Early on the morning of September 11, 2001, I had a nightmare. I don't know how to explain it—I lay no claim to oracular powers. Maybe it was just a coincidental convergence. I dreamed I was sitting in an aisle seat of a commercial airliner. Next to me was another passenger, a woman. A hand jostled my headrest, and I looked up to see two young men bearing down on us. They both held pistols. One put his gun to my neck and shot. Then he shot again. I watched, as if from outside my body, as the first bullet entered at an angle and lodged in my throat. Moments later, the second bullet grazed by me and disappeared into the neck of my seatmate. I noticed that I was still alive but unable to speak. Then I woke up. A glorious dawn was filtering through the window blinds of my bedroom in Los Angeles. I described the dream to my boyfriend, in hopes of releasing its grip on my mind. I feared falling asleep and returning to that plane. As we lay there talking, the phone rang.
"Are you watching television?" a friend asked.
"No," I said. "Why?"
"Go turn on your television."
What I saw on the screen only deepened my sensation of being caught in some insane realm beyond reality, unable to wake up. It was a feeling that would linger.
My induction into a more willful unreality came later that day, when the phone rang again. A reporter in the Los Angeles bureau of an East Coast newspaper was pursuing a "reaction story." I was perplexed—he had hardly reached an authority on terrorism. As it turns out, that wasn't his concern. After a couple of vague questions about what this tragedy would "mean to our social fabric," he answered his own question with, given the morning's events, a bizarrely gleeful tone: "Well, this sure pushes feminism off the map!" In the ensuing days, I would receive more calls from journalists on the 9/11 "social fabric" beat, bearing more proclamations of gender restructuring—among them a New York Times reporter researching an article on "the return of the manly man" and a New York Observer writer seeking comment on "the trend" of women "becoming more feminine after 9/11." By which, as she made clear, she meant less feminist. Women were going to regret their "independence," she said, and devote themselves to "baking cookies" and finding husbands "to take care of them."
The calls left me baffled. By what mental process had these journalists traveled from the inferno at ground zero to a repudiation of female independence? Why would they respond to terrorist attack by heralding feminism's demise—especially an attack hatched by avowed antagonists of Western women's liberation? That a cataclysmic event might eclipse other concerns would hardly seem to warrant special mention. Unremarkably, celebrity scandals, Hollywood marital crises, and the disappearance of government intern Chandra Levy all slipped from the front pages. But my gloating caller and his cohorts weren't talking about the normal displacement of small stories by the big one. Feminist perspectives, and those of independent women more generally, didn't just naturally fade from view after 9/11.
In the weeks that followed, I had occasion to see this phenomenon repeated in many different ways. Of all the peculiar responses our culture manifested to 9/11, perhaps none was more incongruous than the desire to rein in a liberated female population. In some murky fashion, women's independence had become implicated in our nation's failure to protect itself. And, conversely, the need to remedy that failure somehow required a distaff correction, a discounting of female opinions, a demeaning of the female voice, and a general shrinkage of the female profile. As it turned out, feminists weren't the only women to be "pushed off the map"; their expulsion was just the preview for the larger erasures to follow.
Within days of the attack, a number of media venues sounded the death knell of feminism. In light of the national tragedy, the women's movement had proved itself, as we were variously informed, "parochial," "frivolous," and "an unaffordable luxury" that had now "met its Waterloo." The terrorist assault had levied "a blow to feminism," or, as a headline on the op-ed page of the Houston Chronicle pithily put it, "No Place for Feminist Victims in Post 9-11 America."
"The feminist movement, already at low ebb, has slid further into irrelevancy," syndicated columnist Cathy Young asserted. "Now that the peaceful life can no longer be guaranteed," military historian Martin van Creveld declared in Newsday, "one of the principal losers is likely to be feminism, which is based partly on the false belief that the average woman is as able to defend herself as the average man." In a column titled "Hooray for Men," syndicated columnist Mona Charen anticipated the end of the old reign of feminism: "Perhaps the new climate of danger—danger from evil men—will quiet the anti-male agitation we've endured for so long." New York Times columnist John Tierney held out the same hope. "Since Sept. 11, the 'culture of the warrior' doesn't seem quite so bad to Americans worried about the culture of terrorism," he wrote, impugning the supposed feminist "determination to put boys in touch with their inner feelings." "American males' fascination with guns doesn't seem so misplaced now that they're attacking Al Qaeda's fortress," he sniffed. "No one is suggesting a Million Mom March on Tora Bora."
