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The New York Times
Men and Women Are Both From Earth
By Cynthia Fuchs Epstein
Cynthia Fuchs Epstein, Distinguished Profes-sor of Sociology at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, is the author of "Deceptive Distinctions: Sex, Gender and the Social Order."
Notions that "men are from Mars and women are from Venus" or that men and women "just don't understand" each other (the subjects of two best sellers) have become the established common sense, offered in bedrooms, boardrooms and seminar rooms to explain everything from career choice to marital infidelity. Cathy Young, a writer with the Cato Institute, observes in "Ceasefire!" that the new insistence on sexual differences, paradoxically asserted at a time when equality between the sexes has never been closer, has created new inequalities.
Young says that rhetoric supporting better treatment of women in the home, the workplace and the courts and rhetoric asserting support of family values are based on what sociologists call a "difference model," which may disadvantage men as well as harm women. In a critical analysis of difference ideology in scholar-ship and in women's and men's political movements, Young argues that there is little basis for the "separate mentality" approach. She dissects the claims of scholars advocating "difference feminism" by analyzing their logic and data, and shows, for example, how Carol Gilligan's premise that women speak "in a differ-ent voice" (the title of her best seller) and hold to an ethic of caring while men are concerned with abstract notions of justice does not hold up when tested. She also takes on evolutionary psychologists like David Buss and Robert Wright, who claim that sex differences are a product of natural selection (for example, that men are less faithful in marriage than women because they practice differ-ent "strategies" for reproduction), arguing that fidelity for both sexes varies with opportunity and cultural attitudes.
Young rightly points out that women have been ill served by the insistence on sexual difference in the past; and her view that men are disadvantaged as well is insightful. She shows how the rhetoric of advocates like Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin, accusing all men of oppression and domination in daily life ("systematic terrorism 'perpetrated by the gender class men on the gender class women' ") is as unjust as the assertions that women are always passive victims. She further maintains that those who are concerned about domestic violence and workplace discrimination only if it is committed by men have reversed the pendu-lum of injustice. Citing many colorful and heart-rending examples, Young says that men usually lose out in child custody suits, and face automatic assumption of guilt in sexual harassment and rape cases.
There is no doubt that stereotyping men as brutes and women as passive tar-gets of oppression does no service to either sex. But who is to blame for these views? Young points the finger at post- Anita Hill "party-line feminists," the battered-women's movement and the National Organization for Women, although, she concedes, there are conservatives whose stereotypical views of women compound the problem. "The concept of feminism or of a women's movement remains too closely linked to the concept of women's advantage, of taking the woman's side," Young argues, pursuing (in my view) the continuing open season of attack on feminists for the various excesses observed in public life. Young's keen eye fails to observe that most feminists have consistently worked "to bring women into full participation in the mainstream of American Society . . . in truly equal participation with men" (to quote from NOW's 1966 Statement of Purpose). It is doubtful whether women in such numbers could have cracked the barriers to medical and legal education and employment, or become journalists, professors and police officers, without the advocacy of the women's movement. And the work continues. Betty Friedan in a new program at Cornell University and the men and women of the Work and Family Institute, for example, continue to address practi-cal problems and conceive ways to eliminate residues of bias.
But Young doesn't seem to be up on these programs. Her solution to inequality is no more than a plea to "cease fire" through 12 steps that include such sug-gestions as "condemn women behaving badly as much as men behaving badly" and "stop applying a presumption of sexism to every conflict involving a woman." No one could quarrel with these ideas, but because Young does not assign responsibility for carrying them out they are likely to fall on deaf ears.
April 11, 1999