Christina Hoff Sommers Criticism - Essay

Scott Jaschik (essay date 15 January 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Heather Mac Donald (review date June 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Mac Donald, Heather. “Women Beware Women.” New Criterion 12, no. 10 (June 1994): 66-70.

[In the following review, Mac Donald calls Sommers's Who Stole Feminism? a lucidly written, compellingly argued, and brilliant book.]

By most any measure of success, the Eighties were a very good decade for American women. Their earnings relative to men continued to rise; indeed, women made more economic progress during the last decade than during the entire postwar period before that. Women now earn more bachelor's and master's degrees than men and continue to increase their share of doctorates. They have broken down virtually all barriers to the professions and...

(The entire section is 2780 words.)

Mary Lefkowitz (review date 11 July 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Lefkowitz, Mary. “Robbery in Progress.” National Review 46, no. 13 (11 July 1994): 55-7.

[In the following review, Lefkowitz, who aligns herself with Sommers as a “pro-equity feminist,” asserts that Who Stole Feminism? is an excellent book which everyone interested in the subject should read.]

Twenty-five years ago women who wanted to become academics had to overcome the hostility and disbelief of men. In my field (Classics), the Enemy consisted mainly of sympathetic male professors who were willing to encourage female graduate students, but only to the point of getting a degree. When I got my PhD, my thesis advisor asked me why I didn't settle...

(The entire section is 2074 words.)

Jean Bethke Elshtain (review date 11 July 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Elshtain, Jean Bethke. “Sic Transit Gloria.” New Republic 211, no. 2 (11 July 1994): 32-6.

[In the following review, Elshtain discusses Sommers's Who Stole Feminism? and Gloria Steinem's Moving Beyond Words. Elshtain praises Sommers for identifying and exposing misinformation put forth by feminist scholars, but criticizes her for failing to place feminism in a broader cultural and historical context or offer a viable alternative to current trends in feminist thought.]

It seems that Simon & Schuster wishes to cover all the bases, producing more or less simultaneously a book whose thesis is that feminists have betrayed women and a book whose...

(The entire section is 4620 words.)

Deirdre English (review date 17 July 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: English, Deirdre. “Their Own Worst Enemies.” Washington Post Book World 24, no. 29 (17 July 1994): 1, 11.

[In the following review, English asserts that the greatest strength of Who Stole Feminism? is Sommers's critical reporting, commenting that her analysis of feminism is unconvincing.]

Christine Hoff Sommers, a philosophy professor at Clark University and well-published conservative, is itching for a fight. One will be necessary, she tells us, in order to combat the current crop of feminist leaders, the doctrinaire “gender feminists,” and replace them with fair-minded “equity feminists” like herself.

Sommers's voice is...

(The entire section is 1078 words.)

Lisa Schiffren (review date October 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Schiffren, Lisa. Review of Who Stole Feminism?, by Christina Hoff Sommers. American Spectator 27, no. 10 (October 1994): 69-71.

[In the following review, Schiffren asserts that Who Stole Feminism? is a brilliant and informative book, but comments that Sommers fails to place feminism in a larger political context.]

Christina Hoff Sommers's Who Stole Feminism? is a long overdue correction in the marketplace of ideas, which in recent years has been glutted with feminist cant masquerading as statistics. This book brilliantly describes the currently dominant feminism—Sommers calls it “gender feminism”—which comes largely from the network...

(The entire section is 1974 words.)

Tama Starr (review date October 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Starr, Tama. “Reactionary Feminism.” Reason 26, no. 5 (October 1994): 62-6.

[In the following review, Starr notes that Who Stole Feminism? is an entertaining, informative, and well-researched book, but comments that Sommers fails to place her subject matter in a broader political context.]

Ten years late, but we're nearly there. War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. “Objective reality” is an invidious myth employed by evil oppressors (men) to maintain their phallohegemonic dominance. Big Sister Is Watching for instances of heteropatriarchal discourse, and punishment is swift and severe. A futuristic nightmare? No, the all-too-real world of your high...

(The entire section is 1984 words.)

Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen (review date 24 October 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Whose Feminism?” Christianity Today (24 October 1994): 102-05.

[In the following review, Van Leeuwen evaluates Sommers's Who Stole Feminism? from a Christian feminist perspective.]

