Christina Hoff Sommers

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Scott Jaschik (essay date 15 January 1992)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2488

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.


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.


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...

(This entire section contains 2488 words.)

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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.


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.


Ms. Sommers classifies herself as a “liberal feminist.” Such feminists she says, are in the philosophical tradition of John Stuart Mill and Mary Wollstonecraft, and today advocate equal pay for women and men, recruitment of women into fields that have traditionally been dominated by men, and stepped-up efforts to prevent such crimes as rape and wife beating.

Most feminist philosophers, Ms. Sommers says, are “gender feminists.” Gender feminists, she says, want to eradicate wherever possible the differences between men and women and to abolish the traditional family. She says this comes about because they view women as a class.


Says Ms. Sommers: “It's almost as if you could take The Communist Manifesto and cross out class and put in gender.”

Most women, Ms. Sommers says, want nothing to do with gender feminism. “We've heard what they are offering and we don't want it,” she says. “Most women still enjoy a certain amount of male gallantry, they enjoy a male-female dynamic, certain ways of dress. Sure there are problems, but we don't want a revolution.”

Even though most women reject their ideas, gender feminists have taken over women's-studies departments and important positions in academic associations, she says, and are keeping out “dissident feminists” who question their thinking. “I see them as a powerful cult,” Ms. Sommers says.

She says it is dangerous for universities to have departments where only certain viewpoints are tolerated. “I know they have doctrinal feuds and they feel they have some sort of rich and complex intellectual diversity because they have Freudian feminists and eco-feminists and Marxist feminists and feminist separatists. But to me, it's just the gamut from A to B,” she says.

Ms. Sommers's critics—many of them the people she criticizes—say the problems with her analysis become clear by looking at what she says about them.

Take, for instance, the recent clash between Ms. Sommers and Sandra G. Harding, a professor of philosophy and director of women's studies at the University of Delaware. In a November piece in The Wall Street Journal, Ms. Sommers wrote: “Scientists are not normally thought of as violent. In gender feminist eyes, however, man's desire to understand nature and ‘penetrate’ her secrets is essentially a demand for her sexual submission. As the University of Delaware's Sandra Harding, a leading feminist critic of science, explains: ‘If we put it in the most blatant feminist terms used today, we'd talk about marital rape, the husband as scientist forcing nature to his wishes.’”

The quote is from a talk Ms. Harding gave about sexual metaphors in science. But Ms. Harding says that the quote refers to the metaphors used by scientists themselves—not by her—and adds that she does not believe scientists are the equivalent of rapists.

By using the quote, Ms. Harding says, Ms. Sommers “is trying to make us look sexually scandalous by implying that that is my major preoccupation.”


The reality, Ms. Harding says, is that the feminist philosophical critique of science is gaining wider support among the public. She cites the recent push in Congress for more federal research on women's-health issues as an example of the positive influence of feminist philosophers. Scholars like herself, Ms. Harding says, have been saying for years that scientific research is not “neutral” and that the public must examine who is benefiting from research policies.

Another scholar whom Ms. Sommers has attacked frequently is Susan McClary, a professor of musicology at the University of Minnesota. Ms. McClary drew Ms. Sommers's ire for describing Beethoven's “Ninth Symphony” as “one of the most horrifying moments in music, as the carefully prepared cadence is frustrated, damming up energy which finally explodes in a throttling murderous rage of a rapist incapable of attaining release.”

Ms. McClary says the inference that Ms. Sommers draws from the quote is that Ms. McClary hates Beethoven and thinks he should be viewed as a sexist. But Ms. McClary says that one quote is “grossly out of the context.”

Her scholarship, Ms. McClary says, examines why musical works that are described by critics in “masculine” or “virile” terms are typically thought of as great works while works that are described in “feminine” terms as “beautiful” tend to be considered second rate.

The flap is ironic, she adds, because students in seminars she gives on Beethoven quartets think she is a “Beethoven groupie.”

In a recent speech at the University of Michigan, Ms. Sommers said Ms. Jaggar of the University of Colorado opposed marriage and believed women were mistaken if they thought they were marrying for love. That is based on a statement in one of Ms. Jaggar's books: “The ideology of romantic love has now become so pervasive that most women in contemporary capitalism probably believe that they marry for love rather than for economic support.”

Ms. Jaggar says she stands by that sentence, but does not oppose all marriage or the concept of romance.

Ms. Jaggar adds that she finds it ironic to be portrayed as “anti-family” when she has been married for 25 years and has three children. She says, though, that she is uncomfortable mentioning her marital status because she does not believe marriage should be a credential for criticizing traditional family life.


Some feminist scholars who have been criticized by Ms. Sommers and several others whose work Ms. Sommers hasn't discussed asked not to be quoted by name for this story. They do have opinions about her, though. Several call her “dangerous” and say that newspapers should not print her opinion pieces or write stories on her. Others say she is in league with conservatives trying to push back the successes of the women's movement. Others question her intelligence.

Several also say they are afraid of arguing with Ms. Sommers because they do not want to be mentioned in her speeches and articles. Ms. Harding of Delaware says those fears are justified.

Ms. Sommers “is trying to demonize people,” Ms. Harding says. She relates that at three places where she has been invited to speak, people have circulated copies of Ms. Sommers's writings about Ms. Harding and asked that the invitations be withdrawn. (In the end, none was.)

Ms. Harding also says of Ms. Sommers's writing: “This has a chilling effect on young scholars when they can expect that leading opinion journals will ridicule people's scholarly work.”

Sandra Lee Bartky, professor of philosophy at the University of Illinois at Chicago, says Ms. Sommers's agenda goes far beyond criticizing prominent scholars. “She is allied with the National Association of Scholars and she shares their agenda, which is to do away with women's studies, black studies, multiculturalism, etc.”


In answering her critics, Ms. Sommers says she does not want her writings used by people to block invitations to speaking events. She scoffs at the notion that her writings discourage young scholars from their work, saying that the gender feminists are the establishment in higher education today, and that an “old-girl network” exists for young feminists.

“These women think of themselves as victims, yet they have huge salaries, they run programs and departments,” she says.

The criticism that particularly upsets Ms. Sommers are the charges that she is a right-wing ideologue and takes other scholars' quotations out of context. “Instead of making a good-faith effort to respond to my arguments, they resort to name calling,” she says.

“They are happy to take the praise for starting an intellectual revolution, but when I cite the positions that are revolutionary, they say I quote them out of context. If they have these positions, they should have the intellectual integrity to take responsibility for them.

“In the cozy confines of feminist workshops, their positions are even more radical.”

While Ms. Sommers infuriates many feminist theorists, she also has strong supporters in academe. Daniel Bonevac, chairman of the philosophy department at the University of Texas at Austin, says: “Within the academy, a group of thinkers has taken feminism in ways that seem to real-world feminists as bizarre. It's true these thinkers are angry with her, but that's because they rely for their legitimacy on identification with real-world feminists and Christina's blown their cover.”

Camille Paglia, professor of humanities at the University of the Arts and another prominent critic of feminists, says Ms. Sommers is “deft, incisive, and learned” and that the attacks on her by feminist theorists are typical of the way academic debate is conducted today.

Ms. Paglia says she is pleased that Ms. Sommers's work takes shots at “all of the wildly overinflated feminist reputations sitting like big fat ducks in academe.”

For the next year, Ms. Sommers will devote herself to doing just that, as she works on her book. When she is done, she says, she wants to return to more traditional academic work, particularly looking at issues such as moral education in the schools. “This activism unfortunately seems to take all my time,” she says.

Ms. Sommers says she is optimistic that, over time, women's-studies departments will represent a broader range of views. She is pleased that Clark's women's-studies department agreed to cross-list her course in feminist theory last semester, after first refusing to do so.

In the end, Ms. Sommers says she believes the changes she wants to see will come from the women just now entering academe. “Maybe a generation of women who perhaps aren't as bitter and don't have an ax to grind will bring more vitality and humor and joie de vivre,” Ms. Sommers says, “and we'll get a whole new kind of women's studies.”

Heather Mac Donald (review date June 1994)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2780

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 business. Far from being a disability, their gender has become an unbeatable qualification. Women are eagerly sought after for membership on corporate boards, for college presidencies, and for political appointments. In Congress, their voice possesses a moral authority that sends terror into the hearts of potential opponents. And regarding marriage, childbirth, and personal morality, American women enjoy a freedom that remains the envy of the world.

This is not, however, the picture that dominates the media. Every few months, a story breaks portraying the harrowing life that is the American woman's. Dying off in droves through self-inflicted starvation, battered and raped by husbands and boyfriends, oppressed by a crippling burden of self-doubt, silenced by teachers and sexually harassed by colleagues and bosses, women—as the press presents them—struggle constantly against a rising tide of discrimination and violence.

This immense gap between the reality of women's lives and their image in the media is the triumphant accomplishment of what Christina Hoff Sommers, in her brilliant new book, Who Stole Feminism?, calls “gender feminism.” Gender feminism is dedicated to the proposition that women are the perpetual victims of an oppressive male system—the “patriarchy”—that robs them of their voice, their identity, and their strength. The patriarchy, gender feminists charge, keeps women in thrall through violence and the threat of violence; nowhere, they warn, is this threat greater than in the home.

Gender feminism is a far cry from “equity feminism,” Sommers's term for the original women's movement, which sought and won full legal rights for women. Though equity feminism is responsible for women's present freedoms, gender feminists will have none of it. The entire “system,” they argue, must be overthrown, and with it, “male” concepts of equality, justice, and individual rights.

Sommers, an associate professor of philosophy at Clark University, has been our most indispensable chronicler of the feminist follies. In her dispatches from women's studies conferences, she has exposed with lacerating wit the maudlin self-pity and crackpot philosophical theories that characterize academic feminism. She continues that role in Who Stole Feminism?, presenting a picture of an educational system gone completely mad, in which students earn college credit by performing “outrageous” and “liberating” feminist acts outside of class and a homegrown Red Guard enforces feminist ideological conformity against professors and fellow students with the blessing of college administrators.

But in Who Stole Feminism? Sommers also proves to be an exemplary sleuth. She tracks down the various sexism scares that have recently dominated the media—the destruction of girls' self-esteem, their mistreatment by teachers and their silencing by the curriculum, the prevalence of acquaintance rape and battery, the “backlash” against feminism, women's unyielding earnings gap relative to men, the ubiquity of severe depression among women—and discovers that each at its origin is phony. Either the claim is based on laughably unscientific research methods or it constitutes a misreading of valid data. Yet the press, ever credulous when it comes to charges against the white-male patriarchy, has almost without exception taken the sexism patrols at their word and duly broadcast their “findings” without further investigation. These then become part of the feminist arsenal for future use against the patriarchy.

These media scares are the product of what Sommers calls the “victim/bias industry.” Spanning the universities, schools, think tanks, foundations, polling organizations, and government bureaucracies, the victim/bias industry provides gender feminists with a constant stream of anti-woman horror stories and thus a constant source of employment as bias monitors and gender-equity experts.

It works as follows: First, feminist academics and pollsters crank out advocacy research demonstrating women's victimization. Then activist organizations like NOW and the Ms. Foundation and formerly non-partisan academic organizations like the American Association of University Women (AAUW) and the Association of American Colleges (AAC) repackage the findings in attractive and easily digestible brochures and videos, burying the original research beyond all human contact. A publicity blitz follows. Hundreds of news outlets pick up the charge, relying exclusively on the sponsoring organization's publicity brochures for information about the original research. Conferences, protests, and legislative hearings ensue, resulting in increased funding for gender research and gender bureaucrats.

Two related studies of secondary schools commissioned by the AAUW followed this pattern to bear spectacular legislative fruit: the introduction in Congress in 1993 of a $360 million Gender Equity in Education Act. According to Sommers, the Act would put paid gender monitors in every primary and secondary school in the country, and harassment officers in every secondary school and college. Most of the Act has passed the House; it is still pending in the Senate. The wording of the bill simply parrots the AAUW's publicity materials on its two studies; Sommers reveals that those materials and the studies behind them are wholly unreliable.

In 1991 the AAUW sprang upon the world the findings of a study it had commissioned on boys' and girls' self-esteem. In its widely distributed “Call to Action” brochures and videos, it trumpeted a “dramatic” drop in female self-esteem between the ages of eleven and sixteen, proof that schools were destroying girls' very identities. The usual public alarum followed, leading to hundreds of self-esteem conferences and community-action projects.

After considerable effort, Sommers located the original poll upon which the AAUW's “Call to Action” brochures were based. Those brochures had claimed that only 29 percent of female high-school students say they are “happy the way [they are],” as compared with 46 percent of the boys—a drop of 31 female self-esteem points from elementary school. Sommers discovered that the figures cited in the brochure represented only the percentage of students answering “always true” to the statement “I am happy the way I am.” If one includes the answers, “sort of true” and “sometimes true/sometimes false,” 88 percent of the girls polled answered positively, as opposed to 92 percent of the boys—hardly an earthshaking gender gap. That leaves at most 12 percent of the girls who answered “sort of false,” or “always false,” the only answers upon which a claim of low self-esteem could plausibly be based.

Equally important, every researcher with whom Sommers spoke challenged both the research methodology and the conclusions. Many question whether “self-esteem” can be measured and whether it even exists at all. People's expressed opinions of themselves may have little to do with their sense of self-worth, yet the AAUW relied almost exclusively on self-reports. The AAUW's conclusions from those self-reports contradict the consensus in the field of child psychology that most children come through adolescence with an increase in self-worth.

The most damning finding which Sommers dug up from the original poll, however, is that the group which scores highest on the AAUW's self-esteem measure is black boys, followed by black girls—the two groups who fare worst in all measures of academic achievement. Internationally, the only area in which American children outscore other countries is self-esteem. Asian students express far less confidence in their math abilities than Americans do, yet they trounce us in math. Sommers concludes quite persuasively that the true relation between reported self-esteem and academic performance may be an inverse one.

Indeed, girls—allegedly the victims of a self-esteem deficit—consistently outperform boys in every aspect of school: grades, attendance, self-discipline, and extracurricular activities. This is the sort of fact which must be suppressed at all costs. So the AAUW, buoyed by the enormous attention its self-esteem brochure garnered, commissioned a follow-up study from the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women on how schools are destroying girls' self-esteem. This study met with an even more gratifying response in the press—more than fourteen hundred stories—culminating in the introduction of the Gender Equity in Education Act.

The Wellesley report, “How Schools Shortchange Girls,” charged that schools subject girls to incessant gender bias, ranging from lack of attention by teachers to sexual harassment to discrimination in the curriculum. Locating the research on which the first of these claims—unequal teacher attention—was based proved even more difficult than locating the self-esteem poll. Tracking through pseudo-academic journals that had never seen the light of day, Sommers uncovered a web of false leads and non-existent studies that would be the envy of most professional money launderers. As usual, she came up empty-handed. The data allegedly showing unequal teacher attention have never been published in numerical form, and are based on wholly subjective research methods. Most educational psychologists believe that teachers respond to the nature of student behavior, not to the gender of the student. And the very researchers the Wellesley report cited for the proposition that teachers discriminate against girls have themselves admitted that there is no evidence linking teacher behavior and student performance. As for the report's charge that girls were being continually harassed, Sommers discovered that boys are nearly as likely to report being harassed as girls, suggesting that the incivility and aggression in many schools are gender neutral.

The most worrisome aspect of “How Schools Shortchange Girls,” however, is its advocacy of curricular reform. While the charges of teacher bias and student harassment will result in the hiring of additional gender bureaucrats, such “corrective” measures will not fundamentally change the nature of learning and the definition of knowledge. The report's curricular recommendations, however, will. Those recommendations grow out of the most dangerous aspect of academic feminism: the curricular transformation movement.

Curricular transformation seeks to recast knowledge itself in a “female-centered” mode. Its main targets are such “masculinist” forms of thinking as logic, mathematical reasoning, and scientific research. These “phallocentric” enterprises are said to embody a win-lose approach to learning characterized by right and wrong answers to problems. The curricular transformationists would replace this zero-sum approach with a win-win philosophy in which presumably all answers are welcomed into the great circle of feminine intuition.

Despite its aversion to analytical thinking, the curricular transformation movement promotes a host of wacky typologies. One of the most popular is the distinction between “vertical” and “lateral” thinking. According to Peggy McIntosh, one of the leading theorists of curricular transformation, “vertical thinkers”—i.e., males—aim at “exact thinking, or decisiveness or mastery of something.” Vertical thinking, says McIntosh, is “triggered by words like excellence, accomplishment, success, and achievement.” In its place, the transformationists would foster the “lateral thinking” practiced by women and minorities. Such thinking is “relational [and] inclusive”; it aims “not to win, but to be in a decent relationship with the invisible elements of the universe.”

The transformationists may not yet have achieved a decent relationship with the universe, but their relationship with major funding sources is enviable. The Ford Foundation recently helped launch a National Clearinghouse for Curriculum Transformation Resources. Federal agencies as well as state governments generously support the cause. The Wellesley College Center for Research on Women has a multimillion-dollar budget; the AAC has $4.5 million for curricular transformation. Not surprisingly, transformation projects are springing up at colleges across the country.

Peggy McIntosh also happens to head the Wellesley Center. Small wonder, then, that the Center's “How Schools Shortchange Girls” study embraced McIntosh's own influential five-phase theory of curricular development.

That theory presents a teleological analysis of curricula from masculinist damnation to feminist beatitude. At the lowest stage of development, instructors focus on “mountain” or “pinnacle people”—leaders who make the laws, fight the wars, and occupy, in McIntosh's words, the “tops of the ladders of so-called success … and excellence.”

Phase II begins when instructors notice the absence of women and minorities in their teaching materials. But their initial response is sadly inadequate: they merely add a few “exceptional” women and minorities to the males milling around on top of the mountain without challenging the concept of “so-called excellence.”

By Phase III, however, things start to heat up. “Phase III curriculum work involves getting angry,” says McIntosh. The focus is on victimized groups. Instead of presenting America as a meritocracy in which individuals can achieve success, the instructor shows how “patterns of colonialism, imperialism and genocide outside the U.S. match patterns of domination, militarism and genocide at home.”

Phase IV becomes mystical: “It produces courses in which we are all seen to be in it together, … all with some power to say no, and yes, and ‘This I create.’ … Phase IV classes can be wondrous in their healing power,” intones McIntosh.

But Phase V transcends the verbal power of even the most vociferous feminist. According to McIntosh, it is “as yet unthinkable”; she breathlessly calls it “Reconstructed Global and Biological History to Survive By.”

As Sommers's review of developments in academia makes disturbingly clear, McIntosh's schema is no mere speculative fancy. It accurately describes changes that have already taken place. Many colleges have long since instituted Phase III “anger” courses and are now experimenting with Phase IV “healing” classes. From its inception, women's studies embraced an anger agenda. Other disciplines soon followed suit: literature, history, sociology, art history, and anthropology among others are often now taught toward the end of raising consciousness of oppression. Increasingly, academic activism is no longer an option. According to Sommers, many college administrations have adopted phase theories of curricula to evaluate faculty: Professors still stuck in Phase I are finding promotion and tenure even more elusive than usual. The Gender Equity in Education Act may make progress on curricular transformation a national mandate.

But curricular transformation contains its own internal contradictions. Though McIntosh envisions moving beyond Phase III anger, this may prove difficult. Anger is for the gender feminist a sign of election; it must be as carefully tended as a vestal fire. A woman who is not angry, according to gender feminists, is a woman brainwashed. Women's studies courses have mechanisms structured into them to ensure that resentment against men remains high. Part of the coursework consists of personal testimonials to one's humiliation at the hands of the patriarchy. In a widely adopted women's studies curriculum, students sign a set of ground-rules agreeing that “oppression (i.e., racism, sexism, classism) exists” and that we are all systematically taught misinformation about it. Given the centrality of anger to the gender feminist's definition of an enlightened woman, it is likely that Phase III will remain a vital part of the college experience for some time to come. The “healing” aspects of Phase IV will be largely confined to the licking of feminist wounds.

At last check, America's schools were not doing a notable job at Phase I: teaching and promoting excellence and achievement. Curricular transformation now proclaims that those were the wrong goals anyway. If ever there was an educational movement to gladden the hearts of our country's foreign competitors, curricular transformation is it. The nascent push for “national standards” of high-school achievement doesn't stand a chance against the gender-feminist celebration of the lowest common denominator. Any advocate of a strict and demanding curriculum will be outgunned by an army of feminist professors and administrators and their allies in the legislative arena.

But if gender feminism is antithetical to academic excellence, it is a disaster for women. Sommers drily observes that gender feminism is rushing to institutionalize the very stereotypes of feminine irrationality and vulnerability that women once fought to dispel. Sommers finds in the gender feminists' revulsion at male “patriarchal” behavior an echo of an outdated sensibility:

Earlier in this century, many households still had smelling salts on hand in the event that “delicate” women reacted to displays of male vulgarity by fainting. Today, women of delicacy … demonstrate their exquisitely fragile sensibilities by explaining to anyone who will listen how they have been blighted and violated by some male's offensive coarseness. If nothing of a telling nature has recently happened to us, we can tell how we felt on hearing what happened to others. We faint, “discursively” and publicly, at our humiliations at the hands of men.

Sommers calls on women to reaffirm the vision of equity feminism. It is up to women, she says, to reassert their individuality against gender-feminist propaganda, for few men will be willing to brave the charge of “sexist” to counter that propaganda. With a book as lucidly written and compellingly argued as Who Stole Feminism?, Sommers should win many allies to her cause.

Mary Lefkowitz (review date 11 July 1994)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2074

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 down and have children (I should add that I was already married). He meant this advice kindly, but of course I understood it as a veiled suggestion that my work wasn't really good enough to remain in the field. Fortunately the women professors I had worked with in my undergraduate years at Wellesley had a different opinion, and I listened to them. To me, feminism meant equal opportunity, equal pay for equal work, recognition that a woman could do a job as well as a man.

