My lunch with an antifeminist pundit

Kate O'Beirne, author of the new book "Women Who Make the World Worse," says most women don't want the things feminists are fighting for.

Published January 17, 2006 12:21PM (EST)

My lunch interview with Kate O'Beirne, Washington editor of National Review and author of the new antifeminist book "Women Who Make the World Worse," was on a Friday. I had stayed up Thursday night reading the 200-page galley copy of the book (published by Sentinel, Penguin's conservative imprint), and taken copious notes. I arrived at the old-school Manhattan restaurant with 51 typed questions about "Women Who Make the World Worse," which takes on second-wave feminists like Gloria Steinem, Eleanor Smeal, Bella Abzug and Catharine MacKinnon with an energy not seen in decades. O'Beirne blames the feminist movement for the breakdown of the family, the feminization of society, a weakened military, an exaggerated sense of the epidemic of domestic violence, an invented wage gap, and the degradation of motherhood. We were joined by a publicist, whom O'Beirne used as a convenient whipping boy whenever certain pesky questions about the book's sensationalist packaging came up. But O'Beirne and I had lots to talk about on our own.

Emerging from lunch an hour and a half later, I didn't have much memory of what had happened. I knew that I'd found O'Beirne immensely likable -- in the way that you might find someone likable if you disagreed with every word that came out of her mouth. A tall, brassy broad, she's the kind of woman you wish you had on your team, a woman who immediately joked that she didn't want to order anything "girly" and that she should pretend to be disappointed that there was no venison on the menu. In short, she had been a fun lunch date.

On the following Sunday, I watched O'Beirne take on Kate Michelman, former head of NARAL, on "Meet the Press," in what Tim Russert cheerfully termed a "Kate on Kate" matchup. (Study question: If George Stephanopoulos were talking to George Tenet, would it be "George on George"?)

It was a blood bath. Michelman, typically an articulate, precise speaker, took a nose dive. Attempting to be nuanced and thoughtful, she came off as slow and confused, ceding ground to O'Beirne on almost every point, even talking for no particular reason about how many young women feel alienated by the term "feminism." "Pull up, Kate!" I was yelling to myself. "Sure, that's interesting! But now is not the time!" Next to her, O'Beirne was practically licking canary feathers from the corners of her mouth.

My interview didn't go as badly as that. But it was a sharp introductory course in the challenges of debating a right-wing pundit.

O'Beirne is nothing if not prepared. She machine-gunned rat-a-tat-tat polling data at me, the kind you could only repel if you had some sort of Cyrano-style hookup to Feminist Majority president Eleanor Smeal back in the feminist polling cave. But even then, you wouldn't win. Because why trust Smeal's numbers any more than Phyllis Schlafly's? They say marmosets, we say bonobos. Skirmishes in the current culture war seem to be less about provoking debate than killing it.

O'Beirne is trained as a lawyer, and her rhetorical skills are formidable. Listening to the tape, I admired her panache in beginning sentences with "I know you'll agree that ...," "I'm sure you'll remember that ..." and "I'll refresh your memory about ..." She could have ended each phrase by describing how bands of feminists roam the earth, plunging their fangs into the bodies of boy babies, draining their blood and their will to live, and it would have been hard to react with anything but stunned paralysis.

O'Beirne, who declined to give her age but graduated from high school in 1967, is married to a retired Army officer with whom she has two grown sons. She worked intermittently during their young childhood, as a part-time undergraduate law professor in Germany where her husband was stationed, for the Reagan administration while her husband did shift work for the Pentagon, and part-time for the Heritage Foundation, of which she later became a vice president. Formerly a regular panelist on "The Capital Gang," she has been at National Review since 1995. Below, edited for space and cleaned up for grammar, is our conversation:

So let's begin by talking about your career. How did you start?

All of us, with respect to so many things, are the product of whence we come... It helps to explain why I believe the things I do at this stage, and it helps to explain my enormous frustration, because you can imagine what other women say in response to my opinions.

I may say some of these things to you later ...

