Scott Jaschik (essay date 15 January 1992)
SOURCE: Jaschik, Scott. “Philosophy Professor Portrays Her Feminist Colleagues as Out of Touch and ‘Relentlessly Hostile to the Family.’” Chronicle of Higher Education 38, no. 19 (15 January 1992): A1, A16, A18.
[In the following essay, Jaschik discusses Sommers's criticisms of feminist scholars, and offers counter-viewpoints of some of the scholars she criticizes.]
Christina Hoff Sommers has “a singular talent for skewering people with their own words,” says her department chairman at Clark University here.
Ms. Sommers, an associate professor of philosophy, has skewered quite a few people lately. Her prime targets are feminist philosophers, who Ms. Sommers says are doing shoddy academic work and are out of touch with most women.
A FOCUS ON EXCESSES
In a series of articles in academic journals and the popular press alike, Ms. Sommers uses quotes from their work to make her points. In the process, she has become a key player in the national debates on “political correctness” and the curriculum. She has also prompted a less-publicized but equally divisive battle in her scholarly discipline.
Her supporters call her courageous for drawing attention to what they consider the excesses of feminist scholarship and political correctness. Her critics say the quotes them out of context and engages in a form of right-wing political correctness in which the ideas of radical scholars, and the scholars themselves, are made to seem silly so that they will never receive a fair hearing from academe or the public.
“She is parasitic,” says Allison M. Jaggar, a professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “She is sniping from the sidelines, taking things out of context, and attacking people. She doesn't have any positive views to put forward.”
Love her or hate her (and few people familiar with her work fall in between), Ms. Sommers is a force to be reckoned with. Her articles are widely printed and she speaks on many campuses. The chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Lynne V. Cheney, quotes her in speeches. Education Secretary Lamar Alexander recently appointed her to the federal committee that oversees accrediting agencies. And several foundations have just provided her with grants so that she can take a year off from Clark to write a book about her ideas on feminist philosophy and political correctness.
NEVER INTENDED TO BE AN ‘ACTIVIST’
For all the attention she is attracting, Ms. Sommers insists she never intended to be “an activist” but wanted only to be a teacher and researcher. She got her start studying philosophy at New York University, where she received a bachelor's degree in 1971.
While at NYU in the late 1960's, she joined feminist support groups and helped take over buildings to protest the Vietnam War. “People say I've changed,” she says, “but I don't feel that I've changed. I was protesting hypocrisy, and in those days it was coming from college administrators and the United States government. And now I feel it's coming from college administrators.”
During a junior year in France, Ms. Sommers says she was attracted to the ideas of such philosophers as Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. But on her return to New York, she says, her professors were not impressed and urged her to read A. J. Ayer's Language, Truth and Logic.
The book, which she calls “a manifesto of truth and clarity,” had “a profound effect,” Ms. Sommers says. “After I read it, I started to be skeptical of intellectual fashions.”
After graduating, Ms. Sommers worked on her Ph.D., which she received from Brandeis University in 1979. Since then she's been at Clark, where she has a reputation as a popular teacher, but also as a divisive force.
She has published articles on moral education, animal rights, ethics, and Kant.
She led a successful fight at Clark to end the university's policy of asking faculty members proposing new courses to discuss “how pluralistic (minority, women, etc.) views and concerns are explored and integrated into the course.” Ms. Sommers said the question was “intrusive and offensively moralistic.” While many colleagues praise her stance on that issue, many also say she seeks to polarize the campus on various issues, rather than working to resolve differences amicably.
EXPLORING RESEARCH ON THE FAMILY
Ms. Sommers first started to examine feminist philosophy—almost by accident—when in 1986 she started to write papers on the responsibilities of adult children to their parents. She says she was interested in exploring how Kantian and utilitarian philosophers deal with family bonds.
As part of her study, she began to explore what various modern philosophers were writing about the family. When she came to feminist theory, she was stunned. “I started to run into this amazing literature by feminists, which was so relentlessly hostile to the family, revolutionary, and patronizing to most women,” she says.
Ms. Sommers stresses that—despite what her critics say—she is no Phyllis Schlafly. She is a registered Democrat, favors abortion rights, and does not spend all her time with her children. “As a liberal, I say live and let live. If people want to live in revolutionary family communes, that's fine with me,” Ms. Sommers says.
What bothers her, she says, is that feminist philosophers in her opinion are denying choice to women who want traditional families. As she examined feminist theory, Ms. Sommers says she was struck by how it had evolved over time away from ideas she supports.
A ‘LIBERAL FEMINIST’
Ms. Sommers classifies herself as a “liberal feminist.” Such feminists she says, are in the philosophical tradition of John Stuart Mill...
(The entire section is 2488 words.)