But now “equity feminists” like me have themselves become the Enemy of other feminists who reject the values that we fought for. These women disparage the methods and content of traditional scholarship, arguing that it “privileges” works by propertied European males. They also criticize approaches employed in these works, such as logic and deductive reasoning. Instead, the new feminists advocate alternative ways of understanding or looking at the world, such as intuition. They suggest that if these other methods were used, students and eventually all of us would perceive a different and potentially better kind of reality.

As Christina Hoff Sommers observes in her new book, Who Stole Feminism?, the women academics who advocate these views do not seem to have noticed that their notions about women's otherness are virtually the same as those that were used for centuries by men to keep women in their “place.” By emphasizing the differences between the genders (in thought processes, if in no other ways), those “gender feminists” are unwittingly setting in motion a process that will keep women from becoming the leading thinkers and scientists in our society.

If the gender feminists were concerned only with the education of women, there would be adequate reason to complain. But in fact their views are being widely adopted, not just by other gender feminists but by academics generally. If they set the agenda, everyone will be affected. The gender feminists want to change the very meaning of education for all students, male and female. Rather than be taught how to evaluate evidence and describe it objectively, students are to be instructed in the ills of society, such as the oppression of women and minority groups. Students cannot be left to decide for themselves whether or not to bring about some improvement—indeed, without the tools of analytic reasoning and logic it will become increasingly difficult for them to do so. Instead, students will use their time at universities to blame and to punish the groups responsible for the inequities described in their courses of study.

The trouble with this scenario is that it is no longer hypothetical, at least for some students, at some universities, some of the time. Hence this excellent new book, which everyone interested in the subject ought to read, even if he is prepared to dislike it. Mrs. Sommers describes what is going on, and suggests why it ought to stop. Her mode of discourse is argument and persuasion, not violence or revolution. She asks hard questions and examines the evidence. The basic issues were described some time ago by (dare we admit it?) Socrates: Can virtue be taught? What is virtue? How can we know it? In joining battle with the gender feminists, Mrs. Sommers puts her old-fashioned training as a philosopher to good use. (She is a professor of philosophy at Clark University.) She was taught to think for herself, rather than simply to accept what she is told.

The book begins with a description of a convention that featured speeches by leading feminists about “ouch” experiences stemming from racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, lookism. The audience was encouraged to return from a coffee break by a woman holding teddy-bear and dog puppets: “Teddy and his friend say it's time to go back inside.” It's easy to laugh at such silly infantilizing of women, and to assume that this conference represents an extreme swing of the feminist pendulum. One almost sympathizes with the feminist philosopher who said she felt “uncomfortable” because she knew what Mrs. Sommers would think and write about all this.

Missing from this conference, and others that Mrs. Sommers attended in the course of writing this book, is the sense of give-and-take most academics are used to from conventional academic gatherings, where respondents criticize papers, rather than applaud them, and serious questions, sometimes quite hostile, are raised by members of the audience. As Mrs. Sommers observes, “gender feminists do not relish criticism.” That made me realize that a conference I attended years ago was not unique: the principal speaker at one session, the feminist historian Gerda Lerner, was offended that I had been chosen by the organizing committee to comment on her paper. She had wanted to pick her own respondents.

Incidents like these make it fairly clear that gender feminism is a kind of mystery religion that excludes outsiders and accords to its initiates a most-favored status, at least so long as they stick to the rules and do not ask too many questions about the belief system that they have adopted. And like so many other strange cults it is peculiarly American: at a conference in 1991 at New York University, Russian women novelists shocked their host(esse)s by seeking to separate literature from politics, including gender politics. They had had quite enough of politicized art in the Soviet Union.

But the credulity practiced by members of the cult is, alas, matched by other educators, and to some extent by reporters eager for interesting and provocative stories. The Anita Hill controversy showed that there was considerable confusion in the minds both of legislators and of the public about what was meant by the term sexual harassment. Some administrators appear not to have considered even the possibility of ambiguity: a touch, or even a look, can be considered a crime, and a male, by definition, can be considered guilty until he is proven innocent, simply because he has the capacity to impose his will on a female. Mrs. Sommers relates some vivid examples of such metaphorical distortion, where obnoxious teasing of girls by boys, which virtually all women with brothers have experienced, can be described as “gender terrorism.”

Since the use of such rhetoric has proved to be particularly effective, gender feminists pay close attention to words: terms such as “mastery” and “penetrating” are no longer considered kosher in the academy, because of their phallocentric overtones. (One scholar even went so far as to refer to what everyone else calls a seminar as an “ovular.”) Instead there is emphasis on experiences that are peculiar to females, such as menstrual cramps, birth pangs, nursing. “What wisdom can there be in menses?” asks Gerda Lerner. If mutatis mutandis some man asked such a question about semen, would anyone, male or female, take him seriously?

The type of incident that I have been describing so far (and Mrs. Sommers gives many more examples) can be and probably should be forgiven as the result of excessive zeal. But it is more difficult to excuse the kind of “research” that has been conducted under gender-feminist auspices, and/or interpreted by scholars who share their goals and ideals. If Mrs. Sommers is correct (and she supplies detailed documentation), many of the most touted findings about gender relations are based on faulty interpretation of sometimes faulty data. In addition, the gender-feminist researchers seem to be guided by the (unproven and probably unprovable) theories of Michel Foucault, who believed that individual thinking is largely shaped by the larger community.

As a result of a study sponsored by the AAUW (American Association of University Women), researchers claim that the self-esteem of young girls plummets in elementary school, while that of boys rises. These findings were widely reported in the media. But the data, when examined carefully, could provide other, and indeed conflicting interpretations. Why is it that no one asked why the group with the lowest self-esteem (girls) got higher grades than groups that expressed greater self-satisfaction? Carol Gilligan, in an influential book, suggests that women think differently from men about moral issues, but independent research does not confirm her theory, because young women and young men tend to think alike on such major problems. This last finding is particularly interesting, because it suggests that women, if they were to take over the powers now in the hands of the “patriarchy,” would not manage to bring about much improvement in the world order.

Another piece of questionable research emanates from a study conducted by the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, which claimed that schools regularly short-change girls. Girls do seem to be slightly behind in math and science; but (Mrs. Sommers argues) the study does not consider other factors, such as the much higher dropout rate for boys. Taken as a whole, the evidence suggests that it is in fact the boys who suffer an overall academic deficit, and that even in math the girls are now catching up. Nonetheless, the report asserts that girls do not find themselves to be represented in the national curriculum, and suggests that more attention be given to the female's lateral (as opposed to the male's vertical) modes of thinking—as if these highly simplistic categories were supported by any hard data. If pursued to their logical extreme (and one hopes that they will not be), such recommendations would encourage girls to avoid training in analysis and argument, a process that would lead them right back to where they were before women were allowed to have a higher education in the second half of the nineteenth century.

Mrs. Sommers catalogues many other notable non-findings. There is for instance the notion (also sponsored by the Wellesley Center) that adolescent girls are routinely sexually harassed (based on a 0.2 per cent response of those surveyed); a more scientifically conducted Harris survey found that a majority of boys as well as girls reported that they had been harassed. The justifiable conclusion seems to be that schools in general are uncivil and even violent places.

Drawing unwarranted conclusions from the evidence is of course a practice common to researchers of both sexes and all nationalities, and by no means the exclusive prerogative of gender feminists. But in fairness, one ought to point out that certain of the gender feminists' beliefs tend to encourage foregone conclusions. If there is no evidence that women played an important role in most periods of ancient (and, to be fair, modern) history, that lack of evidence can be dismissed as the natural result of the suppression of women. The researcher is then free to supply what women would have said, possibly from one of her peculiarly feminine sources of wisdom. If one objects that when women in the past (such as Sappho) did manage to speak up and have their words recorded, they did not protest their lot in ways thought acceptable to modern women, the feminist researcher can again argue that because they were oppressed, they did not know any better.

Because she challenges these beliefs, Christina Sommers is certain to draw considerable flak from the feminists she sets out to criticize. That is, if they bother to read her book, and do not simply complain that it is a product of male bias or right-wing opportunism. Such refusal to debate the issues is perhaps the most depressing aspect of the gender-feminist movement. Perhaps the danger is less great than Mrs. Sommers suggests, and one wishes that she had enjoyed the absurdities more than she seems to have done, but there can be no doubt about her courage, her incisiveness, and the clarity of her argument. She provides clear guidelines on how to distinguish indoctrination from education. That alone is a major service to all of us who are struggling to distinguish fact from fiction in today's troubled academic world.

Jean Bethke Elshtain (review date 11 July 1994)

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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 thesis is that women continue to be betrayed by patriarchy. My hunch is that the less familiar and predictable book, Christina Hoff Sommers's indictment of what “gender feminism” has wrought, may well carry the day. What Gloria Steinem has to say, and the way she has to say it, is utterly familiar. Moving Beyond Words has not exactly moved beyond words.

Steinem begins with a self-congratulatory warning to the reader: “Since there seems to be no genre for this, I've found myself explaining it in this way: If you added water to any of these parts, it would have become a book.” Despite the fact that her book is not exactly a book, Steinem proclaims herself “spent and happy” at its finish. For “writing a book is like trying to stop a river.” Enough already. If we don't have a book, what is it that we do have? The usual plaints, I fear. Thus we are told yet again that Freud was an “abnormal” creature and that his theory constitutes “the Watergate of the Western world.” (Whatever that means.) We are also told that Steinem is an “economics-impaired person” who took years to wise up to the ways of our profit-driven world, and that advertising compromises editorial freedom. (This is the wisdom that emerges from a piece on the perils of Ms. magazine's efforts to find advertising.)

The platitudes continue to proliferate. “Rich girls,” says Steinem, are terrifically unhappy and not well-off at all (which is in line with the view that all women, until they go on the “verge” and things start to “click,” lead blighted lives). They do not really control their own wealth, for one thing; but Steinem hints at yet darker possibilities: “We've read about rich girls who were victims of incestuous relationships. … Many observers believe that sexual abuse is more prevalent among families of inherited wealth and power than in the population at large—and I agree.” (There is no footnote for this, and no evidence is cited.) And finally we are treated to an “I'm all right, Jane” celebration of turning 60. Over the years, Steinem reports, she has learned that women are best thought of as “perennial flowers who re-pot ourselves and bloom in many times.”

But what is blooming here wilts quickly under scrutiny. In an essay praising women who go from soft bodies to hard bodies, for example, Steinem celebrates the career of “the strongest woman in the world,” a body-builder named Bev Francis. She details Francis's trials and tribulations, her stalwart training, her battles with sexism, her refusal to resort to breast implants. But she did have a teeny-weeny nose job: she didn't like her nose much, her husband told her that “if you don't like it change it,” and change it she did. Her nose “fits her face better now,” so all is well. Mind you, I think it's great for women to be fit; but turning fitness into a fetish doesn't seem like such a wonderful idea and, if the bitter truth be known, women who are out doing what Steinem wants them to do with jobs and careers, and who are also doing what she is a bit less keen on—marrying and having children—have little time for a regimen that sculpts a body.

This particular essay is fluff, and not worth belaboring. But one of Steinem's analogies is notable and troubling. She proclaims that going from Miss Soft Body to Ms. Hard Body is “so dramatic that the only male analogues I could find were Vietnam amputees whose confidence was bolstered when they entered marathons in wheelchairs or on artificial legs.” Do we really want to compare men who have lost limbs to women who work out? Why not compare overweight, overworked, flabby male careerists to their tougher, hard-bodied and healthier counterparts? The analogy, however, is revealing: for Steinem, women are crippled, besieged, beleaguered. Hence her rush to conflate grievous bodily loss with “normal” but undesirable femininity.

Or consider “Sex, Lies and Advertising,” a manifesto that can't quite make up its mind. On the one hand, advertising is awful and manipulative and akin to censorship. On the other hand, sexist and male-dominated corporations were egregiously slow to take up the offer to advertise in Ms., despite the fact that the promoters of Ms. had facts and figures on their side proving that, yes, women buy cars and drink liquor and consume all sorts of things. Steinem cannot decide if she wants a world without advertising or a world with what might be called “equal-opportunity manipulation.” She laments the compromise of “editorial freedom” entailed by the need to advertise—and I have no doubt that compromises of all sorts get made in glossy magazines—but she also condemns the efforts of a group who, offended at a Ms. article, tried to organize a consumer boycott against advertisers in Ms. This, too, is construed as an attack on “freedom of the press.”

I am old-fashioned and liberal enough to think that consumer boycotts are part and parcel of the American way of doing business. So why cry censorship? Because Steinem doesn't like the politics of these particular boycotters; and so their organizing efforts must be nothing less than an assault on freedom. We get another tasty, unwittingly revealing analogy here, too, as Steinem avers that “feminist seminars in shopping centers” (she cites Bloomingdale's) are “to the women's movement” what “churches were to the civil rights movement in the South—that is, where people are.” Am I alone in being confounded by the facility of this equivalence? Bloomingdale shoppers and Dr. King's congregations?

And then there is the matter of Freud—or “What If Freud Were Phyllis?” as Steinem calls her essay. Here she is spectacularly behind the curve. She seems completely unaware that dozens of contemporary scholars with impeccable feminist credentials are inventively bringing Freud to bear on their own work. It is clear, not least because she says so, that Steinem will permit only one reading of Freud's work, her own tendentious reading, and those who deviate from it are defenders of mischief, lies and patriarchy.

Steinem would like her reader to consider, as a thought experiment, the reversal of Freud's gender, to consider Freud “as a woman.” For Steinem, writing up a “biography” of “Phyllis Freud” is concocting a “lethal satire” on a par with Swift's “A Modest Proposal.” To this end she invents words and make-believe “scholarly” footnotes. The idea is to show that Freud's entire life and work were folly. Steinem claims she “gained a lot of faith in reversals—of all kinds.” This is the conceit of her essay. But it isn't necessarily the case that such reversals are a contribution to empathy or understanding, especially if the reversal is based on a caricatured version of what one is reversing. What turning the tables in this way does accomplish, though, is an incitement of spite and resentment. The Freud that emerges in Steinem's genuinely unpleasant pages is the Freud portrayed, and hated by, anti-Semitic Vienna, the filthy-minded psychic seducer of trusting and tormented women. He is pathetic (“there was no help for the poor guy himself”) as well as malicious and dangerous. Steinem alternately pities, trashes and scorns. (Freud is trashed for the rumor that he had an affair with his sister-in-law, but then Steinem pities by saying that this “might turn out to be the most normal thing about Freud.”)

I haven't the space or the patience to correct Steinem's essay point by point, but a few things do need to be said. She claims that Freud thought “cocaine was just fine,” which is completely false. She suggests that Freud may have been a murderer (more or less) for having “injected and killed” a friend and colleague. This is a slander against the truth about Freud's medical and personal solicitude for Ernst Fleischl von Marxow, a friend Freud tried to wean off morphine addiction with an oral solution containing cocaine—this at a time when cocaine was readily available at the local pharmacist. She claims that Freud embraced dream symbolism because symbols allowed psychoanalysts to interpret dreams without questioning the dreamer, when in fact Freud thought symbols had a very limited exegetical usefulness, and so based his interpretations on the dreamer's associations. And it is amusing, but not altogether surprising, to watch Steinem trot out Jeffrey Masson's widely discredited theories about Freud's treatment of sexual abuse in childhood and the psychic traces of it. Freud never denied that cases of seduction and abuse actually occurred, but he alerted us to the difficulties involved in sifting “inner” and “outer” realities—a difficulty that recent court cases in this country illustrate.

As if this weren't enough—and I am only skimming the surface of this hatchet job—she takes Freud to task for rejecting both “Marxist revolutionaries in Russia” and “Woodrow Wilson and the League of Nations.” Freud, claims Steinem, was always “critical of those foolish enough to try to make social revolutions; especially feminists, who he thought were opposing biology itself.” But Freud is clear about what he fears—not “foolish” social revolutionaries, but cruel and dangerous ones. Perhaps Steinem believes that the Russian Revolution was a success. And his criticism of Wilson and the League was based on a premonition that the breakup of empire in Eastern and Central Europe would invite the eruption of the nationalistic “narcissism of minor differences,” a premonition that was amply confirmed in his time and in our own.

Nor is Freud's family spared. “Look up ‘Anna Freud’ in the index of the most pro-Freud biography,” writes Steinem, “and you'll probably find an entry for ‘low self-esteem.’” At this point I grow rather sickened. Anna Freud's intellectual independence was praised and encouraged by her father. She went on to become, in the words of Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, her gifted biographer, “not only her father's successor and, in her own right, her generation's most scientifically exact and wide-ranging theoretical and clinical contributor,” but someone who lived a rich, full and productive life until she died at 86. This, “low self-esteem”? If so, let us have more of it.

Rounding things off with her celebration of re-potted women, Steinem's book flies out in all directions. Yet another weird analogy: women who try to “pass” as younger, says Steinem, are like “fair-skinned blacks” and “Jews escaping anti-Semitism.” The best bits in “Doing 60” may be found in Steinem's somewhat breathless account of a youthful trip to India, where she learns that “if you want people to listen to you, you have to listen to them.” But there is little evidence that she listens to other women—forget about men—unless they share her assumptions and her conclusions, including the conviction that “the personal is the political” tout court. Such a feminism is so old it is reactionary. Hasn't the experience of the last three decades taught that it is impossible to reduce the personal to the political? Are there no lessons to learn on this score?

The transformation of feminist politics into therapy is the dominant story told by Sommers [in Who Stole Feminism?], though she does not describe her story in quite this way. Sommers is, in her own words, a “feminist who does not like what feminism has become,” and she adds that “the new gender feminism is badly in need of scrutiny.” I agree, certainly, that no doctrine and no movement is exempt from scrutiny. How well does Sommers succeed? Though she was trained in philosophy, Sommers's analytical achievements here are owed to her journalistic stubbornness, to her energy in tracking down and exposing “factoids” that have gained the status of “fact.”

Interestingly, all these factoids are dismal. One would never know that, on all indices of achievement, women have steadily been gaining ground. That just isn't grist for the orthodox feminist mill. Consider two examples. “In Revolution from Within Steinem informs her readers that ‘in this country alone … about 150,000 females die of anorexia each year.’” This translates into 150,000 martyrs to the cause of feminism, or a horde of feminists dead aborning, for, in Steinem's view, anorexic women are women in political revolt. Sommers does some legwork and discovers from the president of the American Anorexia and Bulimia Association that “we were misquoted.” The organization's newsletter had written of 150,000 to 200,000 estimated sufferers from eating disorders. “The National Center for Health Statistics reported 101 deaths from anorexia in 1983 and sixty-seven deaths in 1988.”

What is going on here? Why, asks Sommers, do we want to believe the most awful stuff? Take another example, reported by Patricia Ireland, president of the National Organization for Women, in a PBS interview: “Battery of pregnant women is the number one cause of birth defects in this country.” Sommers wondered how this could be, and set out in pursuit of this factoid. She called the March of Dimes, whose director of education said that they had seen no such research. Yet this “fact” was cited as such in The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, Time and The Dallas Morning News, among others. Sommers called the March of Dimes again. Its director of media relations said the rumor was spinning out of control: even Senator Kennedy had requested a copy of a nonexistent report. When Sommers finally reached the reporter who had written the article in Time, the reporter said she had been in error; she had not checked her facts first. Time later printed a retraction. Meanwhile Sommers located the source of the story in a maternal nurse and child specialist in Raleigh, North Carolina, who said: “It blows my mind, it is not true.” What she had said was that less screening for battery than for birth defects was being done, but she had “said nothing at all about battery causing birth defects.”

But the mainstream media had leapt at the chance to paint yet another picture of American women assaulted, besieged, destroyed, manipulated, damaged. Sommers rightly asks:

Why was everybody so credulous? Battery responsible for more birth defects than all other causes combined? More than genetic disorders, Down's syndrome, Tay-Sachs, sickle-cell anemia? More than congenital heart disorder? More than alcohol, crack or AIDS—more than all these things combined? Where were the fact-checkers, the editors, the skeptical journalists?

Her conclusion is that “gender feminists” have pretty much got the media in the palm of their hands. To be sure, it was an indefatigable reporter from The Washington Post who exposed the false story that Super Bowl Sunday was the No. 1 day for battering in the entire year. Sommers might have made more of this one. For encoded into the Super Bowl story were two stock genre types: the red-necked, beer-drinking, football-watching clod of a male and his counterpart, the ignored, long-suffering, abused wife. This latter image dominates television talk shows and evening docudramas. There is more than a little class nastiness and, yes, sexism lurking just beneath many of these allegedly progressive representations.

As the culture revels in bathos, so the academy, according to Sommers, sinks into a torpor brought on by fear. It is certainly the case that any senior woman in the academy who works on “women's issues” and is involved in feminist debates has stories to tell of being pressured to fall into line, for fear of being declared an apostate. Collecting such stories, however, is rather like shooting fish in a barrel. My hunch is that plenty of women—and feminists—who have been criticized from the standpoint of an ideological extreme have said the hell with it and gone on with their work.

Yes, there is a good deal that is obnoxious, especially the infantilization on display in group events in which women are required to give each other hugs, talk about something unpleasant as an “ouch experience” and about some new insight as a “click experience.” (Steinem has at least three “clicks,” by the way, in her book.) Yes, women's studies workshops showing films with such titles as Sex and the Sandinistas and We're Talking Vulva are probably beyond the reach of even the most clever parody. And, yes, it is terrible when political or intellectual dissent is redescribed as a psychological problem: “You make me uncomfortable.” When this happens in the classroom, it means that the teacher is evading her responsibility to help students grow up by encouraging them to make an argument and to listen to a disagreement without personalizing and psychologizing the encounter. If making someone feel uncomfortable is not permitted, then dissent and discussion are not permitted.

I can recall many pseudo-therapeutic events from my own years in the trenches, from 1973 until just last year, when a “facilitator” began an academic meeting by announcing that we were all going to be “supportive” of one another and show how exemplary women were by refusing to use language that others “couldn't understand,” by eschewing “intellectual elitism” and so on. Such an agenda promises terminal boredom, among other things, but it is also an unabashed play for power: in the name of “making nice,” people get shut up. I also know that there are young women faculty who are pressured by their “sisters” because they are doing “incorrect” things, such as the young (white) female historian studying (black) history who has been told repeatedly that she cannot legitimately do this because she is white and, moreover, because she is not “woman-identified.” My advice in such instances has been the same for twenty years: ignore the drivel, do your work and hope that good sense and fair play prevail.

