Christina Hoff Sommers’ Who Stole Feminism?

Who Stole Feminism?The more I read and learn about academic feminism, the stronger my conviction grows that no greater  or more pernicious fraud has been perpetrated on Western thought in the last 50 years. Partisan hackery masquerading as scholarship, vast echo chambers where dissent is not only discouraged but actively suppressed, and a myopic view of culture, history and science – these are the principle characteristics of what has become one of the strongest and most influential ideologies in academia. How grateful I am, then, that Christina Hoff Sommers, philosopher and self-styled “equity feminist,” has dedicated the greater part of her career to exposing the fraudulence, corruption and inanity that marks this bloated discipline. Who Stole Feminism? How Women Have Betrayed Women was published in 1994, and though much has changed, much has not, and its relevance to today’s social and cultural values is, unfortunately, undiminished. Her thesis is very simple: she distinguishes between two branches of feminism – “equity” and “gender.” The former encompass anyone and everyone who believes in the equality of both genders; the latter, she contends, is characterized by a gynocentrism that vilifies men, makes sweeping and untenable empirical claims, and argues, against all evidence, for the perpetual victim status of women. In her own words:

The gender feminists believe that all our institutions, from the state to the family to the grade school, perpetuate male dominance…Gender feminists are constantly on the lookout for the smoking gun, the telling fact that will drive home to the public how profoundly the system is rigged against women. To rally women to their cause, it is not enough to remind us that many brutal and selfish men harm women. They must persuade us that the system itself sanctions brutality. They must convince us that the oppression of women, sustained from generation to generation, is a structural feature of our society.

She contrasts this branch of feminism with equity feminism, which belongs to the humanistic and classically liberal traditions and seeks for women equality before the law and equality of opportunity. Though it would not behoove a gender feminist to acknowledge it, the position of equity feminism has become, quite properly, the default in Western society. While her book is expansive, the brunt of her focus is on three areas: the feminist takeover of academia (which, in 2013, is a fait accompli), the hysteria surrounding teacher bias in American high schools, and the inflation, distortion and manipulation of statistics involving rape and sexual assault. For the sake of brevity, I will confine myself to discussing the first two topics, leaving the third for a future posting.

A cursory glance at the curriculum of the average Western university prior to 1950 reveals a heavy focus on male historical, political and cultural figures. In my own beloved literary canon, the ratio of men to women is staggeringly disproportionate. Equity feminists have a rather simple explanation for this disparity: for the greater part of human history, women were simply denied the opportunity to fulfill these roles. This is the irreparable tragedy of our past, and one that, thankfully, the future is being shaped to correct. But gender feminists do not accept this simple solution; instead, they attack the very foundational values of the canon, the standards by which our greatest thinkers have been judged. In thrall to a group of second-rate French philosophers (Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida and Franz Fanon), gender feminism has become inseparable from poststructuralism, deconstructionism and post-colonialism, which argue against the possibility of objective knowledge. From this perspective, the standards that raise Dante, Milton and Shakespeare to the heights of the canon are arbitrary, merely the judgments of a biased group of white, European men.

But the gender feminists do not confine themselves to undermining the whole of human art, history and literature; they have also attempted to undermine science and reason as “phallocentric” modes of thinking. Sommers quotes the feminist theorist Elizabeth Fee: “Knowledge was created as an act of aggression – a passive nature had to be interrogated, unclothed, penetrated, and compelled by man to reveal her secrets.” I have difficulty comprehending the pathology necessary to think or write something so nonsensical, but Sommers traces the sources of Fee’s “thinking” with aplomb:

Fee’s resentment and suspicion of male ‘ways of knowing’ follows a path well trodden by such feminist thinkers as Mary Ellman, Catharine MacKinnon, and Sandra Harding, whose views of patriarchal knowledge and science have quickly become central gender feminist doctrine. Playing on the biblical double meaning of knowing to refer both to intercourse and to cognition, Ellman and MacKinnon claim that men approach nature as rapists approach a woman, taking joy in violating “her,” in “penetrating” her secrets. Feminists, says MacKinnon, have finally realized that for men, “to know has meant to fuck.”

Sommers goes on to reference a book, co-authored by multiple feminist theorists, titled Women’s Ways of Knowing, in which men are cast as relying on reason and skepticism and women on faith and intuition, and that undue importance has been given to “male ways of knowing.” The irony that these supposed warriors for gender equality are espousing the very same sexist nonsense – that women are somehow less capable of reason and rationality – once preached by shameless male chauvinists is seemingly lost on them. Sandra Harding, currently a tenured professor at UCLA, has built an entire career around “standpoint theory,” the belief that someone’s relative position in society influences their ability to be objective, and has called for a “multicultural study of science” together with “feminist physics and biology.” It was also Harding who famously denounced Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica as a “rape manual.” Such idiocy has no place in academic discourse, and Sommers injects some levity into her criticism by quoting mathematical philosopher Marguerita Levin: “One still wants to know whether feminists’ airplanes would stay airborne for feminist engineers.”