These were, of course, familiar themes, the same old nostrums marching under a bright new banner. Long before the towers fell, conservative efforts to roll back women's rights had been making inroads, and the media had been issuing periodic pronouncements on "the death of feminism." In part, what the attack on the World Trade Center did was foreground and speed up a process already under way. "Any kind of conflict at a time of unrest in society typically accentuates the fault lines that already exist," Geeta Rao Gupta, president of the International Center for Research on Women, told the Christian Science Monitor in a story headlined "Are Women Being Relegated to Old Roles?," one of the few articles to acknowledge what was happening.3 The seismic jolt of September 11 elevated to new legitimacy the ventings of longtime conservative antifeminists, who were accorded a far greater media presence after the attacks. It also invited closet antifeminists within the mainstream media to come out in force, as a "not now, honey, we're at war" mentality made more palatable the airing of buried resentments toward women's demands for equal status.
What was most striking, and passing strange, was the way feminism's detractors framed their assault. In the fall and winter of 2001, the women's movement wasn't just a domestic annoyance; it was a declared domestic enemy, a fifth column in the war on terror. To the old rap sheet of feminist crimes—man hating, dogmatism, humorlessness—was added a new "wartime" indictment: feminism was treason. That charge was made most famously, and most cartoonishly, by Rev. Jerry Falwell. "I point the finger in their face and say, 'You helped this happen,'" Falwell thundered on 9/12 on the Christian Broadcast Network, addressing his j'accuse to "the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle." By altering traditional gender roles, feminists and their fellow travelers had "caused God to lift the veil of protection which has allowed no one to attack America on our soil since 1812." Falwell's outburst struck even his compatriots as unfortunate, or at least unsubtle. But his allegations, sanitized and stripped of their Old Testament terms, would soon be taken up by conservative pundits and in mainstream outlets; old subpoenas would be reissued, upgraded with new counts of traitorous behavior.
Post-9/11, feminism's defense of legal abortion was accordingly deemed a Benedict Arnold act. "After September 11th the American people are valuing life more and realizing that we need policies to value the dignity and worth of every life," Bush's senior counselor Karen Hughes said on CNN, on the same day as a massive reproductive-rights march was in progress in the capital. In fact, American opposition to abortion was "really the fundamental difference between us and the terror network we fight," Hughes stressed. (A curious contention, considering that our assailants were hardly prochoice, but her CNN interviewers let it stand.) Others, like Focus on the Family founder James C. Dobson, stated the equation less decorously. "Has God withdrawn his protective hand from the US?" he asked on his organization's Web site—and answered that God is "displeased" with America for "killing 40 million unborn babies." A thirty-second television commercial likening abortion to terrorism was rushed on the air some weeks after the attack by an antiabortion organization—"to take advantage of the 9-11 events to press our case for sparing the lives of babies," as the executive director candidly put it.
The October 15, 2001, edition of the National Review could have passed for a special issue on the subject of feminist treachery. In "Their Amerika," John O'Sullivan accused feminists of "taking the side of medieval Islamists against the common American enemy. They feel more comfortable in such superior company than alongside a hard-hat construction worker or a suburban golfer in plaid pants." Another article, "The Conflict at Home," blamed American feminism's "multiculturalist" tendencies for allowing Sharia extremism to thrive in the Arab world. And a third piece claimed that women's rights activists have so browbeaten the American military that our armed services have "simply surrendered to feminist demands" and allowed an insistence on equal opportunity to "trump combat effectiveness."
As the denouncers made their media rounds, they homed in on two aspects of feminist sedition: women's liberation had "feminized" our men and, in so doing, left the nation vulnerable to attack. "Well, you see, there is a very serious problem in this country," Camille Paglia explained to CNN host Paula Zahn a few weeks after 9/11. Thanks to feminism, Paglia said, "men and women are virtually indistinguishable in the workplace." Indeed, especially among the American upper middle class, the man has "become like a woman." (Paglia was weirdly, albeit inadvertently, echoing the words of Taliban attorney general Maulvi Jalilullah Maulvizada, who had earlier told a journalist that when women are given freedom, "men become like women.") This gender confusion in the workplace would bode ill for our coming conflicts with the Arab world, Paglia warned. "There is a kind of a threat to national security here," she said. "I think that the nation is not going to be able to confront and to defeat other countries where the code of masculinity is more traditional."