Philosopher and feminist scholar Christina Hoff Sommers, who teaches ethics at Clark University, is no stranger to the pages of CT [Christianity Today]. In her article “How to Teach Right and Wrong: A Blueprint for Moral Education in a Pluralistic Age” (CT, Dec. 13, 1993, pp. 33-37), Sommers made a timely plea to resurrect the teaching of personal or “virtue” ethics alongside the more standard curriculum of “applied” ethics. While the latter focuses...

(The entire section is 1776 words.)

Diana Schaub (review date winter 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Schaub, Diana. “Sisters at Odds.” Public Interest 118 (winter 1995): 100-05.

[In the following review, Schaub compares the representation of feminism in Sommers's Who Stole Feminism? with the representation of feminism in Henry James's 19th-century novel The Bostonians. Schaub comments that Sommers's book is disappointing in that it fails to take into account a broader social and cultural context.]

Just as the movement for “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” had its Jacobins, so too the feminist movement, with its parallel call for women's liberation, the equality of the sexes, and politically conceived sisterhood. According to Christina Hoff...

(The entire section is 2264 words.)

Anne Manne (review date April 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Manne, Anne. “Liberal Versus Illiberal Feminism.” Quadrant 39, no. 4 (April 1995): 82-5.

[In the following review, Manne asserts that Who Stole Feminism? is an important book, and that Sommers is an important voice in liberal feminism. Manne, however, argues that Sommers's distinction between “equity feminism” and “gender feminism” is overly simplistic.]

If the Chinese communists' route to political revolution was via The Long March, in my more mischievous moments I sometimes think that feminism's path to social revolution might be described as The Long Whinge. As a young and politically curious student (I had surveyed the lot of women under...

(The entire section is 2897 words.)

Susan Dwyer (review date spring 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Dwyer, Susan. “Who's Afraid of Feminism?” Dialogue 35, no. 2 (spring 1996): 327-42.

[In the following review of Who Stole Feminism?, Dwyer examines the philosophical basis of Sommers's attack on gender feminism and her treatment of feminist philosophy. Dwyer comments that, while Sommers has accurately exposed misinformation, the book as a whole is “heavy on polemic and light on argument.”]

… moral philosophers should be paying far more attention to the social consequences of their views than they are.

—Christina Sommers, “Philosophers against the Family”1

...

(The entire section is 6742 words.)

Elizabeth Kamarck Minnich (review date spring 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Minnich, Elizabeth Kamarck. “Feminist Attacks on Feminisms: Patriarchy's Prodigal Daughters.” Feminist Studies 24, no. 1 (spring 1998): 159-75.

[In the following review, Minnich discusses Sommers's Who Stole Feminism? along with three other popular books that criticize feminism. Minnich asserts that all four authors “thoroughly contradict what they say are their values by what they do in their books.”]

Mounting the hard-won feminist platform built against great odds by so many differing women, Christina Hoff Sommers, Daphne Patai and Noretta Koertge, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, and Katie Roiphe announce, each on her own behalf but in...

(The entire section is 6112 words.)

Wilson Quarterly (review date summer 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Jack Versus Jill.” Wilson Quarterly 24, no. 3 (summer 2000): 103-04.

[In the following review of The War against Boys, the critic summarizes Sommers's central arguments about the status of boys in the American education system.]

A decade ago, Harvard University's Carol Gilligan, author of the influential In a Different Voice (1982), announced that America's adolescent girls were in crisis. Soon, with the help of two studies by the American Association of University Women, it became the conventional wisdom among educators that schools shortchange girls. Yet there is almost no solid empirical support for that conclusion, asserts Sommers, a...

(The entire section is 475 words.)

Richard Lowry (review date 3 July 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Lowry, Richard. “The Male Eunuch.” National Review 52, no. 12 (3 July 2000): 41, 45.

[In the following review, Lowry praises Sommers's The War against Boys as an important conservative intervention against liberal trends in education.]

A couple of kindergarten boys were recently suspended from school in New Jersey after being caught red-handed playing cops and robbers at recess. Finger-pointing, shouting “bang,” running, playing dead—the incident involved the whole sorry litany of playground mock aggression. School officials were enforcing a Columbine-inspired “zero tolerance” policy against firearms at school, even the thumb-and-forefinger...