More often than not—of this I am convinced—decency wins out over ardor. But it is awful to be hounded and haunted by other women because you are the “wrong” sort of woman. Which brings me to a major point—and a major weakness—in Sommers's book. She suggests that the heavy hand of “gender feminist” ideology has got people cowering and running for cover, and she contrasts this to a happy time when academics were not so craven. It is my general impression, by contrast, that academics have never been profiles in courage. Academics tend to swim in schools like fishes. That feminism rapidly became a school with its gatekeepers and its enforcers is no surprise.

This sort of thing has been going on for a long time. Did the majority of academics refuse to sign “loyalty oaths” at the height of cold war hysteria? Tenure, or its prospect, seems not to stiffen people's spines. Sommers overplays her hand when she claims that “the campus feminists have not made the American campuses a happier place, and not least because they have brow-beaten a once outspoken and free faculty.” Outspoken and free, in American higher education? Where? When?

To be sure, there's “trouble out there in River City,” no doubt about it, and some of it marches into town under the banner of “gender feminism.” But the academic excesses described by Sommers speak to a larger cluster of problems in contemporary American civic culture. The feminism that she deplores is not the cause of these larger problems, it is their expression. This sort of feminism is the consequence, for example, of a tawdry pop-therapeutic worldview that battens off confessional television and the “self-esteem” craze.

And it, too, is a reflection of the American gift for moral panics. Lacking any longer a clear-cut external enemy to concentrate our minds, we obsess fearfully about one thing, then another. I recall a dismal conversation with the “coordinator” of a women's studies program at a small liberal arts college who told me that she had a hard time breaking through the “defenses” of many of her students in her introductory core course in women's studies. What she wanted them to admit to was that many of them were “victims of incest.” And this, of course, is neither scholarship nor politics. It is only a trendy form of moral panic, and its “cure,” alas, is rather noxious: mandated re-education that aims to inoculate both the alleged victimizers and the alleged victims against dangerous thoughts, words and deeds. More often than not, however, it inspires only resentment—I have a lingering confidence in the ability of Americans to detect nonsense when it comes close—and a Manichaean worldview in which the source of all my discontents lies always outside myself, in which self-criticism is always preempted.

A quick glance at the “self-esteem” industry shows just how desperate we can get, and how shoddy our thoughts can be, when we are caught in the grip of a moral panic. Consider the following: The most vulnerable body in America today is that of the young black male. He is most likely to die violently, to kill or be killed. He is most likely to drop out of school. He is most likely to be unemployed. Males in general are at greater risk of dropping out, being diagnosed with learning disorders, committing suicide, dying in car crashes. Yet, according to a report issued by the American Association of University Women, what is “shocking” is that young white women have such low “self-esteem.” (Never mind the dubious measurements on which the calculation of self-esteem is based.) After weeks of effort Sommers actually laid her hands on the hard-to-find study, and she found that, on the evidence of the AAUW's own widely cited data, “African American boys score highest of all on the indexes of self-esteem.” By leaving out this critical piece of the puzzle, it was easier to make the pitch that girls were doomed.

In fact, what the study seems to suggest, and this, if it is true, is very sad, is that young black men are overtaken by a romantic self-imagination that far outstrips any reasonable chance of attainment, given their prospects and circumstances. It may be that self-esteem has little or nothing to do with actual achievement. If you look at the figures, young, middle-class white women are, as a group, the highest achieving in academic terms. And, with women outnumbering men in higher education, one wonders what the self-esteem industry is all about. The answer, of course, is that it is about itself. But this makes it the enemy of a viable politics, that is, a politics that might do something about actual and unpleasant facts. But that young black men are the most endangered of all our young people does not play as well in our victim-loving, responsibility-shirking culture as a quasi-therapeutic enterprise aimed at young, middle-class white women. (Sommers might have said more about the class and race biases in all of this.)

Sommers aims some of her most withering critical fire at feminist epistemology, at those who proclaim a “woman's way of knowing.” In its strongest form, in the claim that males and females inhabit separate epistemological universes, this is, of course, errant and dangerous nonsense. Still, is there no significant difference in, let us say, epistemological emphases? The nonsense notwithstanding, it is surely an exaggeration to dismiss our embodied and gendered experiences altogether. The maternal experience of women, for example, cannot be shared fully by men, and it certainly is an avenue of knowledge.

Sommers herself cites an illustration of “maternal thinking” from her own fine heroine, Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Stanton described the efforts of several doctors to try to encourage her 4-day-old baby's “bent collarbone” to grow straight. Each time the doctors bandaged the child, his fingers turned blue; and so Stanton devised her own contraption that did the job without cutting off the child's circulation. She explained this to the doctors, who marveled at the ingenuity of a “mother's instinct.” “Thank you, gentlemen,” Stanton replied, “there was no instinct about it. I did some hard thinking before I saw how I could get pressure on the shoulder without impeding the circulation, as you did.” Sommers thinks that this is an example of gender-free or sex-free knowledge. But isn't it possible that the mother's intense attention to this, her child, helped her to think her way through to a solution? Isn't motherhood (and in its way, fatherhood) a sphere of what Aristotle called “practical reason,” sexed or gendered in important, if not exclusive, ways?

Finally, Sommers contrasts bad “gender feminism” with good “equity feminism.” She calls this latter “pure and wholesome,” and traces its origins to the Seneca Falls convention in 1848. But it was not considered so “pure and wholesome” at the time. In fact, the good women of Seneca Falls were a pure scandal. They fought not only for the vote, but also against clothes that maimed, demeaning social codes, rotten doctoring—against the “dead hand of custom” in its various and pervasive manifestations. Many early feminists were crusaders of the moral panic variety. Carrie Nation was no more the soul of sweet reason than John Brown. There were some among the “equity feminists” who thought equity extended to free love. Others thought that it required reorganizing familial and social life along the romantic lines of Fourier and other fanciful socialists.

Sommers fails, then, to develop convincingly her own preferred feminist model; and this failure is traceable partly to the fact that she is trapped in too sharp and severe a contrast between the bad new and the good old. Her “equity feminism” is pretty thin on the ground. We need to know more about what it requires. Has that feminist revolution already succeeded? What more, if anything, needs to be done? Sommers drops a tantalizing hint here and there: she notes, for example, that a woman's biological clock and an academic department's tenure clock may be clicking at the same time. (This is hardly the sort of cause with which to rally the population, though.) Perhaps we should take a critical look at the organization of work life and career patterns, which could scarcely be less “family friendly” than they are now. Does this require old-fashioned protectionism of the sort that women trade unionists fought for in the early decades of the century? But this would be an unhappy conclusion for Sommers, since it turns on precisely the gender differences that she wants to downplay.

Feminism is destined to remain what it has always been: an essentially contested concept, whose meaning admits of no final and definitive resolution. In the meantime, with all the Western welfare states in trouble, with nationalism promising to be the dominant political force in the next century, with social troubles here at home, especially among our children, there are more than enough “ouches” to keep us occupied for a long time. We are more than ever in need of an authentically political intelligence. We need to think not only humanely but also practically, to “think what we are doing,” in Hannah Arendt's words. It was she who proclaimed, in response to a critic who took her to task for the sharpness of her political judgments: “My God, this is not the nursery.” The United States seems headed down the road to a malicious and litigious Romper Room. This is not the fault of feminism; but, to the extent that institutionalized feminism, inside or outside the academy, has contributed to our spreading infantilization, it must be chastised.

Deirdre English (review date 17 July 1994)

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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 brashly confrontational; her approach is both investigative and polemical. The investigative part ought to stimulate an invigorating debate, provoking passionate defenses as well as some retractions and rethinking. In contrast, her analysis of how things went wrong is breathless and overwrought. But one need not accept her politics to appreciate the best of her book: its critical reporting.

According to Sommers, the media are rife with “feminist fictions” ready for debunking. We accompany her odyssey through footnotes, computer searches and phone tag with “experts” as she pursues suspected factoids back to original researchers, triumphantly nabbing them as they exclaim, “That's not true!” “I was misquoted!” and even “Do you think we have one of these myth things here?” Here are some of her claims:

  • • In the bestselling The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf reports that more than 150,000 women a year are dying in an epidemic of anorexia. The correct figure is less than 100.
  • • The American Association of University Women claims that there is a crisis of self-esteem among adolescent girls. Sommers says the research methodology is flawed, and overall girls are doing well relative to boys, while boys have higher suicide rates.
  • • A Ms. Foundation-sponsored survey reported very high rates of date-rape on campus. The figures are contradicted by surveys that Sommers says are far more credible. (Furthermore, Sommers contends, rape is completely misconstrued by feminists as a crime of misogyny, rather than as an act of violence perpetrated primarily by lower-class criminals.)

Is Sommers's own research believable? In some cases she has scored direct hits; in others she merely seems to discount work she disagrees with. In evidence of her own bias, she portrays women's studies conferences as places where participants hug teddy bears, and claims that campus feminists refer to women who haven't been raped yet as “potential survivors.” (A footnote reveals that her source for this last bit is an anecdote reported in The Washington Times.)

In response, some commentators will denounce her book as no more than anti-feminist backlash. Others may see her challenge as an opportunity to sort out the truth in the public interest. Facts do matter. Feminists should welcome any valid corrections of research. All ideologies—and feminism can be quite ideological—are subject to corruption in the name of the cause. The viability of feminist ideas is best tested by the ability of its adherents to scrutinize their own thinking. Sommers has not so much succeeded in debunking feminist arguments as in re-opening them for further evidence and debate.

While feminists organize their rebuttals, conservatives will feast on Sommers's repast. Unlike Katie Roiphe or Camille Paglia, Sommers is the sort of woman the political right can completely uphold. Roiphe scared off conservatives with her open yearning for a return to the wild, promiscuous sex of the '60s, as well as her cold disdain even for women who really were raped. Camille Paglia repelled potential conservative allies when she challenged them to embrace her—along with the homosexuals, rebels, artists and rock ‘n’ rollers who are her psychic entourage. Sommers is safe for Republicans. Indeed, she's a godsend. Her feminism consists in celebrating what women have achieved, and all the wonderful men who made it possible. To Sommers, if the glass is not quite running over, it is certainly close to full.

In all her fact-finding, however, Sommers seems to lose track of a simple reality: Even if there is some flawed feminist research, more conservative studies still point to severe problems. Detonating errors is valuable in itself, but it is unlikely to gather converts to Sommers's underlying philosophy that women are now entirely “free creatures.”

The errors Sommers found cause her to allege an intentional distortion of the truth in a concerted effort to dupe American women and work them up into revolutionary fervor. The responsible zealots include a grab-bag of well-known names: Gloria Steinem, Susan Faludi, Catherine MacKinnon, Carol Gilligan, Carolyn Heilbrun and many more.

What Sommers prefers to miss is this: These leaders are not in fact in charge of the women's movement, which is uncontrolled and unplanned, arising from deep-seated social and economic trends. If our society is as free and democratic as Sommers says it is, the movement cannot be “stolen” or even “betrayed” by a handful of scholars and writers, unless she conceives of all women as brainless sheep.

The root question is whether women want equality with men as they are, in the world men have shaped, or if women seek change in that world as well as in male/female relations. In light of this underlying issue, it was revealing that the cover of the June edition of the National Review featured an excerpt from Who Stole Feminism? But Sommers's text was altered, and each feminist quoted as Miss rather than Ms., as if actually printing the word Ms. would send a black cat scampering across William F. Buckley's path. A small point, perhaps, but a clue as to the conservative's own version of “politically correct.”

Sommers directly addresses the root issue of traditional masculinity and femininity, striking an ostentatiously girlish pose. Strangely, for a book that started out to be all about facts, statistics, and surveys, Sommers ends with a lengthy evocation of the bliss that awaits Scarlett O'Hara as she is carried upstairs to be “ravished, not raped” by Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind. Here Sommers reveals what is perhaps her deepest fear—that feminists would banish that dreamy world where women are women and men are men: “Women who interpret sexual domination as pleasurable will then be few and far between and Scarlett, alas, will be out of style.”

Readers who have been taking her seriously up to this point may be understandably perplexed by Sommers's worries. Can this be what the deeper anxiety is all about? If so, perhaps all this needs is assurance that, after the revolution, romantic love will remain a protected right among consenting adults.

Lisa Schiffren (review date October 1994)

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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 of scholars, administrators, and researchers who have wormed their way into universities. Gender feminism holds that “our society is best described as a patriarchy, a ‘male hegemony,’ … in which the dominant gender works to keep women cowering and submissive.” Its leaders believe that “all our institutions, from the state to the family to the grade schools, perpetuate male dominance.” Believing that, needless to say, leaves them eager to destroy or transform all of the offending institutions.

By contrast, Sommers, an associate professor of philosophy at Clark University, believes that American women enjoy complete personal freedom, full legal equality, and access to economic opportunity. She does not believe women are victims, nor that there exists a conspiracy to suppress them. She even points out that during the “backlash” years of the 1980s, women gained more economic ground than in the entire postwar era before that. Younger women now earn 80 cents for every dollar earned by men of the same age, up from 69 cents in 1980. In a time of unprecedented opportunity for women, much of it hard won, she thinks it is important that we acknowledge just how much progress has been made in ensuring that women share fully in the American promise of individual rights.

But forget that progressive reality. The heart of the book is its review of the feminist propaganda that has shaped mainstream media coverage and prompted costly legislation. In the wake of the O. J. Simpson case, for instance, we have been barraged with statistics proving that domestic violence is as commonplace as, say, marriage. Many such claims first appeared at the time of the January 1993 Super Bowl, a day when feminists claimed there was a 40-percent increase in wife-beating. The media provided days of frenzied reporting, culminating in a public-service announcement from NBC right before the game, warning that wife beating is a crime. Ultimately, those pushing the 40-percent figure had no evidence to offer, yet the link between sports and violence against women persists, as recent op-eds demonstrate.

What's the truth in wife beating? The Department of Justice, after a nine-year study, estimates that approximately 626,000 women are beaten per year. Senator Joseph Biden, author of “violence against women” legislation, claims the figure is 4 million, and Time magazine reports 6 million. The National Coalition against Domestic Violence says that 50 percent of all women will be treated violently by their husbands in the course of marriage. A 1993 Harris Poll reported that each year 37 percent of married women are “emotionally abused,” and 3.9 million physically assaulted.

Sommers tracked down the leading researchers on domestic violence, who found that domestic violence has decreased in the past two decades. If 34 percent of wives reported that their husbands swore or stomped out of the room, only 2 percent reported being hit, and zero percent reported severe beatings or use of weapons. Advocates ignored distinctions between swearing, threatening, throwing objects (not at wife), pushing, hitting, severe beating, use of weapons—a very different picture indeed.

Sommers similarly deconstructs exaggerated claims of rape: The Justice Department says that 8 percent of American women will be victims of rape or attempted rape in their lifetimes. Catharine MacKinnon says that half of American women will be raped. As for date rape, the leading feminist advocate claims that one in four college girls experience “date rape.” (Evaluation of the same figures by researchers unaffiliated with feminist groups suggests a rate of 3-4 percent.)

It's not just violence. A much-cited American Association of University Women study, “proving” that girls' self-esteem drops to crisis levels in adolescence, was the basis for Take Our Daughters to Work Day, yet white teenage girls get better grades and go to college in greater numbers than any other group. (The study undermines its own case in places, showing, for instance, that black males performed worst in school, despite impressively high marks for “self-esteem.”) Then there's the Wellesley report on “How Schools Shortchange Girls,” which prompted the $360-million Gender Equity in Education bill, despite the fact that girls now constitute a majority of college students.

Why do feminists falsify and exaggerate data to alarm women about the likelihood that they will be raped, beaten, and discriminated against? Some wish to portray the U.S. as an inherently misogynist society. As Gloria Steinem puts it, “Patriarchy requires violence, or the subliminal threat of violence, to maintain itself. … The most dangerous situation for a woman is with … a husband or lover in the isolation of their home.” Sommers also concludes that activist organizations like NOW, the Ms. Foundation, and others, rely on academic feminists to produce data that demonstrate alarming amounts of sexism to persuade the public that women need their protection. Liberal politicians need harms about which to be outraged, and which they can rectify with legislation. A media sympathetic to claims of oppression and given to liberal advocacy has no reason not to print shocking, if unsubstantiated, figures. Like many liberal causes that began in a sincere attempt to redress injustice, feminism has become a racket.

Sommers, trained in classical philosophy, takes an interest in the alternative universe of feminist epistemology. Early on she points out that because women have been excluded from the creative roles in culture and civilization until recently, Western civilization is largely a male creation. Knowing that, a woman has two choices: she can use her chance to join men in studying the best of the past and creating the future; or she can reject Western civilization as “androcentric” and “move to reconstruct the knowledge base.”

This latter choice has led to the growth of “gynocentric” history, which devalues the exceptional achievements of elite men, placing the work of Shakespeare and Michelangelo on par with female diarists or weavers of cloth, for instance. Feminist epistemologists criticize such “phallocentric” constructs as objectivity, logic, rationality, precision, and science. These modes of thought are “bourgeois, elitist and repressive.” In their place, feminists wish to introduce “emotionality—love, rage, anxiety, eroticism—into intellect.” They claim that women, not to mention minorities, think “laterally, not vertically.” Such feminism, of course, sounds like a parody of a misogynist's diatribe against female intellectual ability.

Sommers also transcribes, in malicious deadpan, the infantile behavior on display at feminist gatherings. Consider the National Women's Studies Association conference, where Phyllis, a panelist from the Mohawk nation, appeared at the end of a break waving animal puppets, to say, “Teddy and his friend say it's time to go back inside.” Phyllis then leads the meeting of distinguished feminist scholars in “a big self-hug.” After a bleak speech by Eleanor Smeal, the scholars are invited to sing a little song to cheer up.

(The New York Times Book Review chose a participant in that conference—the radical University of Pennsylvania professor Nina Auerbach—to review Sommers's book, in which Auerbach is severely and directly criticized twice, though not by name. The Times has a strict policy of not allowing people with a personal interest in a book to review it. After the fact Auerbach simply denied knowing that Sommers was referring to her—a disclaimer that is simply not believable to anyone who bothers to read the relevant passages.)

In her preface, Sommers explains that she wrote this book as “a feminist who doesn't like what feminism has become.” In contrast to the bad gender feminists, she is an “equity feminist.” Equity feminism, she explains, is the true heir of the classical liberal tradition that produced the original feminism of the Seneca Falls convention of 1848, where women first organized politically to demand legal equality. It asks only that women be given an equal chance to prove themselves. Equal education, the vote, equal employment opportunity, access to political power—yes. But no outcomes, no epistemology, no sexual politics.

Sommers is free to call herself an equity feminist. Feminism's sharpest critics—like Wendy Kaminer, or Jean Bethke-Elstain—call themselves hyphenated feminists of some sort: libertarian, contrarian, etc. Even the confused Naomi Wolf, who gained fame as a victim feminist, sought to distance herself from gender feminism in her last book, and called herself a “power feminist.” In the world of political reality, however, there is only one feminism, and it is the gender feminism Sommers describes in such horrifying detail. It is gender feminism that pervades the organizations—NOW, NARAL, AAUW, and a host of others. Gender feminists have the power. They have the zealots. And they have the funding. How many legions have the equity feminists?

Sommers repeats the widely circulated 1992 poll data that reported that 63 percent of American women do not wish to be identified as feminists. Only 16 percent of college women were willing to be so identified. Sommers attributes this disdain to the “anger and resentfulness” and the man-hating of the gender feminism that has taken over feminist rhetoric and institutions.

Maybe. But Sommers elsewhere provides a more likely reason that women do not feel the need to organize and demand their rights: They already have them. Early feminists fought big battles—which in their time were considered extremely radical and not wholesome at all. Because they won them American women have full legal equality, equal access to education, the vote, the right to hold office, equal economic opportunity, and absolute sexual autonomy, including the right to abortion. There are still problems in women's lives, of course, but the war is over and the troops have gone home. We don't need a standing feminist movement.

If many elite women, like Sommers, fail to realize this, it is partly due to a semantic problem. In New Class circles, the word “feminism” remains wholly positive, interchangeable with “pro-woman.” Anyone who doesn't call herself a feminist may be accused of supporting repression, passivity, and dependence—and be peremptorily dismissed. What precisely does it mean for Sommers to insist that she is a feminist, of the pure faith? It is a little bit like those American Communists who, after learning the truth about Stalin, still clung to the notion that Communism itself was good, it had just “never been tried.”

Perhaps this would be clearer had Sommers placed feminism—the real-world, manifest feminism she examines, not the long-dead wholesome kind she espouses—in its larger political context. It is not an accident that feminism has become the anti-American, anti-religious, anti-capitalist, anti-democratic, anti-male movement that Sommers describes. Nor is it an accident that this movement has flowered in the universities. In fact, gender feminism is part of the Marxian politics that swept American culture in the 1960s. In the still larger political context—the “culture war” being played out in Hollywood, Congress, the public schools, the universities, and every other important institution in society—feminism is on the side of revolution.

For Sommers to illustrate so clearly that organized feminism is a hollow movement, yet to declare herself firmly a feminist bespeaks a certain political naïveté. Her book was funded by conservative foundations; her agents specialize in conservative authors; and National Review published an excerpt. Conservatives are generally too contemptuous of feminism to immerse themselves in feminism, which partly explains why they have been so ineffective in combating it.

Nonetheless, Who Stole Feminism? amounts to a major attack in the culture war. It will be interesting to see in what direction Sommers's political views evolve as she comes to understand the magnitude of the fight she has joined.

Tama Starr (review date October 1994)

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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 school, university, newsroom, and administrative agency—and coming soon to a workplace near you.

In Who Stole Feminism?: How Women Have Betrayed Women, Christina Hoff Sommers, associate professor of philosophy at Clark University, describes the appropriation of the movement once known as feminism by a cadre of party-line bureaucrats promoting an agenda of victimism and victimology-based revolution, with serious implications for the wider world.