The editors and writers in the centrist media expressed such sentiments more euphemistically—as furrow-browed concern that a "soft" America might not be able to rise to the occasion, that a womanly "therapeutic culture" would cause the nation to value the feminine ritual of mourning over martial "action," that a "Band of Brothers" ethic, as one newsmagazine put it, could not take root in a female-centered "Sex and the City culture." "For once, let's have no 'grief counselors,'" Time editor Lance Morrow lectured. "For once, let's have no fatuous rhetoric about 'healing.'" Coddled Americans had let themselves go and needed to "toughen up." Our World War II elders say we have "become too soft," a story in the San Francisco Chronicle warned. Numerous press reports fixated on a report that bin Laden thought Americans were "soft and weak." Beneath the press's incessant fretting lurked anxious questions that all seemed to converge on a single point: would a feminized nation have the will to fight?
The conservative commentariat had an answer and wasn't shy about stating it. The problem, according to the opinion makers from Fox News, the Weekly Standard, National Review, and the many right-wing-financed think tanks who seemed to be on endless rotation on the political talk shows after 9/11, was simple: the baleful feminist influence had turned us into a "nanny state." In the wake of 9/11, a battle needed to be waged between the forces of besieged masculinity and the nursemaids of overweening womanhood—or, rather, the "vultures" in the "Sisterhood of Grief," as American Spectator's January-February 2002 issue termed them. "When we go soft," Northwestern University psychology professor and American Enterprise scholar David Gutmann warned, "there are still plenty of 'hard' peoples—the Nazis and Japanese in World War II, the radical Islamists now—who will see us as decadent sybarites, and who will exploit, through war, our perceived weaknesses." And why had our spine turned to rubber? The conservative analysis proffered an answer: the femocracy.
"Our culture has undergone a process that one observer has aptly termed 'debellicization,'" former drug czar William Bennett advised in Why We Fight, his 2002 call to arms against the domestic forces that were weakening our "resolve." The "debellicizers" that he identified were, over and over, women—a female army of schoolteachers, psychologists, professors, journalists, authors, and, especially, feminists who taught "that male aggression is a wild and malignant force that needs to be repressed or medicated lest it burst out, as it is always on the verge of doing, in murderous behavior." Since the sixties and seventies, Bennett wrote, this purse-lipped army had denounced American manhood as "a sort of deranged Wild West machismo"; it had derided the Boy Scouts "as irrelevant, 'patriarchal,' and bigoted"; it had infected "generations of American children" with "the principle that violence is always wrong." And with the terrorist attack on our nation, the chicken hawks had come home to roost. "Having been softened up, we might not be able to sustain collective momentum in what we were now being called upon to do," Bennett wrote. "We have been caught with our defenses down."
"What's happening now is not pacifism but passivism," National Review's Mark Steyn maintained soon after the attack in an article titled "Fight Now, Love Later: The Awfulness of an Oprahesque Response." "Passivism" was a pathogen that had invaded the body politic—and American women were its Typhoid Marys, American men its victims. The women who ruled our culture had induced "a terrible inertia filled with feel-good platitudes that absolve us from action," Steyn wrote. He found particularly telling Oprah Winfrey's call, at a post-9/11 prayer service in Yankee Stadium, to "love" one another. "Not right now, Oprah," he instructed. If we were to prevail in the coming war, the nation first needed to unseat this regiment of "grief counselors" and silence all their "drooling about 'healing' and 'closure.'" "You can't begin 'healing' until the guys have stopped firing."
As if feminizing our domestic culture weren't bad enough, the women's movement was also jeopardizing our readiness on the battlefield. "Bands of brothers don't need girls," a Rocky Mountain News columnist held, denouncing feminists for depleting the military muscle we would need for the upcoming war on terror. "To them, the military is just another symbol of the male patriarchy that ought to be feminized, anyway, along with the rest of society." Our first lady of antifeminism, Ann Coulter, cast this argument in her usual vituperous fashion. "This is right where you want to be after Sept. 11—complaining about guns and patriarchy," she addressed feminists in a column titled "Women We'd Like to See . . . in Burkas." "If you didn't already realize how absurd it is to defang men, a surprise attack on U.S. soil is a good reminder. . . . Blather about male patriarchy and phallic guns suddenly sounds as brilliantly prescient as assurances that the Fuhrer would stop at Czechoslovakia."
