Joan Scott and Thomas Reid: The Problem of Historical Idealism

Feminist historians and feminist historiography have begun to make headway
into the discipline of history. Historians such as Joan Scott are said to offer
a fresh, innovative perspective on historical inquiry.

This paper examines Scott’s Gender and the Politics of History
in which she lays out her arguments and proscriptions for a feminist theory
of history. It is the contention of this paper that rather than any new or unique
ideas, Scott’s historiography represents a regression to the ideas and
notions advocated by the idealist philosophers of the 17th and 18th centuries.
Scott merely updates and adds a few twists on George Berkeley’s extreme skepticism.

Idealism is highly suspect when applied to the direct experience of
the world, and, this paper will argue, all but incoherent when applied to historical
inquiry. As a counter to Scott’s idealism, the works of Scottish philosopher
Thomas Reid will be examined. Reid was a severe critic of the idealists and
offered an alternative which is easily adapted to a historical context to not
only refute Scott’s idealism, but also to point the way to how a positive
historiography might be formulated.

The Role of Gender and Knowledge

For Scott, as with most feminist scholars, gender is the key concept.
Scott defines gender as a special type of knowledge about sexual differences.
To understand how this differs from standard ideas of gender or sex requires
understanding Scott’s peculiar theory of knowledge.

Borrowing from French philosopher Michel Foucault, Scott makes several
claims about knowledge. First, “such knowledge is not absolute or true,
but always relative.” Knowledge, especially historical knowledge, in this
sense is not to be mistaken for apprehending in the mind facts and ideas which
correspond to things existing in the world. Instead knowledge in this sense
involves little more than knowing the socially-agreed up on “correct”
answers to specific questions.

Second, since it is not absolute and does not correspond to anything
actually existing in the world, knowledge must be wholly socially constructed
by institutions and power relationships within society. The interaction between
these various institutions of meaning creation means knowledge is “produced
in complex ways within large epistemic frames that themselves have an (at least
quasi-) autonomous history.”

The upshot of these first two claims is that according to Scott’s
view, knowledge cannot exist absent social organization. Knowledge exists only
in a social context.

After wading through all of Scott’s jargon, this boils down to
little more than the One Way Street theory of knowledge. There is, of course,
no inherent property which requires that some roads be one way rather than two-way,
nor no way to determine which roads are actually one-way rather than two-way
without appropriate signs. That a particular road is designated one way is in
all cases socially constructed knowledge — it is impossible for such knowledge
to exist a priori. What Scott asks us to believe is that almost all
knowledge is constructed in this way — exclusively through the agreed upon
arbitrary conventions developed over long period of time through the interactions
of people and institutions in particular societies.

It is this theoretical structure which leads Scott to conclude that the
concept of gender completely excludes any real biological differences between
men and women. In Scott’s view, physical and/or psychological differences
between men and women in and of themselves imply nothing about the concepts
of “man” and “woman” — any conceptual difference assigned
to the concepts by historians is entirely socially constructed. “These
meanings vary across cultures, social groups, and time since nothing about the
body, including women’s reproductive organs, determines unequivocally how
social divisions will be shaped.”

Rather than sexual difference being used to explain patterns of social
organization, it is social organization which instead explains sexual difference.
Since history and historical inquiry are part of the social organization, it
too is responsible in part for determining the particular context of sexual
difference. A chief goal of feminist historiography, then, is to deconstruct
existing history and historiography to analyze how “history’s representations
of the past construct gender for the present.”

Feminist Politics

One of the things that jumps out at the critical reader of Scott’s
book is how boldly she not only concedes but actually celebrates the fact that
the aforementioned principles are adopted by feminist historians mainly because
they serve overtly political goals. Not since the nationalist historians argued
that history was a tool to be used to promote the state/nation have historians
been as bold as feminist theorists are outlining the imperative that history
serve political ends.

Claiming that most historians in the United States are not trained to
analyze the theories of history they use, Scott explains how she delved into
theoretical considerations to alleviate her “frustration” at the lack
of progress in women’s history.

My motive was and is one I share with other feminists and it is avowedly
political: to point out and change inequalities between women and men. It is
a motive, moreover, that feminists share with those concerned to change the
representation of other groups left out of history because of race, ethnicity
and class as well as gender.

It is not enough, for example, to merely update histories to correct
for past bias which may have excluded women from consideration for not other
reason than that they were women. Instead the whole edifice of history, including
the very concept of categorizing people as “men” or “women”
must be challenged as discriminatory in and of itself (Scott 4). As Scott puts
it, “a more radical feminist politics (and a more radical feminist history)
seems to me to require a more radical epistemology.”

Scott asserts that traditional historical methodology cannot effectively
deal with the problem of gender because no “unanimity” exists for
the category of gender as it, she suggests, does for class (through Marx’s model
of economic determination and historical change) as well as a whole host of
sociolinguistic determinations and definitions that defy description of the
subject, and therefore, prevent any accurate histories from addressing it.

For the most part, the attempts of historians to theorize about gender
have remained within traditional social scientific frameworks, using long-standing
formulations that provide universal causal explanations. These theories have
been limited at best because they tend to contain reductive or overly simple
generalizations that undercut not only history’s disciplinary sense of the complexity
of social causations but also feminist commitments to analyses that will lead
to change.

The suggested analyses employed by feminist historians are only three:
the feminist attempt to discover and define the origins of the patriarchy, the
Marxist tradition of economic action and reaction, and the psychoanalysis of
history popularized by the French post-structuralists and the American object-relations
theorists. None of these, however, can be shown to consistently give the sort
of explanation that the scientific methodologically writing of history requires.

What This Means for Historiography

Taken together Scott’s position would dramatically change history
— perhaps render it both impossible and irrelevant. As Scott concedes, her
theories render history little more than a discipline entirely self-reflective
of the particular historian.

It [Scott’s attack on objectivity] also undermines the historian’s
ability to claim neutral mastery or to present any particular story as if it
were complete, universal, and objectively determined. Instead, if one grants
that meanings are constructed through exclusions, one must acknowledge and take
responsibility for the exclusions involved in one’s own project. Such a
reflexive, self-critical approach makes apparent the particularistic status
of any historical knowledge and the historian’s active role as a producer
of knowledge. It undermines claims for authority based on totalizing explanations,
essentialized categories of analysis (be they human nature, race, class, sex,
or “the oppressed”, or synthetic narratives that assume an inherent
unity for the past.

