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Feminist Censorship

Jack Matthews’ latest books are Dirty Tricks, a volume of stories with Johns Hopkins, and Memoirs of a Book man, bibliophilic essays with Ohio University Press, Athens. He also writes plays and collects old and rare books.

Recently, while sitting alone and drinking coffee in the faculty lounge of the university where I teach English, I noticed on the table before me a folder containing the curriculum vitae of a woman applicant for a faculty position in Renaissance Drama. I knew nothing about the woman, except that she was a recently minted Ph.D.; but before picking up the folder to examine her qualifications, I paused momentarily to wonder if it was possible she had written a dissertation on any subject other than one of feminist “relevance.”

Deciding that such a possibility was negligible, I picked up the folder, opened it, and saw with dreary recognition that her topic was “politically correct.” At that instant, a male colleague entered the lounge, and I asked him if he could remember seeing any reference within the past decade to a female scholar writing upon any but a feminist topic. He frowned a moment and then confessed that he could not. “Neither can I,” I told him; after which we both sat in silence for a moment, reflecting upon the matter, the way males sometimes do.

But does this anecdote really point to an issue? Might not our pooled information reflect simple coincidence? The world is so complex, and we are so flooded with miscellaneous information, that the greatest conceivable coincidence would be for coincidences not to happen more or less constantly.

All true. And yet, there is so much growing evidence of reverse sexism that it cannot be ignored. A successful novelist who lives in California—a friend who also teaches and is familiar with the contemporary scene in higher education—recently wrote an essay about false accusations by women students against male professors. An editor of a prominent magazine wanted to print it, but said some of the women editors objected, arguing that what he described could not be true, although his report was based solidly on fact.

When he sent the piece to another magazine, the woman editor tentatively accepted it, then rejected it, explaining that a male feminist on the staff voted against publication. Later, when the novelist talked to that editor about his essay, he was told, “Our women readers aren’t smart enough to understand this.” To paraphrase the old saying: “With sympathizers like that, who needs enemies?”

Like sexism itself, de facto reverse sexism is alive and thriving. And, as the above anecdote shows, the virus is not confined within halls of ivy. Recently, a male writer received a rejection letter from a woman editor of a literary quarterly that had been regularly publishing his stories. She explained that the magazine was now under new editorship, and the other women editors on the staff felt that the old-fashioned, family-oriented stores he wrote were tainted with sexism. She assured the author that she didn’t agree with her sister editors, but thought he should know that he had been prejudged and that any future work he submitted would be rejected for reasons that had nothing to do with literary merit. This is, of course, censorship—although not the sort that evokes those ululations of huff that greet, say, the refusal to use public funds for subsidizing the display of homosexual images in art galleries.

The evidence of reverse sexism is everywhere, and impossible to ignore. It manifests the classical pattern of dialectic, in which the intolerable excesses of an action are nullified by the equally intolerable excesses of reaction, awaiting a synthesis which in the best scenarios achieves something like justice.[1] Today, in part because of legitimate, widespread sensitivity to feminist principles, we are riding the curve of an antithesis whose moral and legal authority are not only sanctioned, but institutionalized—a situation that invites self- righteous excess and the corruption of unquestioned power.

The effects of the prevailing dogma can be seen in literary market listings which are designed exclusively for women as a privileged group, a category created to compensate them for their allegedly being barred from other markets. For example, in the current Dramatists Sourcebook,[2] four listings are open to women playwrights only, 13 specify a “special interest” in plays by women, and six in plays for and about women. But these figures do not take into account the bias implicit in the many additional listings which state preferences for work by or about “minorities” or for themes that reflect “current social issues.” Then there are a few listings that are not “sexist” in its primary sense, but are so by implication, stating editorial policies that promote “lesbian and gay” values.[3]

Of course, there are no listings restricted to male writers, nor do 1 know of any elsewhere.[4] Some feminists would justify this state of affairs with the argument that, being privileged, males have no need of such apparatus. But think a moment: how real is that privilege? How long has it been since women have actually been denied equal access to the media? Or how long since they’ve not had as fair a shake as men in the tricky and intrinsically unjust game of literary criticism and book reviewing? To answer these questions honestly would clear the air; but militants of every sort tend to distrust clarity, thriving as they do upon intellectual mist and rhetorical obfuscation.

