Untainted by Testosterone
Who Stole Feminism?: How Women Have Betrayed Women.
by Christina Hoff Sommers.
Simon & Schuster. 320 pp. $23.00.
One cannot open a newspaper or turn on the television these days without seeing another story about the horrors visited upon American women in a man’s world. A woman is battered by her husband every fifteen seconds—make that every twelve or, better yet, every ten seconds. One in four women, or perhaps one in three, will be raped at least once in her lifetime, if anorexia does not claim her first. As a result of societal pressure to remain silent and defer to males, adolescent girls are deprived of self-esteem and self-confidence.
For anyone who has felt that there is something wrong with such claims, this book provides welcome ammunition. In it, Christina Hoff Sommers deftly debunks the horror stories as canards, meant to convince everyone that “women remain besieged and subject to a relentless and vicious male backlash.”
A philosophy professor at Clark University in Massachusetts, Sommers explores both the capture of academia by “politically-correct” feminists—whose vagaries she unabashedly delights in skewering—and the trickle-down of “war-against-women” myths from the campus to the mainstream media. On both these scores, the book is a scathing and entertaining expose.
Even those familiar with stories of political correctness on campus may be shocked by Sommers’s account of what passes for academic conferences in the radical-feminist subculture. At a 1992 love-fest for the literary scholar Carolyn Heilbrun, for example, panelist after panelist was “introduced . . . as angry in one way or another: Alice Jardine of Harvard University’s French department was ‘angry and struggling,’ Brenda Silver of Dartmouth has been ‘struggling and angry since 1972.’” And that was one of the more respectable gatherings: at another conference Sommers attended, participants were asked to “take a moment to give ourselves a big hug,” film screenings featured such titles as Sex and the Sandinistas and We’re Talking Vulva, and exhibition booths offered witchcraft paraphernalia as well as “videos on do-it-yourself menstrual extractions and home abortions for those who want to avoid ‘patriarchal medicine.’”
This would be funny if, in effect, the lunatics were not running the asylum. But Sommers chronicles in depressing detail the “colonization” of universities, academic councils, and other institutions by radical feminists. Their goals go far beyond the inclusion of more female writers, artists, or historical figures into the curriculum (“You can’t just add women and stir,” sneers one academic activist); instead, the very foundations of Western scholarship, literature, art, and science must be exposed as fatally tainted with testosterone.
Thus, Peggy Mcintosh of the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women speaks of “vertical thinkers” (white men) who focus on “excellence, accomplishment, success, and achievement” versus “lateral thinkers” (women and minorities) who seek “to be in a decent relationship with the invisible elements of the universe.” If this sounds like New Age gobbledygook, it is nothing compared to Mcintosh’s description of the summit of her five phases of knowledge: “Phase Five will give us Reconstructed Global and Biological History to Survive By.”
Most radical-feminist theorists, Sommers reports, admit that they have no idea what a discipline like science or philosophy will look like once it is transformed by their ideological program. Perhaps the field of women’s studies is itself an indication: apart from a few academically solid courses, young women in the field are barraged with “bad prose, psychobabble, and ‘New Age’ nonsense,” and are invited to talk about their menstrual cycles and to share experiences of sexual abuse and battery. Disagreement, particularly from male students, is equated with “classroom harassment.” The goal is not intellectual debate; it is, one professor proudly states, “persuading students that women are oppressed.” For women who stubbornly refuse to be persuaded, academic feminists display barely concealed contempt.
What some of the students in these courses do with their degrees is even more alarming. Investigating a 1993 study purporting to show that 40 percent of women experience “severe depression” in any given week, Sommers spoke to the principal researcher, Lois Hoeffler, who had done her master’s thesis on “feminist social theories of the self.” Hoeffler told Sommers she was “very concerned” lest this be “just another study reflecting ‘white male norms’ of research.” She griped about “phallocentric theory,” and expressed satisfaction that her work “provided her with a unique opportunity to implement her ideas.”
One fears it may not be all that unique. Sommers, in fact, takes a scalpel to several major and influential studies produced by researchers who, like Hoeffler, clearly want nothing to do with “white male norms”—if by such norms we are to understand objectivity, or the fair reporting of findings. In particular, she dismantles a study commissioned by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) which supposedly shows a drastically worsening “gender gap” in self-esteem and self-confidence among teenagers.
