Self-described "dissident feminist" Camille Paglia recently took feminists and women's studies programs to task for failing to acknowledge biological gender differences. She also criticized the American education system for failing to recognize the unique needs of boys and girls, and suggested there could be a conservative backlash against the cultural message that gender is socially, rather than biologically, constructed.
Paglia, professor of humanities and media studies at the University of the Arts, was at a debate with Jane Flax, scholar in residence in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at American University, on Oct. 8 at American University in Washington, D.C.
In a blog post for American Enterprise Institute, Christina Hoff Sommers, an AEI resident scholar who studies feminism, described Paglia as "that rare intellectual who knows and loves high culture but also appreciates rock stars, drag queens, and soap operas. She has written brilliantly on art history, poetry, film, as well as sex and pop culture. ... She describes herself as a pro-sex, pro-porn, pro-beauty feminist. She is also an openly gay woman who loves men and who deems women's studies intellectually bankrupt."
In her opening remarks, available here, Paglia accuses women's studies programs at universities of being too insular and closed-minded, and feminists of being ignorant of gender differences and hostile to stay-at-home mothering and the educational needs of boys.
"I do believe that gender roles are malleable and dynamically shaped by culture," she said. "However, the frequency with which gender roles return to a polarized norm, as well as the startling similarity of gender roles in societies separated by vast distances of time and space, does suggest that there is something fundamentally constant in gender that is based in concrete facts.
"A modern democracy, based on concepts of individual liberties, has an obligation to protect all varieties of personal expression. But the majority of earthlings do seem to find clear gender roles helpful compass points in the often conflicted formation of identity. Gender questioning has always been and will remain the prerogative of artists and shamans, gifted but alienated beings."
Paglia described her frustrations, growing up in the 1950s, with the assumed gender roles of that period. She did not like playing with dolls. She wanted swords. Her physical desires were stifled by teachers who told her she could not play drums or full court basketball.
Paglia's movement toward feminism was also, though, confronted in the 1960s by puberty. The biological changes taking place in herself and her peers caused her to rethink some of her earlier views.
"There seemed to me significant, troubling, and even intractable issues in human physiology over which we have little or no control. Hence the relationship between nature and nurture was becoming increasingly problematic to me. My earlier dismissive attitude toward biology was proving untenable."
Paglia recalled a conversation with some fellow feminists in the early 1970s in which she casually mentioned the hormonal differences between men and women. She was denounced as having been brainwashed by male scientists. Her critics did not just deny that hormonal differences were a significant factor in gender differences, they denied the existence of hormones.
"I felt as if I had fallen down a rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland," Paglia recalled.
Universities started women's studies programs in the 1970s, she explained, to increase the number of female faculty. From the beginning, though, those programs had an ideological agenda. There was no room for dissent and those who were not on board with the agenda were ostracized. Administrators were afraid to criticize women's studies, she said, because they did not want to be labeled sexist.
"Rather than encouraging scholarly inquiry and free thought, women's studies programs began in an a priori way from an already crystallized agenda. No deviation was permitted from the party line, which was that all gender differences are due to patriarchy, with its monolithic enslavement and abuse of women by men."
Biology and endocrinology (the study of hormones) should be required courses for all women's studies programs, Paglia believes.
Universities should take into account the biological needs of women, she complained. Higher education fails to meet these needs because women are expected to spend their most fertile years studying and working, not having children. Universities that truly met the needs of women would make campuses more friendly to women with children and families, and they would allow for a longer enrollment period, part-time enrollments and leaves of absence for child-bearing and child-rearing. Universities do not do this, she said, because of "social snobbery" and because young mothers are "pitied for 'wasting' their talents."
"Starting a family early has its price for an ambitious young woman, a career hiatus that may be difficult to overcome," Paglia explained. "On the other hand, the reward of being with one's children in their formative years, instead of farming out that fleeting and irreplaceable experience to daycare centers or nannies, has an inherent emotional and perhaps spiritual value that has been lamentably ignored by second-wave feminism."
The education system was also criticized for its "confinement of boys to a prison-like setting that curtails their energy and requires ideological renunciation of male traits."
"By the time young middle class men emerge from college these days, they have been smoothed and ground down to obedient clones," she said. "The elite universities have become police states where an army of deans, sub-deans and faculty committees monitor and sanction male undergraduate speech and behavior if it violates the establishment feminist code."
In her study of history, Paglia has found that whenever there is an effort in society to push gender norms away from their biological norms, there has been a conservative backlash. Gender experimentation usually precedes cultural collapse, Paglia explained with references to ancient Rome and Weimar Germany.
"Furthermore," she said, "while androgyny or transgender fluidity is currently regarded as progressive, such phenomena have at times helped trigger a severe counter-reaction that could last for centuries. For example, the permissiveness of imperial Rome, with its empty, ritualistic religion, created an ethical vacuum soon filled by a massive spiritual movement from the eastern Mediterranean - Christianity, which two millennia later remains a powerful global presence. Elite Romans vacationing in Pompeii or Capri undoubtedly felt that their relaxed, hedonistic world would go on forever."