What is left of history, however, if there is not basis for any objective
knowledge? Scott claims that this sort of deconstruction does not necessarily
lead to the destruction of history as well, writing,

Although deconstruction has been labeled ‘nihilistic’ and ‘destructive’
by its critics, these epithets seem to me to be substitutes for serious evaluations
of its possibilities. It may be that some deconstructive critics pursue an endless
exposure of contradiction and are thereby unable to endorse or comfortably advocate
a political program of their own. But there are also evident examples of a politics
empowered by this approach, politics that are not only critical of existing
social hierarchies but able to point out the premises of their operations; politics
that are self-consciously critical of their own justifications and exclusions
… Their advantage is an ability to address institutional and intellectual
questions in the same way, to refuse such oppositions as those between materialism
and idealism, subjects studied and disciplinary studies of them, by approaching
all of these as aspects of the production of knowledge and power — conceived
not as a unitary process but as multiple and conflicting processes.

Certainly, however, history is left with little when the subject itself
shifts and twists in the wind, unable to be pinned down, and therefore, analyzed.

…’women’ is historically, discoursively constructed, and always
relatively to other categories which themselves change; ‘women’ is a volatile
collectivity in which female persons can be very differently positioned, so
that the apparent continuity of the subject of; ‘women’ isn’t to be relied on;
‘women’ is both synchronically and diachronically erratic as a collectivity,
while for the individual, ‘ being a woman’ is also inconstant, and can’t provide
an ontological foundation.

The Case Against Scott’s Feminist Theory of History

Is what Scott is proposing a reasonable alternative historiography? The
answer must be no. Despite her claims to the contrary it is hard to see how
the philosophical framework she suggests leads to anything but nihilism.

Like the idealists alluded to in the beginning of this paper, Scott and
her ilk end up arguing that there is no reliable based for any sort of certainty
about knowledge. As George Berkeley asserted,

…it follows, there is not any other substance than spirit, or that
which perceives … But say you, though the ideas themselves do not exist without
the mind, yet there may be things like them whereof they are copies or resemblances,
which things exist without the mind, in an unthinking substance. I answer, an
idea can be like nothing but an idea; a colour or figure can be like nothing
but another colour or figure. If we look but ever so little into our thoughts,
we shall find it impossible for us to conceive a likeness except only between
our ideas.

Whereas the idealists criticized sensory perception because the senses
are demonstrably fallible, Scott asks us to essentially reject the idea that
true historical knowledge is possible since the perception/creation of knowledge
almost always occurs in a social context and such knowledge is also demonstrably
fallible. Just as it is an enormous leap from the position that our senses sometimes
deceive us to the qualitatively different claim that we should never trust them,
so it is not clear that merely because some knowledge perceived/created in a
social context in the past has been erroneous and some knowledge is likely to
prove erroneous in the future, therefore we should reject even the possibility
that any true knowledge can exist in a social construct.

Deconstructionist and postmodern arguments rarely even attempt to justify
the logical leap from the rather mundane proposition that bias among historians
exists to the radical proposition that the presence of such bias makes a true
history impossible. Scott in fact seems to confuse things by imagining the two
separate propositions are identical or at the very least naturally follow from
each other. They do not.

The obvious criticisms of using this as a basis for historiography is
that those who promote it are never able to do so consistently. When Scott claims
that “such knowledge is not absolute or true, but always
relative” (emphasis added), she begs the question of just how committed
to the true relativism of knowledge even hardcore deconstructionists can be.

Consider how Scott tries to get out of the box of hardcore skepticism.
After saying all knowledge is socially constructed she runs the risk of having
critics turn her own analytical tools against her and point out that her own
claims about history are equally invalid or valid as the “patriarchal”
histories she is seeking to overturn. The best she can do is argue that the
nihilistic treadmill of successive deconstructions is actually an advantage.

It is precisely by exposing the illusion of the permanence or enduring
truth of any particular knowledge of sexual difference that feminism necessarily
historicizes history and politics and opens the way for change. If gender is
to be rethought, if new knowledge about sexual difference is to be produced
(knowledge that calls into question even the primacy of the male/female opposition),
then we must also be willing to rethink the history of politics and the politics
of history.

But of course any knowledge produced by this sort of cyclical synthesis
is also simply not true. In an effort to escape the “oppressive” edifice
of permanent truth, Scott creates a historical framework in which the carpet
is ripped out from under historians only to be replaced and ripped out again
ad nauseum with no hope of improvement. That Scott is unwilling to
characterize this process as nihilistic suggest it is she who is unwilling to
truly examine closely the framework she creates.

The other major problem with Scott’s theory of history is that it
is non-falsifiable. The principle of falsification for scientific theories holds
that no theory should be able to explain all possible outcomes; as defined by
Ronald Pine discussing philosophy and the scientific method,

…a scientific theory must be refutable in principle; a circumstance
or a set of circumstances must potentially exist such that if observed it would
logically prove the theory wrong.

The problem with such theories is that there is simply no way to demonstrate
whether they are correct or not by appealing to the evidence, because no matter
what is offered the theory will be able to explain it.

Any historiographical theory which does not adhere to this requirement
does not deserve to be considered a valid historiographical theory. Marxist
historiography or cyclical historiographical explanations are falsifiable, for
example. It is possible to examine evidence from the world and compare it to
those respective historiographical frameworks and in principle at least prove
them wrong. Many people, including this writer, for example, believe that both
the Marxist and cyclical theories of history have been falsified. Obviously
others disagree, but at least in principle neither theory explains all possible

The feminist theory Scott advocates lacks this feature. It is simply
impossible under any circumstances to demonstrate through evidentiary means
that the theory is false. By effectively explaining any and all such outcomes,
this sort of postmodernist theory should not be considered as a valid historiographical

Scott makes excellent use of this particular aspect of her theory. Early
on she claims that sex differences are not biological but are socially constructed.
It is possible to provide a wealth of data and information that cast doubt on
that claim, but Scott can dismiss such evidence easily by simply noting that
any evidence offered in rebuttal is also “social constructed” and
not actually true.

Of course it is also not false which brings up the flip-side of this
problem for Scott. Just as her opponents can never prove her theory false, similarly
she can never demonstrate their theories to be false. Consider, for example,
a historian who might argue that sexual difference is a result of female’s
average lower physical performance in the areas of strength and endurance. Scott
can never consistently say these theories are false — the most she can claim
is they are alternative socially constructed theories which have exactly the
same truth value as her own.

