Sense and sensitivity

Posted: Mar 23, 2005 12:00 AM

A few years ago, one of my sisters-in-law came to town with two of her kids, a boy and a girl. Over ice cream the adults in the group asked these great kids what they'd do if they found a treasure chest full of gold. My nephew pondered. Then he said, "A gun." Then, more pondering. "No, wait. A sword would be good, too. Maybe I'd get a gun and sword."

We then asked my niece the same question. She immediately replied, "A cheerleader uniform and a grown-up makeup kit." She didn't need to revisit the question. She was positive.

Now, a certain kind of feminist might say that such sentiments reflected the deep-seated cultural biases that force little kids to assume "gender roles." True, society helps shape the people we become. But knowing the environment these kids come from, it simply strains believability that nature wasn't a bigger culprit than nurture. Science backs all of this up, of course. Studies show that if you give a little boy a Barbie doll, he's more likely to pretend it's a shapely gun or knife.

In fact, outside a handful of ideologues, I don't think I've met anybody who doesn't think there's something to the idea that boys and girls are different, not just anatomically but in more significant ways. Obviously, this doesn't mean that there aren't boys who are more "feminine" than some girls and some girls who aren't more "masculine" than some boys, whatever those terms may mean. Indeed, the inability of people to speak clearly about such things is often the source of most disagreements. One need only look at Larry Summers, the Harvard president now on his umpteenth apology for saying what he believed to be true based upon a giant pile of data. Although one could say that Summers' real "crime" was speaking "too clearly."

What's particularly interesting is that even most self-described feminists believe there's an essential femaleness that is different from maleness. Over a decade ago, the feminist flibbertyjibbit Naomi Wolfe - who, recall, advised Al Gore to dress like an alpha male - had condemned U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick because she wrote in "a voice so Olympian, so neck-up and uninflected by the experiences of the female body, that the subtle message received by young female writers is: to enter public voice, one must abide by the no-uterus rule." Ah, yes, Ms. Kirkpatrick's analysis of totalitarianism would have been much improved if she'd been more cognizant of her status as a utero-American.

In fact, there are whole branches of feminism that are based upon the assumption that women are sufficiently different that "diversity" - the topmost good in the left's pyramid of virtue - cannot be served unless women are in the room. A recent spat between Michael Kinsley, the editor of the Los Angeles Times op-ed page, and the feminist legal activist Susan Estrich is a case in point. Ms. Estrich argued - in a hysterical manner befitting such an argument - that Mr. Kinsley must run more editorials from women because women provide a unique perspective men cannot. I ask you to compare this essentialism with the sentiments that got Summers in Dutch with the ladies.

I think this gets to the heart of what's really going on here. Few women, feminist or not, truly believe there is no objective difference between men and women, though there's obviously a lot of room to disagree on the nature of those differences. But some women - and fellow-traveling males - are perfectly happy to use the charge of sexism or "insensitivity" to get what they want. The great thing about insensitivity is that it's basically defined as whatever hurts the feelings of women who claim to have their feelings hurt. This allows them to turn on and off their moral outrage depending upon their agenda. So, if getting a case of the vapors over what Larry Summers says shakes the money tree, great. If conservative men can be gelded and conservative women bullied as "gender traitors" by a little feminist weepiness, wahoo!

Conversely, even if it means suggesting women are less than fully informed, rational beings, feminists are perfectly willing to get upset if their agenda is derailed. Just this week the Department of Education announced that colleges and universities can ask female students if they want their school to launch a new women's sport. If the female students say they're not interested, the school doesn't have to launch a new athletic program. Feminists think this is outrageous because Clinton-era rules mandated that the only way a school could absolutely prove it was in compliance with "Title IX" was to implement a rigid gender quota system for collegiate athletics, even if few women wanted to participate. Feminists say that surveying women's attitudes is unfair because women aren't capable of understanding their own interests. A more inconvenient reality is that, in general, women tend to be less interested in participating in varsity sports than men.

But now I'm just being insensitive.