Tuesday, February 22, 2005

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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?

posted by Dan on 02.22.05 at 11:35 AM


His argument is absurd, and could be applied to most minorities except that no-one with any clue would be stupid enough to try it. Why are so few black CEOs of fortune 500 companies? Genetics? Of course not. This is a cultural break.
Now it may be that no matter what happens, some percentage of more men will be engaged at higher levels of public success for purely biological reasons (women spending time having babies), but we are no where close to that point.

I think people tend to underestimate how much time is required to truly change society. Heck, women have only had the right to vote for 85 years, thats a single lifetime. Scientists say that a theory is never proved wrong until the last of its proponents dies off, and this applies to the social sciences as well. We need to keep fighting for equality, but must also realize that until a few generations have matured having lived their whole lives emersed in equality, there will always be holdouts. There is simply a difference between believing something intellectually, and having it engrained in your consciousness.

posted by: Mark Buehner on 02.22.05 at 11:35 AM [permalink]

I agree that she didn't look very far, but some of the suggestions you make for leading female intellectuals are, um... suspect. Peggy Noonan? Why not just pick Anne Coulter? And, quite frankly, I'm not sure Postrel would belong in such a group.
But the list gets pretty big pretty quickly, even if one where to limit it to academe...

posted by: flaime on 02.22.05 at 11:35 AM [permalink]

Uh, shouldn't 'public' have some sort of meaning besides 'not in jail'? Dan's whole list has less cumulative name recognition to the lay public than any one name on Allen's list.

There's no shortage of female intellectuals with l-o-n-g curicla vitae, but how many are 'public' to the same extent as Ehrenreich, Wolf, or Faludi?

posted by: Jos Bleau on 02.22.05 at 11:35 AM [permalink]

How bout Phyllis Schlafly? Eleanor Clift and Susan Estrich may not be a-list celebs but they are certainly influential. I think the question is loaded. Name me some males that are as influential in the way being described these days. Chomsky may still draw water at Berkeley but who else listens to him unless they want a laugh? And he's the top of the heap. I would argue personalities just dont draw that kind of attention in the internet age, there are too many smart voices out there for people to gravitate like they used to.
Personally im far more concerned at the lack of woman senators and CEOs.

And comparing Noonan to Culter is absurd, Noonan wrote some of Reagan and Bush 41s most famous stuff. Thats like comparing Terry Edmunds to Al Franken.

posted by: Mark Buehner on 02.22.05 at 11:35 AM [permalink]

I was going to ask Bleau's question as well. Who are these people?

Peggy Noonan I've heard of. I've always thought of her as a speechwriter. Claudia Rossett's column I've read in the Wall Street Journal; I admire Virginia Postrel's writing. But -- and I mean no disrespect -- if what they've done makes them public intellectuals the bar for that title is being set low enough for an awful lot of people to clear it.

I'd grant that this Charlotte Allen person might have come up with the names of a few women who are genuine public intellectuals and are not doctrinaire feminists if she'd thought longer about it. But is there really much reason to doubt that she's on the right track? A list of UC professors less widely known than some of the posters on this board and another list of columnists and occasional authors might be a footnote to her argument, but it doesn't contradict it very effectively.

posted by: Zathras on 02.22.05 at 11:35 AM [permalink]

Dan, there's a difference between public intellectual and people known in academic/political science circles. The only name that MIGHT transcend the boundary would be Martha Nussbaum. I've met all the people you listed from U of C, but they really aren't in the Gloria Steinam/ Naomi Wolf/ Susan Sontag category.

posted by: Norman Pfyster on 02.22.05 at 11:35 AM [permalink]

Ditto. I've never heard of a single member of the first list. I do recognize half the names on the second, but would hardly put them in a class with Henry Louis Gates and Steven Pinker.

I come away thinking you've underscored Allen's point quite nicely.

posted by: JSinger on 02.22.05 at 11:35 AM [permalink]

... and besides - who gives a damn if they're women or men? Wasn't that supposed to be the whole point?

posted by: Art Wellesley on 02.22.05 at 11:35 AM [permalink]

Ann Applebaum, Samantha Powers, and (much to my chagrin) Arundhati Roy immediatlely come to mind.

posted by: Independent George on 02.22.05 at 11:35 AM [permalink]

I don't comment here because the fighters in this club are out of my weight class. I do, however, feel qualified to just this once offer my views, since at issue is what schleps like me may or may not know.

I recognize 5 of the 7 names on Allen's list of female public intellectuals (all but Angier and Tannen) and 8 of the 11 on her list of male public intellectuals (all but Menand, Buruma, and Pinker.)

I've read a few of them, and read about the others.

None of Professor Drezner's names ring a bell.

posted by: Laertes on 02.22.05 at 11:35 AM [permalink]

I'm actually going to side with Dan here...I've heard of pretty much everyone on the list...and each has contributed in their own way to a discourse beyond academia...whether they have had bad best-selling books..see Garry Wills...is another question...

posted by: Dave on 02.22.05 at 11:35 AM [permalink]

It's at least partly, maybe mostly, an issue of framing. If you 'get' your public intelectuals from the New York Times, NPR, and the New Yorker you'll wind up with one list of names, if you rely on Commentary and the National Review you'll get another list, epi-academia such as Foreign Policy and the HBR and the like yields a third list, and so on.

