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Polemical writer takes issue with radical feminism


Kenneth Lasson knows he's about to set off a tempest in the teapot of legal academia. Though he says he might be more naive than courageous, you get the feeling that at least part of him looks forward to seeing the response this summer, when his article bashing radical feminist legal scholarship appears.

A University of Baltimore School of Law professor, Mr. Lasson attracted attention a couple of years ago when he took on all legal scholarship in a Harvard Law Review article. That article excoriated his fellow legal scholars for their incessant need to publish their words, no matter how obscure the subject or obtuse the writing.

Mr. Lasson, 49, a one-time employee of Ralph Nader, has an undergraduate degree from Johns Hopkins University, a University of Maryland law degree, as well as a master's degree from the Hopkins Writing Seminars. He teaches courses in civil liberties and dispute resolution and often publishes on First Amendment issues.

The Baltimore native has published nine books, on everything from profiles of blue-collar workers to legal rights of veterans to bizarre inventions. His articles of commentary and pen-and-ink drawings of local landmarks often appear on the op-ed pages of The Sun and The Evening Sun.

He describes his forthcoming Journal of Legal Education article, "Feminism Awry: Excesses in the Pursuit of Rights and Trifles," as a polemic designed to provoke reaction. That it did during a discussion with students and faculty at his law school one recent afternoon.

QUESTION: What spurred you to write this article?

ANSWER: I came across a good deal of radical feminist scholarship in my research for the article on legal scholarship in general. It just seemed like a natural extension to focus on radical feminist writing, because so much of it was virtually indecipherable.

The more I looked at the radical feminists, the more appalled I was by the quality of the scholarship and the quality of writing, the thoughts that were being promulgated.

I discovered that the radicals are the ones who really dominate the legal scholarship when it comes to feminist issues.

Q.: How do you define a radical feminist?

A.: I see three types of feminists.

Liberal feminists would argue, as I would, for equality -- equal pay for equal work, that women should be given equal opportunity, that women should have free choice in the marketplace and elsewhere.

Cultural feminists see profound differences between men and women, holding that women are nurturing and altruistic, more pacific than men, whom they see as individualistic and insensitive. They would argue that there are problems in the law because it reflects only the male point of view.

That also makes sense to me, except that I would make the point that generalizations are dangerous, that I have met many domineering women and sensitive men.

Radical feminists say all men oppress all women, that men's nature is to be domineering, oppressive and manipulative. They want to deconstruct and change the social order.

I can even see some truth to that point of view. But I can't accept the idea that men conspire to put women down, that marriage equals sexualharassment.

Catherine MacKinnon of the University of Michigan law school, the current leading radical feminist, would define feminism [in a way that] "stresses the indistinguishability of prostitution, marriage and sexual harassment."

That kind of statement is absurd and indefensible. And that's the position advocated by many radical feminist legal scholars who have anointed themselves as spokespeople for the feminist movement.

In reality, they speak for very few people. Yet they go unchallenged, even as they try to stifle the thoughts of women who disagree with them.

Q.: So you think these radicals need to be challenged?

A.: Yes. Consider that MacKinnon, who was on the cover of the New York Times magazine, which described her as one of the country's most influential legal scholars, also wrote that the only reason women are satisfied in marriage is that they have learned to enjoy degradation.

That is a ridiculous idea.

The radicals also hold that organized religion encourages the degradation of women. I don't believe that. I think the role-playing that's encouraged in the traditional Catholic, Protestant and Jewish religions is not designed to subjugate or oppress women. People who see these roles as putting men in charge are interpreting the Bible and nature incorrectly. I want to underscore that women deserve equality of opportunity in the law, of choice and pay. I strongly support those positions.

But there is room for traditional notions of role-playing with the genders respectful of one another, not demeaning one another.

Q.: What's wrong with people professing radical views, even though they might be wrong? Often progress is made following those who go a bit too far out on some limb or another.

A.: Nothing's wrong with expressing radical ideas. The Founding Fathers may have been considered radicals in their day. But they also constitutionalized tolerance.

We in academia have a responsibility to challenge thought that we find unsupportable or ridiculous.

If we don't challenge it, then we are abdicating an important responsibility.

Q.: But isn't it true that the social, economic and political institutions that have been developed over the centuries by men may well have built-in sexist biases that might require a radical viewpoint to see and understand?

A.: Many institutions have been built up with the traditional notion that a woman's place is in the home, and it is difficult for women to overcome that point of view.

But is it necessary to deconstruct those institutions for women to be treated better?

I don't think it's as easy as that, because part of the reason for the development of these institutions is based on the biological imperative: The women still bear the children.

It all boils down to that.

Nowadays, especially in the United States, where two incomes are important, if not necessary, and there are many single-parent families, the law has to step in and make certain that women are treated fairly.

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