No, you won't. [I'm talking about things like] "weak-minded," "tool of the patriarchy," "self-loathing." I was raised in this women's environment, a Catholic girls school. We ran everything in high school and college. You weren't photo editor of the yearbook; you were editor of the yearbook. It was a fabulous opportunity for women, because we didn't have to share anything with boys. So to be told that I am somehow the tool of the patriarchy or can't think for myself ...

I can't believe that feminists object to single-sex schools. It may not be right for everybody, but few things are. But they act like its apartheid! [What about] the experimental school for women in Harlem? It has an impressive track record. Why would the feminists want to shut it down?

I have heard feminists who agree with you about the benefits of single-sex education.

I suppose you could hear that from some feminists. But I've got to look at what the heck NOW says about it! Who's working to shut the [Harlem] place down? What does Ruth Bader Ginsburg think of single-sex? As you know from the VMI [Virginia Military Institute] decision [in which Justice Ginsburg, writing the majority opinion, ruled that VMI could no longer refuse to admit women, but that it is the mission of some single-sex schools to "dissipate, rather than perpetuate, traditional gender classifications"], yes for girls, no for boys. I don't want to exaggerate because she didn't, but [she] almost talked about [all-boys schooling] as though it was like the remnants of slavery. [Male colleges have] got these evil institutional roots or some darn thing. Now girls, that's a different thing. That's a double standard.

I was surprised that so much of your book was about Gloria Feldt, Ellie Smeal, Catharine MacKinnon. Only at the very end do you mention someone like Rebecca Walker.

Are you asking about [why I didn't discuss] twenty- or thirty-something feminism?

Yes. The MacKinnon quote about how "all heterosexual intercourse is rape" is old news. [It is also incorrectly cited. MacKinnon never said or wrote it.] There has been a whole other wave of sex-positive feminism in part in response to ideas like that.

I know you'll do me the favor of talking about the book I wrote. And "What Does the Future of Feminism Hold?" ain't my book. I've been arguing with them since the '70s. That's where I got onboard. It's been 30 years. What has feminism wrought? It's not "What will the third wave look like?" Not "What are the promising movements in feminism?" It's "What has feminism wrought over the past 30 years?"

So why this book and why now?

You'll spot some of my frustrations in the book.

I spotted many of them.

The wage gap's not a bad one. How do they [feminists] get away with this? How could the media be so uncritical that they lavish attention on this "Equal Pay Day" and uncritically repeat that women make 72 cents on the [male] dollar. Doesn't it occur to anyone: How come anybody ever hired a man? Who the heck would hire a man if a woman, similarly educated, skillful and experienced is going to work for 72 cents on the dollar? It's ridiculous. They [the media] oughtta be shot! Forget for being sexist -- for being idiots! There's no skepticism at all. If you look into it at all you'll find a never-married single woman makes more than a never-married single man.

But you also point out that married men make more than single men.

Yes, that gap is bigger than the so-called gender gap.

Right. But if your thesis is that it's not sex discrimination because mothers work fewer hours, but that married men are the biggest earners, then it doesn't track. If it automatically falls to women to maintain the balancing act of parenthood, work fewer hours and therefore earn less, and married men aren't expected to cut back -- in fact they earn more -- then that is gender inequity, isn't it?

No. For two reasons. The first is the idea behind the whole book: sex differences. We want to [stay home]. Hel-lo? We want to do it! Secondly, men show devotion to the family by working really hard. Women show devotion to the family by showing devotion to the family.

But isn't that social conditioning?

I did it, and I did not feel I was socially conditioned. I had more earning potential than my husband. I'm a lawyer; he ain't.

But you also had the desire to work!

No, no. no. I had much more earning potential than Jim O'Beirne had. [Sotto voce:] I didn't want to [work full-time]. Am I a weak-minded tool of the patriarchy because I didn't want to?

I think you're hard-wired. We're better at it than they are. Famous joke: "She came home, the kids were alive. What more does she want from me?!" So no, it's not sex discrimination. So many feminists are howling at the moon: "Gee, it shouldn't be so." [Pause, sardonic look:] Okaaaay. I don't think it's anything any movement's going to fix anytime soon.

One of the most honest pieces I've read in a long time was [Linda Hirshman's in American Prospect about professional women choosing to stay home]. It was refreshingly candid. She didn't pretend that these women are weak-minded or too dimwitted to know what makes them happy. She's like, "This is what they want and hey, they and their husbands seem pretty darn happy!" I'm like, "Thank you!" Now we can move on from there. Of course I think how she'd like to see this rectified is wrong. But I think she's confronting what so many others want to deny.