Sommers draws a clear distinction between “equity feminism,” the classical-liberal position characterized by the unobjectionable slogan, “Equal pay for equal work,” and “gender feminism,” the aggressive self-pitying whine of an army of professional victims that has come to dominate discussions of women's issues. Ideological correctness, the suppression of dissent, and salvation through thought control and governmental fiat are the new orders of the day.

Sommers traces classical-liberal equity feminism to the Seneca Falls convention of 1848. The organizers of Seneca Falls recognized their privileged position as educated members of a middle-class elite, and they placed their prestige and experience in the abolitionist movement at the service of the genuinely disadvantaged. It may be hard to remember today that throughout most of history women were essentially the property of their fathers and husbands, and in many places in the world today, still are. Too many of the world's women remain oppressed—except in the places where feminists are doing the most complaining.

American women outlive their male counterparts by nearly 10 years, control more than half the national wealth, and make up the majority of undergraduate students, law students, and voters. Skeptics are starting to question whether this is a group genuinely entitled to victim status. Never has such a privileged circle been represented by such an array of pedants claiming that a war is being waged against them, or has so cowed the media and the government into abandoning all standards of objectivity. It is an irony almost too delicious to contemplate: How did one of the most privileged sets of people in the history of the world, in terms of wealth, education, and political power, come to be represented by its self-appointed spokespersons and their media minions as a passel of cringing victims in need of special protection by an all-wise government?

Sommers analyzes the philosophical underpinnings of the victimology-feminist movement, first visiting the universities, where lockstep conformity is enforced in the name of “diversity” and “inclusiveness.” She discusses the ideological litmus tests that determine career advancement, chronicles the “redefinition of knowledge” that aims to eliminate such male biases as the illusion of excellence, and describes the way in which education has been placed in the service of politics and politically biased group therapy. She shows how, with the backing of government agencies, history texts are being rewritten to accommodate feminist sensitivities, and science and mathematics redefined, with “logic and rationality [derided as] ‘phallocentric.’” This is not a small revolution. The curriculum transformation movement, she points out, “has quietly become a potent force affecting the American classroom at every level, from the primary grades to graduate school.”

This is the kind of book that entertains while it horrifies. Sommers is at her most devastating when she attacks the pseudo-statistics victimology feminists employ to buttress their claims. She exposes a number of influential hoaxes, meticulously tracking the way they have been mindlessly repeated by the media until they have come to seem part of received wisdom. These include the Super Bowl canard holding that wife beating increases 40 percent during the game (utterly baseless, but TV stations ran ads urging men to remain calm); the fantastic statistic that 150,000 American women die each year from anorexia (more than three times the annual number of automobile fatalities for the entire population?); and a supposed March of Dimes study proving that wife abuse is responsible for more birth defects than all other causes combined (there was no such study). She also discusses the inflated statistics and flawed or imaginary data employed by rape-crisis advocates, self-esteem promoters, and gender-equity bureaucrats to advance their self-perpetuating agenda. No reader of this book will ever again consume a scare statistic on any subject without a large dose of salt.

The solution to all the phallogeneric terror, of course, is increased governmental regulation; and it is worth noting, as Sommers does, that the studies on which the new spate of regulations is based are done by the same advocacy groups and individuals whose fanciful statistics feed the alarmist news stories. Is this the result of a conscious conspiracy? Probably not. Gender feminism, as Sommers points out, is now an industry, with generous research funding, grant money, and careers available to those who propose to root out ever more arcane instances of oppression. There is only one pool of approved “experts” in the field, since any questioning of the approved orthodoxy is labeled sexism, “backlash,” or delusion. It isn't strange that the “experts” should seek to protect their turf.

Sommers's meticulous research and judicious tone should protect her from accusations of sensationalism. But they do not. As a consequence of her sanity, Sommers has been subject to the worst sort of ad feminam attacks, both in the media (most notoriously, in the relentlessly politically correct New York Times, whose Book Review editors assigned her book to one of the doctrinairians whose antics she exposes) and at what pass for academic feminist conferences. But Sommers is not alone in her critique of gynocentric feminism. She quotes such skeptics as Iris Murdoch, Doris Lessing, Cynthia Ozick, and Camille Paglia, and accurately points out that most people are on the side of common sense.

In late 1993, Ms. magazine devoted nearly an entire issue to a hand-wringing debate over why so many women refuse to identify themselves as “feminists” despite the fact that paleofeminist issues such as equal pay and respect both at home and in the workplace are part of the fabric of their daily lives. The answers delivered by the panel of pundits ranged from the “backlash” bugaboo to lesbiphobia to the alleged takeover of the media by the Christian Far Right.

The real answer, however, is that most people shun the ideology of oppression, viewing it as a philosophy for losers. A frequently heard criticism of party-line feminism from its inception was that it failed to address mainstream women's needs, patronizing those who made child-rearing a career and ignoring, if not denigrating, those who chose traditionally female professions such as nursing, school teaching, and secretarial work. As for those who went so far as to trade on their femininity, such as cocktail waitresses, exotic dancers, and prostitutes: Off to the reeducation camp! But unfortunately we can't all be aircraft mechanics.

Sommers's subtitle embodies a neat argument. Misandry invariably leads to misogyny, since women who fail to adhere to the party line must be collaborationists. In the fashionable Foucaultian model, they have internalized the oppressor. So women who belong to Weight Watchers or the Catholic church or the Republican Party or any other identified institution of male oppression do not know their own minds: They have been colonized by the patriarchy and must be helped, by their self-identified liberators, to exorcise the demons within.

For all their progressivist cant, gynocentric feminists are profoundly “regressive” (Cynthia Ozick's word). Like some 19th-century romantics, they embrace a vision of womanhood as the embodiment of finer sensibilities, closer to the state of angels than to men. Sexuality itself is a male-constructed force utilized to terrorize women, as is being carefully taught today to children as young as kindergartners by professional “gender monitors.” Sommers's examples of feminist testimonies of personal outrage in the face of male “discourse” (catcalls, jokes, and even classical and abstract art) tend inevitably—and hilariously—toward a description of the attack of paralysis once known as “the vapors.” Demands for special protections for women in excess of those afforded the coarse creatures known as men follow logically—if logic is still an acceptable invocation. Completing the circle, the gender feminist redefinition of knowledge to eliminate phallohegemonic verticalism and embrace “female ways of knowing” confirms the male chauvinist suspicion that women think with their chests, not their heads.

If gender feminists are reactionaries, where does that place equity feminists such as pioneers Elizabeth Cady Stanton (“We ask no better laws than those you have made for yourselves”), Mary Wollstonecraft (“I wish to persuade women to endeavor to acquire strength, both of mind and body”), Maria Edgeworth (“Power is the law of man; make it yours”), and Sommers herself (“I have been moved to write this book because I am a feminist who does not like what feminism has become”)? Is the debate between conservatives (“First Wave” feminists, in Sommers's phrase) and exponents of the Dark Ages, with their authoritarianism, separatism, and witch hunts? Oddly, both sides claim, with some justification, the rubric “New”: equity feminists seeking to reclaim the movement from the radical fringe, as in a recent Boston Globe story (“New Breed of Feminist Challenges Old Guard,” May 29, 1994); and radicals, who see the Enlightenment principles that informed the original struggle as just more old-hat patriarchalism, the dangerous doctrine of individuality.

Perhaps the confusion of language reflects confusion of object. Democratic liberalism—real tolerance for differing views—can survive only in an atmosphere of civility and responsibility. The feel-good notion that all opinions are equally valid, the liberal bias against “making judgments,” invites totalitarian takeover. It is not clear that this direction can be reversed, as Sommers wishes. One is hard-pressed to think of many historical examples of successful, liberal-based revolutionary movements that, once taken over by radicals, have been recaptured by the tolerant. The latter generally lack the rage, the “fighting madness” (as Eleanor Smeal, the former president of NOW, puts it), that infuses ideological warriors. Liberal feminism was taken over by radicals because of its failure to condemn illiberals, the moderates not realizing that, as in most revolutions, they would be the first to be shot. It isn't news that all revolutions devour their own.

So the answer to the question in the book's title is, nobody stole feminism. The liberals gave it away. Their abdication of principles and cowardly fear of reprisals so ably chronicled by Sommers sealed the deal. What one wonders is, Why does she want it back?

While her arguments are engaging and her focus admirable, the implications of the Kafkaesque reality she delineates are even larger than she acknowledges. It is more important to save civilization as a whole from the predations of enforced political correctness than to save only feminism. The threat to freedom is larger than the threat to a movement that affects all of the people only some of the time. The goals of Seneca Falls have largely been accomplished, at least here, and additional progress is being made daily. The low level of acceptance of victimology feminism means that like other pointless intellectual fads, it too will pass.

But the effects of this brand of poison are long lasting. “For some time to come,” writes Sommers, “the gender monitors will still be there—in the schools, in the feminist centers, in the workplace—but, increasingly, their intrusions will not be welcome.” Unwelcome, perhaps, but the laws and their bureaucratic enforcers, the redefinition of knowledge in favor of political interests, and the precedents they set will remain. And everybody, from taxi dancers to aircraft mechanics, will have to pay for it.

Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen (review date 24 October 1994)

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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 heavily on moral dilemmas concerning issues such as euthanasia, capital punishment, DNA research, business practices, and gender relations, virtue ethics draws on classical, medieval, and other traditions that analyze the character traits—courage, temperance, humility, compassion, honesty, and so on—deemed essential to a mature, moral person. Sommers's point was that only if personal character development is given its due can we hope to produce the kind of people who are capable of recognizing, let alone creating, a truly just society.


In Who Stole Feminism? Sommers engages in a detailed critique of certain feminists whose behavior she considers decidedly unvirtuous. She is, she tells us, “a feminist who does not like what feminism has become.” In order to appreciate her exegesis of this statement we first need to be reminded that feminism, like Christianity, is a multidenominational movement. Moreover, just as various expressions of Christianity wax and wane in their strength and societal influence, so do the various forms of feminism. We do not, for example, hear nearly as much these days from Marxist feminists as we did in the decades before the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

Sommers locates herself in the tradition of liberal feminism, which she also calls “mainstream feminism,” “humanist feminism,” “equity feminism,” “traditional feminism,” and “legitimate feminism.” This proliferation of labels may confuse the uninitiated, and Sommers's assumption that liberal feminism represents the “true purpose” of the women's movement should certainly raise the suspicions of any Christian reader who recognizes the mixed character, theologically speaking, of Enlightenment-based liberal political theory—about which I will say more later.

In Sommers's words, liberal feminism asks for “a fair field and no favors”—that is, for equality of opportunity but not necessarily equality of outcomes, let alone any preferential treatment for women. Additionally, liberal feminism downplays behavioral differences between the sexes (whether rooted in nature, nurture, or both) in order to emphasize their common humanness, especially their common possession of rationality and autonomy. Indeed, it was the argument that women are no less rational and autonomous than men that undergirded early feminist campaigns for women's equality under the law, in education, and in voting and office-holding rights.

The basic tenets of liberal feminism are now so taken for granted in North America that when people (including many Christians) say, “I'm not a feminist, but …” they usually go on to endorse some version of the liberal feminist agenda outlined above. All well and good, writes Sommers: this is exactly what “legitimate” feminists of both sexes should be endorsing. The reason so many people do not want to call themselves feminists is that the term has been co-opted by an increasingly powerful and vocal minority of women academics, activists, and bureaucrats who represent an unhealthy blend of radical and postmodern feminism. Variously referred to by Sommers as “new feminists,” “gynocentric feminists,” “resentment feminists,” and (most often) “gender feminists,” these women embrace the assumption that women's oppression is the most basic form of oppression—that is, that women were historically the first oppressed group, and that theirs is the most universally found form of oppression, as well as the hardest to eradicate.

Sommers readily concedes that there is plenty of oppression against women worldwide still needing attention, but it annoys her to see white professional women claiming the high moral ground of victimhood. Instead of using their improved status to help women far less fortunate than themselves, Sommers charges, gender feminists focus most of their energies on decrying the evils perpetuated by men. They practice a hermeneutics of suspicion toward all heterosexual relations—for example, by making the definitions of date rape and sexual harassment so broad that even well-intentioned men are afraid to make the most innocent of friendly overtures.

At the same time, gender feminists deny that they have any responsibility for their own problems, affirming instead the superiority of women's “relational” morality over men's morality of competitiveness, power, and abstract individual justice. In their eyes, male sexism is the original sin, and women are the new creation. For Sommers, this not only paints gender relations in overly black-and-white terms, it also (ironically) plays right into the hands of gender traditionalists who want to reassign women to an economically dependent, domestic role on the grounds that they do not have the cognitive and ethical sensibilities men have for dealing with public life.

Sommers argues that, in addition to denying their own autonomy in favor of radical feminist notions of eternal victimhood, gender feminists have joined postmodern epistemologists in taking a low view of rationality and traditional scientific rigor. These they see as patriarchal, oppressive, and naïvely permeated by the myth of objectivity. Sommers admits that it is impossible to be totally impartial in one's teaching and scholarship, but claims that gender feminists have obliterated “the vital difference between courses taught in a disinterested manner and those taught to promote an ideology.”


What are we to make of Sommers's wholesale condemnation of gender feminism and her idealization of liberal feminism? The astute reader will already have noted that she is painting the same kind of simplistic, black-and-white contrast that she criticizes in the writings of gender feminists. In both cases, the truth, from a Christian feminist perspective, lies somewhere in between. On the one hand, it is wrong to treat male sexism as the original sin instead of pride and idolatry, which are common to all humans. On the other hand, distortions in gender relations are part of the ongoing “fallout” of the Fall, and those distortions reach well beyond the legal and educational reforms emphasized by liberal feminists. For example, I believe that without the prodding of radical feminists in the 1970s and '80s—with their insistence that “the personal is political”—both the church and society at large would have taken a lot longer than they did to acknowledge the existence and extent of (mostly male-initiated) physical, emotional, and sexual abuse.

I have already noted that, like liberal political theory in general, liberal feminism stresses the rights, rationality, and autonomy of individuals. The very notion of individual personhood and dignity is rooted in the early church's struggle to understand the freedom and unconstrained love of God, in whose image human beings are made. Thus, in many respects, liberal feminism is a secular continuation of the historic Christian affirmation (often, we should admit, honored more in the breach than in the observance) that all human beings are equally bearers of God's image, equally called to exercise their vocations within God's kingdom community. But the very secularization of this doctrine by liberals and liberal feminists alike should trouble the Christian reader. For one thing, it treats atomized individuals, rather than families and communities, as the only relevant unit of analysis—a mistake that radical feminists, for all their attempts to redefine the shape of family and community—do not make.

In addition, liberal feminists, Sommers included, tend to talk as if the problem of distorted gender relationship can be solved simply by moving women into the public sphere—the so-called sphere of rationality and impartial justice—on the same terms as men. She shows no recognition of the parallel need for men to assume more responsibility on the home front if women are not to burn out from a double burden of public and domestic tasks. Largely absent from her analysis is any critique of the classic liberal dichotomy between public and private, which removes not only matters of sexuality and childrearing from public discourse, but also everything rooted in religion—which, being “subjective” and “irrational,” is relegated to the realm of private pastime by liberal political theorists.

Although Sommers has Orthodox Jewish in-laws, and sends her son to a Jewish school, there is no evidence that she recognizes the validity—let alone the inevitability—of doing scholarship within the bounds of a religious world-view. She is quite right to be concerned about lack of rigor and blanket disdain for traditional science among some gender feminists. Christians and other theists must indeed struggle with the relationship between natural and special revelation, between reason and religion as sources for scholarly reflection. But Sommers's liberal faith in the autonomy of reason leads her to dismiss too easily the postmodern feminist acknowledgment that all scholarship begins in and is sustained by a prescientific, “world-viewish” vision of actual and/or ideal reality. It is precisely because many religious people refuse to relegate their faith to a private corner of their lives that they invest so much money and effort in their own schools, hospitals, and other institutions where they can practice what they believe—namely, that all of life is religious.


As I finished reading Who Stole Feminism? I had a visit to my office from a senior student who had taken my psychology of gender course and was about to graduate. She was holding a copy of World Vision Canada's video describing their recently launched “Girl Child” project. This is an international effort to reduce the gap that, according to UN studies, separates women from men—beginning in childhood—in terms of health, literacy, and economic prosperity in all nations of the world, but especially in the Two-Thirds world. As a result of having watched the video and taken gender-studies courses in a Christian college context, this student had decided to spend her first postgraduate year as an intern in an international agency concerned with women in developing countries. Would I be willing to write a recommendation letter for her? Indeed I would. Not only was she a competent student and thoughtful feminist, but as a result of her strongly developed Christian world-view, she felt a calling to tithe her talents for the sake of women and girls who struggle with much greater burdens than women in the Western world. Although neither liberal, radical, nor postmodern feminists have an adequate understanding of a fully orbed biblical feminism, I think that both Christina Hoff Sommers and her gender feminist adversaries would be proud of this student's vision for gender justice. I know I was.

Diana Schaub (review date winter 1995)

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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 Sommers [in Who Stole Feminism?], it is the final term of the triad that has inspired dangerous radicalism in the feminist camp and led to something on the order of feminism's own Reign of Terror.

Liberty and equality, yes—those are the hallmarks of what Sommers terms “equity” or “First Wave” feminism: “the traditional, classically liberal, humanistic feminism that was initiated more than 150 years ago.” Original feminism demanded and won fundamental political rights for women and opened up educational and economic opportunity. Sommers considers herself and most Americans to be feminists of this sort—heirs to the Enlightenment and its principles of individual justice. Her quarrel is with the “Second Wave” or “gender” feminists who have abandoned universalism for gynocentrism and traded enfranchisement for seemingly permanent victim status. Solidarity with women has come to mean hostility to men, and particularly to that alleged system of male dominance: the “heteropatriarchy.”

Who Stole Feminism? How Women Have Betrayed Women is an attempt to reclaim feminism from these female Jacobins (prominent among them, Catherine MacKinnon, Naomi Wolf, Andrea Dworkin, Alison Jaggar, Susan Faludi, and Catherine Stimpson). In her Girondist dissent, Sommers joins a growing number of women, from Katie Roiphe to Camille Paglia, trying to wrest power from the radical Montagnards.

Sommers claims that “misandrism [man-hating] … was not a notable feature of the women's movement until our own times”; indeed, she finds that “the idea that women are in a gender war originated in the mid-sixties.” Sommers may be right that the triumph of this perspective is new, but certainly its existence is not. There were Amazons of old, or, rather, there was the legend of such a tribe, bespeaking the antiquity of separatist sentiment.

More significant for Sommers' genealogy, this strain was present within organized feminism from the beginning. Many of her astute observations about the character of the current scene can be confirmed by a reading of Henry James's novel The Bostonians, which traces the peculiarities of American sexual manners and mores. Writing in 1886, James already discerned a split between equity feminism, represented in the figure of Mrs. Farrinder, and gender feminism, personified by Olive Chancellor:

Evidently Mrs. Farrinder wanted to keep the movement in her own hands—viewed with suspicion certain romantic, aesthetic elements which Olive and Verena seemed to be trying to introduce into it. They insisted so much, for instance, on the historic unhappiness of women; but Mrs. Farrinder didn't appear to care anything for that, or indeed to know much about history at all. She seemed to begin just today, and she demanded their rights for them whether they were unhappy or not.

In contrast to Mrs. Farrinder's practical campaign for the vote (a bold and far-reaching reform, but nonetheless quite concrete and attainable), Miss Chancellor's vision of the contest is more apocalyptic:

The unhappiness of women! The voice of their silent suffering was always in her ears, the ocean of tears that they had shed from the beginning of time seemed to pour through her own eyes. Ages of oppression had rolled over them; uncounted millions had lived only to be tortured, to be crucified. They were her sisters, they were her own, and the day of their delivery had dawned. This was the only sacred cause; this was the great, the just revolution. It must triumph, it must sweep everything before it; it must exact from the other, the brutal, bloodstained, ravening race, the last particle of expiation!

Olive's solution is not female suffrage, but male suffering: “after so many ages of wrong … men must take their turn, men must pay!” In her perpetually offended sensibilities, her paroxysms of rage, even her privileged social status, Olive is reminiscent of the feminists of today, whose attitudes and activities Sommers documents so well.

One of her best chapters surveys the methods of feminist pedagogy. Following upon chapters which outline the feminist project of curricular transformation and its questionable epistemological foundation, this chapter, “The Feminist Classroom,” shows the outcome on the ground: the advent of frankly propagandistic teaching, the erosion of scholarly standards, the disgraceful treatment of student dissenters, and the policing of non-feminist classrooms.

In James's novel, gender feminism does not yet have institutional power, yet in Olive's tutoring of her protégée Verena, we can see our present foreshadowed. James was aware, for instance, that the discipline of history would be the first to be politicized. He tells us that the two young women

read a great deal of history together, and read it ever with the same thought—that of finding confirmation in it for this idea that their sex had suffered inexpressibly, and that at any moment in the course of human affairs the state of the world would have been so much less horrible (history seemed to them in every way horrible), if women had been able to press down the scale.

Sommers shows how this initial stance of resenting the past has been supplemented with an ideologically driven rewriting of the past (the move from his-story to her-story).

Throughout the book, she highlights (though without the self-conscious provocation and raciness of a Paglia or a Roiphe) the anti-erotic character of gender feminism. Similarly, James's central concern in his “very American tale” was what he called “the decline of the sentiment of sex.” Olive, “unmarried by every implication of her being,” strives in various ways to dissuade Verena from romantic involvement with men, declaring for instance:

“I'll tell you what is the matter with you—you don't dislike men as a class!” Verena had replied on this occasion, “Well, no, I don't dislike them when they are pleasant!” As if organized atrociousness could ever be pleasant! Olive disliked them most when they were least unpleasant.

