“A system-grinder hates the truth.”
—Ralph Waldo Emerson

During the 25 years of its existence, contemporary feminism has received a measure of gentle chiding for its excesses. Not even the most indulgent eye can completely overtook feminist comparisons of marriage to prostitution, childbirth to defecation, or the use of the pronoun “he” to Jim Crow. Yet few cultural critics have been willing to call feminism nonsense from top to bottom, misanthropic utopianism at its core as well as its periphery. To that small group add Nicholas Davidson.

Davidson gauges the “failure” of feminism along several dimensions, faulting it first as an explanatory theory. As he lucidly and accurately explains, feminism takes all of society to be the product of women’s oppression. (The popular label for feminism was initially “women’s lib,” a clear expression of the demand for relief from male dominance.) This theory in turn obliges feminists to deny, as they do, any basic biological difference between the inclinations and aptitudes of the two sexes. This tenet is crucial. If the sexes occupy different social “roles” because, on the whole, they want to, these “roles” reflect the cumulative authentic choices of both men and women, not deception and coercion. Indeed, if sex differences are real, maintenance of a society without sex roles would require intrusive manipulation on a scale, in Davidson’s words, “to make such totalitarian nightmares as Brave New World and 1984 look tolerant and humane by comparison.”

Davidson’s synopsis of the scientific literature, although derivative from previous surveys, suffices to refute what he aptly terms “cultural determinism.” Prenatal exposure of the male brain to androgens is what produces the characteristic behavior of human males; genetic females accidentally exposed to androgens in utero also come to display “male” behavior. (Davidson does not mention complementary studies by Karow and Reinisch of androgen-insensitive fetal males who go on to display characteristically feminine behavior.) Also, as Davidson notes, ethology has dismantled the false dichotomy between learned behavior and innate reflexes; the innateness of general patterns of motivation and cognition is now a commonplace among evolutionary biologists.

Davidson blunts his argument a bit by straining to credit “feminist scientists” like Sarah Hrdy and Carol Gilligan with a degree of insight into male biases in science. Prof Hrdy, for instance, accuses classical Darwinism of one-sidedly taking male adaptation alone as the engine of human evolution. This silly accusation, which Davidson accepts, simply illustrates the alertness of feminists to nonexistent slights.’ Darwin himself emphasized the interplay between male and female preferences for traits in the opposite sex as a determinant of evolution, an idea central to Fisher’s work a generation later. (In Feminism and Freedom I examine Hrdy’s theory of the supposed evolution of female competitiveness and promiscuity, especially its implicit treatment of the two sexes as competing groups.) The moral of Davidson’s chivalrous lapse: where science is concerned, assume feminists are wrong about everything.

To be sure, feminists have now begun to assert, indeed insist, that women are less belligerent, less competitive—in a word, better—than men. This new emphasis is puzzling not only when used to support the same demands (comparable worth, affirmative action, curricular revolution) once made in the name of cultural determinism, but because it is allowed to coexist with the older denial of sex differences. Such inconsistency has its uses; since an inconsistent theory implies anything, as all logicians know, the inconsistent feminist theorist can help herself to any claim she needs at any point in any debate. That is why debating feminists is so like wrestling with Jell-O. Most people, of course, shun self-contradictions; what impels feminists to theirs, as Davidson sees it, is their inveterate, ungovernable hatred of men. They will say anything against men, whether or not it makes sense. When accusing men of oppressing women, feminists maintain the sameness of the sexes; when blaming men for war, pollution, and the rest of the human condition, they ridicule male brutality. Vagina you win, penis I lose. This “poisonous negativity” is for Davidson the second major failure of feminism and why, for all its claims, it has done nothing for the average woman but make her uneasy about her natural impulses.

To my mind, the deepest feature of Failure is precisely this capacity of Davidson’s to cut through feminist (il)logic to the sensibility that produces it and the rhetorical devices that sustain it. One marvelous passage begins with a seemingly objective description of his apartment, with its dark wood moldings and its swinging kitchen door, and ends abruptly with “this apartment reflects an oppressive culture that subordinates women. Perhaps I should move out of it.” Why? “The dark wood is intended to suggest the menonly atmosphere of turn-of-the-century clubs.” As for that kitchen door, “Women must be vulnerable to masculine penetration.” Anyone familiar with feminist prose will recognize the accuracy of this replica. Parody it is not, for parodies exaggerate. As Davidson summarizes the feminist perspective:

Find something that bothers you, explore how it is caused, directly or indirectly, by tradition and by men, and you will have reproduced the structure common to all feminist analyses. If the cause is indirect, so much the better: you will win points for subtlety and thrill your readers with horror as you reveal to them the perversity of concealed influence.

Davidson is also very good on sex as practiced (“attempted” might be the better word) according to feminist imperatives.

Equally masterful is his analysis of the language of Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics, a tour de force of textual dissection to prompt envy in the most sensitive literary critic.

The evidence of Millett’s hatred of men seethes just beneath the surface of Sexual Politics. . . . Regardless of one’s views on Freud’s theory of penis envy, it is evident that some such desire inflicts itself on Millett. There is a curious gingerish quality in her reference to the male genitals which seems to reflect not some remnant of prudery but rather an odd mixture of admiration, disgust, and fear, of fascination and repulsion. She is infinitely more concerned with the male genitals than any man I have ever known. Rather than using the many available matter-of-fact terms to refer to the male genitals, Millett gives them elaborate, sneering characterizations like “the male indicator” and “the penis, badge of the male’s superior status.”