(The entire section is 1555 words.)

Marilyn Gardner (review date 20 July 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Gardner, Marilyn. “If We're Not Careful, Boys Won't Be Boys Much Longer.” Christian Science Monitor (20 July 2000): 16.

[In the following review of Sommers's The War against Boys, Gardner advocates a non-polemical approach to supporting and encouraging both boys and girls in education.]

The 1990s may go down in history as the Decade of Girls. In countless books, studies, and programs, American girls were portrayed as being “in crisis” and “at risk,” hapless “victims” of a culture that supposedly favors boys.

Now, in a new century, the spotlight is shifting. Authors and social scientists are turning their attention to...

(The entire section is 677 words.)

Tom Regan (review date 24 July 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Regan, Tom. “Let's Lose Our ‘Toxic’ Image of Boys.” Christian Science Monitor (24 July 2000): 9.

[In the following review of The War against Boys, Regan criticizes Sommers's perspective on education, and asserts that society needs to find “meaningful ways that we can help boys to be more complete human beings.”]

When I first heard of the fight between two fathers at a hockey rink near Boston recently, which resulted in one father killing the other, the first person I thought of was Christina Hoff Sommers. That might seem like a strange connection on first glance—I don't know if Ms. Sommers has ever been near a hockey rink, for...

(The entire section is 985 words.)

Stephen Goode (review date 21 August 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Goode, Stephen. “Detailing the Abuse of Boys.” Insight on the News (21 August 2000): 22-3.

[In the following review, Goode asserts that Sommers's arguments in The War against Boys are solid, and critiques liberal reviewers who have criticized it.]

In 1994, Christina Hoff Sommers published her book Who Stole Feminism? and all hell broke loose. An unrelenting attack on the radical elements of the women's movement, the book earned Sommers, then a professor of philosophy at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., a very bad name among many feminists. But it won admiration from conservatives and such maverick culture critics as Camille Paglia, who...

(The entire section is 1525 words.)

Lisa M. Gring-Pemble and Diane M. Blair (review date fall 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Gring-Pemble, Lisa M., and Diane M. Blair. “Best-Selling Feminisms: The Rhetorical Production of Popular Press Feminists' Romantic Quest.” Communication Quarterly 48, no. 4 (fall 2000): 360-79.

[In the following review, Gring-Pemble and Blair argue that writings by “popular press feminists” such as Sommers “derive their powerful appeal from assuming the form of archetypal romantic quest narratives,” which ultimately “limit possibilities for critical assessments as well as honest debate and exchange.”]

On the open highway, battling stormy nature and dodging mammoth eighteen-wheelers (today's piratical tramp freighters), woman...

(The entire section is 10175 words.)

John Attarian (review date October 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Attarian, John. “Let Boys Be Boys.” World and I 15, no. 10 (October 2000): 238-43.

[In the following review, Attarian calls Sommers's The War against Boys a timely, persuasive, and well-argued book.]

American girls, mainstream belief has it, are shortchanged by our educational system and socially silenced, while boys are favored. Moreover, our society dragoons boys into a brutalizing model of manhood that forces them to become macho. Hence, boys must be reconstructed to be like girls. Shootings and predatory violence against girls in our schools underscore the need to feminize boys.

In The War against Boys, a well-argued,...

(The entire section is 2193 words.)

Mark Edmundson (review date 9 October 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Edmundson, Mark. “Bad Boys, Whatcha Gonna Do …” Nation 271, no. 10 (9 October 2000): 39-43.

[In the following review of The War against Boys, Edmundson remarks that Sommers's argument essentially addresses the age-old question of nature vs. nurture in regard to gender differences. Edmundson criticizes Sommers for oversimplifying a “quiet, complex gender revolution” that is taking place in today's society.]

Not too long ago, the members of the Ms. Foundation for Women, the feminist group that inaugurated Take Our Daughters to Work Day, began concocting a comparable holiday for boys. They planned the first “Son's Day” for October 20, 1996, a...

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Cherie Harder (review date 24 November 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Harder, Cherie. “Kiss the Boys and Make Them Die.” Human Events 56, no. 43 (24 November 2000): 14, 19.