Now as then, however, the attempt to demonize men comes up against incontrovertible desire. Even if the gender feminists on campus succeed in labeling every young man a potential rapist, I suspect that young women will still consent to date them. (The advent of political lesbianism and the increased acceptability of homosexuality may have altered things, but I think not to any significant degree.) Olive experiences this as the problem of the generic suitor “Charlie”:

In her researches among her young townswomen she had always found this obtrusive swain planted in her path, and she grew at last to dislike him extremely. It filled her with exasperation to think that he should be necessary to the happiness of his victims (she had learned that whatever they might talk about with her, it was of him and him only that they discoursed among themselves), and one of the main recommendations of the evening club [read “Women's Center”] … which it had long been her dream to establish, was that it would in some degree undermine his position—distinct as her prevision might be that he would be in waiting at the door.

In the end, of course, Olive loses Verena to the charming and utterly unregenerate reactionary from Mississippi, Basil Ransom. In parallel fashion, Sommers closes her book with a defense of Rhett Butler's ravishment of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind. More particularly, she defends the many women who persist in “taking pleasure in Scarlett's enraptured submission” and hence decline the proffered feminist makeover of desire. Having encountered feminist intolerance, the dissenter Sommers articulates well the paradox of gynocentrism:

no group of women can wage war on men without at the same time denigrating the women who respect those men. … In the end, the gender feminist is always forced to show her disappointment and annoyance with the women who are to be found in the camp of the enemy. Misandry moves on to misogyny.

Another of James's creations, a Mrs. Luna, has an intuition of the illiberal authoritarianism to come and knows she will figure among its targets; she is certain that “if Olive and her friends should get possession of the government they would be worse despots than those who were celebrated in history.”

If the agenda of the more militant feminists is so remote from the attitudes and concerns of most women, we might wonder why they have been so successful in pressing it. Sommers uncovers the nexus between the universities which house the movement's theoreticians, the educational bureaucracies which feminists have adeptly colonized, and the media. She sketches a sort of feminist version of the military-industrial complex. Aided by the complicity and laziness of the media, feminists have purveyed inaccurate and misleading data on the situation of women in America. Sommers critiques a number of widely disseminated studies on self-esteem, domestic violence, gender inequity in the schools, and rape statistics. In The Bostonians, James too shows himself well aware of both the power and the deficiencies of the press. His journalist Matthias Pardon is a “delighted to be fooled” disciple of the new.

In so persistently bringing Henry James into a review of Who Stole Feminism?, my purpose is not to assuage our worries over gender feminism by pointing to its long continuance among us. Certainly, the activities of the aspiring gynocrats are cause for alarm. Nonetheless, The Bostonians is of value, aside from the sheer delight of the work, in alerting us to the fact that gender feminism is not as novel as one might have believed. In her first chapter, Sommers explains that she regards the gender feminists' viewpoint as “more a matter of temperament than a matter of insight into social reality. The belief that American women are living in thrall to men seems to suit some women more than others. I have found that it does not suit me.”

James agrees with this diagnosis, and he does not shy from labeling the temperament at issue “morbid.” But James does not stop there:

It proved nothing of any importance, with regard to Miss Chancellor, to say that she was morbid; any sufficient account of her would lie very much to the rear of that. Why was she morbid, and why was her morbidness typical?

For James, that question gives rise to a philosophic and psychological inquiry into the nature of democracy, the sufficiency of liberalism, the articulation of public and private spheres, the battle of the sexes, and the formation of the national character (particularly its “Bostonian” side, influenced by Puritanism, Transcendentalism, and German thought). With respect to these larger issues, which circle just beneath the surface of her narrative, Sommers disappoints.

Even on the more limited topic of feminism's two waves, she skirts interesting questions. For Sommers, the first wave is wholly unobjectionable (“feminism itself—the pure and wholesome article first displayed at Seneca Falls in 1848—is as American as apple pie, and it will stay”), while the second wave is anomalous and illegitimate. Sommers' dismissal of the second wave relies a bit too much on ridicule rather than argument, and her defense of the first wave relies too much on the refrain “it goes without saying.”

The metaphor of waves, moreover, might suggest a more complicated relationship between the two feminisms. Waves emerge from the same element and flow upon one another. What precisely is the connection between these two waves? Was there something intellectually and humanly unsatisfying about equity feminism's radical individualism and abstraction from (or denial of) male/female differences that spurred both gender feminism and a reinvigorated conservatism? After all, radicalism and conservatism are both interested in the nature and extent of sexual difference, and its political significance.

In The Bostonians, James focuses on the battle between the radical and the reactionary. Mrs. Farrinder is quickly eclipsed, despite the fact that her supporters see her as a model of how to reconcile women's expanded public role with private and family life, “a shining proof … that the forum, for ladies, is not necessarily hostile to the fireside.” Despite what Sommers hails as the success of equity feminism, women still seem uncertain about how to balance forum and fireside.

It also seems that her presentation of the aims of first-wave feminism is partial. Sommers stresses the movement for sexual equality under the law. Feminism sought to open up the public sphere to women, not as women, but as concerned citizens, as individuals. It sought freedom from an exclusively gender-based definition of the self. However, the women's liberation movement had a second element as well: the emancipation of sexuality. Sommers says nothing of first-wave feminism's transformation of the private realm—its sponsorship of the sexual revolution and its assault upon the sexual double standard. (Again, this direction was already visible 150 years ago in the Short-Skirts League and free-love experiments.) Thus, feminism looked forward simultaneously to a liberal devaluation of bodily difference in the public sphere and a liberal celebration of bodily difference in the private sphere. One might wonder whether that combination is sustainable.

Despite its somewhat sanitized presentation of the original article, Who Stole Feminism? is a welcome book. Christina Hoff Sommers delivers a courageous and incisive criticism of those who have seized feminism and deflected it from a more mainstream course. Perhaps feminism's Thermidorian reaction has begun.

Anne Manne (review date April 1995)

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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 ancien regime of gender relations and found that it did not entirely appeal) I once attended a women's liberation conference. I sat through session after session where speakers displayed their new-found rage to foot-stamping approval and where dissidents were howled down. A sociologist I knew had unwisely ventured forth to give a paper and I noticed with interest that her face was scrubbed bare of its usual make-up and that she wore uncharacteristically baggy clothes. She need not have bothered with such an elaborate presentation of self, since she was denounced anyhow from the podium as a bourgeois sociologist, an Uncle Tom of male hegemony who had committed some kind of thought crime, the nature of which I have long since forgotten.

These thoughts were aroused by reading Christina Hoff Sommers' important new book Who Stole Feminism? Hoff Sommers describes herself as an old-fashioned equity feminist, as part of the liberal tradition which includes John Stuart Mill, the first-wave feminism of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and a minority of second-wave “mainstream” feminists like Germaine Greer and Betty Friedan. The distinguishing characteristic of equity feminism, according to Hoff Sommers, was to utilise Enlightenment principles of individual justice to gain equal rights under the law: “We ask no better laws than those you have made for yourselves. We need no other protection than that which your present laws secure to you” (Elizabeth Cady Stanton).

Hoff Sommers is unequivocally in support of women's emancipation, but opposed to those she describes as gender feminists. Gender feminists, she argues, are subverting liberal feminism with a new, rancorous doctrine which believes women are all victims, one way or another, of male hegemony, “a sex/gender system in which the dominant gender works to keep women cowering and submissive”. A number of distinguished intellectuals—Iris Murdoch, Agnes Heller, Martha Nussbaum and Christina Stead—while situated within the project of women's emancipation, nonetheless have been critical of aspects of modern feminism. There are now also intelligent dissidents within feminism—Katie Roiphe's critique of the sexual McCarthyism in the campus panic over date rape, and the rebellion of the disobedient dionysian Camille Paglia against feminism's new puritanism. Hoff Sommers is clearly sympathetic to these dissidents, and offers much needed common sense—whether defending the right of women to swoon, if they wish, over Rhett Butler, or ironising the tendency to over-dramatise women's fragility in the face of the more trivial examples of sexual harassment.

I have long thought that Christopher Lasch's wonderful phrase describing Martin Luther King's movement—their “spiritual discipline against resentment”—was true of the first-wave feminists but throws an unflattering light on some second-wave feminism. Hoff Sommers' contribution is cool, clear and crisp, but is also unusually good humoured, being remarkably free of the rancour she identifies as one of the hallmarks of a variety of feminism which has elevated the emotion of resentment to the status of a pre-eminent political virtue. She gives witty and devastating descriptions of conferences with rage, anger and “ouch” sessions where privileged and successful women, who are in fact part of a new elite, bemoan their fate under the totalitarian regime of patriarchy. The deep pleasures of victimhood, it seems, are not to be given up lightly. Carolyn Heilbrun, holder of a prestigious chair in Columbia's English department, is quoted as saying, “In life, as in fiction, women who speak out usually end up punished or dead. I'm lucky to escape with my pension and a year of leave.” In a movement often preoccupied, like the rest of modern society, with self-esteem, it is interesting to notice the inexorable rise of self-pity.

As part of this war, according to Hoff Sommers, the gender feminists disseminate atrocity stories, which are designed to gather not only recruits but also financial and institutional help for their cause. Sommers may be an academic philosopher, but she is also a natural sleuth, and part of her book is devoted to a determined debunking, in the style of an investigative journalist, of certain atrocity stories. The story that Superbowl Sunday results in a forty per cent increase in domestic violence is revealed as false. A report that battery is now responsible for more birth defects than all other causes combined turns out to be a fabrication, never corrected, and cited in the press all over America. The figure in Naomi Wolf's The Beauty Myth of 150,000 women dying each year of anorexia, which she likens to the Holocaust (“women must claim anorexia as political damage done to us by a social order that considers our destruction insignificant … as Jews identify the death camps”) is exposed as a simple confusion of the number of sufferers with the number of deaths. The actual death toll in 1991 was fifty-four. Many of these figures have made their way into college textbooks and remain uncorrected. The story of the aetiology of these atrocity stories is equally interesting, with a scarifying portrait of the uses and abuses of social science by advocacy scholarship.

Hoff Sommers also gives a critique of the transformationist agenda in the academy, where a new gynocentric epistemology is emerging, claiming everything from an innate moral superiority of women in the philosophy of Carol Gilligan (uncomfortably echoing the old male supremacist arguments) to the discovery by gender feminism of a new female way of knowing which ranks with the breakthroughs of Copernicus and Darwin. There is a kind of anti-intellectualism and New Age kookiness which Hoff Sommers exposes, such as when the historian Gerda Lerner asserts that patriarchal knowledge teaches women that sound thought must exclude feeling: “Thus they [women] have learned to mistrust their own experience and devalue it. What wisdom can there be in menses? What source of knowledge in the milk-filled breast?” (Oh, good grief!) Much of the thought revealed here is so highly charged with emotion, so lacking in coolness, analytic clarity or objectivity, so utterly soggy as to fulfil the worst prejudices of a misogynist.

Most importantly Hoff Sommers argues that the new epistemologies are short-changing young women, who are seeking the kind of education that most fits them for the task Hannah Arendt described as renewing the common world. This sense is expressed with great clarity by Iris Murdoch:

Men “created culture” because they were free to do so, and women were treated as inferior and made to believe that they were. Now free women must join the human world of work and creation on an equal footing and be everywhere in art, science, business, politics … However, to lay claim in this battle to female ethics, female criticism, female knowledge … is to set up a new female ghetto … “Women's” Studies can mean that women are led to read mediocre or peripheral books by women rather than the great books of humanity in general … Such cults can also waste the time of young people who may be reading all the latest books on feminism instead of studying the difficult and important things that belong to the culture of humanity.

Hoff Sommers has some interesting observations to make about the influence of gender feminism on the writing of history. Like John Hirst in last month's Quadrant, she recognises that traditional mainstream history has benefited from the contributions to social history not only of women's history, but also of the more general project of “history from below”. Her argument here, however, is that much of the redressing of certain imbalances in the focus of history has already occurred over the last twenty years, and more importantly, there are certain limits to this project. She acknowledges the ways in which women have often been excluded from the realm of the public commensurate with their talents, and accepts that women of distinction have sometimes been overlooked. But like John Hirst, Hoff Sommers makes the commonsense point that “lamentable as this may be, there is simply no honest way of writing women back into the historical narrative in a way that depicts them as movers and shakers of equal importance to men”.

The last chapter, “The Gender Wardens”, goes to the heart of what Hoff Sommers sees as a kind of illiberal authoritarianism at the heart of gender feminism which sees itself as an enlightened vanguard, and the kind of condescension implicit in the attitudes to their more “retrograde” sisters (ordinary women), who persist in wanting the wrong thing (relationships with men, looking after young children). Her argument is that once the institutional barriers have been removed to women's participation in the world of work and the public realm, then they must be free to exercise their autonomy in whatever way they see fit, including living, if they wish, the life of a traditional Hasidic woman, or any other religion for that matter. In sum, they must be free to choose not to exercise those rights if they wish.

It is this point that reveals what for me is an interesting tension within not only gender feminism, but also equity feminism. It is the tension between one of the movement's central values—autonomy—and the intolerance found in most transformative social movements. Simply put, what does the movement do with women who, like many of my friends, describe themselves as “very strong feminists” and then utilise their autonomy to stay home when their children are young? Say that all choices are equal but some are more equal than others? Argue for choice in women's lives only to reveal there is a right choice and a wrong one? The discussion between Betty Friedan and Simone de Beauvoir here is revealing. Betty Friedan once told de Beauvoir that she believed women should have the choice to stay home to raise their children if that is what they wished. De Beauvoir's answer is both instructive and sinister: “No, we don't believe that any woman should have this choice. No woman should be authorised to stay at home to raise her children. Society should be totally different. Women should not have that choice, precisely because if there is such a choice, too many women will make that one.

This brings me to an underlying analytic weakness in the book. Hoff Sommers' division of feminism into equity (good) and gender (bad) feminism is too simplistic. I think the real division is between a moderate and an ideologically extreme version of both. De Beauvoir was not part of a new wave of gynocentric epistemologists, but simply an extreme exponent of the variety of equity feminism which saw the dismantling of all traditional sex roles as the key to the creation of an androgynous utopia. Many second-wave feminists were really simply more radical equity feminists. In The Feminine Mystique, equity feminist Betty Friedan likens the suburban housewife to a prisoner in a concentration camp, revealing a continuity of hyperbole with gender feminism.

Secondly, one might look beyond the falsity and foolishness Hoff Sommers so vividly portrays, to see an echo of something that is true in parts of what is really an emerging third wave of feminism that is lacking in equity feminism. This is simply the thought that without accepting the legitimacy of a social hierarchy between men and women, and acknowledging the importance of equity feminism in opening up the realms of work and the public to women, there may be areas of our lives—in our creatureliness—where differences matter. One is more likely to gain affirmation of the deep connectedness women might feel with their children from the more recent “feminism of difference”, for example, than from equity feminism. Hoff Sommers simply avoids the whole question, for example, of the problems of institutional childcare. Similarly, it is gender feminists, along with conservatives, who have grasped the implications of the darker aspects of male sexuality revealed most dramatically by the market for violent misogynist pornography. There is in sexual libertarianism, and perhaps in the optimistic liberalism of Hoff Sommers, a failure of imagination in dealing with a landscape which includes American Psycho and snuff movies.

Gertrude Himmelfarb, in her review of Who Stole Feminism? in the TLS, made the very necessary point that treating women as completely the same as men may bring injustice. There is an impulse in equity feminism to always treat men and women as identical, with some even arguing against special workforce provisions for pregnancy or parental leave. To treat women as exactly the same as men during the reproductive years may well be unjust. There came to my mind too, the terrible consequences for those women who, having lived the traditional life pattern, found themselves abandoned and poverty-stricken with children to support as a result of the liberalisation of divorce law. Some ideological equity feminists insisted that they be treated as economic equals after divorce, when patently they were not.

The question of how far the developments described in Who Stole Feminism? are rife in Australia is an interesting one, and reveals that Hoff Sommers' portrait of second-wave feminism as generally synonymous with “gender feminism” is not always accurate. There have been in Australian feminism examples of de Beauvoirian illiberalism. A feminist-influenced family policy has been hostile to women spending any time out of the paid workforce, best illustrated by Eva Cox's oft-expressed view that women struggling on one income to look after small children “expect to be kept in comfort serving their husbands more than anyone else, at the expense of the taxpayer”. Yet there is evidence that this may be changing. Anne Summers, perhaps the most impressive of Australia's second-wave feminists, in a recent Four Corners program on feminism conceded that while for obvious historical reasons the women's movement had first concentrated on removing workforce barriers, there was now a need to pay attention to the needs of women at home. She also listened respectfully while the Adelaide campaigner for financial justice for women at home, Carol Carroll, spoke of the importance of child-rearing. Beatrice Faust has resisted the hysterical and panic-stricken atmosphere of the Age's “War against Women” and also in Backlash Balderdash has developed her own critique of “wimp” (gender) feminists like Naomi Wolf.

Although some aspects of the American experience, as with multiculturalism, have been reproduced here, it is important to distinguish between the two political cultures. Not only was the Australian variant dominated by an extremely pragmatic group with a penchant for utilising particularly the bureaucracy for effecting change, but there is too, perhaps, something in the Australian temper—maybe even indolence—which seems to soften some of the ideological excesses so evident in America. As with McCarthyism in the Cold War, our experience of sexual McCarthyism is different.

Further, although I admire the political spirit of tolerance of first-wave feminism, the fact is that it was not nearly as politically successful as its more radical counterpart. At the time second-wave feminism emerged, there were still all kinds of cultural contradictions affecting women as yet unresolved. One emerged from the collision of one of the central values implicit in traditional roles for women—renunciation of self—and the command of equal education—to develop one's talents. Was it ever possible to sustain the idea that a woman might spend the first part of her life discovering and developing her talents, but that upon marriage she must renounce all worldly ambition? Another contradiction arose from the clash between the traditional perception that a woman's domain was the private realm, and the extension of the social contract to include women (by giving them the vote). Was it possible to sustain forever the notion that in a society which derives its legitimacy from extending certain rights—such as participation in the public realm—equally to all of its citizens, that women should confine their contribution to the private realm?

It was inevitable, in a world where one of the radical anti-war male activists could respond to women's desire to have an equal decision-making capacity by jeering “The only good position for a woman is prone”, that some kind of social movement bent on transformation would emerge. Within that diverse social movement, like the socialist movement which emerged at the end of the nineteenth century, there are the equivalent of social democrats, anarchist socialists and, more ominously, Bolsheviks, who not only felt that the end justified the means, but elevated one political value—the pursuit of economic equality—above all others, including the rule of law, liberty and tolerance. Within the social revolution initiated by feminism, there are those for whom the value of gender equality obliterates all other political values. But if the movement has its Bolsheviks, it also has its social democrats. Feminism needs fearless yet civil voices like Christina Hoff Sommers. She expresses a principled and moderate liberal feminism in a clear challenge to those illiberal ideologues, who, in wanting freedom for themselves, seek to impose conformity and obedience upon everyone else.

Susan Dwyer (review date spring 1996)

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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

Philosopher Christina Hoff Sommers's target in Who Stole Feminism? How Women Have Betrayed Women is “gender feminism.” Her aim is to convince us that gender feminists are anti-intellectual opportunists who deliberately spread lies about the incidence of date rape (chap. 10), domestic battery (Preface, chap. 9) and about the general state of male-female relations in America (chaps. 1, 9 and 11), thereby generating fear and resentment of men (chap. 2), all so that they may secure vast amounts of government funding and high-paying jobs in the academy (chaps. 4, 5 and 6). Because gender feminists are condescending to and contemptuous of the “average woman,” they lack a grass-roots constituency (p. 22). Nonetheless, they are powerful enough to be feared. Gender feminists have managed to dupe the U.S. Congress (chap. 8), and an otherwise sceptical press literally eats out of their hands (p. 15). Gender feminism is also a leading cause of the weakening of the American university (p. 52), and has “made the American campus a less happy place” (p. 112).

Who Stole Feminism? ranges over a considerable number of topics, and many of Sommers's claims demand public response. Where she has accurately exposed misinformation—for example, that the oft-repeated statistic of 150,000 (female) deaths due to anorexia nervosa per year over-estimates the actual number of such deaths by a factor of a thousand—retractions should be issued. Similarly, where she has inaccurately represented a view—for example, she interprets the work of feminist theorist Sandra Bartky as misogynist—clarifications should be made. I shall restrict my commentary to two aspects of Sommers's book which are likely to be of most interest to a philosophical audience: the philosophical basis of her attack on gender feminism and her treatment of feminist philosophy.


It might be useful to begin by saying what gender feminism is. Surprisingly, this turns out to be less straightforward than the book's focus would lead us to expect. Sommers approaches the task of characterizing gender feminism in at least three different ways, and difficulties attend each one. In some places we are offered relatively clear descriptions, for example:

American feminism is currently dominated by a group of women who seek to persuade the public that American women are not the free creatures we think we are. The leaders and theorists of the women's movement believe that our society is best described as a patriarchy, a “male hegemony,” a “sex/gender system” in which the dominant gender works to keep women cowering and submissive. The feminists who hold this divisive view of our social and political reality believe that we are in a gender war, and they are eager to disseminate stories of atrocity that are designed to alert women to their plight. The “gender feminists” (as I shall call them) believe that all our institutions, from the state to the family to the grade schools, perpetuate male dominance.

(P. 16)

In other places, gender feminism is contrasted with Sommers's preferred version of equity (or liberal) feminism.2 And throughout the book ‘gender feminism’ is employed to refer to the work of people as diverse as philosophers Alison Jaggar, Sandra Bartky and Marilyn Friedman; journalists Susan Faludi and Gloria Steinem; writer Naomi Wolf (at least in her Beauty Myth incarnation); and legal theorist Catharine MacKinnon.

The difficulty with the first characterization is that it is at once too broad and too narrow. On the one hand, if we focus just on the idea of the operation of a pervasive sex/gender system, then almost all feminists who advance a theoretical explanation of the status of women throughout history and in contemporary societies are gender feminists. For the primary, though by no means univocal, theoretical category of feminism is gender.3 On the other hand, if we focus on the combination of the appeal to the sex/gender system and each of the beliefs and questionable motivations Sommers mentions, then either there are no gender feminists or it is simply false that gender feminists dominate American feminism. Either way, this characterization of gender feminism does not appear to be particularly useful for Sommers's purposes.