The first independent investigator to have looked not just at the AAUW’s brochures and press releases but at the actual study, Sommers demonstrates that its alarmist figures were obtained by reporting only the percentage who checked “always true” on such items as “I am happy the way I am” and “I am good at a lot of things.” Adding “sort of true” and “sometimes true/sometimes false” responses produced nearly identical scores for boys and girls. (And why, Sommers asks, should an answer of “always true” to “I am happy the way I am” be seen as a sign of healthy self-esteem rather than of an oversized ego, especially since no one has yet found a positive link between such “self-esteem” and academic success?)
Equally devastating, and equally entertaining, is Sommers’s analysis of studies purporting to show that girls in schools are victims of pervasive gender bias. Doggedly tracking obscure publications, she finds that “gender equity experts” are not above misrepresenting their own research in order to show how oppressed females are. She also discovers that the media are not above a little creative editing to demonstrate how teachers neglect girls in class.
The media have been equally credulous on such issues as rape and wife-beating, reporting the most outrageous claims—for example, that battery of pregnant women is the leading cause of birth defects in this country—without bothering to verify them. These are grim subjects, but one cannot help being amused by Sommers’s elegant dissection of the “feminist fable” that the phrase “rule of thumb” originates in an English law permitting wife-beating as long as the husband uses a stick no thicker than his thumb!
Although Who Stole Feminism? is a full frontal assault on the feminist establishment, and on such feminist icons as Gloria Steinem, Susan Faludi, and Naomi Wolf, Sommers repeatedly stresses that she herself is no anti-feminist. Rather, “I am a feminist who does not like what feminism has become.”
Coming to reclaim feminism, not to bury it, Sommers proposes a distinction between (old-fashioned, liberal) “equity feminism,” which she wholeheartedly endorses, and (new-fashioned, radical) “gender feminism,” which she deplores. In Sommers’s classification, the equity feminist “wants for women what she wants for everyone: fair treatment, without discrimination.” The gender feminist, who wants not just to change laws and institutional practices but to overhaul personal desires and preferences, believes that modern American women remain oppressed by a “heteropatriarchy” or a “sex/gender system” and sees them “as a political class whose interests are at odds with the interests of men.”
Curiously, given Sommers’s credentials as a philosopher, the least satisfying parts of her book are the ones dealing with theory. Not only is her analysis of feminist writings rather cursory, but people of very different views—those who advocate “self-segregation of women” and those who seek a completely androgynous “world of gender-neutral characters”—are lumped together by her under the blanket term of “gender feminism.” So, too, are two groups often bitterly at odds with each other: radical feminists who emphasize women’s victimization, and regard traditionally feminine qualities as marks of slavery, and “difference feminists” like the psychologist Carol Gilligan who celebrate the “female values” of caring and nurturance.
Nor is the distinction between liberal “equity feminism” and radical “gender feminism” always clear-cut. The liberal feminists Sommers praises, from Mary Wollstonecraft to Betty Friedan, have sought not simply to obtain equal legal rights for women but to change attitudes toward sex roles. True, they are far less utopian than the “gender feminists,” and more oriented toward the expansion of individual options than toward enforcement of politically-correct doctrines; but such nuances are left largely unexplored here.
Conservative defenders of more traditional gender-role arrangements may have more fundamental problems with Who Stole Feminism? Unlike such critics of feminism as Maggie Gallagher and George Gilder, Sommers regards most of the changes associated with the women’s movement—from the influx of women into professional spheres to unrestricted abortion rights—as unquestionably positive developments.
For Sommers, the watchword is freedom of choice. She urges respect for religious women who choose to lead traditional lives and “emphatically do not think of themselves as subjugated,” while also applauding women who reverse conventional roles by treating men as “sex objects,” as well as “lipstick lesbians” who rebel against rigid feminist ideology by embracing beauty and decoration.
It is this emphasis on women’s freedom of choice that makes Who Stole Feminism? a positive and hopeful book, one that offers an alternative both to simple nostalgia for “separate spheres” and to totalitarian visions of either “woman-centered” or gender-blind societies. One might argue that the radical feminist takeover of the universities and media which Sommers herself so amply documents leaves her brand of kinder, gentler feminism little ground for hope. But at the very least, Who Stole Feminism? is a forceful and much-needed step in the right direction.