[In the following review of The War against Boys, Harder comments that Sommers fails to take into account the influence of parents and popular culture on the socialization of children.]

If you think winning the presidency is hard these days, you should try being a boy. The banal tortures of forced play with dolls, “noncompetitive tag,” the abolition of recess, prohibitions against running, discipline imposed by “princessipals”—are but the tip of the iceberg of the “reconditioning” that author Christina Hoff Sommers describes and...

(The entire section is 997 words.)

Miriam Karmel (review date November-December 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Karmel, Miriam. “Save the Males: It's Boys, Not Girls, Who Are Struggling in School.” Utne Reader 102 (November-December 2000): 28, 30.

[In the following review of The War against Boys, Karmel discusses various aspects of Sommers's arguments about gender and the American education system.]

When a male student at Scarsdale (New York) High School told teachers attending a gender-equity meeting three years ago that girls do better than boys in the classroom, teachers were incredulous. Weren't they gathered to discuss how girls are shortchanged in the classroom? But when some of the teachers later looked at grading patterns, they found that the student...

(The entire section is 747 words.)

Cathy Young (review date February 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Young, Cathy. “Where the Boys Are.” Reason 32, no. 9 (February 2001): 24-31.

[In the following review of The War against Boys, Young examines various sides of the debate about gender differences and the education system.]

IS AMERICA SHORTCHANGING MALE CHILDREN?

One day last September, there were two back-to-back events in adjacent rooms at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. “Beyond the ‘Gender Wars,’” a symposium organized by the American Association of University Women (AAUW), was followed by a rejoinder from the Independent Women's Forum (IWF), “The XY Files: The Truth Is Out There … About the...

(The entire section is 5164 words.)

Christina Hoff Sommers and Stephen Goode (interview date 12 March 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Sommers, Christina Hoff, and Stephen Goode. “Philosopher Advocate for American Boys.” Insight on the News (12 March 2001): 36-9.

[In the following interview, Sommers discusses The War against Boys and the status of boys in the American education system.]

Philosopher Christina Hoff Sommers is an old-fashioned feminist who believes in voting rights for women and a level playing field for both genders, but parts company when it comes to radical feminism and its disparagement of men. Five years ago she took on the feminist establishment in her book, Who Stole Feminism? How Women Have Betrayed Women, which widely was pilloried by the establishment...

(The entire section is 2415 words.)

Virginia Quarterly Review (review date spring 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Review of The War against Boys, by Christina Hoff Sommers. Virginia Quarterly Review 77, no. 2 (spring 2001): 62-3.

[In the following review, the critic calls The War against Boys a startling, convincing, and thought-provoking book.]

The assertion that girls have been harmed, and in some cases outright scarred, by an environment of neglect and what could be termed an “anti-girl gender bias” in our schools and in society as a whole has long been accepted as true. Christina Hoff Sommers explodes this notion in her latest book. Exposed as myth and a manipulation of facts contained in pseudo-scientific studies conducted by groups she pejoratively...

(The entire section is 321 words.)

Melanie Phillips (review date 6 April 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Phillips, Melanie. “In a Gendered Salem.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5114 (6 April 2001): 9.

[In the following review of The War against Boys, Phillips applauds Sommers's assessment that there is a “war against boys” in the American education system.]

In her previous book Who Stole Feminism? (1994), the American professor of philosophy Christina Hoff Sommers took on the academic feminists who, she claimed, demonized men and so had betrayed the women they claimed to represent. That book was an act of some bravery in a country where academic freedom has been all but incinerated in the white heat of political correctness. Indeed, Hoff...

(The entire section is 785 words.)

Andrew Hacker (review date 11 April 2002)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Hacker, Andrew. “How Are Women Doing?” New York Review of Books 49, no. 6 (11 April 2002): 63-6.

[In the following review, Hacker discusses Sommers's The War against Boys and several books on feminist issues by other authors, citing various statistics on gender and higher education in relation to Sommers's arguments.]

1.

“Choice” has been an effective watchword for those who would allow women to decide whether to continue a pregnancy—especially since it implies that the alternative is forcing people to have children they do not want. In fact, many women who become pregnant have chosen to do so; they are happy they have...

(The entire section is 5442 words.)