UB Legal Scholar Attacks Fear of Feminism

Release Date: December 24, 1998

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- A legal scholar in the University at Buffalo School of Law has strongly criticized allegations that pro-feminist press bias produces a sense of victimization in women whose lot has improved dramatically in the past 30 years.

In fact, Martha A. McCluskey, associate professor of law at UB, maintains that despite protests to the contrary, the mainstream media have not gone far enough to shed light on the laws, beliefs, practices and behaviors that support the ongoing oppression of women in American society and abroad.

"Media, Feminism and the Law" (Oxford University Press, 1997), a new book McCluskey edited with Martha T. Fineman, professor of law at Columbia University, explores several popular redefinitions of feminism. Written by 23 scholars from law and other disciplines, it explores how lawyers, courts and legislatures, together with the popular media, have produced myriad changes in women's lives for good or ill.

Individual essays address portrayals of feminism in the media; feminism, law and popular culture, and how gender is "essentialized" or reduced to a fixed characteristic separate from such factors as race, class, age and sexuality.

As its title suggests, the book looks at how feminist legal scholars have rewritten and reinterpreted laws to increase protection against domestic violence, sexual harassment and economic inequality. Beyond that, however, the authors demonstrate that the success and failure of these legal struggles often have depended as much upon talk shows and soap operas as upon the courts and legislatures.

In an article titled "Fear of Feminism," McCluskey responds to critics in the popular press who warn that media stories of women's suffering perpetuate outdated stereotypes of women as weak and vulnerable. Such critics publicly allege that women have made tremendous legal and social gains and that feminist "male-bashing" has made men the real victims of gender crime and abuse.

"I acknowledge that there have been significant advances for women in many areas," McCluskey says. "It is absurd, however, to suggest, as some have, that feminists ignore these gains -- gains they themselves produced -- or to insist that women's social, economic, medical and legal problems have been solved.

"To suggest that feminists are 'producing' woman-victims by continuing to talk about date rape, financial deprivation, domestic violence, sexual harassment and other forms of male abuse of women ignores reality," she says.

"In fact," McCluskey adds, "despite some progress, despite 25 years of massive efforts by feminists to redress the victimization of women, we continue to face persistent gender-based inequality in law and fact.

"Furthermore," she says, "those women who continue to protest unfair treatment are often criticized by men and women alike who are uncomfortable with anyone who insists on equal treatment."

She calls for men and women "to reject the double standard that views women who complain about abuse of male power as whiners, manipulative liars or as weak and dependent." She contrasts the negative treatment of women's complaints with the popular media's sympathy for men who complain about abuse by feminists. The media often uphold these men as brave defenders of such individual rights as free speech and due process.

"The message often played out in media of all kinds is that women must choose between power and protection," McCluskey says. "We can be strong, we are told, only if we remain silent and keep our problems private. Men, on the other hand, especially economically privileged white heterosexual men, can have it both ways -- their demands for public protection are taken as a sign of their power and responsibility."

McCluskey uses date-rape policies as an example. Critics claim, she points out, that strict date-rape policies "infantilize" women by assuming that women cannot resist offensive male advances on their own.

"If this is so," she asks, "then the U.S. military's strict anti-gay policies infantilize soldiers in assuming they couldn't resist the mere mention of a comrade's same-sex desires."

She points to the Anita Hill allegations of sexual harassment by Clarence Thomas as another example of the double standard applied to women.

This double standard, says McCluskey, excuses men's fears of feminist harm as natural and reasonable, while condemning women's fears of male harm as hysterical or devious.

"Innumerable media stories warn that feminist concerns about oppressive male power run to exaggeration and excess," she says. "The child's kiss, the compliment, the offhand joke, they say, are turned by maniacal feminists into a sexual-harassment charge.

"But where are the comparable stories warning against excess and exaggeration in the concerns expressed by heterosexual white males about oppressive feminist power?" she demands.

McCluskey calls for the rejection of stereotypes -- "not just those of tough men and weak women, but of tough, autonomous individuals and weak, irresponsible victims.

"As men and women, we have a responsibility toward the development of our society, toward our own intellectual honesty and that of our children to recognize the power and responsibility involved in claims of victimhood," McCluskey says. "At the same time, it is imperative that we also recognize the fact that public protection and interdependence are necessary if we are to foster self-reliant strength and true equality."

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