After cutting through her jargon and logic, this is where Scott’s
theory leaves us. The feminist theorists who adopts Scott’s framework can
never demonstrate that her theory is true while an objective theory of history
is false, and must inevitably concede that all possible explanations of history
are equally valid or invalid.

If this is not nihilism, at the very least it should be an extremely
uncomfortable position to end up holding.

An Alternative to the Feminist-Idealist Historiography

Thomas Reid (1710-96) is known as the founder of the “Scottish School
of Common Sense” and is best known for his critique of the idealists such
as Berkeley who, like Scott, attempted to undercut the very idea of knowledge
based on a reality accessible to human beings.

Many of Reid’s criticisms apply amazingly well to the postmodernist/deconstructionist
effort to deny any true reality. In his Essay on the Intellectual Powers,
Reid laid out a theory of judgment that provides an excellent foundational model
for any historiographical theory.

To formulate any theory of knowledge, according to Reid, we must begin
with first principles. But how do we judge first principles to determine whether
or not they are correct? Reid holds, and I believe quite correctly, that we
use a “common sense” faculty to judge first principles as believable
or absurd.

We may observe that opinions which contradict first principles, are
distinguished, from other errors, by this: — That they are not only false but
absurd; and, to discountenance absurdity, Nature hath given us a particular
emotion — to wit, that of ridicule… .

Contrary to the arguments of people such as Scott, people do appear to
inherit certain fundamental non-primitive cognitive functions, and although
there is no room here to make a sociobiological and cognitive defense of Reid’s
claim, it is difficult to imagine how such basically held beliefs, such as the
law of non-contradiction, could ever arise if they must do so entirely in a
social context.

Reid provides a lengthy discussion on how people can inspect first principles
and determine if they are true or false, but only one need concern us here —
the ad absurdum argument. As Reid explains it,

In this kind of proof, which is very common in mathematics, we suppose
the contradictory proposition to be true. We trace the consequences of that
supposition in a train of reasoning; and, if we find any of its necessary consequences
to be manifestly absurd, we conclude the supposition from which it followed
to be false; and, therefore its contradictory to be true.

I believe this has already been done with Scott’s version of feminist
history, but merely demonstrating her theory to be absurd doesn’t provide an
alternative to show how historical inquiry should proceed. Fortunately, Reid
provides the way to a positive theory of knowledge which serves this goal admirably.

Reid notes that there are two sorts of truths. The first is necessary
truth, and one hopes even Scott would not be willing to deny that a necessary
truth is necessarily true. That one-third of 33 is 11 is a necessary truth.

What historians must deal with, however, are contingent truths. They
may or may not be true, and they may or may not be true over time. A statement
such as, “Bill Clinton is the president of the United States,” is
an example of a contingent truth. The statement may be either true or false,
and its truth value will change over time (it may be true today, but will likely
not be true in 2002).

The feminist-idealist approach to the non-necessary nature of contingent
truths is simply to throw their hands up in the air and declare the existence
of truths impossible.

Instead, Reid argues that one of the first principles relating to contingent
truths is that we can rely upon the faculties of reason to distinguish between
truth and error.

Another first principle is — That the natural faculties, by which
we distinguish truth from error, are not fallacious
. If any man should demand
a proof of this, it is impossible to satisfy him. For, suppose it should be
mathematically demonstrated, this would signify nothing in this case; because,
to judge of a demonstration, a man must trust his faculties, and take for granted
the very thing in question.

This does not guarantee that any particular claim about a historical
fact is correct, but it does guarantee that it is at least theoretically possible
to discern whether or not a given statement about history is true or false.

At this point we have arrived at the antithesis of Scott’s claims about
historiography. If this analysis is sound, it follows that there do exist a
set of statements about history which are objectively better than all other
combinations of statements, since we can always judge competing explanations
of history and, at least in theory, objectively value the truth of statements
such as “History X is a superior explanation of events than history Y.”

Numerous obstacles both psychological and material may prevent historians
from ever reaching that plateau, but to dismiss it as a chimera and instead
attempt to construct a meaningful theory of non-meaning as Scott does takes
history in the wrong direction. Rather than take future historiographies into
the wasteland of postmodernism and deconstructionism, instead history must remain
informed by objective, scientific (thought not necessarily positivist) theories
of knowledge in order to remain relevant.


Berkeley, George. “Principles of Human Knowledge, part 1.”
Central Readings in the History of Modern Philosophy, Robert Cummins
and David Owen, ed. Belmont CA: Wadsworth Publishing, Co., 1992.

Breisach, Ernst. Historiography. 2d ed. Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1994.

Foucault, Michel. The Order of Things: An archaeology of the human
. New York: Vintage Press, 1973.

Lehrer, Keith. Thomas Reid. New York: Routledge, 1989.

Pine, Ronald C. Science and the Human Prospect. Belmont CA: Wadsworth
Publishing Co., 1989.

Reid, Thomas. Inquiry and Essays. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing
Co., Inc., 1983.

Riley, Denise. Am I that Name?: Feminism and the category of ‘women’
in history
. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988.

Scott, Joan Wallach. Gender and the Politics of History. New York:
Columbia University Press, 1988.

Renate D. Klein and the Triumph of Passion and Politics in Women’s Studies

All quoted material from “Passion and Politics in Women’s Studies
in the Nineties.” Renate D. Klein. In Sheila Ruth, ed. “Issues
In Feminism,” pp. 37-44.

Ruth’s introductory essay
on Women’s Studies would be a
hard act to follow, but Ruth finds someone who she can feel comfortable
with — Renate D. Klein, a professor at Deakin University in Australia.

Klein is concerned with moving Women’s
Studies forward in the 1990s. As she puts it,

Passion and politics, in interaction with a politics of curiosity and
a politics of responsibility, are magic ingredients in the creation
and distribution of the sort of feminist knowledge/vision that has the
potential to move Women’s Studies (WS) — and its participants
with it — “out of the margins” in the 1990s and beyond (Klein

Klein traces the history of the
Women’s Studies programs to the “Women’s Liberation Movement”
in the late sixties and early seventies. According to Klein, Women’s
Studies was intended as the educational arm of that movement.

