Sunday, March 09, 2008

Am I a closet feminist?

A female colleague of mine has been accusing me for some time of being a closet feminist. I had not thought of myself as such, despite being a card-carrying member of Emily’s List, having opposed affirmative action for males in college admissions, and having proposed student loan repayment relief for women with educational loans who want to start families. By choice I have surrounded myself with Alpha females who are extraordinarily talented and well educated, striving to make the world a better place to live in, and going crazy and stressed-out while also trying to have a fulfilling and meaningful private life. My colleague’s accusation got me to thinking where I come from on issues of higher education opportunity and how my values guide my choices in life.

Years ago another colleague once told me about the two great progressive traditions in the United States. The first emanates from the Jewish faith and the other from Midwestern populism. These progressive movements seek improvements in human welfare far beyond the limits of their group membership and far enough into the future that current advocates will not benefit from what they propose and advocate. It is this selflessness, almost self-sacrifice, that distinguishes group interest politics from progressive politics. Progressive politics value and advocate for a general social welfare and recognize that their results will produce benefits in the future. Special interest politics are just that: narrowly self-serving: I want mine and I want it now!

I am a product of Midwestern populism. My ancestors were mostly poor northern European farmers who toiled in the shadows of castles owned by rich families who also owned the land my ancestors worked. I have visited these castles in Sweden, Poland, Germany and Switzerland. I know what my ancestors fled, and I understand what they sought to build when they settled in the Midwest. They had known exploitation by selfish, rich landowners. They understood that by working together for a common good their lives and especially the lives of their children would be improved. I am a direct beneficiary of that progressive tradition and as a legacy I feel a moral imperative to carry that vision forward. I see how it works, and frankly the self-interest alternatives look selfish, mean spirited and short-sighted—everything I have come to abhor in the public policy process.

In my work as a higher education policy analyst I am surrounded by people of the Jewish faith who are working on similar issues toward similar ends by similar means. Jews represent about 2.2 percent of the U.S. population, but a far larger share of the academic and policy analysis communities working on issues of higher education opportunity. I greatly admire their contributions to the policy work on educational opportunity in the United States.

Does feminism qualify as a progressive movement? Or is it just self-interest politics?

As one who has studied and reported on the growing plight of males in education, feminism as I experience its practice profoundly troubles me. When I began my career as a higher education policy analyst in 1970 there were 1.5 million more men than women enrolled in higher education. Women complained loudly that this was a problem needing correction, and advocated affirmative action for women in college admission. Today there are 2.7 million more women than men enrolled in higher education. The feminist agenda has shifted because the enrollment imbalance has reversed. But there are still issues that feminists rally around: the scarcity of women in STEM enrollments, fewer women in senior academic positions and management, and pay differences. Clearly there is some important work to be completed, but the broader gender imbalance is now one of too few males in higher education.

As one who advocates for males in higher education—because they are seriously underrepresented—I have experienced a nasty side of militant feminism that sounds more like self-interest than progressive politics. Raising issues and concerns about the plight of males in education, the workplace, and their lives has generated four kinds of responses from militant feminists. These responses occur in about this sequence.

  1. Ignore the problem. The gender imbalance in higher enrollments that stood at 1.5 million in 1970 was corrected by 1981. Since 1981 males have fallen ever farther behind female enrollments, yet feminists continued to complain about their enrollment plight for another decade. Women’s groups continue to ignore the male enrollment issues and focus exclusively on the narrower women’s issues. Emily’s list is one example, and so is the AAUW.
  2. Deny it is a problem. When the gender imbalance in higher education enrollments can no longer be ignored, deny that it is a problem. Men, after all, have access to better paid jobs in the workforce than do women without higher education. This argument has been invalid since about 1973 when male incomes for males without college degrees began an economic free-fall. The free fall has been caused by loss of jobs in traditionally male industries of agriculture, manufacturing, mining and forestry.
  3. Marginalize or trivialize the problem. Another diversion strategy is to say that the problem of males in education is not a general problem, but one limited to minority males. This is partly true—black males are clearly in the worst shape of any racial/ethnic group. But white, Hispanic, Asian and American Indian males have also fallen well below their sisters in bachelor’s degree attainment. Another diversion is that this is only true for males from low income families. While the evidence is mixed, the preponderance of the evidence is that males from affluent families have fallen somewhat behind their sisters too.
  4. Emasculate the response. The greatest gender imbalance in bachelor’s degree awards among whites is in the state of Maine. In recognition of the plight of boys in Maine education, a task force was recently created to examine the needs of boys in education. The task force appointments included three leadership positions (all women), a staff (all women), and task force membership (majority women). The first decision of this task force was to change its charge from a study of the problems and needs of boys in education to a study of gender issues in education.

My experience with feminists is that they are not (yet) worthy of being called progressives. To date they have functioned consistently and exclusively as advocates for women. Moreover they have actively opposed initiatives to try to help boys with increasingly serious educational issues. They have been a very effective self-interest and self-serving group. They have also been selfish, mean spirited and stunningly short-sighted. The feminist movement does not (yet) qualify as a progressive movement.

So, no I am not a closet feminist. But I would certainly like to be able to call myself a feminist someday when the feminists begin to show interest and advocacy for the plight of males in education. Then, and only then, can the feminist movement be called progressive.