The representative sample approach fares no better. Anyone familiar with current feminist theory will be perplexed to see Alison Jaggar, Sandra Bartky, Marilyn Friedman, Gloria Steinem, Susan Faludi, Naomi Wolf and Catharine MacKinnon in the same camp. Sommers admits (elsewhere) that American feminism is a “lively and variegated movement”4—so much so that “it is practically impossible to do justice to all the newest turns of feminist theory.”5 However, in Who Stole Feminism? she appears not to be interested in examining the arguments and detailed analyses that contemporary feminists have produced, and consequently she ignores the substantive differences that exist between the writers she criticizes. Sommers makes it all too easy to conclude that ‘gender feminism’ is merely a neologism for the work of all those feminist theorists with whom she disagrees. Of course, one can take issue individually with the arguments that have been advanced by Jaggar and others, but Sommers's use of the blanket term ‘gender feminism’ misleadingly suggests that whatever she says against Jaggar, say, counts against Bartky and the others. But here, as in other areas of philosophy, disparate views cannot be dealt with wholesale.

Finally, let us consider the characterization of gender feminism that contrasts it with ‘equity feminism’. The difficulty here is that Sommers is curiously unforthcoming about what equity feminism is. Here is what we are told. (1) Equity feminists represent the philosophy of the feminist “mainstream” (p. 24); (2) they ask “for women a ‘fair field and no favors’ in joining men to create the culture of the future” (p. 78); (3) they “believe that American women have made great progress and that our system of government allows them to expect more” (p. 230); (4) “they do not believe that women are ‘socially subordinate’” (p. 230). In a rather remarkable abdication, Sommers says “my own ‘equity feminist’ creed is eloquently articulated by Iris Murdoch,” and she then proceeds to quote personal correspondence from Murdoch:

Men “created culture” because they were free to do so, and women were treated as inferior and made to believe that they were. Now free women must join in the human world of work and creation on an equal footing and be everywhere in art, science, business, politics, etc. … However, to lay claim, in this battle, to female ethics, female criticism, female knowledge … is to set up a new female ghetto. (Chauvinist males should be delighted by the move …) “Women's Studies” can mean that women are led to read mediocre or peripheral books by women rather than the great books of humanity in general … It is a dead end, in danger of simply separating women from the mainstream thinking of the human race. Such cults can also waste the time of young people who may be reading all the latest books on feminism instead of studying the difficult and important things that belong to the culture of humanity.

(P. 78; Murdoch's emphases)

It is difficult to discern any clear theoretical position here that would provide a sharp contrast for other kinds of feminism. In the first place, no theory is offered; and, second, it is not obvious that the likes of Jaggar and MacKinnon, for example, would reject as a goal women's equal participation in creating the culture of the future, or that they would deny that women have made some advances under established political régimes. Of course, there are different ways in which women may be granted a fair field, and so people disagree about how to ensure women's access to the world of culture and work. But Jaggar and MacKinnon surely do not deny that women should have such access.6

Sommers's target is thus frustratingly elusive. However, an examination of some of her previously published articles reveals that what Sommers really objects to is not gender feminism per se, but any kind of radical social philosophy. These articles7 actually form the basis of much of Who Stole Feminism?, but most of their philosophical content is omitted from the current volume, perhaps because philosophers are not its intended audience.


In “The Feminist Revelation” and “Philosophers against the Family,” Sommers suggests that, broadly speaking, social criticism can take one of two approaches. On the one hand, representing the Forces of Good, we find liberal-Aristotelians; on the other, lining up as the Forces of Evil, are radical-Platonists. Liberal-Aristotelians may be more or less conservative, but they share what all radical-Platonists allegedly lack, namely, “the conviction that the traditional [social] arrangements have great moral weight and that common opinion is a primary source of moral truth.”8 Liberal-Aristotelians do not want to maintain tradition at all costs; they can recognize injustice when it obtains. But the social reform they recommend is “conservationist and cautious.”9 And, crucially, all their proposals for change are constrained by the expressed preferences of the people, which are taken at face value. Radical philosophers, by contrast, argue, inter alia, for the abolition of traditional social arrangements like the nuclear family and for the reorganization of reproductive and child-rearing labour. In doing so, Sommers says, they reveal their utter disdain for what people actually want. “Radical philosophers characteristically believe themselves to have a clear perception of the ‘objective interests’ of the people they want to help. Where liberal reformers are dependent on finding out about the ideals and preferences of those they help, radicals come to the task of social reform already equipped with a principled knowledge of what their constituents ‘really’ want and need.”10 Coupled with this “undemocratic élitism” is the idea that “people and the institutions they inhabit are as malleable as Silly Putty.”11 And so radical philosophers recommend various forms of social engineering designed to raise and bring into line the wayward consciousness of a benighted populace. Thus distinguished, who would not plump for liberal-Aristotelianism? The rhetorical advantage is all on Sommers's side. She writes, “responsible moral philosophers are liberal or conservative but not radical.”12

Sommers claims that the gender feminist is contemptuous of the preferences of the “average woman.” She also implies that gender feminists wilfully disregard the social and moral consequences of the social reforms they recommend, and that they are apparently willing to employ authoritarian indoctrination to rid women of false consciousness. In contrast, the non-radical liberal feminist “understands women's interests uncritically as manifested by what most women say they want, or what they believe would make them happy.”13 Furthermore, she believes that because “women are no longer disenfranchised, their preferences are being taken into account … [And] since women today can no longer be regarded as the victims of an undemocratic indoctrination, we must regard their preferences as ‘authentic’” (p. 260). Politically speaking, then, there is very little for the liberal feminist to do. Perhaps there is a tad more legal reform to work towards. But that can be readily accomplished without too much fuss.

Leaving to one side the question of whether Sommers's evaluative typology of social criticism is accurate, we can address the following two questions. Is Sommers correct in claiming that contemporary feminist theorists are radical in the sense outlined? And, is it true that the liberal or equity feminist can achieve her goals without apparently sliding into radicalism?

Many contemporary feminist theorists have been critical of certain family arrangements, of the fashion industry and of a host of well-entrenched and culturally endorsed practices like dieting and the use of cosmetics. But the critique of these aspects of the cult of femininity does not exhaust contemporary feminist theory. And, more importantly, Sommers seriously misunderstands the work of at least one of her representative radicals, Sandra Bartky. Bartky writes insightfully about feminine adornment and bodily comportment (and much else); and no one reading her Femininity and Domination could come away thinking that she is contemptuous of (or feels sorry for) women who wear make-up, shave their legs, and so on. Bartky offers a detailed and plausible analysis of certain aspects of women's sexuality, emotionality and self-understandings to which I cannot hope to do justice here (interested parties should read her book for themselves). And she is acutely aware of the dangers of prescribing how women should be:

I have sometimes been charged with defeatism because I have avoided prescription in my writing in favor of analysis and description. I do this because I find “what is to be done” either too obvious or else not at all obvious … On the one hand, much of what I decry is so deeply rooted both in our culture and in our own interior lives that a few prescriptive paragraphs tacked onto the end of a paper would be fatuous—or presumptuous. On the other hand, the women's movement has already generated a good deal of practice around much of what gets discussed in theory. So, for example, the connection between the remedies that have been developed to combat sexual harassment at work and the sexual objectification I scrutinize in “On Psychological Oppression” seemed to me too obvious to mention.14

Sommers's most conspicuous mistake in her treatment of Bartky, Faludi, Wolf and MacKinnon is her failure to distinguish between (i) the outright dismissal of the expressed preferences of individual women, and (ii) the critical scrutiny of the source of preferences apparently manifest in many women's behaviour. Bartky, Faludi, Wolf and MacKinnon categorically do not dismiss the expressed preferences of women. On the contrary, the authors just named take those preferences very seriously indeed. In different ways, each attempts to exhibit in a systematic way how and why people's preferences are socially constructed; how and why certain preferences and behaviours are differentially encouraged; and whose interests are served by, for example, the near universal expectation of heterosexuality, the cultural endorsement of marriage and the nuclear family and the promotion of women's obsession with their appearance. Central to all these analyses is the attempt to explain how these preferences, which serve to perpetuate relations of domination and submission, appear to be natural.15

Now there is plenty of room for disagreement about these matters. However, Sommers does little to engage critically with the arguments that have been presented. Sommers's “critique” of gender feminists is roughly this: (i) their work is inspired by the writings of Michel Foucault; (ii) Foucault's work is nothing more than “infantile leftism” (p. 230) (and besides no one who works in social philosophy really takes it seriously); therefore, (iii) gender feminism is infantile and not to be taken seriously.

Supposing we grant the first premise,16 what of the second? Sommers offers no argument for it. She merely quotes someone else: “How seriously can we take Foucault's theory? Not very, says Princeton political philosopher Michael Walzer, who characterizes Foucault's politics as ‘infantile leftism’” (ibid.).17 Foucault's account of the ways in which the modern citizen has internalized the disciplines of various institutions, to the extent of policing himself, is not without its difficulties—nor are the social constructionist accounts of sexuality and gender that rest in part on Foucault's work unproblematic. Citing Walzer again, Sommers is right to worry that Foucault's theory leaves little room for individual freedom: if internalized coercion and the social construction of desire run as deep as Foucault claims, it is hard to imagine the possibility of individual resistance. But it is not as if this problem has gone unrecognized in the feminist literature,18 and Sommers fails to advance the discussion in any way.

Since, as Sommers recognizes (chap. 12), no gender feminist explicitly advocates the use of social engineering to realign women's preferences, she must rely on insinuation to buttress her case that gender feminists are dangerous radical philosophers. It is worth quoting her at length.

Respect for people's preferences is generally thought to be fundamental for democracy. But ideologues find ways of denying this principle. The gender feminist who claims to represent the true interests of women is convinced that she profoundly understands their situation and so is in an exceptional position to know their true interests. In practice, this means she is prepared to dismiss popular preferences in an illiberal way.

(P. 259)

According to Sommers, Marilyn Friedman is guilty of “justifying” such an illiberal dismissal of popular preferences. She quotes Friedman:

Liberal feminists can easily join with other feminists in recognizing that political democracy is insufficient to ensure that preferences are formed without coercion, constraint, undue restriction of options, and so forth. Social, cultural, and economic conditions are as important as political conditions, if not more so, in ensuring that preferences are, in some important sense, authentic.


Sommers continues her commentary.

Friedman is quite wrong in her assumptions: anyone, liberal or conservative, who believes in democracy will sense danger in them. Who will “ensure” that preferences are “authentic”? What additions to political democracy does Friedman have in mind? A constitutional amendment to provide reeducation camps for men and women of false consciousness?


One is hard pressed to find any suggestion in Friedman's remarks that what is required is a constitutional amendment to establish re-education camps for men and women suffering from false consciousness. Rather, Friedman appears to be echoing liberals John Stuart Mill and John Rawls in drawing attention to the way in which an individual's social, economic and cultural circumstances can conspire to blind her to her true, objective interests.

So Sommers does not establish that gender feminists are radical in any problematic sense. They are not contemptuous of, nor do they dismiss, women's expressed preferences, and they do not advocate or suggest any authoritarian measures to rid women of false consciousness. Indeed, at this point it is difficult to keep clear in one's mind precisely what the sharp contrast is supposed to be between gender feminists and liberal feminists. As I put it above: can the liberal or equity feminist achieve her goals without some radical inquiry?

Recall that Sommers believes that the responsible social critic concedes a strong presumptive moral force to tradition and common-sense values. She also believes that liberals see respect for people's preferences as “fundamental for democracy” (ibid.). But neither of these—neither the concession nor the respect—precludes a more penetrating analysis of tradition, common-sense values and the preferences that go along with them. It appears that prominent liberals agree. Mill is exquisitely sensitive to the ways in which features of an individual's social and political environment can stunt the growth of the “tender plant” of autonomy.20 In his discussion of rational life plans in A Theory of Justice, Rawls struggles with the notion of a person's objective interests, and is careful to specify that “a person's good is determined by what is for him the most rational plan of life given favorable circumstances.21 And Ronald Dworkin insists that democratic decision-making must take into account the kind of preferences citizens express and how those preferences often reflect deep prejudice. Thus, the liberal feminist is not precluded from questioning the source and function of women's typical preferences. Indeed, we might think she is compelled to look deeper. Again, the difference between the gender feminist and the liberal feminist looks slight indeed.

Sommers might concede that the source and function of certain feminine preferences are proper objects of inquiry for all feminists, but she argues that the gender feminists' agenda (whatever that is) requires more radical action in society at large than that of the liberal feminist. She writes: “Liberal feminists are content to achieve equality of opportunity and full legal equality; they are not, in principle, at war with the ‘gendered family’ or with other aspects of society that place value on masculine and feminine differences.”22 And again,

traditional, classically liberal, humanistic feminism … had a specific agenda, demanding for women the same rights before the law that men enjoyed. The suffrage had to be won, and the laws regarding property, marriage and divorce, and child custody had to be made equitable. More recently, abortion rights had to be protected. The old mainstream feminism concentrated on legal reforms … A First Wave, “mainstream,” or “equity” feminist wants for women what she wants for everyone: fair treatment, without discrimination.

(P. 22)

Perhaps Sommers is right that liberal feminists have concentrated on legal reform, as opposed to social and cultural critique. However, she appears to be unaware of the magnitude of change required in the law, if genuine equality between women and men is to be achieved.23 Sommers fails to grasp that the liberal feminist, who begins by fighting for the elimination of discriminatory laws, sooner or later must confront the question of whether this strategy will be sufficient to achieve full equality for women. This is an empirical question, and the answer currently available to us appears to be negative. So, for example, in Canada the Women's Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF) is playing an active role in shaping Canadian law through their gender-sensitive interventions in Charter cases before the Canadian Supreme Court.24

In short, when Sommers's philosophical attack on so-called gender feminism is examined closely, it appears to be less than successful.


Sommers's discussion of feminist philosophy is especially disappointing. Throughout Who Stole Feminism?, she fails to distinguish clearly between feminist philosophy and women's studies. To be sure, the work of some feminist philosophers appears on women's studies syllabi, and some feminist philosophers teach in women's studies programs. But for the purposes of fair evaluation, the two fields must be kept apart. Sommers, however, believes that a series of independently worrying anecdotes about some women's studies programs in the U.S. (chaps. 3, 5 and 6) is sufficient to impugn most feminist philosophy. She is especially exercised by the use, in women's studies classrooms, of what she calls gimmicks (e.g., the requirement that students keep personal journals for the perusal of the instructor, and rules for a safe classroom). Short of conducting a thorough review of women's studies classes oneself, it is hard to judge what the incidence and effects of these practices are. Nonetheless, one can be sceptical about the intellectual merits of the content of women's studies courses and of the teaching techniques employed by some feminist teachers without thereby being sceptical of everything that goes under the rubric of feminist philosophy. Sommers suggests that feminist philosophical criticisms of reason, objectivity and “traditional” epistemology are in some sense responsible for the “horrors” she reports. What she does not mention is that much of what she calls the “epistemology” that underpins course content and structure in women's studies programs emerges not from philosophers but from psychologists.25

To be fair, Sommers does devote Chapter 4 (at 13 pages, one of the shortest chapters in the book) to the “New Epistemologies,” and it is here that we must look to discover her direct criticism of feminist philosophy. Unfortunately, one will learn next to nothing about contemporary feminist philosophical work in social epistemology from reading this chapter. Sommers's account takes exactly two paragraphs, reproduced here:

Some gender feminists claim that because women have been oppressed they are better “knowers.” Feeling more deeply, they see more clearly and understand reality better. They have an “epistemic” advantage over men … Feminist philosophers … claim that oppressed groups enjoy privileged “epistemologies” and “different ways of knowing” that better enable them to understand the world, not only socially but scientifically.

According to “standpoint theory,” as the theory of epistemic advantage is called, the oppressed may make better biologists, physicists, and philosophers than their oppressors. Thus we find the feminist theorist Hilary Rose saying that male scientists have been handicapped by being men. A better science would be based on women's domestic experience and practice. Professor Virginia Held offers hope that “a feminist standpoint would give us a quite different understanding of even physical reality.” Conversely, those who are most socially favored, the proverbial white, middle-class males, are in the worst epistemic position.

(Pp. 74-75)26

Of course, this sounds lunatic. Sommers has accurately reported the conclusions of some so-called standpoint epistemologists. But in failing to provide even a sketch of the arguments that have been offered in their support, she badly misrepresents the work being done by feminist epistemologists. Sommers does not even so much as mention Helen Longino's Science as Social Knowledge, Lynn Hankinson Nelson's Who Knows: From Quine to a Feminist Empiricism or Lorraine Code's What Can She Know? Feminist Theory and the Construction of Knowledge—three quite different, book-length treatments of feminist epistemology. The assessment of the arguments provided in these works would require discussion far beyond the confines of this notice. But feminist epistemology is Sommers's target, and so the onus is on her to engage in some responsible critical analysis. She does no such thing.27 Yet again, instead of providing arguments of her own, Sommers merely reports what Susan Haack has said against feminist epistemology:

I am not convinced that there are distinctively female “ways of knowing.” All any human being has to go on, in figuring out how things are, is his or her sensory and introspective experience, and the explanatory theorizing he or she devises to accommodate it; and differences in cognitive style, like differences in handwriting, seem more individual than gender-determined.28

Abstracting from the details, but without too much distortion I hope, the central and important ideas in feminist epistemology are that (i) knowledge production and acquisition are social activities, and (thus) (ii) it is legitimate to interrogate prevailing canons of justification, standards of evidence, and so on, to see to what extent they are tainted by gender, class and racial bias. Put this way, it is hard to understand some feminist philosophers' claims to be doing something new and revolutionary; and Sommers is right to pillory those who compare feminist epistemology to the Copernican revolution.29 But this characterization of what is at the heart of feminist epistemology also defuses the charge that feminist epistemologists are not doing epistemology at all. (Sommers remarks that Virginia Held's paper, “‘Feminism and Epistemology’ … aptly, was published not in a professional journal devoted to classical epistemological issues, but in Philosophy and Public Affairs,30 as if this were proof that Held cannot be doing epistemology.) The animating questions of feminist epistemology (e.g., Whose pronouncements are taken as authoritative? What makes a person credible?) appear to be categorically different from those of traditional epistemology (e.g., What is the nature of belief? How is knowledge possible?). But they are not.

There are several ways to downplay the difference between feminist and “traditional” epistemology. First, we should recall that feminist theorists are not the first to approach the study of knowledge from a social perspective; Wittgenstein, for one, famously emphasized the epistemic relevance of the agent's embeddedness in a particular community. Second, a major concern of contemporary epistemologists like Alvin Goldman has been to specify what count as reliable mechanisms of belief formation. Third, in different ways, Quine and Stephen Stich have raised questions about the relativity of canons of justification. To be sure, neither Quine nor Wittgenstein were explicitly interested in the ways in which gender inflects scientific practice and the language games that underpin knowledge. But, philosophically speaking, their projects are not so far from those of many feminist epistemologists.

It is deeply ironic that Sommers is so dismissive of feminist epistemology, for Who Stole Feminism? is intended as a piece of social criticism, in which a recurrent theme is the credibility of so-called gender feminists. Sommers devotes a considerable portion of the book to examining empirical research into domestic battery, rape and gender differences in self-esteem. She is successful in revealing some false claims concerning, for example, the mortality rate of sufferers of anorexia nervosa, the increase in male-on-female spousal battery on Super Bowl Sunday and she raises reasonable doubt about the widely publicized self-esteem study released by the American Association of University Women in 1991 (which purported to have discovered that girls' self-esteem plummets around adolescence).31 Sommers justifiably wonders why the press and some government officials have not themselves been more rigorous in examining these claims. “Why is everyone so credulous?” she asks (p. 15). Her explanation goes something like this: feminist researchers disseminate “provocative but inaccurate information” (p. 12) and “engage in exaggeration, over-simplification, and obfuscation” (p. 15). Furthermore, she says,

Another factor limiting the prospects for sound research in this area [battery] is the absence of a rigorous system of review. In most fields, when a well-known study is flawed, critics can make a name for themselves by showing up its defects. This process keeps researchers honest. However, in today's environment for feminist research the higher your figures for abuse, the more likely you'll reap rewards, regardless of your methodology. You'll be mentioned in feminist encyclopedias, dictionaries, “fact sheets,” and textbooks. Your research will be widely publicized.

(Pp. 200-201)

Sommers does not provide compelling evidence for the claim that “the usual system of checks and balances by means of peer review seems to have fallen apart” (p. 79). But in any case, my point is that Sommers herself is concerned about the same issues with which feminist epistemologists, qua social epistemologists, grapple. Who can be believed? Why are some people believed rather than others? Why are some conclusions embraced on the basis of scanty or even contradictory evidence? Whose interests are served in taking some claim to be knowledge? As the passage above reveals, Sommers recognizes that answering these questions requires examining the prevailing background beliefs of both the community in which research is conducted and the community into which research results are released. This is the very point made by Lorraine Code about the work of Philippe Rushton:

In seeking to explain what makes Rushton possible, the point cannot be to exonerate him as a mere product of his circumstances and times. Rushton accepts grants and academic honors in his own name, speaks “for himself” in interviews with the press, and claims credit where credit is to be had. He upholds the validity of his findings. Moreover, he participates fully in the rhetoric of the autonomous, objective inquirer. Yet although Rushton is plainly accountable for the sources and motivations of his projects, he is not singly responsible. Such research is legitimized by the community and speaks in a discursive space that is available and prepared for it. So scrutinizing Rushton's “scientific” knowledge claims demands an examination of the moral and intellectual health of a community that is infected by racial and sexual injustices at every level. Rushton may have had reason to believe that his results would be welcome.32

Sommers's attempt at a sociological explanation of the reception of the results of feminist research is, thus, to a large extent a copy-book exercise in the sort of social epistemology she vilifies. And as the epigraph to this notice reveals, Sommers shares with many feminist epistemologists the belief that researchers are in part morally responsible for the consequences of their views.