All these lists will have some overlap but will still be mostly exclusive of each other. The exception is C-SPAN - they're a real mind-whore - Brian Lamb will talk about ideas with anyone.

So Allen & Dan (& I) can all be right. Lke Dan say, there are lots of serious women public intelectuals who fall outside of Allen's 'feminist brain freeze' orbit. But to the extent that newspaper editorial pages (and others) follow the Times' lead only the select few that Allen complains about make it out of their narrow niche and into the widest 'public' realm.

Solution: Watch more C-SPAN.

posted by: Jos Bleau on 02.22.05 at 11:35 AM [permalink]


Could you please put a moratorium on the word "kerfuffle"?

posted by: Diego on 02.22.05 at 11:35 AM [permalink]

I'm pasting in a comment from my own blog, where I made a similar point about the Allen essay. Here's what I said there (and this list of names was REALLY just off the top of my head--I can come up with many others, including some of the ones mentioned here...): "What about--on the more academic side of things, anyway--Elaine Scarry and Martha Nussbaum? What about Katha Pollitt? What about Anne Fadiman, surely as perceptive if not as high-profile a cultural commentator as Menand? What about Toni Morrison and Anne Carson and Diane Ackerman and Margaret Atwood (counting North American more generally, rather than US only)? What about Jamaica Kincaid and Lani Guinier and Patricia Williams and Amy Gutmann? What about Leda Cosmides? Yes, this list skews rather more towards writer-intellectuals than towards commentators on public policy. But it's roughly commensurate with that list of male intellectuals, no? The argument just feels like a depressingly familiar knee-jerk anti-feminism."

My own opinion: the troubling thing is the way it's relatively difficult for women to make their way forward as high-profile and/or best-selling cultural commentators without "specializing" in women's issues. The fact that a given magazine is more likely to assign a piece on foreign policy to a male writer and a piece on parenting to a female one is *not* wholly or even perhaps primarily due to the fact of women writers' interests; it has much more to do with the way that professional opportunities present themselves disproportionately in the "female-related" arena.

Sorry for the long post, but this is a great discussion!

posted by: Jenny D on 02.22.05 at 11:35 AM [permalink]

I'll echo Independent George. Anne Applebaum impresses me. Another female intellectual that impresses me is Amity Shlaes.

posted by: Brennan Stout on 02.22.05 at 11:35 AM [permalink]

Let's not forget Ayn Rand, of course. She wiped the floor with most of them.

posted by: Johnathan Pearce on 02.22.05 at 11:35 AM [permalink]

Ayn Rand always rejected so called miracles, but if she was cited as frequently as Naomi Wolf in today's media then it would truly be the evidence of a miracle.

posted by: Brennan Stout on 02.22.05 at 11:35 AM [permalink]

To ditto what's already been said: I've heard of every female name on Allen's list. On your list, I think I may have heard of the name Nussbaum, but I have no idea what she does (law? genetics? social sciences?). Your public intellectuals aren't very public. Perhaps you don't realize just how irrelevant academia and academic arguments are to the body politic.


posted by: Steve on 02.22.05 at 11:35 AM [permalink]

Jenny D:
But it's roughly commensurate with that list of male intellectuals, no?

Errr, no. I don't have the slightest idea who Anne Carson, Patricia Williams and Leda Cosmides are. Lani Guinier is the first person anyone has mentioned whom I'd consider relevant. (I'd add Arundhati Roy, and propose Naomi Klein, but we're supposed to be talking about the US, right?)

Honestly, I come to this issue with minimal preconceived notions, having heard vaguely about the original article and failed to form any opinion about it. The striking thing to me is how convincingly you and Daniel are making Allen's point for her.

It's at least partly, maybe mostly, an issue of framing. If you 'get' your public intelectuals from the New York Times, NPR, and the New Yorker you'll wind up with one list of names, if you rely on Commentary and the National Review you'll get another list, epi-academia such as Foreign Policy and the HBR and the like yields a third list, and so on.

Sure, but that's the point. I don't read Z, but I know who Noam Chomsky is.

posted by: JSinger on 02.22.05 at 11:35 AM [permalink]

I brought this point up yesterday in relation to Summer's comments, and it would seem to apply to the foundation of this discussion, as well;

I wonder if anyone has ever made a study of the number of male vs female bloggers, and run those numbers up against the numbers of male vs female in the general population who are considered 'intelectual'.
I'll bet there's a pattern there.

posted by: Bithead on 02.22.05 at 11:35 AM [permalink]

Allen must think that the world is a small place and that women are scarce. Well, maybe they are where he comes from.

I recall a history teacher of mine. Strangely, enough, she was a conservative Republican, and probably the smartest woman I've ever met. And she was a preacher's wife, mother of three girls, and a high school history teacher. Heh. You can find brilliant people anywhere; not just ones that work in high-level academia.

posted by: Robert Mayer on 02.22.05 at 11:35 AM [permalink]

Himmelfarb's a U of C alum. Not a U of C prof, but still, was once milling about in the same ivory tower.

This week, I aspire to pass my Core astrophysics class...

posted by: Phoebe on 02.22.05 at 11:35 AM [permalink]

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