A few weeks after 9/11, the Independent Women's Forum (an all-female think tank supported by right-wing foundations) inaugurated its onslaught against martial emasculation at the National Press Club. Under the banner "IWF Women Facing War," one female panelist after another rose to face the enemy within. "Our freedoms and way of life depend on a strong national defense," Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness and soon to be a ubiquitous media presence, told the assembled. "And yet, for far too long, a minority of feminist women have presumed to tell not just the commander-in-chief but the secretary of defense and the heads of all the armed forces what to do to advance the feminist agenda in the institution of the military." An "ungendered" armed services with "mandatory assignments" of women to "close combat units" was "the premiere item on the feminist agenda," Donnelly warned, and that agenda had seriously damaged the U.S. military's "morale, discipline, recruiting, retention, and overall readiness."
The IWF, which had been lobbying for years against efforts to bring more women into the military and the police and fire services, celebrated what it saw as vindication. The group's spokeswomen fanned out on television and radio and in print. "It took an act of monstrous criminality to show us this," IWF member and commentator Charlotte Allen declared. "But sometimes, perhaps most of the time, those are jobs that only a guy can do, and if we lower our standards because some women may feel bad about not living up to them, it is going to cost lives." Kate O'Beirne, a National Review editor and regular presence on CNN's Capital Gang, accused feminists of ruining the military. "Kumbaya confidence courses have replaced ego-bruising obstacle challenges," she wrote a week and a half after 9/11. "Let's hope that stepstools will be provided for female soldiers in Afghanistan."
In late October 2001, Pentagon brass who shared such sentiments announced they would soon be reversing Clinton-era policies that had sought to expand women's roles in battle zones. "That's all changing," a senior defense official told U.S. News & World Report. Frontline "units won't involve women," another said. After women's rights groups protested, the effort was shelved for the time being. But the Bush administration quietly began dismembering the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services, a long-standing internal institution that had promoted women's progress in the military for more than half a century: the committee's charter was allowed to lapse, women's rights advocates were replaced with GOP party loyalists, and the organization's purview was restricted to family and health issues.
The few feminist—or even perceived-to-be feminist—pundits that managed to find a forum in this cacophony received a less than congenial reception. "I wanted to walk barefoot on broken glass across the Brooklyn Bridge, up to that despicable woman's apartment, grab her by the neck, drag her down to ground zero and force her to say that to the firefighters," New York Post columnist Rod Dreher ranted on September 20, 2001. The object of his venom was Susan Sontag and the less than five hundred words she had famously contributed to the New Yorker on the subject of 9/11. What was so "despicable"? Was it her suggestion that "a few shreds of historical awareness might help us to understand what has just happened, and what may continue to happen"? Or perhaps it was her weariness over the muscle-flexing mantras: "Who doubts that America is strong? But that's not all America has to be." Dreher was too busy seething to specify his objections. In any case, he was not alone in his overheated fury. The New Republic ranked Sontag with Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. Former New Republic editor Andrew Sullivan called her an "ally of evil" and "deranged." Yet another New York Post columnist, John Podhoretz, said she suffered from "moral idiocy." National Review's Jay Nordlinger accused her of having "always hated America and the West and freedom and democratic goodness." In an article titled "Blame America at Your Peril," Newsweek's Jonathan Alter charged the "haughty" Sontag with dressing the nation in girl's clothes. It was "ironic," he wrote, that "the same people urging us to not blame the victim in rape cases are now saying Uncle Sam wore a short skirt and asked for it."
Sontag was no more provocative than any number of male left-leaning intellectuals and pundits whose remarks sparked criticism but nowhere near the personal and moral evisceration that she was made to endure. No one called them, as Sontag was called in the Chicago Tribune, "stupefyingly dumb." A few nights before Sontag's New Yorker article was published, ABC's Politically Incorrect host, Bill Maher, raised hackles when he remarked that flying an airplane into a building was hardly "cowardly." FedEx and Sears pulled ads and a dozen local affiliates suspended the show's broadcast. But in the media court of opinion, Maher received a comparatively gentle dressing down—and was then forgiven and even feted after he made the electronic rounds, seeking absolution. (Rush Limbaugh actually defended Maher, saying, "In a way, he was right.") ABC pulled the plug on Politically Incorrect the next year when the show's contract expired. The network contended that the show just wasn't making enough money; Maher maintained his remarks sealed his doom. He wasn't out in the cold for long: in a matter of months he was back on the air with his own HBO show.
But the stoning of Sontag went on and on. More than a year after the offending issue of the New Yorker had departed the newsstands, former New York mayor Ed Koch was inveighing against her. "Susan Sontag will occupy the Ninth Circle of Hell," he declared in a radio address in December 2002. "I will no longer read her works."