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BU Alum Assails Feminism as “Dead-End Road”

New book urges women to “make lemonade out of lemons”


SED alum Suzanne Venker says her aunt and coauthor, Phyllis Shlafly, had one stipulation about collaborating on The Flipside of Feminism: that the book completely condemn feminism.

During her years as a BU undergraduate, Suzanne Venker was known, she writes, as “that conservative girl from the Midwest,” with values that collided head-on with most of her peers’. Writing frankly, at times contemptuously, about what she sees as the sins of progressive liberals in general and feminists in particular, the former middle school teacher has made a name for herself among right-wing pundits such as David Horowitz, Ann Coulter, and Laura Schlessinger.

Now, Venker (SED’90), 43, has teamed up with her 85-year-old maternal aunt, lifelong antifeminist warrior Phyllis Shlafly, to write The Flipside of Feminism: What Conservative Women Know—and Men Can’t Say (WND Books), a polemic that blames “the so-called women’s movement” for lowering women’s happiness quotient even as they can claim—as the writers concede—more freedom, more education, and more power. The book, which seeks to liberate women from “feminism’s dead-end road,” caps a lifetime of activism for Shlafly, a Harvard-educated political scientist and lawyer best known for leading the 1970s right-wing charge against the proposed Equal Rights Amendment.

Bostonia recently spoke to Venker about her book, why she thinks women today are in many ways worse off than they were in her mother’s time, and why the feminist movement is to blame.

Bostonia: Who is the intended audience for Flipside?
The biggest focus is on young women in their 20s and 30s, which doesn’t mean that women in their 40s can’t get a tremendous amount out of it, or everybody, male and female, 18 to 50. But the younger age group isn’t getting an alternative perspective on these issues; that really is the kicker. Where are women going to get this information? Most people around them tend to be of one particular persuasion. Liberalism dominates, especially on college campuses.

From the book’s dedication—your husband “always knew his feminist professors were nuts”—to the Appendix’s “Ten Feminist Commandments”—“Thou shalt belittle men until their manhood is gone”—you don’t say one positive word about feminists. Isn’t there anything about feminism you can agree with?
When I originally went to Phyllis to ask her if she’d be interested in doing this project, she had one stipulation—that the book completely condemn feminism. If it were to be any other way, she wasn’t interested. When she said that, I sort of cringed and thought, there’s got to be something you can give them credit for, and for a few months I went back and forth. But I have to say that once you do the homework, it becomes very difficult to give much credit to feminism. Some people refer to the Suffragettes as feminists, but that’s a matter of semantics; feminism is really only in the last half century, though they tried to piggyback on the right-to-vote movement.

What about strides toward equality in hiring and equal pay for equal work?
I would say that feminism made some strides in the workforce, but none on the home front. And whatever strides were made in the workforce have had tremendous ramifications for businesses, so they came at a great cost to businesses and government. It’s a double-edged sword.

You say feminism invented the concept of oppressed women and pounced on marriage as akin to enslavement. What about its efforts to broaden awareness of, and options for, oppressed and trapped women, women abused by their husbands?
Awareness of battered women? That would be like what I said about the workforce. It looks like a gain at the outset, and awareness is great. But now the policies that have increased awareness—the solution—have become the problem. The abuse problem is smaller than it’s made out to be, and when you draw attention to something that’s so terrible, it’s like the issue of homosexuality today. The awareness that gays exist, or that terrible men beat their wives, is good to recognize but not to belabor or exaggerate. It’s almost as if every man is a potential abuser or every man is gay. I don’t know that it’s fair to take these situations and apply them across the board.

Aren’t abused women less stigmatized, and don’t they have access to more resources today because of the efforts of feminists?
I would give feminists credit for that. Yes, I would. But the only thing I would say about that is that increasing awareness and having more monies going toward a problem may be a fine thing, but it may get us off track. Maybe it helps one situation and worsens another.

You blame feminism and progressive liberals for the rise in the divorce rate, yet statistics show the divorce rate is highest among the poor and higher in conservative states than liberal states such as Massachusetts, with one of the lowest in the country. How do you reconcile that with your claims?
The issue of feminist modern marriages versus traditional marriages is a very middle-class debate, so it’s not a fair argument to say it’s an economic issue. Everything about feminism comes from a middle-class perspective; it never was an economic issue from the get-go. Betty Friedan was about devaluing the role of the full-time homemaker and that women need more. That was the whole premise.