Above all, WS [Women’s Studies] is an active force: women
are both (and often simultaneously) subject and object of the knowledge
generated and transmitted, thus creating a dynamic interaction
exemplary of the WS movement per se (Klein 38).

For her doctoral dissertation, Klein
surveyed 158 Women’s Studies professors (“practitioners”
in Women’s Studies jargon). She reports the professors were ideologically
diverse though racially homogenous — as she puts it, Women’s Studies
suffers from “white dominance” (Klein 39).

Klein then goes on to subdivide
feminists scholarship into three separate categories/stages. First up
is “reaction, re-vision.” This involves assessing women “in
relation to the pervasive masculinism in existing scholarship: it is a
critique of androcentricity and focuses on absence and distortion of women
from the non-feminist structure of knowledge” (Klein 39). Note that
masculinism is not a hypothesis to be tested but an assumption to be made
about all areas of knowledge. By definition if it exists within
the framework of the traditional university, it is “masculinist.”

The second branch of feminist research
is “action, vision: assessing women with a gynocentric world view.”
This involves the interdisciplinary aspect of Women’s Studies which
feminists always talk up. This aspect leads to a transformation, “The
androcentric framework ceases to be the point of reference: what happens
is a paradigmatic shift, creating new theories and methodologies for teaching
and research” (Klein 40).

Finally, there is the last and,
to Klein, the most ambitious form of Women’s Studies scholarship,
“revision/vision, re-action/action combined.” This “conceptualizes
WS research and curriculum as synthesizing revision and vision i.e., as
both critiquing androcentric scholarship as well as making an “imaginative
leap” towards the creation of knowledge (vision, action)” (CITE).

These three processes could be
restated far simpler. First, a political objective is identified. Second,
a new political theory is created. Third, a new political action plan
is issued. As we saw with Ruth’s essay, what this involves is the
wholesale rejection of traditional notions of truth and even attempts
at any sort of objectivity.

In fact endeavoring to be objective
and forgetting to engage in overtly political acts can be a detriment
for the Women’s Study professor. In a footnote, Klein comments on
the perceptions students have of such professors,

The lesser involvement of WS teachers in feminist activism created
a considerable amount of tension for many WS students in my study.
They were disappointed that in some cases the teachers’ feminism
remained aloof and removed from women’s “real lifes”,
in particular with regard to the various forms of violence against
women and feminist resistance against it in the form of anti-pornography
campaigns or shelters for battered women. (Klein 43).

What these students apparently complained to Klein about is also what
Ruth described in her opening essay as a pitfall of Women’s Studies
— that feminists may turn away from political activism in favor of scholarly
undertakings. Ruth’s response, as well as Klein’s, seems to
be to forestall this by overtly politicizing academia.

For Klein, like Ruth, the solution
is a variation of consciousness-raising. The stodgy old ideas of doing
scholarship aren’t nearly as exciting as direct political action
in the classroom. Ruth describes the role of this sort of activity.

Needless to say, WS classrooms often bristle not only with the dynamics
of intellectual excitement, but also with emotional energy. WS courses
challenge participants to critically evaluate all knowledge and draw
conclusions that often necessitate changes in our political/personal
lives. (Klein 39).

Specific political issues the Women’s Studies “gynagogy”
must deal with include,

… the problems of cross-cultural similarity and diversity; white
dominance; heterosexism; the relationship between WS and the Women’s
Liberation Movement; the hidden curriculum (e.g., hierarchies, power
differences, grading); men in WS. (Klein 44).

An area Klein is especially concerned about is the growth of women’s
studies programs across the world. Klein makes several claims about the
condition of women worldwide which she never bothers to back up.

While WS may be getting stronger and stronger globally, and more
diversified, the feminization of poverty and women’s illiteracy
are increasing worldwide. Sheer survival is getting tougher: women’s
nutrition, and consequently women’s and children’s health
is worsening, and male violence against women, be it incest, sexual
harassment, date rape, rape in and outside marriage, criminal assault
at the home, pornography and prostitution — and with the latest toy
of technopatriarchy, the crimes of gene and reproductive technology
— are all increasing (Klein 41).

It’s difficult to make a point by point rebuttal of Klein’s
claims since she simply asserts them, but a few such as the claim about
women and children’s nutrition is clearly false based on data from
the United Nations and the Food and Agricultural Organization.

But the real problem on the horizon
for Women’s Studies is the rise of something called Gender Studies.
The problem with gender studies is that “gender is such a neutral
term” (Klein 41) that even a man can do it. Gender Studies insists
on “studying women and men in relation to one another: a much narrower
aim than WS’ claim to study the whole world from a feminist perspective”
(Klein 41).

In other words, two competing political
ideologies disguised as legitimate academic exercise thrashing it out
for supremacy. Yawn!

What is interesting about Klein’s
critique of Gender Studies is that its advocates seem to emphasize something
that strikes fear in the heart of feminists — exploration of differences
between men and women. Apparently this “difference” virus is
catching on faster than feminists can react. Klein complains that “theories
of sexualities, especially lesbian sexuality, are now celebrating eroticized
power differences among women and ridiculing sexual relations based on
equality” (Klein 41). She quotes from a researcher Diane Hamer who
dares praise this sort of change (Klein 41).

The focus on difference leads to the ultimate
feminist heterodoxy — discussion of individuals rather than the collective.
“There is much talk about ‘individual pleasure’ promoted
under the guise of ‘choice.’ Political thought and action is
‘out,’ ‘in’ is a libertarian ideology that fosters
individualism and is centered around ‘difference’.” (Klein

The barbarians are at the gates unleashing
the individualistic hordes! Somebody man (er, people) the walls.

It’s getting so bad that some “sexual
liberals” are even coming out pro-pornography, which only

… defuses the inherent women-hating nature of patriarchal power and
one of its cornerstones, pornography, in the making of which real
live women are hurt, indeed sometimes killed. The students’ sense
of dignity and their/our embodied ‘right’ to integrity of
body and soul may be destabilized and numbed: the beginning of another
generation of woman-hating ideologies with a tyranny of tolerance
— anything goes as long as somebody ‘desires’ it — at
the expense of their own freedom? (Klein 42).

Jean Jacques-Rosseau, that great forefather of both fascist and democratic
ideologies, famously wrote that some people simply had to be forced to
be free. With a flourish about the “tyranny of tolerance” and
criticizing some women for having the gall to seek their own pleasure
and desires, Klein walks in Rousseau’s footsteps.