As I have said, Sommers is critical of much of what goes under the rubric of women's studies, and professionals in that field will be the best judges of her success. However, Sommers fails to understand the basics of feminist epistemology, and the considerable body of literature that is feminist philosophy goes largely untouched by what she says here.33

In many ways, Who Stole Feminism? is an uneven book, and it is often irritating to read. Sommers does raise some important questions about a number of matters; her critical treatment of the empirical investigation into girls' self-esteem is particularly careful and useful. But overall the book is heavy on polemic and light on argument. Sommers abjures sympathetic exegesis of the views she criticizes. This makes the construction of detailed counter-arguments difficult, and perhaps this explains why she so often relies on snippets from other writers to state her case, such as it is. All of this is exacerbated by Sommers's tone, which ranges from self-righteous—“feminism itself—the pure and wholesome article first displayed at Seneca Falls in 1848—is as American as apple pie, and will stay” (p. 275)—to shrill and whiny—“Resenter feminists like Faludi, French, Heilbrun and MacKinnon speak of backlash, seige, and an undeclared war against women … Real-life men have no war offices, no situation rooms, no battle plans against women … To the extent that one can speak at all of a gender war, it is the New feminists themselves who are waging it” (p. 45).

Contra Sommers, most feminists readily admit that contemporary feminist theory and its application in the academy demand critical scrutiny. Sommers's book, however, is a truly disappointing example of such inquiry. For in addition to the problems I have already noted, we might predict that Sommers's rhetoric and lightweight critiques of contemporary feminist theory will have at least two unfortunate consequences. First, much of what she says will be appropriated by those who are antecedently anti-feminist; conservatives of various stripes will find their worst fears about feminism apparently confirmed.34 Second, feminist theorists are likely to be so put off by Sommers's tone and her almost willful misunderstandings of their work that they may dismiss some of the genuine questions Sommers raises. Either way, little progress will be made. Herein lies the real irony of the book, for Sommers claims to be a feminist who has a “concern for women and a determination to see them fairly treated” (p. 275), and she herself laments, “moral philosophers should be paying far more attention to the social consequences of their views than they are.”35


  1. Christina Sommers, “Philosophers against the Family,” in Virtue and Vice in Everyday Life, edited by Christina Sommers and Fred Sommers, 3rd ed. (Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1993), pp. 804-29, quotation at p. 828.

  2. Sommers's typology of feminisms is first laid out in her “Should the Academy Support Academic Feminism?,” Public Affairs Quarterly, 2, 3 (July 1988): 97-120.

  3. To be sure, there are some feminist theorists who are deeply sceptical about the concept of gender; see, for example, Judith Butler, Gender Trouble (New York: Routledge, 1990).

  4. Sommers, “Philosophers against the Family,” p. 816.

  5. Christina Sommers, “The Feminist Revelation,” Social Philosophy and Policy, 8, 1 (Autumn 1990): 141-58, quotation at p. 142.

  6. In passing, it is worth noting the way in which Sommers's claim that equity feminism is the philosophy of the feminist mainstream appears to undercut her earlier assertion that American feminism is “dominated” by gender feminists.

  7. In addition to those articles cited in notes 1, 2 and 5 above, see Christina Sommers, “Do These Feminists Like Women?,” Journal of Social Philosophy, 21, 2 (Fall-Winter 1990): 66-74, and Christina Sommers, “Argumentum ad Feminam,” Journal of Social Philosophy, 22, 1 (Spring 1991): 5-20. The latter two are part of an exchange between Sommers and Marilyn Friedman. See Marilyn Friedman, “‘They Lived Happily Ever After’: Sommers on Women and Marriage,” Journal of Social Philosophy, 21, 2 (Fall/Winter 1990): 57-65, and “Does Sommers Like Women?: More on Liberalism, Gender Hierarchy, and Scarlett O'Hara,” Journal of Social Philosophy, 21, 2 (Fall-Winter 1990): 75-90.

  8. Sommers, “Philosophers against the Family,” p. 806.

  9. Ibid.

  10. Sommers, “The Feminist Revelation,” p. 151.

  11. Sommers, “Philosophers against the Family,” p. 812.

  12. Ibid., p. 828.

  13. Sommers, “Should the Academy Support Academic Feminism?,” p. 99.

  14. Sandra Lee Bartky, Femininity and Domination (New York: Routledge, 1990), p. 7.

  15. See Catharine MacKinnon, Towards a Feminist Theory of the State (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989).

  16. It must be emphasized, however, that Foucault's influence varies from theorist to theorist and is by no means universal among the women Sommers criticizes.

  17. As a matter of fact, Michael Walzer is careful to distinguish between “Foucault's political positions, the statements he has made, the articles he has written, his response to ‘events’—May '68, the prison revolts of the early seventies, the Iranian revolution, and so on,” which he does term infantile leftism, and Foucault's political theory—“his account of our everyday politics, [which] though often annoyingly presented and never wholly accurate or sufficiently nuanced, is right enough to be disturbing … [and] captures something of the reality of contemporary society (p. 53)” (in Michael Walzer, “The Politics of Michel Foucault,” in Foucault: A Critical Reader, edited by David Couzens Hoy [Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986], pp. 51 and 53).

  18. See Drucilla Cornell, Beyond Accommodation (New York: Routledge, 1991), chap. 3, and Monique Deveaux, “Feminism and Empowerment: A Critical Reading of Foucault,” Feminist Studies, 20, 2 (Summer 1994): 223-47.

  19. Marilyn Friedman, “Does Sommers Like Women?,” p. 83.

  20. See John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism, edited and with an Introduction by George Sher (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1979), chap. 2, p. 10.

  21. John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971), p. 395, emphasis added. But see Susan E. Babbitt, “Feminism and Objective Interests,” in Feminist Epistemologies, edited by Linda Alcoff and Elizabeth Potter (New York: Routledge, 1993), pp. 245-64, for an argument that Rawls does not go far enough.

  22. Sommers, “The Feminist Revelation,” p. 146.

  23. In fact, Sommers does not appear to be cognizant of any of the considerable literature in feminist legal theory or of the recent history of feminist activism in the courts. See, for example, Feminist Legal Theory, edited by Katharine T. Bartlett and Rosanne Kennedy (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1991).

  24. See R. v. Butler [1992] 1 S.C.R. 452, in which the Supreme Court relied heavily on LEAF's arguments to the effect that some kinds of pornography pose a threat to women's substantive equality.

  25. See, for example, Mary Field Belenky, Blythe McVicker Clinchy, Nancy Rule Goldberger and Jill Mattuck Tarule, Women's Ways of Knowing (New York: Basic Books, 1986).

  26. The embedded quotation is from Virginia Held, “Feminism and Epistemology: Recent Work on the Connection between Gender Knowledge,” Philosophy and Public Affairs, 14 (1985): 299.

  27. To do her justice, Sommers does discuss feminist critiques of science and analytic philosophy at more length in her paper, “Should the Academy Support Academic Feminism?” She rightly points out that these critiques are normatively lacking: “we are not even given a vague idea of how [the particular way that women see and ‘know’ the world] … would affect the study of the natural sciences” (in ibid., p. 122). But this worry has not eluded at least one feminist epistemologist. Helen Longino writes, “although many of the most familiar feminist accounts of science have helped us to redescribe the process of knowledge (or belief) acquisition, they stop short of an adequate normative theory (Helen Longino, “Subjects, Power, and Knowledge: Description and Prescription in Feminist Philosophies of Science,” in Feminist Epistemologies, edited by Linda Alcoff and Elizabeth Potter [New York: Routledge, 1993], pp. 101-20, quotation at p. 102).

  28. Susan Haack, “Epistemological Reflections of an Old Feminist,” Reason Papers, 18 (1993): 31-43, cited in Sommers on p. 75. Readers might be surprised to hear that Haack is “one of the most respected epistemologists in the country” (ibid.).

  29. For example, Elizabeth Minnich writes, “What we [feminists] are doing, is comparable to Copernicus shattering our geo-centricity, Darwin shattering our species-centricity. We are shattering andro-centricity, and the change is as fundamental, as dangerous, as exciting” (Elizabeth Minnich, “Friends and Critics: The Feminist Academy,” keynote address, Proceedings of the Fifth Annual GLCA Women's Studies Conference, November, 1979, quoted in Theories of Women's Studies, edited by Gloria Bowles and Renate Duelli Klein [London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1983], p. 4, cited in Sommers, “The Feminist Revelation,” p. 153).

  30. Sommers, “The Feminist Revelation,” p. 152.

  31. Sommers also devotes an entire chapter to rape research (chap. 10). Her discussion is problematic in a number of respects, but unfortunately an adequate treatment of it is beyond the scope of the present review.

  32. Lorraine Code, “Taking Subjectivity into Account,” in Feminist Epistemologies, edited by Linda Alcoff and Elizabeth Potter (New York: Routledge, 1993), pp. 15-48, quotation at p. 31.

  33. Sommers does say, “There is, to be sure, much interesting new scholarship on women” (p. 63). But she provides no citations for this work. Given that she is so critical of the material she does discuss, fairness would have demanded that some mention be made of the work she considers worthy. The failure to provide the relevant citations leaves the impression, intended or not, that there really is not much good feminist scholarship.

  34. Sommers acknowledges this danger in the Preface. In reply she writes, “I want to underscore at the outset that I do not mean to confuse the women who work in the trenches to help the victims of true abuse and discrimination with the gender feminists whose falsehoods and exaggerations are muddying the waters of American feminism” (p. 17). Sommers's apparent inability to understand the connections between theory and practice is staggering.

  35. Sommers, “Philosophers against the Family,” p. 828. I am grateful to Marguerite Deslauriers and Paul Pietroski for comments and discussion, and to a referee for Dialogue for helpful suggestions.

Elizabeth Kamarck Minnich (review date spring 1998)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6112

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 chorus, that they are today's truest and bravest feminists. They say they feel compelled to speak up on behalf of all women because of the dangerous directions in which feminism and women's studies have been taken by rampantly ideological feminists who have (somehow or other, but not by admirable means) become extremely powerful. Each author tells us of her own particular, energizing flash point. Sommers's anger, reflected in Who Stole Feminism? How Women Have Betrayed Women, is aroused by those who analyze and act to change gender systems rather than advocating solely for individual rights to be exercised on a “fair field with no favors” (p. 51). Patai and Koertge, in Professing Feminism: Cautionary Tales from the Strange World of Women's Studies, feel called to attack those who seem to them to be adulterating and skewing properly academic women's studies with activism and pop psychologizing. In “Feminism Is Not the Story of My Life”: How Today's Feminist Elite Has Lost Touch with the Real Concerns of Women, Fox-Genovese is troubled that feminism does not confirm the desires of “most” women to be fulfilled through traditional motherhood while also having the same opportunities for satisfying careers as men. For Roiphe (The Morning After: Sex, Fear, and Feminism on Campus), the flash point is feminists and AIDS activists who have challenged her own fantasies of safe and guilt-free rebellion.

All these authors are well trained academically, and all have chosen to write for a popular audience. They write, they say, in defense of values central to mainstream feminism as well as to the sound academic work that is important to it: intellectual quality and honesty, anti-elitism, objectivity, and tolerance of dissenting views. Would that these values were here being genuinely served. However, like Allan Bloom's egocentric, intellectually irresponsible, anti-liberal, paradoxically best-selling defense of elitism, The Closing of the American Mind1 (and the clonelike “culture wars” books that poured out when Bloom proved there was a market for antiprogressive diatribes), these claimants to be Defenders of the True Feminist Faith thoroughly contradict what they say are their values by what they do in their books.

The authors' writing suggests that they are working hard to discredit the feminisms that make them uncomfortable, rather than arguing with them in scholarly and sisterly fashion. They have chosen techniques evidently designed to incite a broad public to weigh in on their side as well as to buy their books in such quantities that the authors will, by the logic of the marketplace, be validated as the media, lecture circuit, and popular spokeswomen for feminism. The result is that, claimed values to the contrary notwithstanding, these books are not of high intellectual quality; violate the “classic liberal” value of tolerance for differing positions; and display a lack of respect for the judgment and political abilities of the nonelite majority of women whose purported helplessness before a small cabal of feminists the authors often invoke as their reason for writing.

I cannot know, of course, what the authors' actual motives are, nor am I convinced that they are themselves clear. If they were, surely self-contradiction and a pattern of projecting their own faults on to those they then criticize for precisely those faults would not so notably characterize what they have written. I can observe, however, that if one really values thorough, balanced, accurate scholarship and reporting; wishes to encourage respected readers to think coherently, independently, and responsibly; and advocates an inclusive, disinterested tolerance that can support a broad-based, nonelitist, coalitional movement, one does not choose the kinds of reasoning and rhetoric deployed by these authors. Politically, despite positions which seem to range from Sommers's right of center to Patai-Koertge's centrist antiradicalism, the rhetorical techniques they use against feminist activists put these authors in the company of today's right-wingers.

Time and again the authors, like so many right-wing anti-feminists, are themselves guilty of what they charge their versions of bad feminists with doing. For example, sounding a lot like the intolerant, highly ideological Rush Limbaugh, these authors charge the straw women they first create and then attack with being intolerant, insulting, close-minded ideologues. Patai-Koertge (and the capitalization is theirs) attack “IDPOL,” identity politics (p. 50); “BIODENIAL,” repudiation of the sciences (p. 135); “TOTALREJ,” feminist critique (p. 115); and “GENDERAGENDA,” gender analyses (p. 148). Sommers calls her targets “gender monitors” (p. 46), “feminist ideologues” (p. 18), “resenter feminists” (p. 44), and “zealots.” Roiphe refers to “guerilla feminists” (p. 10). Fox-Genovese's title pits “today's feminist elite” against “women” and coins the term “upscale feminist” (p. 21).

To justify being in attack mode, the authors assert that they are trying to purge feminism of its rude sisters so that it can once again be a welcoming big tent for all women. They also occasionally adopt a tone of calm, saddened devotion to a presently distorted but perhaps still salvageable sisterhood. Patai-Koertge thus claim they have been forced to air “dirty linen” in their book, because of the need to rescue true feminism from “the ideological policing and intolerance going on in its own ranks” (p. xv). Fox-Genovese writes: “It saddens me immeasurably to think my views may seem threatening or oppressive to younger women,” but, presumably wiser as well as sadder, she speaks against today's feminisms anyway (p. 258). Sommers concludes her vitriolic book in a similar tone of saddened concern:

I have sat among them [the people she has called “zealots,” “resentment feminists,” et al.] in many a gathering and have occasionally found myself in relaxed agreement with them. For I do like the features they share with classical feminism: a concern for women and a determination to see them fairly treated. We very much need that concern and energy, but we decidedly do not need their militant gynocentrism and misandrism. … I believe, however, that once their ideology becomes unfashionable, many a gender feminist will quietly divest herself of the sex/gender lens through which she now views social reality and join the equity feminist mainstream.

(P. 275)

Even when she is trying to sound generously inclusive, Sommers pits her version of good “mainstream” “equity” feminism against bad feminists who are woman-centered, man-hating individuals turned into ideologues by their submission to a fashion trend.

In the face of the evidence of their own writing, Patai-Koertge also claim to be presenting a balanced view. They begin their book with a credibly informed and favorable recognition of the women's movement, including the work of feminist scholars and of systemic gender analyses (Sommers's dread “gender feminism”). They describe

an enormous flowering of Women's Studies programs, feminist scholarship, and women's culture, as well as an increasing public awareness of job discrimination, domestic abuse, sexual assaults, and other impediments placed on women in the public and private spheres. … During this time, too, the use of gender as a powerful conceptual tool and a key category of analysis in the humanities and social sciences transformed entire fields.

(Pp. 1-2)

But then they ask: “Why, after these successes, have Women's Studies programs turned into such a combat zone?” (p. 2). Readers are to see Patai-Koertge as too fair and reasonable to be counted among the combatants, and so as the proper interpreters of what women's studies today should be.

Asserting her own claim to be the best interpreter of the whole women's movement, Sommers writes that “American feminism is currently dominated by a group of women who seek to persuade the public that American women are not the free creatures we think we are” (p. 16). Sommers's “we” having replaced “American women,” she proceeds to interpret people and events as if she really did know everything and could read minds and intentions. For example, she writes: “[T]he moderator looked a bit nervous. It seemed clear that she should come to the defense of her beleaguered Smith colleague. But she was patently intrigued by what she described as an ‘affectively charged exchange’” (p. 37). Patai-Koertge, who similarly respect no boundaries of other minds, tell us: “Deans and other college and university officials” are “certainly aware that all is not well [in women's studies]” but “prefer to maintain a position of ‘plausible deniability’ similar to the one they favor with respect to flawed collegiate athletic programs” (p. 208). Roiphe informs us with unsubstantiated confidence: “Most straight college students don't actually think they're going to get AIDS” (p. 24). Fox-Genovese writes: “Feminists cannot forgive [a woman who advocates a mommy track in business] for betraying the dream of women's equality with men. But [she] focuses on what many women want, not on what radicals presume they should want” (p. 215). Thus, the authors act as if they are omniscient spokespeople for all women despite attacking bad feminists for that “elitist” presumption.

The authors' unabashed projecting of their own interpretations and views on to others violates the honesty of straightforwardly limited gossip without achieving that of carefully documented reportage or research. Nor have they occupied a clear and accessible middle ground between gossip and scholarship as one might expect, given not only their choice to write popular books but also their oft-claimed anti-“elitism.” Name-calling, diatribes, and gossipy generalizations presented as if they were warranted by sound scholarship, on the one hand, and compatibility with “mainstream” women's opinions, on the other, hardly constitute evidence of respect for any readers.

While claiming to be more accurate than bad feminist ideologues—and making sure their popular-audience readers know of their own academic credentials—the authors present only self-confirming “evidence” gathered from wildly eclectic sources. They produce “facts” gathered by such means as a telephone call or two; anecdotes from their own experiences or passed on to them by a student, relative, or acquaintance; informal interviews with people selected because they agree with the authors; opinion polls; popular media articles; televised debates (Sommers likes this particularly, telling us that she wins). Sommers characteristically says such things as “I called [an individual, an association]”; “I sent … a letter” and someone “sent me word”; “their media relations department told me that …”; “I asked my neighbor, a pediatric neurologist. …” In support of one judgment, she writes, “My sister … has two sons in college and a daughter starting junior high and … having spent several hours with the [feminist] Austin conferees, she had doubts about their competence and reasonableness” (p. 53).

Similarly, Roiphe cites her undocumented memories of things said by “Amanda,” “Lauren,” “Sarah,” various women at Take Back the Night marches, her mother, her sister, some campus flyers, speakers at various gatherings, and anything else that provides stuff for vivid stories that illustrate, rather than prove, her points. Fox-Genovese says she draws “upon lengthy conversations with a wide variety of women” whose “experience,” this established scholar informs us unblinkingly, “is representative of countless other women like them” (pp. 13-14). Patai-Koertge tell us that their research involved conversations with “some ‘exiles’ from Women's Studies—colleagues who still considered themselves to be feminists … but who … had withdrawn to other departments … who were prepared to admit the seriousness of the issues we were raising” (p. xvi). From this collection of people “who were prepared to admit” what the authors had already concluded, they draw on “lengthy and detailed taped interviews” with “thirty women from around the country.” To this sample, which is no further specified than by the authors' saying that “[m]ost of these women are or have been faculty members; some are or were students and staff members in Women's Studies programs,” they add whatever else crossed their horizon in confirmation of their pre-established thesis that women's studies has become ideological. They also include, again with no further specification, “material offered to us from correspondence, memos, and journal entries” (p. xviii).

Professors Patai and Koertge further tell us that what we might have assumed to be the usual scholarly practice of not naming individual research subjects is, in their book, actually the result of a “desire for anonymity” which “reflects … the tendency of feminism to stifle open debate and create an atmosphere in which disagreement is viewed as betrayal.” Startlingly, they continue: “We have honored all these requests and for uniformity's sake, have incorporated many of our own accounts into the book in the same way” (p. xix). So, in a book which purports to be defending sound scholarship against ideologically skewed bad feminist work, the author-interpreters' views are anonymously folded into the material they are presenting as evidence.

Roiphe, while drawing on the authority of her experiences as a student, follows a purely personal logic which she justifies in a burst of anti-intellectualism: “This book is not a scientific survey of campus life, measuring the immeasurable with statistical certainty. This is not a comprehensive, encyclopedic sociological analysis. It is not a political polemic” (pp. 6-7). She seems to assume we will not notice that she ends this jumbled disclaimer of both political polemics and academic methods with the statement: “It is out of the deep belief that some feminisms are better than others that I have written this book.” And what kind of ground does she offer for that belief? Pure subjective Roiphe: “I have written what I see, limited, personal. … I have written my impressions.” Nevertheless, those “impressions” are, she tells us firmly, “entirely real” (p. 7). But this intriguing method of discerning what is real is not to be used by anyone else, at least not if she or he disagrees with Roiphe. She objects strenuously, for example, to sexual harassment being “subjectively” defined (as the bad feminists, she tells us, have defined it), because that “crosses the line between being supportive and obliterating the idea of external reality” (p. 91). Apparently, only Roiphe's self-confirming subjectivity is “entirely real.” Such “reasoning” is hardly a way to open a movement to many differing points of view. Indeed, if Roiphe were consistent, her conflation of her own views with reality would lead to solipsism, not liberation.

I repeat: these are hardly ways to model or invite intellectually open, careful, balanced, reflective considerations of basic definitions, analyses, and the actions they suggest for a broad-based movement. Yet readers who begin to wonder what is going on are regularly headed off with incantations of the very values being violated. Patai-Koertge say they, as distinct from women's studies ideologues, value “tolerance, the cultivation of a distanced and disengaged analysis, and a degree of skepticism toward one's own positions, and not only those of others” (p. 212). Sommers claims she writes to expose and to improve “the quality of information we are getting on many women's issues from feminist researchers, women's advocates, and journalists” (p. 15).

