On April 17, 1971, the idea of fathers as sexual predators was inscribed on the feminist agenda. A group called the New York Radical Feminists held a two-day conference on rape at which social worker Florence Rush declared, "The family itself is an instrument of sexual and other forms of child abuse ... the sexual abuse of female children is a process of education that prepares them to become the wives and mothers of America."

In the latest issue of The Women's Quarterly from the Independent Women's Forum, Rael Jean Isaac writes of the conference as a turning point. Radical feminists had not really considered child abuse because, as Andrea Dworkin commented, "we never had any idea how common it was."

How common is it? In her sensational and influential book Father-Daughter Incest (1981), the psychiatrist Judith Harman estimated that victims of incest numbered "in the millions." Is this a reasonable estimate? The answer calls for some rough math.

According to a 1999 study on child maltreatment conducted by the National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect, the female child population that year was 32,617,720. The sexual abuse rate is given as 1.6 for every 1,000 girls. Assuming that every attack was incestuous, this means 52,160 girls were sexually assaulted by family members.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics basically supports this number. Its report, Sexual Assault of Young Children, indicates that 50,700 (or 1.56 per 1,000) girls were sexually assaulted by adult male family members during 1996 — presuming a constant population.

If true, this means that about 2.9 percent of women were incestuously assaulted before the age of 18. In a population of 130,000,000 women, about 3.7 million women would be victims.

These figures are probably inflated, if only because they assume that every incident involves a new child and is not a repeat attack. Nevertheless, Herman's estimate is plausible ... and horrifying.

Feminists should be applauded for shedding bright light on the sexual abuse of children. But they should be deeply ashamed of how they have used this information. Feminists have attached the pain of children to a political agenda of their own.

Herman's book bluntly states that the rape of daughters is "an inevitable result" of the "patriarchal family structure." That is, the traditional family with gingham curtains in the kitchen and a father who comes home after work each day results in the rape of daughters.

One obvious error in this attack is the math. If 2.9 percent of women experienced childhood incest, then 97.1 percent did not. The data proves exactly the opposite of what is being claimed. It shows that the overwhelming majority of fathers, brothers and uncles are not child molesters.

Far from being an inevitable result of "the family," the rape of children is a sharp deviation from what is normal. The key question becomes "why does it happen at all?" For example, what roles do poverty or drug addiction play?

But there is no political advantage for radical feminists in such questions. And, so, they employed a different strategy.  

First, they greatly exaggerated the incidents of incest. The prominent Catharine MacKinnon stated, "Some 4.5 percent of all women are victims of incest by their fathers, an additional 12 percent by other male family members, rising to a total of 43 percent of all girls before they reach the age of 18."

MacKinnon's claim was probably based on a study of 930 women in San Francisco, which was conducted by the extremely political Diana Russell. Russell found that 16 percent had been sexually abused by a relative before the age of eighteen: 4.5 percent by their fathers. Making a leap of math, she claimed that 160,000 women per million — 16 percent or 19 million — may well have been sexually abused as children. Such wording protected her from contradiction.

Why don't 16 percent of women remember a childhood rape? As Isaac explains, "The theory of 'repressed memory' provided the answer." The trauma of molestation had driven the memory of it so deeply into women's subconscious that they required special guidance to reconstruct the abuse by fathers, brothers and uncles.

With no training or expertise, Ellen Bass and Laura Davis wrote the best seller, The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse. They asked every woman to confront the possibility that she had been raped as a child. Through therapy that included such tools as dream analysis and guided imagery, women began to "recover" their memories in droves. The fad of Recovered Memory Syndrome is largely responsible for creating the belief that sexual molestation, especially by fathers, is epidemic.

The syndrome is now being debunked as a sham. But not before it spurred on the astounding growth of the Child Abuse Industry. These are the people — therapists, social workers, lawyers, researchers, feminists, foster care providers, doctors, etc., whose incomes revolve around the issue of child abuse.

A real problem exists: child abuse. But it must be separated from political agendas and bloated bureaucracy. It is families that offer children the greatest protection from both.

McElroy is the editor of www.ifeminists.com. She also edited Freedom, Feminism, and the State (Independent Institute, 1999) and Sexual Correctness: The Gender Feminist Attack on Women (McFarland, 1996). She lives with her husband in Canada.