But Klein goes further. She sneaks in
genetic engineering and other reproductive technologies, deconstructionism
and sees a new zeitgeist that threatens the entire Women’s
Studies project.

… [it] is a serious threat to everything that is connect, that is interactive
and whole, that wants and insists on continuities and commonalties
— which are, in fact some of the cherished values of feminism and
WS. Instead, the cutters with words and knives prefer difference.
This not only splits women into non-entities, thereby seriously damaging
a woman’s sense of self and sense of identity; it also splits
women from each other; one of patriarchy’s best tools to keep
women from forming a join resistance movement (Klein 42).

Like some strange version of the collectivist Borg aliens from Star
, any interruption of the feminist hive mind apparently threatens
the destruction of women everywhere.

Klein has a solution — make Women’s
Studies even more political. Women’s Studies professors and
students should be,

Recognizing how the increasingly cruel global technology machine
is numbing us, swallowing us, killing some of us. Resisting such necrophilic
politics with passion, with alliances among women around the globe.
Working together if this is what all want, or respecting our different
priorities by supporting one another’s actions, if this is preferred.
(Klein 43).

The solution is to ignore differences and emphasize similarities.

Looking for commonalties instead of differences: it is bonds, not
divisions, which will make us powerful. For women to disown another,
I think is suicidal politics. (Klein 43).

Instead women should be feminist lemmings in their attempts to “acting
with truly radical, passionate politics will contribute to real
change for the better in the lives of real women globally, which
is, after all, what WS set out to do” (CITE).

A related problem preventing the
unity in Women’s Studies that Klein wants to see is the presence
of men in the classroom. Like Ruth, Klein generally sees men’s presence
in Women’s Studies courses as a wholly negative phenomenon, but for
reasons which would likely be celebrated in any other part of the university.

… they (men) usually manage to attract undue attention, divide
the women on the course and, importantly, change the climate from
one where female students take risks in speaking out to a hetero-relationally
controlled atmosphere. (Klein 44).

This feminist fear of dissent is itself indicative of a weakness of the
entire Women’s Studies edifice. Apparently a few men in a few classes
can disrupt the whole project.

As the reader will see in examining the
essays in Ruth’s book, this fear of dissent is well warranted —
much of what passes under the banner of Women’s Studies doesn’t
stand up under even the most cursory scrutiny. But this is a problem with
Women’s Studies practitioners and authors, not the people in the
classes who notice the factual errors, logical fallacies and inconsistencies.

Steinem finds ‘truth’ behind Valentine’s Day love fools

By Elisabeth

“You’re just another victim.”
-House of Pain

Millions of American women
will celebrate Valentine’s Day Friday with their boyfriends, husbands
and significant others, all the while completely oblivious to how oppressive,
degrading and dangerous this holiday is.

Valentine’s Day, of course,
aims at celebrating romance – that complex dance between two people falling
in love. What most women don’t realize is that romance is an unnatural
idea created by patriarchal institutions to keep women in their place.

Gloria Steinem, long-time
feminist activist, is one of the few people to see through the surface
of romance to expose the debilitating undercurrents it entails. She describes
the horrors of romance in her 1992 book, Revolution From Within.

Romance, according to Steinem,
is little more than a political ideology which reinforces the patriarchy.
“Romance itself,” she writes, “serves a larger political
purpose by offering at least a temporary reward for gender roles and threatening
rebels with loneliness and rejection.”

It’s so obvious when you think
about it – romance is a form of blackmail. Either conform to the patriarchy
or forget about having any more dates. What an insidious plot! But it
gets even worse.

“(Romance) also minimizes
the very anti-patriarchal and revolutionary possibility that women and
men will realize each other’s shared humanity when we are together physically
for the sexual and procreative purposes society needs.”

Whew! Steinem’s hit the mother
lode. Now it’s clear why men never quite seemed human. It could have been
just a misunderstanding, but now Steinem has proven it’s the oppressive
ideology of romance. Now you know too – pass it on.

By now you might be thinking
something’s strange here. Some women don’t seem to find romance such a
bad thing. A few even seem to be enjoying it! How could that be? Leave
it to Steinem to peer into our hearts and diagnose the true problem.

“The Roman ‘bread and
circuses’ way of keeping the masses happy – and the French saying that
‘marriage is the only adventure open to the middle class’ – might now
be updated. The circus of romance distracts us with what is, from society’s
point of view, a safe adventure.”

Romance is like a bad sitcom.
It lulls you to sleep so you forget how depressing the evening news was
and makes you forget you’re dating evil male oppressors. Love truly is

Romance does something far
worse than merely further women’s oppression, however. It turns them into
bloodthirsty killers. It’s amazing no one noticed the connection before.

“Though women mainly
become violent in self-defense or in defense of their children, the power
of romantic obsession is so great – and women are so much more subject
to it – that even ‘feminine’ nonviolent conditioning can be overcome.
When women do commit violent crimes, they are even more likely than a
man’s to be attributable to romance rather than economics, whether that
means the rare crime in which a woman kills out of jealousy or the more
frequent one in which a woman is an accessory to a crime initiated by
her husband or lover.”

What an incredible explanation
for violent crime by women. Why do some women kill? Romance made them
do it. Sure beats the Twinkie defense, though the famous Fuhrman-frame
up is still far and away the best answer.

This does help explain an
interesting result of studies of violence between couples. Researchers
such as Richard Gelles report that women and men tend to commit violent
acts against each other at almost identical rates. This is a mystifying
result until you realize both are slaves to the romantic impulse. Then
it all starts to fit together.

Don’t think you’re getting
off easy if you’re gay or lesbian. The problem with gays and lesbians,
according to Steinem, is that not only do they internalize the bad romantic
habits their parents might have engaged in, but some gay and lesbian couples
exaggerate romantic gender roles.

“Sometimes, gender roles
produce an exaggerated version known as doubling, in which two men together
become twice as aggressive, unempathetic, unavailable for intimacy, but
promiscuous about sex; or two women together may become twice as passive,
dependent on one another, and focused on intimacy, with or without sex.”

So this Valentine’s Day remember
– you may think you’re an independent woman and you may even think women
have made enormous progress over the last 30 years, but as far as Steinem’s
concerned, you’re just another victim.

