The cultural contradictions of feminism

Maggie Gallagher
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Posted: Jan 19, 2006 9:05 AM

Here's a quick Zeitgeist check: First the two Kates.

A few weeks ago, Kate Michelman, former head of NARAL, released a political memoir "rebutting the pro-life movement's insistence that making abortion illegal is the American way," as Publisher's Weekly put it. In 1969, Michelman, a young Catholic mother facing divorce, had to get the approval of three male experts in order to abort her own child. The experience plunged her into a life of abortion rights activism, including most recently stridently attacking Sam Alito's decision upholding a Pennsylvania law requiring a wife to notify her husband of her intention to abort. Michelman's book, promisingly released in late December right into the media maelstrom surrounding the Alito hearings, "passionately, compellingly presents a living political drama that affects millions of lives," according to Booklist. As I write, it is also No. 54,770 on the Amazon sales list.

Meanwhile, National Review editor Kate O'Beirne's new book, "Women Who Make the World Worse," is an unsubtle assault on the ideas of Kate Michelman and her fellow aging, orthodox feminists. It stands at No. 73 (after a brief appearance on the best-seller list).

To add injury to insult, Sam Alito, with a public record of opposition to abortion, is about to become a Supreme Court justice despite the last-ditch, mean-spirited efforts by Senate Dems to impose a one-week delay.

Who'd have thunk it? Certainly not Kate Michelman in the heady days of her feminist youth as an abortion rights organizer.

Second sign of the times: the two photos. They are oddly juxtaposed in my head: One is a New York Times photo of Gail Sheehy in a puff piece dedicated to her latest book, "Sex and the Seasoned Woman." The one-time best-selling author of the influential book "Passages," Sheehy is suggestively sprawled in front a fireplace, wearing a black sweater, with peek-a-boo white lace at the cleavage, a black leather skirt, and fishnet stockings. At age 68, Grandma vamps.

The second photo is a picture of a dead girl, Nixzmary Brown, age 7, laid out in bridal white at the R.G. Ortiz Funeral Home on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

The Nation columnist Katha Pollitt, speaking of Sheehy's new book, explains that to aging feminist boomers, sex is still a political issue, perhaps the defining issue of her generation. "Feminism has taught women that your sexuality is something you should take charge of," Ms. Pollitt said. "We live in a very highly sexualized culture. Sex is how we understand happiness and why we are here."

Nixzmary never lived to reach the age where sex-as-substitute-religion had any appeal. Her mother, Nixzaliz Santiago, eschewing older standards of bourgeois morality that once confined women's sexual choices, according to the New York Post had six children with four different men. The last one, Cesar Rodriguez, beat Nixzmary to death.

What is the connection? Surely not that feminists support child abuse; focusing new attention to domestic violence remains one of the movement's achievements. But the feminist leaders of Kate Michelman's generation, still painfully peddling sexual liberation as a path to empowerment for women, have never accepted responsibility for the carnage that has been unleashed in feminism's name. A marriage culture protects children by insistently asking adults to, in fact, confine, contain and channel their sexual choices so that (among other reasons) they don't hurt their own children.

Gail Sheehy makes a good living at the top of the heap, peddling an elite's woman's dream: "It's not over at 45, 'it' being sex, romance, discovery of a new identity and a new passion in life," as her Web site puts it.

Nixzmary represents the very bottom: a child who had no say in her mother's sexual choices but (like too many American children, born and unborn), paid the ultimate price.