Yes, I thought that piece was smart because she was willing to say things other people aren't. But she wasn't celebrating women staying home, she was addressing the inequities of the home, arguing that as long as it always falls to the woman to stay home, feminism has failed.

I refer you to my chapter, "Mother Nature Is a Bitch." But also, what is wrong with it, given that, as she says, these women seem perfectly happy? Why exactly does this have to be addressed?

Because there is a fear that we're going to go back to a pre-Friedan world in which women are expected to stay home. I'm sure many women who stay home are happy, but if any of them are not ...

The feminists always claimed they didn't pass judgment [on stay-at-home mothers]. But they did [and not just radical ones]. That's why I quote mainstream feminists!

[Incredulously] Catharine MacKinnon?

I don't use so much of her. But a leading scholar like Jessie Bernard [who wrote in her 1972 book "The Future of Marriage" that "being a housewife makes women sick"], who wrote that to be happy in a marriage women must be mentally ill? I could have cherry-picked the "all men should have been castrated" stuff -- you can sure as hell find those things. But I wanted to be honest.

Now the publisher, they want names on the cover and names in the press release.

Yeah, it looks from the jacket illustration and copy as if you're going after Jane Fonda and Carrie Bradshaw and Maureen Dowd. But there's a paragraph about Fonda, a paragraph about "Sex and the City," a paragraph about Dowd -- and you agree with her anyway about Hillary's betrayal of the feminists!

Thank you, thank you. Ahem [eyes publicist]. It's because the most influential people, the ones who've had a real impact -- nobody knows their names! I'm trying to introduce them to my audience. You just can't put them on a cover.

But I think it's fair to cite the AAUW [American Association of University Women]; I think it's fair to cite NOW; [criticizing stay-at-home mothers] is what they're all about! ... I say, "You've got to make your own choices for your own family." They don't say that. They say there's one responsible choice: You're hurting your child and yourself and women more broadly if you make the choice [to stay home]. So there is no choice for feminists. They denigrate motherhood.

But some women who stay home are critical of the choice to work; they say there's only one responsible choice. Aren't feminists responding to an attitude that by working, mothers are hurting their children?

It's a false flag. Corporately, mainstream feminists denigrate marriage and motherhood -- they just do! They're not the least bit interested in -- and in fact sort of opposed to -- the work-at-home stuff, the federal things you could do to encourage working at home, telecommuting or whatever, they're not interested in that. They have one model. The fundamental thing they think is that you've got to follow the male career model. But to follow the male model, what the heck are they going to do with the kids? Damn!

Hirshman made the point that polls show women select certain jobs with a lot of personal satisfaction, a lot of people contact. And she says, "Would you knock off the self-regard? Does your job have to be so damn fulfilling? Why the hell don't you go for what the guys go for? How about power and money and prestige!?" I have an answer for why so many women don't go for that: nature.

That it is our nature not to?

For some. Some women are ambitious and want to get in there and mix it up. Fine! But women who don't are not weak-minded or anything else.

Fine, they're not weak-minded, but those women who do want to follow a male path --

... will be very successful. We have established that they will be very successful.

But if those possibilities were made more available, mightn't even more choose that path?

What more needs to be made available to them?

Well, cultural acceptance, financial and government support, attitudes ...

The cultural support is already there. That book "Maternal Desire" makes the point that it's harder now to justify staying home. Now it's horror at "You're going to stay home?"

As for public policy, I hate to be a nerd. But who pays? The majority of families with young children get by on one full-time salary. High-income couples qualify for the dependent-care tax credit. The family struggling to get by on one full-time salary is arguably subsidizing the day-care choices, the career choices, of the more affluent couples.

I am a veteran of the '88 day-care fight. The "family-friendly workplace" -- very clever title! It ain't so friendly to the family. Very friendly to employment for women. That's what you're subsidizing: employment for women, [by giving] companies a bunch of tax breaks for maternity leave and day-care centers on site, yadda yadda. Why don't we, given the choices women make -- and we have a pretty good idea 30 years later how that's shaking out -- subsidize the ones who are electing to stay home?