How does that explain the comparatively high divorce rate in, say, Bible Belt states? Do you believe that feminism is responsible for the failure of most marriages?
If you keep hearing that marriage and motherhood aren’t enough, you’re going to adopt that mentality once it becomes popular. There’s simply no question that people enter marriage assuming they can always get divorced. The feminists were all for change, but there are some things that shouldn’t change. That’s the philosophy of the conservative world. The left wing view of the world sees progress as unending, and there’s nothing that ever should stay the way that it is, so conservatives are branded as throwbacks. The reality is that some things don’t need to be changed.

Many women happily opt for marriage and children, but hasn’t feminism eased the stigma, and the discrimination against women who choose other paths?
How many women choose not to get married and have children? I guess it’s nice that there’s acceptance, but we shouldn’t be more focused on this group. By making this small percentage feel better about their choices, there are ramifications for the rest. Why would you have a whole movement to make women feel better about not choosing to have children?

You write that women need to understand that men can't change their sexual nature, that for women casual sex is “a dead-end street” leading only to disappointment, and that marriage should be women’s “ultimate goal.” But how is it anyone’s business if independent women pursue their own sexual choices?
It is my belief that ultimately nobody, male or female, can be happy with that lifestyle, with having sex with whoever they want, having sex with your friends, or one night stands and all that. A recent book, Manning Up, by Kay Hymowitz, makes the point that both men and women tire of that eventually and do marry. In other words, what I tried to prove was that there is another way to approach sex than the one you see in the popular culture.

Sex scandals and bad behavior in general happen on both sides of the aisle, yet you blame what you see as society’s immorality on feminism. Isn’t that a bit over the top?
Feminism can be credited for destigmatizing all sorts of lifestyles, which made sex what it has become in our culture—the casual nature of it, the relentless focus on sex and the body and how sex sells. Am I saying feminism is at the root of all the bad behavior governing sex? Of course not. Yes, affairs have always existed, and lots of sexual things have always gone on. But it’s the social acceptance of these that I attribute to the feminist movement.

You write that there are similarities between feminism and Marxism. Can you explain?
Like Marxism, feminism is a mode of thinking that depends upon hypothesizing an oppressed class. Feminists wanted to associate their movement with the civil rights movement. That really fueled the emotional fire. If you can prove or argue that women were slaves to men in the same way blacks were slaves to whites, you have a really good emotional response. In the book we talk about how it has been easy for feminists to have done what they did; for one thing, they have the most power in America, second, they can depend on the fact that people are naturally prone to pointing fingers; it’s human to feel as though, hey wait a minute, I am a victim. The concept of taking responsibility is not natural, so they were able to tap into the fact that it’s not really your responsibility.

Are you saying sexism doesn’t exist?
I’m not saying sexism is made up. But how you respond to that sexism will depend on what your life will be like. My mother quit one job and got promoted at another. The people who are the most successful are the people who make lemonade out of lemons. Rather than yapping about how you’re a victim, go find your way. Somebody will listen; somebody will be there. But it’s a huge jump to say that women are oppressed. As for men, they don’t get to cry sexism.

How about the role of feminism in targeting the plight of some groups of women around the world—the victimhood, for example, of child brides, sexual slaves, girls subjected to female genital mutilation, and women targeted in so-called honor killings?
Feminists are not concerned with women outside of America. That’s not where their focus is at all. Because once you focus on what really goes on, what real women’s issues are, what you’re doing here would look silly. The horrible things that go on, you don’t hear feminists out front and center focusing on these atrocities. As I say, if they divert their attentions to true human rights issues, whatever it is they’re fighting for here in America would look ridiculous.

You write that when you were a BU student, your conservative values made you feel “particularly alone.” How would you describe your social life here?
My experience at BU isn’t different from any typical college experience. You’re so consumed with schoolwork and having fun; it’s just that it was sort of known that they were all one way and I was another way. It was fine, it wasn’t a deal killer, but when they went to a pro-choice rally in DC, I just didn’t go, and I remember my roommate didn’t understand that at all. She assumed that everybody thought one way about this issue. The differences definitely kept rearing their ugly head.

Has your aunt, Phyllis Shlafly, always been an important role model for you?
What Phyllis provided for me, really, was an opportunity to look at an alternative view of women in America. Everyone had this one view, feminism, and I had this aunt who provided a different perspective; I liken it to being exposed to Fox News and the internet rather than just mainstream media. I got an alternative form of news, I was exposed to something that most people were not, and that had a big effect on me. I had great role models who defied the cultural message.

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