Millett claims that men distance themselves from women by depersonalizing them, by objectifying them. . . . It therefore comes as a shock to realize that such dehumanizing objectification is precisely what Millett does to men. This pervasive tendency is most strikingly seen in the habitual use of the generalized term “male” when a specific term like “husband” would be more appropriate, as in “All that the wife acquired by her labor, service or act during coverture became the legal property of the male.” The effect of this repetitive misuse of the word “male” is, first, to remove the immediacy of the reader’s perception of the human actor in question by depicting him primarily as a member of the impersonal category “males,” second, by a process of guilt through association, to make the category of maleness suspect, and thus finally to make the word “male” into a term of abuse.

To take another example: Millett states—and here one must emphatically agree with her—that “women entertain, please, gratify, satisfy and flatter men with their sexuality.” It is a symptom of the web of negativity into which she is trying to draw her reader that by the end of her second chapter Millett expects this statement—which only describes what is natural, normal and good—to be met with shock. How outrageous, the reader is supposed to think, that women entertain, please, gratify and so forth, men! What an unjust culture it is that would make them want to do such a thing! Rationality recedes; rage builds.

(I suspect Davidson will be attacked for criticizing an “early” feminist like Millett, but he is right to do so; Millett’s rancorous lesbianism may embarrass today’s more urbane feminists, but they have never categorically rejected it.) Much else in Failure is equally knowing, pithy and memorable; I wish I could quote it all.

Davidson is unafraid to push beyond analysis to advocacy. He wants to disperse the cloud currently shadowing manhood. And when he urges a “revalidation of the masculine,” he does not mean by “masculine” an inner security so great that it allows tenderness; he wants old-fashioned toughness. He believes decisiveness, aggressiveness, and the capacity for violence are as important as the nurturant values about which so much is being heard. It is a tribute to the level of intimidation achieved by feminists that Davidson’s unapologetic embrace of manhood will probably shock the reader. “Does this mean that a man or a woman who exhibits less of some of these [stereotypical] characteristics is less of a man or a woman than one who exhibits more? Yes, it does. When we say ‘What a woman!’ or ‘What a 5man!’ that is exactly what we mean.” Prose like this provides a long-forgotten thrill, like the aroma of steak after a regimen of tofu. Unfortunately, his eagerness to remind the reader of manhood occasionally tempts Davidson to overstatement. He argues that the masculine disposition to smash things must be preserved against the day when a comet threatens to collide with the Earth. If comet-busting is typical of the reasons male aggressiveness is needed, it may safely be allowed to vanish. It is surely enough to observe that those other guys over the hill are liable to vent their aggression on us, and for this reason we must keep our masculine powder dry.

We always like to think that foolish ideas have no power to persuade others presumably as rational as we. It would therefore be nice to be able to agree with Davidson that feminism has also failed as an influential social movement, but to do so would be self-indulgent. Davidson is certainly right that many social changes for which feminists claim credit (or take blame) were generated by larger social forces, particularly “the decreasing specialization in the basic spheres of human life” that permits everyone, women included, to try more things. However, neither the Geraldine Ferraro debacle in 1984 nor the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment, Davidson’s principal concrete evidence that feminism is finished, warrant any such conclusion. The Democratic Party remains as powerful as it is pro-feminist. It currently controls both houses of Congress and may elect a President this year. Feminist organizations played a major role in blocking the appointment of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. And while the ERA was never ratified, virtually everything it demanded is being secured by other means, chiefly litigation involving the 14th Amendment, Title IX, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, and other civil rights legislation. Davidson asserts, wholly incorrectly, that “By the mid-eighties, the idea of comparable worth was effectively dead among thoughtful Americans.” In fact, hundreds of state and municipal governments have imposed comparable worth pay scales or have ordered comparable worth studies, the telltale prelude to legislative action. Astonishingly, Davidson makes only one small parenthetical reference to affirmative action for women, an idea very much alive and recently given full recognition by the Supreme Court. It is not easy to follow Davidson’s assertion that “a consensus is emerging that feminism went too far” at a time when tens of millions of men are being discriminated against solely because feminist claims about past “sexism” and the need for “role models” have been institutionalized. Davidson’s sweeping judgment that “the Feminist Era is over” is sheer wishful thinking.

At such junctures Davidson has fallen victim to the vices of his virtues. The autonomy of mind which allows him to praise masculinity when, all around him, men are losing theirs also weakens his sensitivity to external stimuli. In much the same way, Davidson’s fluency leads him, often enough, to fustian. There are whole paragraphs consisting solely of rhetorical sentences. The book as a whole is rather amorphous in overall design, with digressions of dubious relevance, and is extremely repetitious. Davidson makes virtually all his points in the first half of Failure; some of the later chapters read almost like revised versions of earlier ones.

These lapses, however, do not diminish the value of Davidson’s book. He has not only looked upon the Gorgon and returned, he has brought back a vivid description of the creature.


[The Failure of Feminism, by Nicholas Davidson (New York: Prometheus) 329 pp.; $24.95]