Q. Moscow. Not the one in Pennsylvania, either. It will likely come as a surprise to many to learn that for the first 17 years of your life, Cathy Young was named Ekaterina Jung. You moved from Moscow to the United States at 17. What did Ekaterina want to be when she grew up? Looking back on your tender years in the Soviet Union, did you aspire to be a writer? Were you interested in law and civil rights? Did you imagine you would end up a highly respected newspaper columnist in the United States? And what did you think of the U.S. back then, evil empire or land of opportunity?
A. Actually, I wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember. I was writing fairy tales in block letters when I was four or five and illustrating them myself. My mother still has a couple of those notebooks! I also wrote a couple of installments of something like a first-person column about parenting based on a role switch for myself and my mother—I was writing as a mom raising my daughter, Marina (my mom’s actual name). In one of them, I explained that “we” never sent Marina to day care (some 95% of Soviet children were in day care at the time) and concluded, “The child was growing up free in her parents’ home.” My goodness, I was a preschool libertarian! Not to mention a very weird child.
I actually had dreams of becoming a fiction writer through my teens. I wrote a lot—poetry, short stories, novellas, I even wrote a whole novel set in ancient Rome during the Spartacus rebellion. Journalism wasn’t really on my radar (and of course what existed in the Soviet Union at the time couldn’t really be called journalism). Law and civil rights? Well, as a teenager I was very aware of the Soviet dissidents; my parents were closet anti-Communists who had underground literature at home and listened to foreign radio broadcasts, and unlike many other people with heretical views they did not try to hide any of this from me. Human rights activists like the late Andrei Sakharov, the physicist turned dissident, were my heroes. One thing I certainly never imagined at the time was that someday I would get to interview his widow Elena Bonner, a great human rights activist in her own right.
What did I think of the U.S.? Land of the free, totally. I remember reading an article in a Soviet newspaper that quoted some American professor as saying that freedom in the United States was a myth. And I thought, “Well, if the professor can say that and not only stay out of jail but keep his job, maybe it’s not such a myth.”
Q. You attended Rutgers University and wrote for the Daily Targum (our second Daily Targum writer in two weeks, I hasten to note). For most Americans, who can barely write in English, no less graduate college in a foreign land, that’s an extraordinary accomplishment. What did you want to do as an undergrad? Was writing always the goal? Did you want to be a reporter or a pundit? Given your education in Russia, how hard was it to transition to majoring in English at Rutgers?
A. I actually spoke decent English when I got here, after attending a school in the Soviet Union that specialized in English—and reading very extensively in English when I was still in Moscow. (I made a one-hour trek to a library that had a lot of English-language books!) I spent two years attending a community college—Brookdale, which is pretty good as community colleges go—before going to Rutgers, so you could call it slow immersion. By the time I was an undergrad at Rutgers, I think I was fully bi-lingual, I definitely wanted to be a journalist. My role model was George Will.
Q. After graduating from college in 1988, you wrote a book, Growing up in Moscow: Memories of a Soviet Girlhood. Was that the plan? Did you see yourself as an author, rather than journalist cum pundit? You developed a sense of feminism. How did that happen? What about Mother Russia gave rise to your views? When you came to the U.S., what role did your feminist views play? How did your Soviet view of feminism fit with the American flavor in the 1980s?
A. I actually didn’t have any specific plans for a book at the time. I was writing a column for The Daily Targum, and William Vesterman, a Rutgers professor who was also putting together a collection of short essays as a textbook for writing courses, contacted me about reprinting a couple of my columns (he thought it would be good to include one or two student authors). Bill, who is a great guy—he recently retired—became my mentor. He invited me to speak at his son’s high school about growing up in Russia, and when he was driving me back he asked if I had thought of writing a book. I hadn’t. He introduced me to a friend who, in turn, introduced me to Katrina Kenison, an editor at Ticknor & Fields (a Houghton Mifflin imprint that, alas, no longer exists). I wrote a sample chapter and she wanted the book.