True Believers

This is a rough draft of an article
on an article Ms. published in February 1993 on ritual abuse. A finished
version of this article will appear at this URL by April 1, 1998.

The cover illustration for the February
1993 issue of Ms. was certainly one of the most dramatic for
any magazine that year. In the center is a naked child with arms outstretched
as if struggling and a look of terror on his or her face. Encircling the
child are three snakes, their coils overlapping, each possessing human-like
heads with outstretched forked tongues menacing the child.

The copy is simple and stark, placed
on three lines “Believe It! Cult Ritual Abuse Exists/One Woman’s

Inside the magazine the reader
finds the accompanying 6 page article, “Surviving the unbelievable:
a first-person account of cult ritual abuse,” which purports to recount
one woman’s tale of her family’s multi-generational involvement
in a satanic cult. Reading the article, just how believable is this “unbelievable”
tale? Should the reader just “believe it” as the cover suggest?
And what would believing this account entail?

A Rose by any other name

The first red flag that pops up
is the author of the article itself — Elizabeth S. Rose. Rose does not
exist; she is a pseudonym invented by the author of the article. There
is no way anyone reading this article can in any way, shape or form hope
to find any corroborating evidence for Rose’s claims. The people
Rose accuses of numerous capital crimes will never have a chance to respond
to her accusations. All the reader has to go on is what Rose herself says,
and according to the editors at Ms. everyone’s just supposed
to “believe it!”

Leaving aside the details of Rose’s
story for the moment, this is asking readers to be extraordinarily credulous.
Should people simply believe anything said by anonymous authors with no
possibility of corroborating the author’s story?

The second red flag is the details
in the story itself. Although Rose has the opportunity to tell her side
of the story with no risk of challenge, parts of her story are confusing.
For example, it’s never quite clear whether Rose has always had memories
of the alleged ritual abuse or whether she believes she repressed them
and then recovered them in therapy. She claims early in her story that
“Although I had been sworn to secrecy as a child, only two months
earlier I had begun talking in therapy about my cult experiences.”
A few sentences later she refers to her “long-repressed terror”
that gripped her while caring for her sick child.

Near the end of her account, she
allows how it was difficult for her to tell her paternal grandparents
of the abuse she was suffering and notes how

dissociation and repression of memories make disclosure very difficult.
The victim may not have conscious awareness that abuse took place. If
memories do emerge years later, descriptions of the rituals are so bizarre
that they are often discounted as untrue.

Rose appears to be writing as if
this describes her case, and in fact although it is not explicitly stated,
it is likely that many of Rose’s memories are very recent. Furthermore
it is extremely likely that her memories were created as part of some
sort of “recovered memory therapy.” Rose describes being in
an ambulance with her daughter who is very ill when,

seeing my baby so close to death brought forth startling flashbacks.
I could hear my uncle’s voice; I could even smell his sweat, as
I remembered his chilling words: ‘When you grow up, I’m gonna
kill your babies the same way we killed your baby sister, understand?
Babies deserve to die. Satan wants their blood, especially girl babies,
because they taste so good.

Typically in therapy designed to
“recover” long-repressed memories, patients are instructed in
the therapy session that they more than likely have been abused and will
be able to correct whatever problem they are facing in life by recovering
those memories. Memories can be recovered in a variety of ways from hypnotic
and trance-like states, dream interpretation, any of a number of written
exercises designed to induce alternative states of cognition, etc. The
particulars of the debate over recovered memory are beyond the scope of
this article, except to note that many former patients are convinced that
these techniques have a distinct possibility of creating a set of memories
which do not accurately describe the patient’s past (in fact many
are now winning lawsuits against their former therapists). The sort of
things Rose describes is typical of what someone in a recovered memory
therapy setting might experience.

Before moving on to the details
of her account of ritual abuse, it is important to note that Rose herself
recognizes she is prone to fantasy about her ritual abuse experiences.
In describing her ambulance trip with her 15-month-old daughter, who apparently
contracted meningitis, Rose at first appears to believe the Satanic cult
is behind her daughter’s illness.

I had betrayed the cult [by talking about it with her therapist] —
and now revenge was being taken against my daughter. Or so it seemed.
I thought my daughter’s illness a punishment brought down by the
cult, or by Satan — maybe even by God, because of my cult involvement.
Long-repressed terror gripped me; irrational thoughts filled my mind.
[Rose goes on to describe the flashback experience quoted above of seeing
her uncle threaten to kill her.]

Consider, then, Rose’s beliefs about her fears, fantasies and reality
when it comes to the Satanic cult which allegedly abused her for years.

On the way to the hospital she
is clearly in an agitated state, believing there is a good chance her
infant daughter may die. She has recently started remembering experiences
as a child where she was allegedly abused by a cult for a number of years.
Suddenly a maddening thought pops into her mind — what if the cult made
her daughter sick to get back at her for revealing its secrets? What if
Satan himself is punishing her for defying him? But ultimately Rose rejects
this explanation. As she puts it, “revenge was being taken against
my daughter. Or so it seemed.” A brief note at the end of the article
claims that Rose’s two children in fact “have never been exposed
to cult activities.”

Apparently Rose’s fear that
the cult induced the meningitis in her daughter was an example of the
“irrational thoughts [that] filled my mind.”

But, despite this, she is absolutely
convinced the flashbacks of her uncle threatening to cannibalize her represent
actual historical events. As she puts it, “this was the reality I
had been taught as a child.”

Without any sort of corroborating
evidence available to decide the issue, it certainly doesn’t seem
impossible that a woman so agitated she wrongly fears a Satanic cult has
induced a horrible disease in her child, might also erroneously come to
believe her uncle once threatened to kill and eat her. At the very least
the reader should demand an accounting on how Rose decides which, if any,
of the sudden impressions she receives in such an agitated state correspond
to reality. How does she decide that it only “seemed” to be
the cult that caused her daughter’s illness, but it is a “reality”
that her uncle threatened her?

The devil is in the details

So what form did this cult and its
ritual abuse of Rose take? Rose claims she was involved in a cult of “approximately
20 adults and eight to ten children.” She believes her family’s’
involvement in this particular cult stretches over generations, extending
back at least to her maternal grandmother who indoctrinated Rose’s
mother in the cult “at a very young age” (in fact, Rose writes,
her family’s involvement in the cult “probably goes back further.”)
In turn Rose’s mother indoctrinated her into the cult “when
I was four or five years old.” Other members of Rose’s family,
including an aunt and the aforementioned uncle, participated in the acts
of ritual abuse Rose claims she witnessed.