We don't know what kind of choices women would make if there were breaks for on-site day care and what you call subsidizing women working. If they had affordable places to put their kids maybe more would choose to work?

I'll refresh your memory. When Hillary and Bill Clinton did the federal day-care thing, [opinion data showed us that] families are not clamoring for day care! Most children are either home with their parents or they're in relative care. And guess what kind of care [the government] won't subsidize? They'll only pay for center-based or heavily regulated care ... If relative care was subsidized, if you didn't license the heck out of the woman down the street, maybe there would be more women working. But they're going to work part-time. Opinion data shows if you ask women with preschool children, "What do you want to do?" some percentage want to be home, I think 10 percent want to work full-time, and the rest want to work part-time. But most influential [feminist] organizations are not interested in that sentiment. They're only interested in the 10 percent who want to work full-time.

But --

You're wondering: Are they defined to some extent by their limited options?


I don't see the evidence of that. Because other opinion data will tell you little ones want to be home with their mom, and there's overwhelming sentiment that people think it's best for kids to be with their mothers. At the margins, if there were all sorts of attractive options, maybe more mothers would say, "Maybe I could swing working full-time." But I don't think the data supports that. I think the data supports people thinking that little kids ought to be home.

Fine. But why is that parent necessarily the mother? Why can't we get used to the idea that it would be just as good for kids to be home with dads?

Who wants that? Why would we do that?

I know lots of men and women who --

I think women who really want that ought to find a guy who wants it. I don't see why there's any big movement needed for this. If some woman really feels very strongly that things ought to be divvied up that way I think she ought to do what that woman [Hirshman] suggested in the American Prospect: marry a starving artist or marry a liberal. Marry the guy who feels that way and do your own thing!

But social expectations make that --

Society will never, ever, ever, ever validate it. Ever. Ever. So, next question. [Because] now we're baying at the moon: Damn, life's unfair! Damn! Life's unfair!

Life's unfair and there's no room for progress?

Room for progress is limitless! We're talking about little trade-offs.

You're accepting that society won't ever validate a man who stays home! That's a big trade-off!

But it's not my opinion! Find me one. Find me one in the history of recorded mankind. You know what's funny to me? Whatever men do, as I understand it, is the status job in that society. Like if they gathered [instead of hunted] in some damn society, then gathering would be the status job because men were doing it.

But that's exactly the problem! To say that it's been true historically without exception doesn't make it right!

They care more about [status] than we do. But that's also why they care more about paid work. And obviously I'm talking broadly here. There are women who dance circles around guys, make them look like slugs. But [there are] recent stories about women being handed keys to the executive washroom and going, "Eh, I really don't want it!"

Are there feminists you respect?

I would cite the refreshing candor in the Hirshman piece. Can we knock off the weak-minded self-loathing tool-of-the-patriarchy stuff? I've been told that for 30 years by the way!

I believe you.

I've also been told I wouldn't have a law degree if it weren't for Betty Friedan. I don't get the connection, personally. I don't feel beholden to feminists for anything.

I was just getting to that. You don't feel beholden to them for anything?

No, I don't.

If the feminist movement had not taken place --

I would be a lawyer.

And you would be making the same amount of money you do now?

Uh, yeah! You don't think they can take credit for that! There was a natural revolution underway! My timing was good.

But the timing of that revolution wasn't accidental! You don't think the social movements of the '60s and '70s -- including feminism -- accounted for the advances women were making?

[Pause] I think they may have sped it up. But I would argue that there may have been an expensive trade-off. I often wonder if it would have been worth it to have it take a little longer, without all the negatives, whether a more natural evolution would have been better.

But without feminism would you have as many female colleagues and peers as you do?

We were only 20 percent of my [law school] class in '76. So what do you mean would I have had as many? I would have had what I had. Now we're up to 50 percent for law school.

Exactly. So if feminism hadn't happened, would you be doing an interview about your book with a female journalist and a female publicist from your publishing house?

What the hell would I have written about? Come on! Jeez!