As for feminism, I became a feminist in Russia, which was a very weird society with regard to gender. Virtually all the women were in the workplace, there was a lot of rhetoric about equality, but very traditional views of manhood and womanhood were also enshrined. I remember being very pissed off when someone told me that girls don’t fight. It’s not that I was that eager to fight, it was more the principle of the thing. There was a lot of random sexism like that—the idea that it’s not as important for a woman to be smart, or that it’s a great tragedy for a woman to not get married, or that it’s really sad for a man to have only daughters. (Not that my dad ever made me feel that he had any regrets about having no sons—he never would have called himself a feminist, but he was the most egalitarian man I’ve ever known.) I remember telling another girl when I was 12 that it was unfair that being unmarried was considered shameful for a woman but not a man, and she shrugged and replied, “That’s because if a man isn’t married, it’s understood that he didn’t want to get married, but with a woman everyone knows it’s because no one would marry her.”
When I came to the U.S., I thought at first that feminism was wonderful! I really felt that here people were judged as individuals and not by their gender, and I think for the most part that was feminism in the 1980s.
Q. After the book was published, you started your newspaper career in earnest. How did that happen? Did you start as a reporter, or go straight to columnist? At that point, were you focused on issues of civil rights and constitutional freedoms? Was there a specific focus, political or legal? Did you ever consider going to law school?
A. I actually started writing for the Detroit News in the 1980s, even before the book came out—I think one of Bill Vesterman’s friends hooked me up with them—and it was mostly columns and book reviews, dealing with Russia, feminism, and campus issues. They offered me a column in 1993. I never really did the reporter thing, but I did write feature articles about my trip to Russia for Reason and The American Spectator (this is when Gorbachev’s reforms began—I went to Moscow five or six times from 1990 to 1994). I didn’t focus on legal issues a lot, back then, but I did take a couple of pre-law classes at Rutgers, including one in constitutional law. My professor told me I had a really good grasp of legal issues and asked if I had ever considered law school. I can’t say that I did, though.
Q. Your views reflected a libertarian perspective, small government, personal responsibility. Had that been your politics all along, perhaps even before you arrived in the Garden State? What made you embrace a conservative perspective? Having been raised under the Soviet regime, one can well understand where distrust of government and self-reliance could be highly valued, but did that still hold true in America?
A. As I said, I was a preschool libertarian! I also recall that at the age of 17 I wrote in my diary, “I think generally, the best government is one that makes it presence the least felt in people’s lives.” I had no idea I was channeling Thomas Jefferson, who said it much better! I wouldn’t really call it a conservative perspective though—I never liked the social traditionalism. I will also say that while I think intrusive government is a very legitimate concern in the U.S., I’ve never had much sympathy for libertarians who, as somebody quipped, don’t see much difference between the KGB and the department of agriculture. The size of government and the welfare state in a liberal democracy is a legitimate debate. Liberal democracy versus totalitarianism (or authoritarianism) is not.
Q. In 1996, as a Cato Institute research associate, you co-authored a policy paper, “Feminist Jurisprudence: Equal Rights or Neo-Paternalism?” What was your impetus for getting involved in the legal end of equal rights? How did you come to see the shift from equality to the new paternalism so early? Was this an outlier view at the time? What was the reception to this within the feminist community?
A. By then, I really did not like where feminism was going. The deification of Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas hearings in 1991 was part of it—I saw an alarming tendency to focus on male bad behavior, on a personal level, in a very one-sided way. The idea that all sexual banter or humor in the workplace is oppressive to women seemed incredibly reactionary to me.
There were some debates around rape that are very similar to what’s happening now; domestic violence was a huge issue after the O.J. Simpson case—again, it’s a real issue, but the focus on women as victims and the vilification of men really bothered me. It seems to be the opposite of treating people as individuals. I don’t think I was necessarily an outlier; Christina Hoff Sommer and Katie Roiphe were two people writing from a somewhat similar perspective at the time. As for the feminist community, I recall Susan Faludi, the author of Backlash!, writing an article for Ms. Magazine where she referred to Sommers and me as “faux feminists.” That was typical.