Although she describes her mother’s
family as “[an] otherwise ordinary middle-class family,” in
fact unbeknownst to the rest of the community “our Saturday nights
were regularly spent at explicitly satanic cult meetings held in a cabin
in the country, a site the cult owned specifically for ritual purposes.”

The theology of the cult bears
a striking resemblance to feminist criticisms of Christianity (a point
Rose makes on at least one occasion). The Satanic cult at least on the
surface idolizes women, but of course underneath women are valued only
as sexual objects or for their ability to bear offspring (shades of the
Madonna/whore archetypes), and in fact women are treated exceedingly poorly
by the cult; in fact the worst of the abuse is reserved for the women.

Rose claims she witnesses numerous
acts of horrifying brutality. When her mother becomes pregnant and the
cult becomes convinced the fetus is a female, the mother allows labor
to be induced so that the baby may be sacrificed,

My mother became pregnant a few months after I was inducted into the
cult. About seven months later, the cult decided she was carrying a
girl child. Her labor was induced and the infant delivered prematurely
by the cult doctor at our house. I witnessed the birth. The baby was
born tiny, but alive. Two days later, I was forced to watch as they
killed my baby sister by decapitation in a ritual sacrifice. The sacrifice
was followed by a communion ritual, during which human flesh and blood
were consumed.

Rose also describes her aunt ritually abusing her,

My mother’s sister was the first person to perform acts of ritual
abuse on me. My aunt told me I was being punished because I was a wicked
little girl. In the months following, I witnessed my aunt commit many
acts of ritual abuse.

Rose never tells us what exactly her aunt did to her on this occasion,
but writes that ritual abuse by cults can include:

torture with pins and needles, forcing a child to take mind-altering
drugs .. submerging a child in water, particularly as part of a satanic
baptismal rite … withholding of food or water, sleep deprivation,
and forced eating of feces, urine, blood, or raw flesh … physical
beatings, use of cuts, burns, or tattoos, and the removal of body parts…

In a particularly gruesome passage, Rose describes how this supposedly
male-centered cult ritually abused a young boy,

I personally witnessed the removal of a boy’s testicle as part
of a ritual ceremony. nothing was used to numb the pain. He was instructed
to tell anyone who asked that he had been born with only one testicle.

And, of course, Rose now has vivid memories of being raped during Satanic
fertility rituals,

The victim was strapped to the altar table in front of a ritual gathering
and systematically gang-raped while the fertility rites were chanted.
The purpose was to impregnate the victim. The resulting fetus was sometimes
used in ritual sacrifice.

To condition her further to endure all of this abuse, Rose writes how,

I was once put in isolation for several months, which meant that no
one spoke to me, answered me, or touched me unless in public with noninitiates
around me. I remember feeling literally invisible, believing that I
would die unless someone touched me — any kind of touching, even painful,
was better than none.

The truth could set her free

There are a couple of observations
that immediately stand out from Rose’s description of her alleged
ritual abuse. First, the narrative presents numerous possibilities
for corroboration. Medical records and examinations could corroborate
much of her story. Checking the medical histories of those involved would
give police a very good idea of whether or not much of this is true. Finding
the location of this cabin the cult allegedly owned and examining property
records for the time period described would allow us to evaluate how likely
Rose’s claims are. But, of course, it’s impossible to check
any part of her story because she doesn’t want the reader to do so

Second, it is obvious that Rose
bears a great deal of animosity toward her female relatives in particular
and her mother’s family in general. In fact it is interesting that
the only individuals identified specifically as engaging in acts of ritual
abuse are women — Rose’s aunt, mother and grandmother — while,
on the other hand, she completely absolves her father of any culpability
for the ritual abuse (throughout the article Rose maintains that the abuse
took place while her father, who was in the military, was away from the
family on assignment. Although she is sworn to secrecy, she tells her
father about her abuse but he “passed my stories off as childhood
nightmares.”) Similarly she absolves her paternal grandparents, who
lived in the same small town, of any responsibility because they simply
didn’t know what was happening to her.

And as Rose tells it, it is her
mother and grandmother and perhaps their mothers and grandmothers who
are responsible for indoctrinating young children into the cult. In short
much of Rose’s problems stem not just from cult members, but from
women cult members specifically. This is typical of allegations of Satanism
or witchcraft — it is largely women who suffer and are punished under
such claims. The witch hunt that occurred in the United States in the
17th century is a perfect example of how this plays out.

Do you believe it?

As you can probably guess, based
on the evidence provided in this article, I am extremely skeptical of
Rose’s claims. It is impossible to prove that these events did not take
place, but to begin to take seriously such incredible claims would require
a minimum of corroborating evidence. Since Rose makes it impossible for
us or anyone else to independently verify her claims, they must be rejected;
to accept Rose’s claims would entail relying on a standard of evidence
from which it would be impossible to hold back any claim, however flimsy.
We would end up simply uncritically believing anything people tell us
– as Ms. and feminists such as Gloria Steinem seem to be.

Oddly enough, this is precisely
the position that Rose herself takes; people should believe these claims
simply because people make these claims. Along the way Rose mixes in proper
feminist theory about sexual assault (this is, after all, Ms.)
As Rose describes the feminist position,

Most important, if we want to stop ritual abuse, the first step must
be to believe that these brutal crimes occur. Society’s denial
makes recovery much more difficult for survivors. Those who have suffered
from ritual abuse need the same respect and support that would be given
to survivors of any tragedy.

Notice the circular reasoning: we
must stop ritual abuse. We help stop ritual abuse by believing it is happening.
We know ritual abuse is happening because people are denying that it happens.

This is, of course, an old argument
recently taken up by feminists, including Gloria Steinem who has supported
claims of ritual abuse and repressed memory. How do anti-Semites know
a worldwide Jewish conspiracy exists? Because they are hidden so well
in our society at all levels of government. Well, give us proof of this
conspiracy and lets check them out? What — stop with the denial already;
the truth is Jews have infiltrated our government and social institutions.
Lets stop trying to pretend they haven’t.

The fact that no evidence has ever
been found to corroborate these stories of Satanic ritual abuse is, in
the minds of the true believers, further proof that the Satanic cult conspiracy
does exist. Doctors, lawyers, police, the CIA, the FBI, etc. are all on
the payroll covering the whole thing up.

