You know it’s a slow news month when statements by the president of Harvard University make headlines for weeks on end. Over six weeks ago, Larry Summers speculated that innate difference between genders may play a role in the under-representation of women among top scientists. The initial flurry of stories has since been followed by a CNN report, a series of Washington Post front-page articles, and countless hours of television punditry — all covering the clash in Cambridge and how professors and students plan to reprimand their wayward leader.
Many believe this episode reflects an out-of-control campus culture that makes politically incorrect inquiry a near crime. Commentators — myself included — reveled in the caricatured reaction of professors like MIT’s Nancy Hopkins, who nearly fainted upon hearing Summers’ words. Intellectuals have debated the merits of Summers’s hypothesis: Does the evidence suggested that more men are naturally gifted in math and science?
A less-examined aspect of the Summers’s soap opera is how the anti-Summers campaign fits in to the larger feminist game plan. Feminists are looking for opportunities to prove their relevance and power. Toppling Larry Summers would fit the bill nicely.
It’s been a rough year for old-guard feminists. Their archenemy, President Bush, was re-elected and the Democrat’s advantage among women all but vanished. Many liberal stalwarts, including a defeated John Kerry, speculated that Democrats’ stance and statements on abortion — largely the product of feminists’ influence on the issue — alienated voters and needs moderation. Feminists watched as Senator Hillary Clinton, poster-woman for the feminist movement, launched a deliberate campaign to appear moderate and distance herself from the liberal left.
Another blow came when an ex-board member of the National Organization for Women in New York released Why Men Earn More. This book shatters the idea that the “wage gap,” or the difference between the median wages of “working” men and women, is the result of discrimination.
Warren Farrell isolates the many decisions that affect how much individuals get paid: from the types of jobs they choose to their willingness to move locations and work long hours. Farrell details how women tend to make choices that mean they earn less than men. Women are less likely to work in hazardous jobs and jobs that are include physical discomfort, like being outdoors. Women gravitate to jobs that offer greater flexibility, more time off, and less travel. It’s clear from Farrell’s analysis that women’s decision to opt for lower pay is not in itself a problem. In fact, it could be characterized as a healthy tendency in women, to place greater value on their time and quality of life than the extra dollars.
These developments are bad news for entrenched campus feminists loath to admit that, in the real world, women often act differently than men. The breaking of ranks among their key constituents — from reliably liberal politicians to notoriously leftist Harvard University — has to be alarming.
The effort to take down Summers, for what objectively appears a modest infraction against feminist orthodoxy, parallels the strategy advocated by many hawks in the war on terror. Toppling Saddam was a strategic move, they argue, because other countries are now more wary of crossing the United States. If Larry Summers is ousted for failing to tightly tow the liberal line, the feminists will prove their ability to punish future would-be dissenters. That’s appealing for the gender warriors, but terrible for a Democratic party scrambling to project empathy for middle-American values.
The Larry Summers saga may seem like old news, but it speaks volumes about the prospects of the feminist movement and the Democrats who answer to them.