Q. In 1999, your second book was published, Ceasefire!: Why Men and Women Must Join Forces to Achieve True Equality. What drove you to buck the trend and challenge the perspective of neo-feminism? Do you see the legal trends as helping to achieve equality, or was it driving men and women further apart? Was the gender war already beginning? Was there still hope that it could be reined in before it got out of control? Did your book help?
A. Again, I wasn’t the only one. Katie Roiphe wrote The Morning After, which focused on campus rape. Christina Hoff Sommers wrote about those issues in Who Stole Feminism?, and there’s also a wonderful book by Daphne Patai, a professor at the University of Massachusetts/Amherst, called Heterophobia: Sexual Harassment and the Politics of Feminism. There are a few of us! The legal trends were and are part of the larger cultural trends, but I do think that neo-feminism in general was driving men and women further apart. The call was to treat men as an oppressor class and women as a victim class—so that, for instance, men telling sexual jokes around women in the workplace was seen as trying to “put women in their place,” but women telling sexual jokes around men was fine because women, presumably, have less power.
The gender war was well under way! I mentioned in Ceasefire! an article, I forget by whom but it was in some major publication, that said, “To be a woman today is to be angry.” In 1994, U.S. News & World Report, which at the time was actually a major weekly, had a cover story about “The War on Women.” Some of it, admittedly, was about fundamentalist Islam and the danger it posed to women’s rights. But it also pushed the idea that domestic violence in American society, where wife-beating is held in universal contempt, is organized male terrorism against women.
I actually hoped that things could be brought back to a sane middle, and for a while it looked like radical feminism was in retreat—the Clinton sex scandals definitely dealt it a blow because suddenly, it was the progressive feminists who were saying things like, well, sexual advances in the workplace aren’t necessarily sexual harassment! And then September 11 came about and attention shifted away from gender issues. But of course gender-war feminism hadn’t gone anywhere. I think we all overlooked the extent to which it had captured college campuses, and now the young people who were in college back then being fed radical feminist theories on “the dynamics of gender and power” are largely running the media. It’s scary.
Q. You’ve since become a clear voice of what might well be described as old school feminism, equality as opposed to special treatment of women as too fragile to be responsible for their choices. What happened to the fight for equal rights? What started the cries for special treatment for women? Is there any merit to the demands for special treatment? Does the fact that women were the target of discrimination give rise to some justification for paternalistic laws?
A. I thought I was a “professional female misogynist,” as per Amanda Marcotte! I think there has always been a tension in feminism between equality and paternalism (or maternalism?), going all the way back to the 19th Century. But it’s several things, really. One, I do think that in terms of political and legal issues, feminist battles have been won; what remains is what I’d call work-life balance, and those issues are much, much tougher to solve, because they have a lot to do with personal choices and relationships.
So because the political movement still needs something to do, there’s a compulsion to seek out oppression in the most trivial places. (Like “manspreading”!) Two, I think many feminists have this bizarre idea of male power where men have always been able to do anything they want and not have anything bad happen to them, so if anything bad or demeaning happens to a woman, it’s patriarchy, obviously! Now, I don’t buy into the idea that some men’s rights people have that men and women have always been equally oppressed, but this notion that men just breeze through life doing whatever they want is ludicrous. And of course if that’s what you believe, you’re going to feel that women are wronged all the time.
I also suspect that for some feminists, the clamoring for special protections comes from a hidden attachment to traditional male and female roles. They want to be the damsel in distress, but with a politically correct twist.
Plus, it’s not just feminism. Identity politics and demands for special protections are all the rage right now—on the left and now also on the right, with the Trump phenomenon. Let’s complete the circle of oppression with identity politics for white guys!
Is there any merit to special treatment for women? Well, there are times when pregnancy and childbirth obviously create issues that don’t exist for men. But I don’t think past discrimination justifies special treatment. Otherwise, you just end up with more discrimination, now at the other end.