The parallels with right wing conspiracy
theories and witch hunts are further illuminated with probably the most
bizarre recommendation in Ms. history. Right there along with
several groups dedicated to helping sexual assault and abuse victims,
Ms. publishes the address of the right-wing American Family Foundation
as a resource women should use to find out more about ritual abuse.

In conclusion

Alexander Cockburn, Left Wingers, Right Wingers and Libertarianism

As a former leftist who now considers himself a libertarian, I was fascinated to read Alexander Cockburn’s musings on whether the whole Left/Right dichotomy makes any sense any more. Cockburn’s article, “Life and Libertarians: Beyond Left and Right,” was occasioned by an invitation to speak at’s recent national conference. is, as the name suggests, an anti-war organization that is decidedly libertarian in orientation.

Cockburn reports that he got some angry e-mails from some Leftists folks who didn’t approve of Cockburn speaking at an event that Pat Buchanan (who opposed both the Kosovo intervention and the Persian Gulf War) was speaking at. Cockburn’s reply to one of these critics is a succinct, “I don’t mind sharing a conference schedule with someone who opposes war on Serbs and on Iraqi kids.”

Cockburn’s article is interesting because he is the exception to the rule that currently plagues much left (and right) politics – he is an independent thinker who doesn’t blindly insist on separating everything into these silly categories. Even I was surprised, for example, to see Cockburn lending support to the Fully Informed Jury Association, which believes juries have the right to judge the law as well as the facts of a case. As Cockburn notes, most people on the Left tend to see jury nullification as a tool of white racists, although it has a long history supporting freedom and liberty going back to before the existence of the United States and played an important role allowing northern juries to set fugitive slaves free (the juries rightly deciding that regardless of the merits of the case, fugitive slave laws were simply wrong).

Cockburn could have just as easily added that most conservatives also aren’t very fond of FIJA because they see jury nullification as the tool of liberal extremists who want to avoid sending young men and women to jail for years for possession of an outlawed chemical substance.

An anecdote Cockburn tells of wanting to go see a weekend event called “Gunstock” a few hours away from me in Detroit reminds me of what originally alienated me from much of the Left. A friend of Cockburn’s described Gunstock as people who hate the United Nations and are in favor of guns, and was horrified that Cockburn still wanted to visit the show. When he wrote a column for The Nation suggesting Leftists take to gun shows with their copies of The Nation and talk to these folks, the idea wasn’t very well received to say the least.

One of things I most vividly remember about protesting the Persian Gulf War was the rather general arrogance of my (then) fellow Leftists students and others who basically believed they had the Solution and could not understand why others disagreed with them. I remember distinctly a fellow protester explaining to me that he believed our protests were all futile – nothing would change until some sort of apocalyptic act brought down the entire capitalist structure. No wonder nobody was listening to us.

But the issue I really want to address what Cockburn says toward the end of his article – just how far can libertarians and leftists unite on the anti-war platform.

So, my libertarian friends, at what point do you get off the train? You say, ‘we like corporations, the right for people to associate and form a corporation and issue publicly held stock and maximize profits. This is part and parcel of the economic package we favor.’ Then you have to do battle with leftists, those who say corporate greed will lead to war and waste.

Libertarians will leave the Left precisely where they leave the Right – when the conversation turns to using the power of the state to interfere with free association. The Right insists on using the power of the state to enhance some corporations at the expense of the rest of us. This is wrong. The Left, on the other hand, wants to the use the power of the state to render corporations largely impossible. This is wrong, also. Despite what many Leftists seem to think, most libertarians don’t want to become faceless drones working in enormous corporations. We believe that the current system of corporate/government control is due precisely to the failure of the government to remain a neutral party in associations, and many of us suspect that in large measure the corporate system wouldn’t survive a return to true neutrality, but would be replaced by something better that none of us can foresee. But we’re not prepared to use the power of the state to force that vision down the throats of Americans.

Take Pentagon spending. Is the economy basically underpinned by Pentagon spending, defense spending, and has been ever since 1938-roughly when the New Deal failed, which it did, effectively.

On Pentagon spending, your friends on the Left tend to be bald hypocrites. On the one hand Pentagon spending is supposed to be an unmitigated horror. On the other hand, people like Barbara Ehrenreich throw out the creation of the Internet, motivated in large measure by military needs, as conclusive proof of the need for government programs. Which is it? Is massive government spending a panacea or is it an unmitigated disaster”? It would be nice if the Left could make up its collective mind. For libertarians, the answer is relatively straightforward. Pentagon spending should be chopped to the bare minimum needed for defense of the country. We shouldn’t be financing a globe trotting army and wasting billions to starve children in Iraq.

On this and a wide range of issues, in fact I think there is possibility for a lot of cooperative working together , but it will require overcoming a lot of misconceptions and, occasionally, animosity. A couple years ago, I was part of a group at the university I work at that held a hugely successful daylong protest in favor of marijuana legalization. To pull the event off required a coalition of libertarians, environmentalists and leftists. There was certainly no love lost between myself and the environmentalists groups as we had clashed repeatedly over various issues for several years. Yet we were able to put those animosities and disagreements aside for this cause. (On the other hand the Free Tibet student group, run by leftists, wanted nothing to do with us libertarians.

Before I end, let me suggests another area where Leftists and libertarians should have a lot of agreement – speech issues. Unfortunately, the idea of free speech is under constant assault by both the right and the left. A few years ago I saw a protest on campus that confirmed my worst fears. There was the most prominent lefty professor and many of his students walking hand in hand with conservative right wingers to protest ads for a local strip club that appear in the student newspaper. They were chanting, “You say free speech, I say free woman.” More and more I see leftists turning away from the free speech absolutism that attracted me to left wing politics in the first place, and instead justifying restrictions on speech provided they harm only corporations. I keep reading ridiculous claims even in magazines like The Nation that associations of individuals, such as corporations, simply don’t have free speech rights (one wonders how these folks will react when conservatives propose restricting the speech of Planned Parenthood on precisely these grounds).

So why not more alliances between libertarians and independent-minded leftists? After we’ve made the world safe from Pentagon spending, corporate welfare, censorship, capital punishment and a whole host of other issues, then we can happily move on to fighting amongst each whatever issues are left over.