I would laugh as well, if the credulity of these ideologues did not disturb me and I was not aware that, twenty years after Sommers’ book, this same distrust of objectivity, reason and knowledge still permeates feminist discourse. The Association of American Colleges, founded in 1915 with a view to improving undergraduate liberal education, released its annual report in 1985 in defense of the college major, in which it spoke of “the joy of mastery, the thrill of moving forward in a formal body of knowledge and gaining some effective control over it, integrating it, perhaps even making some small contribution to it.” A fairly benign statement, you might agree, but not to gender feminists who, through funding from the Ford Foundation and a FIPSE (Fund for the Improvement of Post-Secondary Education) grant issued the following scathing report:

A feminist analysis of this rhetoric reveals … an analogy between knowledge and sexual subjugation… an idea of learning as mastery or control. Clearly embedded … are unconscious androcentric assumptions of dominance and subordination between the knower and the known, assumptions that too readily bring to mind the traditional relationship of men to women; of the colonizers to the colonized; indeed, of the masters to the slaves. Such phallocentric metaphors… [are not] the accidental usage of one report; they replicate the dominant discourses of Western empiricism that women’s studies critiques.

Unlike much feminist writing, this at least has the virtue of being coherent, but it is coherent nonsense nonetheless, the product of ideologues actively looking for evidence to support their foregone conclusions. I am comforted, when confronted by such tripe, to recall Alexander Pope’s lines from his Essay on Criticism: “Some are bewildered in the maze of schools, / And some made coxcombs nature meant but fools.” Unfortunately, it seems indignation and accusations of bias are powerful motivators: rhetoric has triumphed over reason and the feminist takeover of academia is complete. Consider, for example, the University of Minnesota:

In addition to its Women’s Studies department, it has a Center for Advanced Feminist Studies, the Center for Women in International Development, a Woman’s Center, a Young Women’s Association, the Center for Continuing Education for Women, and the Humphrey Center on Women and Public Policy. The feminist journal Signs is housed there, and the radical feminist review Hurricane Alice is associated with the English department. There is a Sexual Violence Program, as well as a Commission on Women.

Women’s Studies courses, once a minor feature of a handful of curricula, are now behemoths, staples at universities across the Western world, all of them peddling the same jargon and the same contempt for objective knowledge. Much of Sommers’ energy is spent tracing how this came about: accusations of sexism and bigotry launched at those who defend the “traditional” curriculum or dare to dissent, preferential hiring practices and interviews designed around assessing a candidate’s views on gender feminism, and funding and grant money funneled towards those sympathetic with the cause and away from those who are not. Sommers writes:

Intimidation has enforced a stultifying conformity. To criticize the New Feminist scholarship without having tenure is reckless in the extreme: it is now virtually impossible to find public fault with academic feminism without paying for it in drastically diminished prospects for jobs or advancement in the American academy. The pressure to refrain from criticism is matched by the pressure to toe the line by zealously promoting feminist doctrine.

Needless to say, silence and enforced conformity are antithetical to the spirit of free enquiry and debate that is vital to the health of academia. In making her case, Sommers also draws upon a long line of female liberals who have expressed similar discontent with the frightfully anti-intellectual bent of gender feminism: Susan Sontag, Doris Lessing, Iris Murdoch, Joan Didion, and Cynthia Ozick. The list reads like a who’s who of brilliant female minds, the kinds of thinkers whose criticisms cannot be lightly brushed aside.

Unfortunately, the successes of these gender ideologues have not been confined to academia. Politicians, think tanks and special interest groups have all acquiesced, either out of fear or self-interest, and the doctrines and edicts of academic feminism make their way into the realm of politics and policy with frightening ease. Sommers writes:

The presence of a frankly ideological and politically powerful core of academics in America’s universities has consequences far beyond the academy. Activist organizations like the National Organization for Women, the Ms. Foundation, and the American Association of University Women strive constantly to persuade the wider public that women are urgently in need of the protections they will help provide. These organizations rely on a pool of academic feminists to faithfully produce books, data, and studies that demonstrate alarming amounts of sexism, discrimination and gender bias.