Q. You are a regular columnist and op-ed writer for a slew of newspapers, such as Newsday, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe and Reason, critical of legal protectionism, particularly when it comes to issues of rape and sexual assault. Your interview with Emma Sulkowicz, the “mattress girl” of Columbia University, was attacked as being “anti-feminist” because you weren’t sufficiently supportive, and had the audacity to include her putative “rapist’s” perspective as well. Is it possible to report or opine about rape today with any balance without being called “anti-feminist” or misogynist”? Has feminism become intolerant of anything besides adherence to its orthodoxy?
A. I’ll just answer those two questions at the end:
On a more serious note—obviously, it’s a big country and a big Internet, and of course someone is always going to call you names. The problem is more when that kind of intolerance becomes mainstream, when you have, for instance, people disinvited from college campuses because they have the heretical opinion that the presumption of innocence should apply to rape cases. It’s happened to me, too. There are feminists who respect dissent, but the dominant strain of feminism today is the fundamentalist one, for lack of a better word.
Q. You’ve also waded into the culture war of GamerGate, calling it “a backlash against a particular kind of feminism, one that has a tendency to look obsessively for offences, read ideology into everything, and demonize male sexuality under the pretext of stamping out ‘the objectification of women’.” Are women wrong to find “objectification” unacceptable? Are their complaints legitimate, or are they searching desperately to find offense where none exists? Where is the line? At what point does the demand for equality turn into demonizing males without justification? Is there a right and wrong side to GamerGate?
A. Reactions to “objectification” are a very personal thing. I have a good friend who can’t stand the “social justice warriors” and sympathizes with GamerGate, but is also annoyed by some of the ways women in many videogames are gratuitously sexualized—meaning when it doesn’t suit the character well. However, she’s been able to find a lot of games she likes and doesn’t go crusading about it! Honestly, I think it’s a legitimate issue to bring up, but you need to pick your battles. Some of the complaints have been really nasty and ridiculous, like “Catwoman in the Batman games is too sexualized.” Wow, Catwoman is sexualized? What next? The Joker is too sadistic?
As for when the demand for equality turns into demonizing males…I think when you start using “man-” as a pejorative pretext, you’ve definitely crossed that line.
GamerGate is a complicated phenomenon. It has its bad elements, like any anarchic movement. I’ve written before that any backlash against radical feminists and “social justice warriors,” even if it comes primarily from sane people, is going to be a magnet for actual misogynists and bigots. GamerGate does have that fringe. Unfortunately, the mainstream media contributed to the problem by demonizing the movement en masse, which empowered the extremists.
Q. Another issue you’ve focused on is the campus sexual assault issue that has driven colleges and universities to create adjudicatory systems that are long on believing women, no matter what, and short on due process safeguards for men. Is this the neo-paternalism you foresaw in 1996? Have things gone too far to be salvaged? What do you see as the by-product of higher education that has forsaken concern for males in favor of females? Will this leave a scar in the culture war that may never heal? Can women return to the days of equality after eschewing it in favor of special treatment? Will there ever come a day when feminism returns to equality?
A. Oh, what we’re seeing now is the chickens of the 1990s coming home to roost. The campus programs that Katie Roiphe and Christina Hoff Sommers and I wrote about—they faded from visibility for a while, but now they’re back with a vengeance. Affirmative consent was a new idea back then, and even most campus activists considered it too radical; but it was being promoted in a lot of campus sexual assault workshops, and now vast numbers of students think it’s normal, or at least they say they think it’s normal because I doubt that many people actually practice this.
It’s not just males versus females; college campuses right now, especially the more elite schools, are in the grip of completely insane identity politics. It’s doing major, major cultural damage. Can we pull back from that? I hope so. A return to sanity on gender issues will have to be a part of that, but only one part. I see some hopeful signs, but there will have to be a lot more people speaking out for a humanist vision based on equal rights.