Guidelines need not be explicitly biased for fellowships, grants, and contests to be slanted against males. Consider this year’s winners of the D. H. Lawrence Fellowship, an award ostensibly without gender privilege, simply dedicated to the “promise of enhancing the life of contemporary letters.” In 1991 there were over 150 applications, many of which were described as “very strong.” In fact, the committee chairperson wrote that he had heard “more than once from each of the judges about the high quality of all of the applicants.” But this high quality was evidently not sensitive to gender balance, for the winner and both the first and second alternates were all women. As indicated by their names, all the fudges of this competition were women, too. Could these two facts be connected? Only if fish swim and frogs croak. In these and similar positions of authority there are feminists of both genders who believe that some sort of compensatory bias is not only justified, but positively right and ethical. Give the good old boys a taste of their own medicine. Right? And ride the dialecti-cal swing for all it’s worth. And why not?

A humorless and self-righteous militancy can be great fun, of course. But it can also lead to bizarre entrapments, as when I recently had an essay returned by the editor of a literary quarterly, explaining that he could not consider it because the next two issues were to be devoted to “the female body.” God knows there’s nothing wrong with that; like most men, I can hardly imagine a more interesting subject. On the other hand, as a man I obviously have no authority in such matters . . . and yet, I can’t help savoring the irony of my essay’s being disqualified, for it was titled, “A Woman Great With Child in Pago.” Why, I can remember the time when the female body’s role in giving life was widely regarded as one of the most interesting and, yes, beautiful things about it.

Like sexism itself, reverse sexism doesn’t have to be overt and conscious—much less blatant—to be insidiously at work in skewing judgments. In a world where feminist values have been—if not institutionalized as exclusively “feminine”—itaticized, at least, and given special emphasis, some texts will naturally seem worthier than others. Some will be judged better solely in terms of “political correctness,” while others may simply appear more modern, more socially responsible, more relevant and with it.

And who is likely to make such decisions? The very sort of franchised young scholar who—the instant you see her curriculum vitae lying on the table in a faculty lounge somewhere—you can be certain has written on a feminist topic. I speak of a feminist whose academic studies have been confined since her undergraduate years to texts by women or texts utilizing obligatory feminist critical strategies, strategies that have been decreed and ordained to emphasize and validate what are perceived as intrinsically, even exclusively, feminist values—values which cannot by definition be human, for they exclude that half of the human covenant which is male.

How tangibly will the world suffer when literary works are judged by the gender of their authors or their political message rather than by literary merit? The suffering would not seem very great, perhaps. And yet, such bias is a form of deceit and injustice; and even though these sins may seem trivial as measured by the average entry in some theoretical Guinness Book of Human Miseries, it is important that they are seen for what they are and called by their correct names. The world has enough lies and injustices. It does not need any more, even if they are judged to be small and insignificant; and even if they are told in the service of a legitimate concern, which I believe sexism to be.

But the rhetoric that promotes injustice is always dangerous and self-defeating, and we should have no more tolerance for reverse sexism than for sexism itself. Prejudice can take many forms; but everywhere, in all its variety, its results are sadly predictable. Inevitably it leads to resentment and frustration. It leads to the sort of article you are now reading, whose sole raison d’être is to repudiate the idea that injustice is tolerable if it is intended to correct another. And at its most virulent extreme, radical feminism demoralizes discourse, provoking bitterness and dismay as it peddles its peculiar brand of paralogical rhetoric, closed-minded arrogance, and self-righteous bigotry. []

1.   This synthesis itself becoming the thesis of a new dialectic.

2.   The Theatre Communications Group, New York.

3.   One magazine, Sinister Wisdom, is edited by “Elana Dykewoman,” and states “no heterosexual themes.”

4.   I do not count traditional men’s and women’s magazines, for they are explicit about their markets, and, so far as I know, equally hospitable to both genders. The 1990 Writer’s Market lists only 18 men’s magazines to 39 for women; but I don’t view this disproportion as sexist; it simply indicates a larger targeted readership for women’s magazines.

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