People say, "Oh, feminism is dead." No. What I am telling my audience is they are thriving! Larry Summers. He paid these women an enormous compliment in saying, "Let's talk about these ideas." And the feminist heroine of the episode [Nancy Hopkins] had to run from the room breathless and sick to her stomach. He makes a perfectly legitimate point based on data -- disagree with him, but let's talk about it! -- and suddenly, $50 million over the next five years [to improve Harvard's hiring policies for women]. It was a brutal reeducation camp. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea culpa.

But feminists didn't win against Summers. He didn't get fired.

You're not serious.

I am serious.

They got plenty.

Not what they demanded. He didn't lose his job.

They didn't lose. They totally won. It was abject mea culpa.

Summers is in charge of an institution that educates women and his comments were about educating women and he is still in charge of the institution that educates women. And that's a loss for feminists.

Oh, huge win! Huge! It's just another example of what damn clout they have! You think it's a loss because he didn't get fired? Why did he have to apologize or give them a nickel? Like, wake up and grow up, girls!

What is your response to Terry Martin Hekker's recent Times piece in which she took back her enthusiasm for staying home?

What was her bottom line? I should have started doing something when the kids didn't need me full-time. That's exactly the pattern women are following.

But you and I come from a privileged place in that we have careers you can "take time off from." There are few jobs that offer that. What about women who want to protect themselves economically but don't have jobs you can take time off from?

So then maybe they won't. But opinion data tells us that they want to.

In your chapter about divorce you write, "when the traditional values of self-sacrifice and duty lose to conflict with the feminist doctrine of self-fulfillment and personal autonomy, children pay a very steep price." Is your take that people in unhappy marriages should stay in those marriages?

Depends on how unhappy. My understanding is, and it comports with research and common sense: open conflict? Bad. Seething sorts of resentment that people can weather? Not so bad.

I'll tell you where the loss has been. There used to be an overwhelming sentiment that you should stay together for the sake of the kids. We don't have a majority believing that anymore. And that's a loss.

Now people probably give up too easily. What kept you making the effort was social disapproval. Now you talk yourself into the idea that the kids will be fine, and more -- they'll be better off! I am in the camp that children of divorce, as we know, suffer. We've lost that sense of self-sacrifice.

To some degree I'm on your side here because my parents have been married for over 40 years. But having seen some genuinely unhappy families, I don't think I'd want my children to stay in a relationship where they are truly unfulfilled --

Well, these things are complicated, Rebecca. But you can be happy when you do your duty as you see it. I have a 26-year-old who's married and I'm thinking, "What would my advice be to him?" I might [tell him] that you're happy when you do your duty. If he had a wife and three kids? Oh yeah.

If he came to you and said, "I am really unhappy, Mom"?

I'd say "Gee, honey, that's a real shame. Go on home and try to be happy with those beautiful children you have."

And five years later if he came back and said, "Mom, I'm still unhappy"?

"Go do your duty, honey. You're going to live to be 80 years old; at the moment you're needed someplace." That would be my impulse and he's my child. But I don't really put me, me, me, happy, happy, happy, first.

You quote Karl Zinsmeister as describing how men need to be "lured" and "corralled" into being nurturers, using that quote in a passage about the centrality of men in the family. If fathers are so naturally central to the family, why do they need to be lured or corralled? Isn't that a darker view of men's impulses than you argue feminists have?

No, no. Impregnating women? Really natural! Hangin' around? Not necessarily natural! That was [the woman's] job. Her job was to hang around.

So then why do we need them? Why is it so bad -- in your view -- to have fatherless households?

Because there's tons kids learn from their fathers! Look what happens to boys who don't have fathers! They become hyper-male; they don't have male role models, they're joining gangs. They bristle against the matriarchy they're in. The data is incredible about fatherless boys.

I saw all the time as a mother of sons why boys need fathers. It would ruin my day if they didn't get an invitation to a first grade party! [My husband] would be like, "Kate, lighten up, they'll be fine." They really need fathers. And fathers have to feel needed.

In the chapter about VAWA [Violence Against Women Act] you describe some of the signs of abuse -- like having a partner who monitors what you're doing, humiliates you in public, and controls your money -- as trivial. Do you really think those things are trivial?

