Voice

A different take on the female public intellectual "problem"

I've got a lot on my plate right now, which is why I've been studiously avoiding the whole Larry Summers kerfuffle -- I haven't had the time to read his remarks in full and don't want to wade in those waters until/if I do. However, I do want to wade into an eddy of the Michael Kinsley/Susan Estrich blood feud over a Los Angeles Times op-ed by Charlotte Allen. To be specific, I don't want to bother with Estrich or Kinsley -- click here, here, here, and here for more on them -- but rather examine Allen's original hypothesis a bit more carefully -- because, to put it kindly, it's a crock of s***. Here's the nub of Allen's argument:

When Susan Sontag died recently, she was mourned as America's leading female intellectual. So the question naturally arose: Is there anyone to take her place? If you can't come up with many names, you're in good company. The list is short. This wasn't always the case. Ironically, during that part of the 20th century when overt discrimination barred many women from advanced educations, lucrative fellowships and prized teaching and editorial positions preparatory for the world of public letters, there were many brilliant, highly articulate female writers who combined a rigorous mind with a willingness to engage broad political, social and literary issues for an audience beyond academia. We still read their books (or at least their epigrams), and we remember their names: Gertrude Stein, Dorothy Parker, Simone de Beauvoir, Simone Weil, Mary McCarthy, Iris Murdoch, Hannah Arendt and Sontag, to name several. Some of these women possessed glittering scholarly credentials. But most did not, because a public intellectual is more than simply an intellectual. Unlike the academic version who speaks mostly to fellow scholars, public intellectuals pitch their ideas to the general reading public — and their writings appear in newspapers, magazines and books. Garry Wills is a public intellectual; Berkeley's jargon-laden postmodern theorist Judith Butler is not. Public intellectuals also explore the implications of ideas, which distinguishes them from sharply observant journalists. When Sontag wrote about camp — or Tom Wolfe about customized cars as kinetic sculpture — they joined writing about popular culture with the long tradition of writing about high culture. One possible explanation for the dearth of Sontag successors is our electronics-saturated age that is inexorably diminishing the number of people who read. Our hyper-specialized higher education system is another candidate. Academic postmodernism, with its contempt for the general public, has largely replaced the core liberal arts curriculum that once created a shared literary culture and an appetite for serious ideas. Still, there is no shortage of well-known male intellectuals. Besides Wolfe and Wills, we have Richard Posner, Louis Menand, Francis Fukuyama, Ian Buruma and Henry Louis Gates Jr., to name some, along with scientists who write provocatively for a general readership: Stephen Hawking, Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins and Jared Diamond. In books and magazines, these intellectuals, who represent a wide variety of ideological perspectives, debate a broad spectrum of topics: science and politics, high and low art, literature, evolution, the Iraq war, campus sexual mores, the origins of the universe. There are female intellectuals with stellar credentials and bestselling books: Germaine Greer, Gloria Steinem, Barbara Ehrenreich, Naomi Wolf, Susan Faludi, Deborah Tannen, Natalie Angier. But there's a big difference between these women and their forebears. They are all professional feminists. They don't simply espouse feminism; they write about little else. Feminist ideology forms the basis of their writings, whether it's Greer on the infantilization of women by a patriarchal society, Tannen on how the sexes are socialized to communicate differently, Faludi on how white men have reacted to women's progress, Ehrenreich on how the male medical establishment intimidates female patients, or Angier on how humans ought to be more like bonobos, the female-dominated, sexually liberated cousins of chimpanzees.

Let's conduct a little experiment: as a faculty member at the University of Chicago, and looking only at my colleagues within my university, can I gin up a list of notable public intellectuals who write on topics beyond feminism? Why, yes, yes I can!!:

Danielle Allen Jean Bethke Elshtain Melissa Harris-Lacewell Martha Nussbaum Saskia Sassen Iris Marion Young

Hey, I did that without breaking a sweat!! If Allen -- who co-edits (???) Inkwell, the blog of the Independent Women's Forum -- wants to claim that female public intellectuals are hostage to doctrinnaire feminism, I'll concede that she doesn't have to search that far to find examples to support her hypothesis. However, she appears not to have searched at all for any cases that contradict her hypothesis. And that doesn't make her a very good public intellectual at all. [You only searched within the confines of your ivory tower. Maybe your university is atypical--ed. I'd agree, but beyond the U of C, it's still not that difficult to think of counterexamples to Charlotte Allen's hypothesis -- Deborah Dickerson, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Jessica Tuchman Matthews, Peggy Noonan, Virginia Postrel, Diane Ravitch, Claudia Rossett, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Theda Skocpol, etc. (UPDATE: Other excellent suggestions from the comments thread -- Anne Applebaum, Amy Guttman, Samantha Power, Elaine Scarry, etc.)] UPDATE: Aspiring public intellectual Phoebe Maltz offers her take:

[P]art of the reason things have changed since Arendt et al is that there's now this huge workforce of female professionals, so brilliant women who might have once gone into public-intellectualizing are now investment bankers, lawyers, etc. So the women who remain are the ones who don't just need to channel intellect, but who really do just want to get paid to write about whatever happens to be on their minds. Well, Andrew Sullivan makes it known that he's gay, Cornel West, rumor has it, is black, so if we take them as they are, do we really need to fault Barbara Ehrenreich for focusing on female workers?

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