendment with such tactics as sending members of Congress loaves of bread with cards inscribed, “From the breadmaker to the breadwinner.” The Globe article aptly, if unwittingly, summed up the difference between Schlafly and Crittenden: the latter is “stylish and socially connected,” while Schlafly is described as “scowling” despite the apple-pie smile she’s always photographed with. Antifeminism now comes in Traditional Matronly flavor and Chic Blonde flavor.

There’s also a stylistic difference between the new crop of antifeminist authors like Crittenden, Wendy Shalit (who wrote A Return To Modesty), and F. Carolyn Graglia (who wrote A Brief Against Feminism), and ones of just a few years ago. Paglia calls herself a feminist. Sommers also calls herself a feminist when it’s expedient, but belongs to the Independent Women’s Forum, an organization whose literature asks, “Are you bored with the media message that strong, competent women must be feminists?”

In contrast, new authors like Crittenden don’t bother to label themselves feminists before attacking the movement. They forgo Paglia’s specious distinction between “equity feminists” like herself, who presumably are radical enough to think that the Nineteenth Amendment was a pretty good idea, and “gender feminists,” who actually support equal pay and sexual harassment legislation. The women of Crittenden’s tribe are simply not feminists, or “nonfeminists,” as they like to be called.

By dropping the deceptive strategy of casting the debate as an internal struggle between two types of feminists, Crittenden is taking a big risk. She’s also allowing herself a lot more freedom. Instead of just suggesting that feminism denies women the choice of marrying early and staying at home with children, her strategy allows her to come right out and tell women what choices to make. “Women can make good choices and bad choices... and the consequences affect their husbands and children.” Among the bad choices: not marrying before 30, not staying at home with kids, and being “unprepared to take full charge of traditional chores like cooking or the laundry.”

Many observers, including Betty Friedan, have pointed out that Crittenden is a product of the very movement she criticizes. As the editor of the conservative Women’s Quarterly, a publication of the Independent Women’s Forum, she writes columns and makes public appearances. She may write that housekeepers and nannies are “cleaning up the domestic chaos that feminism left in its wake,” but that doesn’t stop her from having a maid (or promoting private domestic help as an alternative to state-sponsored child care). She probably even takes advantage of her right to vote, although she says that “you can take back my vote” if women’s suffrage means that candidates will actually try to appeal to women voters.

Whether in jest or in earnest, that comment reveals a good deal about Crittenden, living in a world where the Women’s Quarterly is a stylish alternative to a “Prada handbag,” the only choice women should make is of “the [household] help she needs,” and the vote is something to be given up on a whim.