I think they are potentially trivial. Could any one of those things rise to the level of a real abusive situation? I suppose so. But it strikes me as a sort of alarmist [attempt to define] domestic violence down in order to find some epidemic of it. [If those were true] every dating relationship in high school would be abuse. I mean constant, constant humiliation in front of people? It's all so subjective: like every time I go out he asks me where I've been?

What I see there is an attempt to define it down because it has to be an epidemic -- because there's a lot of money in it being an epidemic.

Right. You complain about all the jobs VAWA created. But you also write about how the domestic crime statistics fell between 1993 and 2002, calling that bad news for all the people who need the stats to be high to keep their VAWA jobs. But given that the numbers fell with all those people in those VAWA jobs, isn't it conceivable that those jobs helped lower the domestic violence rates?

The overall crime rate's also down; you just don't ever know, frankly. But I do know that they have an incentive to hype an epidemic. We don't know. Because it's so unclear what they're doing [in VAWA jobs] except advocating and hyping the epidemic 

And thereby making more women aware of what to call it, and how to report it ... and even if it's a guy controlling their money, learning to look for unhealthy relationships, and --

Seriously, though, what business is it of yours or mine if guys are controlling their money or asking them where they've been? At what point is it not a matter of public policy or government if somebody's living with a loser who's controlling her money?

But if it helps women to understand the power dynamics of bad relationships --

Right, they are expanding the definition. You got a black eye? We want to hear about it. But don't you think that controlling money begins to flirt with a private matter?

You quote Suzanne Venker as saying that loving a child more than herself elevates a woman. Are women who choose not to become mothers lesser women?

No, if you don't want to become a mother, you shouldn't be a mother! They're missing out on something but I wouldn't say they're lesser women.

You write about your dismay when your son was read a story about a princess killing the dragons while the boys did nothing. Why shouldn't the girls defend the castle?

Men protect women from the physical threat. You're going into a movie theater with your husband or your boyfriend and you see two guys tussling in the parking lot: You walk a little faster. You see a guy shoving a girl around: You want to be with a guy who wouldn't go over to the parking lot and see what was happening? I wouldn't want to be with a guy who didn't. Good men rise to defend women in the face of a physical threat.

The most inflammatory passage in the book is when you suggest that if women are going to be in the military, mothers are going to have to start teaching their sons to hit girls.

It's a sort of flip way to do it. It is very difficult for men raised with what we should still regard as the right traditional values -- this doesn't mean that a woman doesn't dance circles around him in every other area of American life, get used to it -- but he defends her from the face of physical threat.

But the notion that it would be OK to hit girls -- this would carry over into civilian life?

Well, aren't we going to have to? These are real-world choices. We're going to have to have the kind of guy who continues right into the movie theater whether it's a girl pushed around or two guys in fisticuffs. It's like my Jessica Lynch thing. The stories about her being beaten up and sexually assaulted dropped out of all the yellow ribbon stories because we wanted a sweet, thank-god-she's-safe, 19-year-old blond. We didn't want to read about the fact that she was physically and sexually abused by foreign soldiers. We don't want to know.

Let me finally ask about the titular notion of the book, that feminists actually made the world worse?

[Silently points at the publishing publicist again.] They've weakened our institutions: weakened attachment to marriage, sending out signals that children don't need fathers -- fathers are listening too. When you used to ask, "Do you think people should wait to get married before having children?" it used to be overwhelmingly yes. Now it's, eh, no. It all has such consequences. Look at the state of our families. The military is gender-normed, which is a weakness, the workplace ... I think, yes, there has been big net harm. Our culture is feminized, but coarser.

Feminized is bad?

Oh, yeah. I've had it both ways, and I think we were better protected by traditional mores and chivalry than we are by lawsuits and laws. Men behaved better. And bring back the date! These juvenile men into their 30s who are unmanageable, and frustrated women who can't find anyone? It's been really bad for women -- it's been really bad for men -- but it's been really bad for women.

Even as women have more financial and professional and political opportunities?

I back all of that! Equal pay! Great! They wouldn't lose me on opening up law schools and med schools [to women]. What I'm saying is I wouldn't have brought you all the other stuff. I'm not a caricature. I would have been the first at the head of the parade.

This story has been corrected since it was originally published.

By Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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