GENDER JUSTICE. By David L. Kirp, Mark G. Yudof and Marlene Strong Franks. University of Chicago Press. 246 pp. $19.95; THE FEMINIZATION OF AMERICA. How Women's Values Are Changing Our Public and Private Lives. By Elinor Lenz and Barbara Myerhoff Tarcher. 276 pp. $15.95.

AT FIRST GLANCE, it seems hard to imagine two books as dissimilar as Gender Justice and The Feminization of America. David Kirp, Mark Yudoff and Marlene Franks' Gender Justice is a pompous attack on feminists' attempt to redress past discrimination and provide equal opportunities for women in the decades to come. Lenz and Myerhoff's The Feminization of America is, on the other hand, an embarrassing self-congratulatory celebration of almost all that the women's movement has accomplished thus far. Gender Justice, written by three law professors, dresses up its anti-feminist argument with all manner of scholarly theorizing. The Feminization of America, written by an educational consultant and anthropologist liberally indulges in the kind of pop psychology and sociology for which most academics profess little but scorn. Finally, Gender Justice invokes the decorous vision John Stuart Mill elaborated in On Liberty, while The Feminization of America is animated by the chaotic, cathartic psychological theories of Fritz Perls' Gestalt therapy, as well as other post- '60s pseudo-therapies and cult religions.

Despite their philosophical and stylistic differences the two books are not as unlike as they might seem, for both ultimately reject the feminist vision of a world in which individuals nurture bonds of interdependence and encourage public solutions to human problems. Instead, what they propose is a society peopled by "autonomous" individuals who compete with each other, use each other and discard each other as they busily try to get government "off their backs" so that the fittest can survive. In the case of Gender Justice the authors ultimately advocate a world in which only the fittest man will survive. In the case of The Feminization of America, it's the fittest woman. In both cases, however, the majority of the population remain passive spectators who applaud at the appropriate moment and silently, in lonely isolation, nourish their own fantasies of success.

Kirp, Yudoff and Franks begin their tome with an analytic assault on both the Right and the Left. They argue that they oppose both "the essentialists" who contend that men and women have their assigned biological places and should remain firmly rooted therein, and the "radical feminists" who insist that socialization determines all and that individual choice and responsibility does not explain why women have fared so badly throughout history. Given both the Right and the Left's attempt to legislate their views, the authors ask "whether government should aspire to alter societal outcomes, as they vary by sex, or -- very differently -- to free up the processes by which individuals make life choices for themselves."

The authors are opposed to what they call the "result-oriented" approach favored by feminists and propose instead a "process-oriented approach" that uses the paradigm of the free-market which imagines "rational individuals who pursue their self-interest" and "benefit society generally." Rules, the authors state, "are needed to purge procedures of all unnecessary impediments, leaving individuals as free as possible to determine for themselves the relevance of gender. Choice itself, not some specified social arrangement, becomes the yardstick of goodness."

Before they elaborate the rules necessary to a society that is marked by "equal liberty" rather than "equality," the authors reconsider the historical record on both racial and sexual discrimination. In comparing the two, they offer a novel interpretation of what has come to be known as "patriarchy" or "male domination" -- what they call "paternalism." It seems that "paternalism" wasn't really as bad as feminists make it out to be. "Paternalism," the authors claim, "isn't necessarily a bad thing." When it comes to racial discrimination it was indeed pernicious because it was always motivated by animus against blacks. When it comes to sex, "historical evidence suggests that the dominant reason for sex differentiating rules was neither self-interest, nor animus toward women, but something altogether more laudable: concern and affection."

Since concern and affection are behind the injustice feminists have tried to redress, there is no reason to act as aggressively as they advocate. Thus, the authors feel the Supreme Court should intervene to make sure women have equal protection under the 14th Amendment of the Constitution only in the most egregious cases; they oppose comparable worth schemes; are against state subsidized day-care programs and argue that legislation aimed at dealing with women's differences always ends up hurting them rather than helping them.

The authors are opposed to collective action to ensure the social good, because they insist that the "outcome-oriented approach imposes a particular conception of justice on the polity, while the procedural alternative encourages individuals to vote with their feet." What they favor is "an open community" (this term is never adequately defined), "equality of liberty" (how we get there from here is never explained) and a world in which form supersedes content. Their view, the authors state, "holds choice paramount and results irrelevant."

The flaws in this often vague and almost always condescending argument undermine the authors' credibility as well as their scholarship. Instead of describing the most recent and sophisticated feminist thinking, the authors choose the easiest target -- radical extremists like Catherine MacKinnon whose beliefs are hardly representative of the feminist mainstream. Similarly, the authors' extraordinary rereading of the history of patriarchy dangerously distorts the historical record. Their superficial analysis ignores the fact that men also discriminated against women because they were hostile to them. This hostility has been exhibited whenever women have attempted to slip out of patriarchy's "affectionate" grasp.

Finally, the book's animating vision -- a world where autonomous individuals reject collective solutions to major social problems and "vote with their feet" totally ignores the social context in which their "voting" takes place.

Women have been trying to "vote with their feet," their skills, their interests, and their needs for centuries. But their "choce- making" has often been a meaningless exercise because societal constraints limit the results (alas for most ordinary folk, results unfortunately are far more important than process). As sophisticated feminist thinkers have pointed out for the past two decades, what choice does a battered woman have if her only option is more battering or living on welfare? How can it enhance a woman's life if she's free to choose to become a chief executive but is a lowly secretary because men simply aren't promoting women on top jobs? And how can women act alone, as "autonomous individuals" to secure a better future for themselves and their families if powerful institutions and governmental programs are arrayed against them? The authors cannot answer these or many of the other important questions they raise because their vision is so profoundly anti-social.

From its title and preface, one would think that The Feminization of America would articulate a compelling alternative to the philosophy served up in Gender Justice. The book, we are told, is a description of how America, "spurred on by the feminizing influence, is moving away from many archaic ways of thinking and behaving toward the promise of a saner, and more humanistic future." After this and many other glowing references to women's affiliative, nurturing, affectionate and cooperative natures, the book quickly degenerates into a 1980s version of 19th-century competitive liberalism.

The authors never adequately demonstrate that women are truly humanizing the workplace, revitalizing the arts, transforming politics and producing a new and more sensitive breed of non-chauvinistic males. They merely assert their claims with a multitude of absurd statements and unconvincing vignettes that totally ignore reality. In the face of numerous books and reports on the problems workers (most of them women) have experienced with the new highly automated technology recently insalled in the nation's offices, the authors blithely announce that "a service, information economy presages the decline of massive, hierarchical structures." After perusing volumes of career guidebooks for the new executive or entrepreneurial woman -- books that advise women to compete with good old masculine ferocity -- the authors still herald a new era of cooperation in the corporation. And despite warnings about the perils of too much emphasis on individual fulfillment -- like those delivered in Christopher Lasch's The Minimal Self and in the brilliant essays of Habits of the Heart (edited by Robert Bellah, et al) -- they nonetheless celebrate the "independent, autonomous being who can rely on no other binding forces than those that exist within themselves."

All this smacks more of Robert Redford's film portrayal of the traditional masculine loner Jeremiah Johnson than of the ideals that have inspired modern feminism. But then the authors of The Feminization of America, like those of Gender Justice fail to see such glaring contradictions because their single-minded devotion to the ethos of individualism has blinded them to the needs of real life individuals.