The Magazine

Ms. Myths

How America's shrinking-violet feminists try to have it both ways

Nov 13, 2000, Vol. 6, No. 09 • By JESSICA GAVORA
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The Frailty Myth

Women Approaching Physical Equality

by Colette Dowling

Random House, 304 pp., $ 24.95

On opening day 1994, Bill Clinton threw out the first pitch for the Cleveland Indians, while Hillary Clinton did the honors for the Chicago Cubs. Bill let fly a credible toss, but Hillary muffed it -- awkward, wrong-footed, and pathetic.

The contrast was too much for feminist Colette Dowling to take. "I could only imagine where things went from there," she wrote. "The First Lady wobbling forth her paltry pitch, an illconcealed smirk spreading across the stadium as the men bonded in jocular superiority. Bottom line, they're thinking, Hillary isn't so tough after all. Bottom line, she throws like a girl."

Although the subject of Dowling's new book, The Frailty Myth: Women Approaching Physical Equality, is ostensibly athletics (it was timed for release to coincide with the Olympics), it proves to have a more appropriate media hook in Hillary Clinton's Senate campaign. Like the first lady, Dowling is a feminist of a certain age. And like those who complain that congressman Rick Lazio is being "overly aggressive" whenever he goes on the offensive against Mrs. Clinton, Dowling is trying to have it both ways. She is eager to assert the equality of women in all manner of competition with men, and yet unwilling to cede the political power that is attached to the mantle of victimhood. Hillary throws like a girl, she tells us, and the boys are making fun of her for it. Mean boys, picking on Hillary. She has as much right to play baseball as they do. Maybe more, because they've been so mean to her. Mean, mean boys.

Dowling provoked a demi-controversy back in 1981, with the publication of The Cinderella Complex. In that book she declared that women have been socially conditioned to fear independence and instead seek to be "taken care of" by men. Her thinking has hardly advanced in the intervening years. Like The Cinderella Complex, The Frailty Myth is overrun with gnawing resentments. But this time, instead of the patriarchy retarding women's emotional fulfillment, it is preventing us from achieving our full physical potential.

Dowling relies on scattered anecdotes, disproved feminist "studies," and dismissable physiology to buttress the startling claim that, given equal levels of athletic training, access, and encouragement, women will achieve physical parity with men. "Studies show gender to be barely relevant as a predictor, or limiter, of athletic performance," she writes. "What really counts are acquired skills, trained muscles, and movement efficiency that comes from refined technique."

In other words, Hillary's problem on the mound in Chicago wasn't that she was incapable of throwing as well as Bill. It was that she hadn't been given the chance to learn how. When young Bill was out cheating at stickball, young Hillary was inside being forced to master the wifely arts of home and hearth. "The much ballyhooed skill of throwing a baseball is learned," Dowling meows. "Boys aren't born with it."

The Frailty Myth is rife with this kind of stuff; call it "penis-envy feminism." Dowling seems to struggle not to exalt girls as girls, but to prove that they are really boys -- or at least they would be if the boys gave them a chance. Rehashing the tired, feminist theory of brash, confident pre-pubescent girls growing suddenly fearful and demoralized at the onset of sexual maturity, she paints a dark picture of young girls entering "a sexually hostile environment." The blame, needless to say, is placed squarely on the brawny shoulders of boys seeking to retain their physical superiority over girls and a culture that encourages their dominance. "At the time of life when boys start becoming proud of their bodies, their muscles, their penises, the expressive arc of their urine, girls begin retreating in shame."

Of all the paleo-feminist impulses, the one that says that women will never achieve equality with men until they become just like men is the most difficult for more recent generations of independent women to understand. Granted, for decades, girls and women were inhibited from realizing their athletic potential by an unwelcoming, if not blatantly discriminatory, maledominated sporting establishment. It's understandable that women, whether they call themselves feminists or not, would seek to end discrimination. But why, one wonders, would we want to become just like men in the process?

The answer, of course, is power. The Frailty Myth isn't just about the boys wanting to keep the playing fields to themselves. At its core, writes Dowling, it has a "hidden agenda of keeping women in their place by keeping them believing in their weakness." This belief is "what made men self-sufficient" and women not. It was what made men necessary to women, not just for love and intimacy and friendship, but for their very survival. The weakness of women was the rationale for a belief in their total inferiority -- "physical, mental, emotional."

It follows, then, that should women achieve physical parity with men, the political balance of power will shift as well. Men understand this, and they are prepared to fight to the last man, to see that it doesn't happen. "Make no mistake," Dowling writes. "Society's resistance to women having physical equality is huge. It's like Custer's last stand. If women should ever demonstrate that they're just as strong, agile, and enduring as men, the whole game would be up."

Dowling credits the passage of Title IX, the 1972 law that outlawed discrimination on the basis of sex in American education, with the limited progress women have made toward physical parity with men. By bringing the power of the federal government to bear on the he-man recalcitrants, she writes, Title IX has "slowly but surely punctured the male power mystique."

But the law that supposedly broke down the "artificial" physical differences between men and women has in fact served to isolate women from competition with men. By setting aside 50 percent of all athletic opportunities for women -- regardless of their interest in sports -- Title IX carves out a protective niche.

Today, cutting a women's program is virtually impossible, while men's programs are eliminated in the name of "gender equity." Since 1992 when Brown University was sued under Title IX for not maintaining a 50 percent female quota in its athletics program, not a single women's team has been eliminated in Division I collegiate athletics. Meanwhile, over twenty thousand male athletes have had their teams eliminated since 1992.

Instead of leveling the playing field for men and women, Title IX has made women a protected class. And the irony is that in Dowling's ideal -- in which women would compete with men for spots on the same teams -- athletic opportunities for women would be many, many fewer. The occasional female football placekicker notwithstanding, the fact is that Title IX has created opportunities for women by allowing athletic teams segregated by sex. And gender quota advocates have further shielded girls from competition with the boys by creating an effective affirmative action regime in collegiate sports. Should women prove themselves the equal of men, the rationale for this quota regime would disappear, and the "game" most certainly would be up -- the game of women as politically empowered victims, that is.

Still, if Dowling and Mrs. Clinton can't face this prospect, there is a younger generation of women who are less frightened. They are more comfortable with being women. They want less to be boys than to be individuals. One night recently, I was tossing a miniature football back and forth outside with a friend. I let loose an uncharacteristically wobbly throw and a stranger passing by remarked, "You throw like a girl!" -- and his young daughter, walking with him, retorted, "She is a girl!"

Hillary could learn a thing or two from her.

Jessica Gavora is writing a book about Title IX.