The first major example of this influence that Sommers cites is an AAUW-commissioned study entitled “How Schools Shortchange Girls.” The study sought to measure the self-esteem of girls and boys between the ages of 11 and 16, and found a “self-esteem gap” that, while modest at age 11, expanded considerably by age 16. This growing gap was then explained by analysis of classroom situations, in which it was regularly observed that teachers called upon and gave more time to male students, thereby, in theory, validating their opinions and bolstering their confidence. Without missing a beat, politicians everywhere rallied to the cause (recall George Carlin’s famous remark about politicians hiding behind three things: the Bible, the flag and children) and the $360 million Gender Equity in Education Act was passed, which, among other things, “calls for an Office of Women’s Equity within the Department of Education, charged with ‘promoting and coordinating women’s equity policies, programs, activities and initiatives in all federal education programs and offices.'” Sommers begins by challenging the methodology of the study: self-esteem is notoriously difficult to study, and self-reporting (the method used by the AAUW study) is wildly inaccurate. More telling is how the data was used by the AAUW. I quote from their report: “Self-esteem is critically related to young people’s dreams and successes. The higher self-esteem of young men translates into bigger career dreams… The number of boys who aspire to glamorous occupations (rock star, sports star) is greater than that of young women at every stage of adolescence, creating a kind of ‘glamour gap.'” Sommers’ incredulity at this is amusing:

I did a double take on reading this. A glamour gap? Most kids do not have the talent and drive to be rock stars. The sensible ones know it. What these responses suggest, and what many experts on adolescent development will tell you, is that girls mature earlier than boys, who at this age, apparently, suffer from a ‘reality gap.’

The agenda of the AAUW is to use the self-esteem study as a means of explaining the disparity between men and women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields: young girls are discouraged from higher pursuits in science and mathematics and young men are encouraged.

This argument, too, fails to hold water: a crucial detail that emerged from the study but was curiously omitted from all of the reports was that, though the aggregate self-esteem scores of young boys trumped those of young girls, black girls reported higher self-esteem than white boys, and black boys reported the highest self-esteem of all groups tested. This presents an uncomfortable problem for gender feminists, because both black girls and black boys achieved among the lowest average grades of all groups tested. Is there, then, a positive correlation between self-esteem and scholastic achievement? Sommers goes one step further and includes data from high-achieving children in other countries. The result? American children, despite having the lowest average marks, posted the highest self-esteem scores. What was more disturbing to me, however, is the dishonest way in which the AAUW presented their findings and the lengths they went to to conceal the actual data from public viewing. Sommers describes her difficulties in obtaining the study itself, which was unavailable in academic libraries (something highly unusual for a study cited by the United States Congress) and ultimately had to be purchased directly from the AAUW:

‘Why do you want it?’ asked a curious woman in the AAUW office in Washington. I said, truthfully enough, that I was doing research for a book and would like to review the data. She told me to leave my number and someone would get back to me. No one did. I tried again. This time, there was a tentative understanding that they would send me the study. But first they would send me a letter outlining certain terms. A letter eventually came, signed by Anne Bryant [at the time, the director of the AAUW]. She wrote: “Please send a statement outlining how you plan to use the survey instrument and results, along with your payment for the full research report. If your review and analysis of the data results in a possible publication or presentation, that use of data must receive advance written approval from the AAUW.

It is bad enough to make the study difficult to obtain but to expect or request that “advance written approval” be given bespeaks a level of corruption and partisan manipulation that should never be allowed to influence public policy, let alone result in a government response exceeding a quarter of a billion dollars. As to the question of whether or not American public school teachers (the majority of whom, by the way, are women) “shortchange” girls by lavishing their attentions predominately on boys, the answer is also no. While, on average, teachers do spend more “time and attention” on boys, much of this is spent disciplining them, as it turns out it is boys who act out and disrupt classes with greater frequency. When standardized test results are compared with grades, a different story is told: girls average better grades but lower test scores; boys average lower grades but slightly higher test scores, suggesting that it is, in fact, girls who benefit from the “intangibles” of grading policy: classroom participation, for example.

Christina Hoff Sommers goes on to point out that, by objective measures (recall, if you will, the feminist antipathy to objectivity), it is not the girls but the boys who are in trouble: boys are considerably more likely to drop out, considerably less likely to attend college, considerably more likely to develop substance abuse problems or commit suicide, considerably more likely to be disciplined (detentions, suspensions and expulsions) and considerably more likely to be diagnosed with learning disabilities or attention deficit disorders. More recently, Diane Ravitch, an educational historian and policy analyst as well as one-time Assistant Secretary of Education, has added her voice to Sommers’ in criticizing the AAUW report and attempting to draw attention to the difficulties facing young boys:

The AAUW report was completely wrong. What was so bizarre is that it came out right at the time that girls had just overtaken boys in almost every area… it was like calling a wedding a funeral…There were all these special programs put in place for girls, and no one paid any attention to boys.

“Calling a wedding a funeral” is an apt metaphor for the mission of gender feminists, and I have much more ink to spill on this issue, but suffice it to say that Christina Hoff Sommers is a brave and solitary voice of skepticism and incredulity operating in the humanistic tradition against a tide of misinformation and manipulation. I am thankful for her dissent and would encourage anyone whose interests have been piqued by her arguments to peruse her various articles and polemics, all of which can be found at the included link.