The values actually being served appear, rather, to be compatible with those of a conservative consumerist culture that exploits images of patriarchally sexualized and gendered fantasies of liberation—such as Roiphe's fantasy of irresponsible but safe sex and Fox-Genovese's dream of fulfillment for career women through traditional motherhood. Sommers's choice of the adjectives “pure and wholesome” for the “equity feminism,” which she claims is true to that “first displayed at Seneca Falls in 1848” (p. 275), also reanimates patriarchal divisions of “good girls” from bad feminists. She even updates the old “frustrated feminist” ploy she knows was used against the feminists of Seneca Falls for her own use against the “New Feminists” she wants to discredit. Sommers says the new feminists are “articulate, prone to self-dramatization, and chronically offended,” united not by belief in equality but by their own sense of personal grievance. This sense of grievance is exacerbated, she says, by the “presumption that men are collectively engaged in keeping women down” (p. 21). Having recast systemic feminist analyses as paranoid delusion, she contrasts her pathologized new feminism with “the traditional, classically liberal, humanistic feminism that … had a specific agenda, demanding for women the same rights before the law that men enjoyed” (p. 22). Such “wholesome,” good girl feminism was the feminism of good sports and safe team players: it was “neither defeatist nor gender-divisive, and is even now the philosophy of the feminist ‘mainstream’” (p. 24).

Roiphe and Fox-Genovese also want an upbeat feminism that promises women they can have it all without troubling systemic changes. They want to continue dreaming of hetero-sex without fear and of unrestricted chances for success in the world as it is. Roiphe, who doesn't seem to notice, let alone critique, racial, heterosexual, or class privilege, yearns for a feminism that would have “saved” her grandmother from her “world of manicures, hair salons, and no place to go in the morning,” a world in which she “was caught in a bad marriage” and had “nothing to fill her days” except shopping and “endless card games” that “absorb[ed] her intellectual energy” (p. 5). Fox-Genovese, meanwhile, valorizes the old prescriptions for privatized women's lives. She yearns for feminine networks among women happily and safely enshrined in well-supported hetero-families. Via an alchemy that adds true womanhood to the same rights privileged men have had, she creates a fantasy of “family feminism.” Fox-Genovese then blames feminists, rather than continuing systemic barriers, for making women anxious about whether they can be both happily married mothers and equal to men in the market-place. This is the diversity-denying and catch-22 logic that has worked so well for the dominant system: tell (all) women that the way to be equal is to be the same as (the few privileged) men, and the way to be fulfilled is to be a “true woman” (like those married to those few men)—and then brand them frustrated feminists if they protest that the rules of that contradictory, utterly unrealistic game are patently stacked against all of them and are devastatingly impossible for those subject to racial and other prejudices that intersect with gender.

Patai-Koertge are more knowledgeable about why analyses of constructions of gender, at least, are crucial. Nevertheless, they too divide feminists into the good and the bad such that patriarchy-preserving values are not disrupted. Focusing as they do on women's studies, they particularly object to politically engaged feminist teachers. They write: “Arguably, some forms of participation in [political] initiatives have been appropriate. … But at other times academic feminism has made itself subservient to activist agendas” (p. 6). They believe blending academic with political feminism leads to “an atmosphere” in which “scholarship becomes suspect as faculty members feel constant pressure not to betray the cause” (p. 9). Today's feminist activism seems to be remarkably terrifying: scholars, students, people of all sorts must be protected from it lest they—what? Yield to “pressure not to betray the cause”? Why would they do that, if “the cause” seemed to them genuinely wrong, based on falsehoods, harmful? Have the people, in whose defense the authors nominate themselves to speak, no agency of their own, no responsibility, no power they are willing to exercise?

Confusing uncritical acceptance with respect, Fox-Genovese informs readers: “Most people see women's issues as legitimate,” but “many remain uneasy about feminism as the story of a woman's life.” She tells us the story a good feminism should support to avoid provoking such unease: “Most women still hope to fit their new gains at work and in the public world into some version of the story of marriage and the family they have inherited from their mothers” (p. 16). In Fox-Genovese's view, feminists who have suggested that this story and political positions compatible with it do not serve women well within political, cultural, and economic systems premised on heterosexual white male dominance reveal themselves as “elitist” and therefore responsible for the supposed disaffection of “many women” from their cause: “Women who still see marriage and children as central to their sense of themselves have retreated from feminism,” she tells us, “because they do not believe that feminists care about the problems that most concern them or because they believe that feminists favor policies they cannot support, such as abortion, affirmative action, or women in combat” (p. 17).

Roiphe doesn't believe Fox-Genovese's story, but she does not want what she has decided is the feminists' story either:

I had caught myself in the middle of an unappealing fantasy of passivity: being carried along by fate, listening to the tarot cards, floating numb. What was I thinking? At the most uncharted moments of our lives we reach instinctively for the stock plots available to our generation, as trashy and cliched as they may be. In the fifties it was love and marriage or existentialism and Beat poetry in smoky bars. Now, if you're a woman, there's another role readily available: that of the sensitive female, pinched, leered at, assaulted daily by sexual advances, encroached upon, kept down, bruised by harsh reality. Among other things, feminism has given us this. … This is not what I want, not even as a fantasy.

(P. 172)

Thus, Roiphe focuses on women's sexual victimization, rather than on the activism through which feminists counter it, and then, remarkably, charges feminists with enticing her and other women into embracing her own “unappealing fantasy” of passive victimhood.

Sommers is particularly troubled by analyses of abuses of women that reveal the persistence of inequitable gender systems. Refusing such systemic analysis allows her only to worry about a few inexplicably aberrant males who for some weird reason abuse women. She is therefore especially warm in her praise of workers in shelters for abused women and especially vitriolic about those who act to change the systems that make such shelters so necessary. This is the “equity feminism” she pits against “gender feminism”: it promises women the same individual rights as men in an otherwise unchanged world while advocating more social workers to bandage the wounded that world continues to produce.

Sommers also mobilizes class resentment against supposedly powerful but perversely system-challenging “gender feminists.” Calling them the “New Feminists” (so she can appropriate equal rights victories of the past for her side), she characterizes them as “privileged, all of them legally protected and free” women who are “preoccupied” not with trying to better conditions for their less privileged sisters but “with their own sense of hurt and their own feelings of embattlement and ‘siege’” (pp. 24-25). Fox-Genovese similarly paints a picture of privileged bad feminists who “underestimate the crying needs of many poor women” (p. 28). She also uncritically cites one of her informant's opinions that “elite feminists” are racists who condemn “black men as brutes and rapists” (p. 29). Patai-Koertge, for their part, believe some white feminists challenge racism as a self-serving move for still more power: “Accusations of racism gained for the accuser points of some sort. Keeping others on the defensive seems to have become a strategy no one was willing to challenge” (pp. 63-64). They also complain about “the tyranny of politicized education by means of indoctrination and the even more pernicious faith that someone holds the key, knows the truth, has the answers, and is empowered (whether by our will or against it) to impose them on the rest of us” (p. 215). And Roiphe tells us unabashedly about her own suffering of powerlessness: “This book comes out of frustration, out of anger, out of the names I've been called, out of all the times I didn't say something I was thinking because it might offend the current feminist sensibility” (p. 7).

Intense expression of their own anger and resentment at seeing themselves, along with “most women,” victimized by bad feminists is clearly okay in these authors' view, but it is not okay for feminists to express anger about inequitable gender systems, any men, the dominant form of the heterosexual family, sexualized violence, or racism. Sommers, for whom “resentment feminism” is a main target, characterizes “resentment”:

Resentment is “harbored” or “nurtured”; it “takes root” in a subject (the victim) and remains directed at another (the culprit). It can be vicarious—you need not have harmed me personally, but if I identify with someone you have harmed, I may resent you. Such resentment is very common and may easily be as strong and intense as resentment occasioned by direct injury. In a way it is stronger, for by enlarging the class of victims to include others, it magnifies the villainy as well.”

(P. 42)

Just so does Sommers feel harmed by what bad feminists have done to others and just so does she magnify the villainy. She sees cabals of “well-funded” zealot feminists taking over everywhere, from academe to Congress. And listen to Patai-Koertge magnifying the effects of activist women's studies teachers on their students and colleagues. “What will we then have?” they ask. “Models abound: the Aryan university of Nazi Germany; Stalinism and Maoism; lily-white institutions in the pre-1960's U.S. South; the purges provoked by McCarthyism; East German universities …; ethnically pure enclaves in the former Yugoslavia. Think about these, and a chamber of horrors opens” (pp. 214-15).

Offering another take on this theme, which is central to all these authors, Sommers discusses the “victimology game” she claims is played by bad feminists. She says it is a game “any number of minority groups can play” (p. 79) without acknowledging that she, too, is playing it. About the support she believes (bad feminist) curriculum transformation scholars are getting, she writes:

Transformationism is galvanizing, and it has proved to be profitable. No one is offering money for a workshop that would teach its participants that men and women are not all that different, that the traditional standards are better left untransformed …, or that students are better off learning a universal curriculum that is not gender-divisive. … It is almost impossible to get funding to implement ideas that favor moderate reform rather than exciting Copernican transformations. … Critics who do venture doubts about the value of the transformationist movement are dismissed as “right-wing extremists” and their arguments are ignored.

(Pp. 78-79)

Sommers's claims here are evidently contradicted by her own financially well-supported, highly visible, popular media work, as well as by the well-publicized National Association of Scholars whose members are hardly “ignored” either. What may be accurate, however, is her identification with the feelings of victimization and resentment of those who no longer have uncontested power over curricula. Maybe she thinks it is acceptable for those who are accustomed to having power to complain when they lose just a bit of it because, unlike the long-powerless, their victimization is clearly an aberration. Rectifying it would not require changing the terms of the dominant game, and deflecting criticism of and activism against entrenched systems is always Sommers's basic goal.

Similarly, Roiphe, while pointedly expressing the discomfort she herself feels in the face of feminist actions against the sexual violation of women, is nevertheless quite sure that those who have suffered from such abuse must not be encouraged to complain:

Being a victim of sexual harassment is a way to get attention, a way to get the final word. In teaching children to “recognize” sexual harassment, we are training them in victimhood. … What happens as the constant need to be on guard against potential violation moves out of the school bus and into the office? Where does the moral of strength through victimhood lead aspiring judges, artists, and executives?

(P. 169)

Given their dislike of feminists who critique abusive systems and encourage women actively to protest, it is not surprising that the authors also attack consciousness raising. Sommers writes: “To rally women to their cause it is not enough to remind us that many brutal and selfish men harm women. They must convince us that the oppression of women, sustained from generation to generation, is a structural feature of our society” (p. 17). That “gender feminists” do hold that there is structural oppression of women and do teach students how to see, analyze, and act against it provokes Sommers to say ironically, “Persuading female students that they are oppressed is the first step in the arduous consciousness-raising process” (p. 92). In her view, consciousness raising is actually a brainwashing technique necessary to gain recruits to an ideologically perverted feminist “cause.” It limits rather than liberates women. As Roiphe writes: “In my late-adolescent idiom, feminism was not about rebellion, but rules; it was not about setting loose, as it once was, it was about reining in” (p. 171). Need I point out that the authors, as always charging bad feminists with what they are themselves doing, are trying to raise readers' consciousness that consciousness raising is bad?

Despite the confusion created by attacking others for what they are doing, can we catch glimpses of what the authors want feminism today to be? They all claim to be “liberals.” Sommers says she wants what “equity feminists,” as opposed to “gender feminists,” seek: “They merely want for women what they want for everyone—a ‘fair field and no favors’” (p. 51), that is, equal access for women to a system that claims to value competitive individualism. While saying they value the gender analyses that question the actual fairness of that field, Patai-Koertge also invoke their version of liberalism: “Only that weary adjective liberal—much maligned and battered but still bravely insisting on tolerance, mutual respect, and an open mind—can lend to education the power to overcome ignorance, prejudice, and hypocrisy” (p. 215). But just as it is difficult to sort out which gender analyses they respect from those they trash with epithets such as “gendelirium,” it is hard to sort out where Patai-Koertge draw the line between good feminist scholarship and bad women's studies. In general, however, the authors seem to agree that feminism must be hauled back onto the old supposedly tolerant, supposedly fair, individual rights-centered “liberal” field. They differ, however, about just how narrow are the bounds of that field and how far back—or to the right—feminism must be hauled.

Sommers claims to be upholding true “classic liberal” values, but she is listed by the Young America's Foundation Speakers Program (today's version of Young Americans for Freedom) along with conservatives such as Patrick Buchanan, George Will, Caspar Weinberger, Phyllis Schlafly, Barry Goldwater, and Phil Gramm. She was also among speakers paid for by the E. L. Wiegand Foundation during a year-long program planned to make the conservative case at Swarthmore College in 1994. Other speakers included Schlafly, Dinesh D'Souza, William F. Buckley Jr., Walter E. Williams, Edwin Meese III, Michael Medved, and David Horowitz.2

Patai-Koertge's frontispiece invokes quite different company, although read out of context the quotes from Adrienne Rich (“Lying is done with words, and also with silence”) and Albert Camus (“Every revolutionary ends by becoming either an oppressor or a heretic”) could easily be taken to support rather than counter today's conservative backlash. The message seems to be that Patai-Koertge are willing to risk feminists' anger from their left, and cooptation by antifeminists on their right, because of their allegiance to the pure and high purpose of a nonrevolutionary feminism. They also close their book with a postscript in which they characterize the “tone” they have adopted to brand bad feminists as both heretical and oppressive as one “of irony” rather than insult. They chose “irony,” they say, as “more conducive to our work than … dejection” (p. 216). And then they say: “To the enemies of feminist initiatives, the folks who will say, ‘See, we knew it all along—feminists are a bunch of wild-eyed weirdos,’ we have this to say: No. You did not read our book carefully” (p. 217). Again, the disclaimer does not suffice. It would be more accurate to say that had “the enemies” read “carefully,” they would have realized that it is only the feminists Patai-Koertge want purged from women's studies whom they wish to be branded as “wild-eyed weirdos.”

While honoring their earlier work, and despite being aware that there are some courses, teachers, and students in women's studies who do not always behave as I, too, might wish, I cannot avoid concluding that Patai-Koertge have gone well beyond the bounds of helpful criticism. The tactics they have chosen to use against other feminists do not suggest that trust placed in their political or intellectual openness or fairness would be well placed. Neither does their use of history. To justify their claim to be inheritors and defenders of the only real and true feminism, they, like the other authors, create a myth of the historical women's movement cleansed of its more revolutionary activism, its contestations and contradictions. But earlier feminists were no less contentiously divided about how radical desires for equality required them to be, nor were they more free of multiple intersecting prejudices, than are feminists today.

Creating a mythic history is also a political ploy. Once a movement has achieved some real successes from which many benefit, those who did its difficult, challenging work can be recast as saints. This falsification of reality allows those who continue agitating to be chastised for being ungrateful, rude, and too political to be worthy of the saints' mantle. It also makes it possible and effective for all kinds of causes piously to invoke the saints' values as their own. Thus, the New Right of today appropriates the stirring principles of the civil rights movement and progressive populism. The safely dead Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., is quoted against affirmative action, and the undoing of social service safety nets and the unleashing of gigantic corporations are presented as empowering people. Except for Sommers, whose actual associations belie her claims to liberalism, I don't believe these authors intend to associate themselves with all the purposes of the conservative backlash against the justice movements of the sixties and early seventies, but that makes their use of similarly falsifying and appropriative versions of history all the more troubling.

Such techniques are not “merely” rhetorical. They constitute public, political actions for which authors of popularly aimed books are responsible. And the only alternative to them is not to remain publicly silent, as these authors imply. On the contrary: public debate has always been essential to the health of feminism as to any movement for equitable, empowering social change. The authors could have joined in discussions with other feminists instead of trying to discredit, purge, and replace them. They could have done legitimate scholarly research that precluded falsifying the complex history of feminisms. They could have joined the tradition of liberal feminism that emphasizes equal rights for individuals without trashing more radical feminisms that target systemic barriers to the achievement of those rights. They could have included the views of non-“elite” women more accurately and respectfully by recognizing that working-class white women and women of color are not helplessly awaiting defenders, disagree among themselves and so are to be found among advocates as well as critics of a wide range of feminisms, and have throughout history not only questioned some versions of feminism but have also created their own.

But the authors chose to do otherwise. Readers of these books thus find themselves caught between believing that Sommers, Patai and Koertge, Fox-Genovese, and Roiphe really hold the values and intend to serve the purposes they claim, on the one hand, or believing the evidence of what they are actually doing in these books, on the other. When confused by such contradictions, the old saw that we should trust people who “not only talk the talk but walk the walk” seems apt. By that test, the authors fail to convince that they are friends of feminism; or liberalism; or fair-minded, inclusive, and accurate education and scholarship. They have chosen instead to walk in step with a patriarchy that knows how to reward those who are willing to attack their more agitating sisters.


  1. Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987).

  2. Consult Jean Stefancic and Richard Delgado, No Mercy: How Conservative Think Tanks and Foundations Changed America's Social Agenda (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996), which documents many such connections among those whose well-funded, powerfully backed purpose is to discredit progressive public and educational change. (And note that “well-funded” and “powerful” are markers Sommers reads as proof of the nefariousness of bad feminists.)

Works Cited

Who Stole Feminism? How Women Have Betrayed Women. By Christina Hoff Sommers. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994.

Professing Feminism: Cautionary Tales from the Strange World of Women's Studies. By Daphne Patai and Noretta Koertge. New York: HarperCollins, 1994.

“Feminism Is Not the Story of My Life”: How Today's Feminist Elite Has Lost Touch with the Real Concerns of Women. By Elizabeth Fox-Genovese. New York: Doubleday, 1996.

The Morning After: Sex, Fear, and Feminism on Campus. By Katie Roiphe. Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1993.

Wilson Quarterly (review date summer 2000)

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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 fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and author of Who Stole Feminism? (1994). [In The War against Boys] she contends that it is adolescent boys who are the troubled sex.

“The typical boy is a year and a half behind the typical girl in reading and writing; he is less committed to school and less likely to go to college,” she writes. In 1997, 55 percent of full-time college students were female, and the gender gap in enrollment is projected to grow.

“Far from being shy and demoralized, today's girls outshine boys,” Sommers says. “They get better grades. They have higher educational aspirations. They follow more rigorous academic programs and participate in advanced-placement classes at higher rates. … Girls, allegedly timorous and lacking in confidence, now outnumber boys in student government, in honor societies, on school newspapers, and in debating clubs. Only in sports are boys ahead. … Girls read more books. They outperform boys on tests for artistic and musical ability. More girls than boys study abroad. More join the Peace Corps.” Meanwhile, boys have the dubious edge in school suspensions, being held back, and dropping out. They are more likely to be diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. “More boys than girls are involved in crime, alcohol, and drugs.”

Boys score better on the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) and other standardized tests, Sommers acknowledges—but that's because of another male disadvantage. Boys from families with lower incomes or limited formal education—characteristics associated with below-average scores—are less likely than comparable girls to take the SAT. They don't drag down male SAT averages—and they don't go to college.

“Growing evidence that the scales are tipped not against girls but against boys is beginning to inspire a quiet revisionism,” observes Sommers. Even Gilligan—though “oblivious of all the factual evidence that paternal separation causes aberrant behavior in boys”—lately has given some attention to their problems, calling for basic changes in child rearing to get boys in touch with their inner nurturer. A far better solution, says Sommers, would be “the traditional approach” to civilizing young males: “through character education: Develop the young man's sense of honor. Help him become a considerate, conscientious human being. Turn him into a gentleman. This approach respects boys' masculine nature; it is time-tested, and it works.”

Richard Lowry (review date 3 July 2000)

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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 variety (where are the trigger locks?). But they were also acting on another trend afoot in American education: a disapproval of all the things boys do during recess. The Atlanta schools have eliminated recess altogether.

Snips and snails and puppy dogs' tails have fallen on tough times. In fact, as Christina Hoff Sommers demonstrates in The War against Boys, they have powerful enemies. The new book by the author of Who Stole Feminism? is a stinging indictment of an anti-male movement that has had a pervasive influence on the nation's schools and seeks, at bottom, nothing less than to eliminate the need for exasperated women ever again to shake their heads and mutter, “Boys will be boys.” Sommers, an expert at debunking shoddy (and trendy) research, exposes the ballyhooed “crisis of young girls” as the creation of feminists armed with dubious studies and savvy PR skills.

Girls, the story goes, are supposedly ignored by teachers who call only on boys in the classroom and otherwise (vaguely) neglect and abuse them, catastrophically undermining their self-confidence. “Just as planes and ships disappear mysteriously into the Bermuda Triangle, so do the selves of girls go down in droves,” Mary Pipher argued in her hit girl-crisis book Reviving Ophelia. “They crash and burn.” Sommers catches Pipher in a typical bit of statistical dishonesty. Pipher cites the fact that suicide rates among children aged 10 to 14 rose 57 percent between 1979 and 1988 as evidence that “something dramatic is happening to adolescent girls.” Actually, the suicide rate for boys had increased 71 percent, and for girls 27 percent; 61 girls killed themselves in 1988, 176 boys.

When it comes to girls in school, don't think of poor Ophelia, but the Reese Witherspoon character in the movie Election—together, smart, leaving the boys behind. Girls get better grades, do more homework, engage in more extracurricular activities, enroll in more advanced-placement classes (and fewer special-education classes), go to college in greater numbers, and so on. This doesn't mean that girls are academically superior to boys; just that the special needs of boys are being neglected. As competitiveness and individual initiative are discouraged, classroom discipline loosened, and outlets for natural rambunctiousness—e.g., recess—eliminated, schoolboys tend to tune out or turn on (to Ritalin).

Sommers traces the fundamental problem to the progressive, “child-centered” educational theories dominant in American schools. “Education and instruction should from the very first be passive, observant, protective, rather than prescribing, determining, interfering.” Thus did Friedrich Froebel, the 19th-century inventor of kinder-garten, sum up what would become the tenets of progressive education. But boys need their “prescribing” in big, strong doses. If they don't get it they drift into their own little worlds of inattention and underachievement. Sommers points for evidence to Britain, which has addressed lagging boys by re-emphasizing teacher-led work, structured classrooms, frequent tests, and strict homework checks, sometimes in all-male classes led by male instructors. Early results suggest that in Britain, easily distracted Johnny now finds it easier to learn how to read.

If American boys are trailing girls, why all the focus on Ophelia? The career of superstar Harvard psychologist Carol Gilligan is central to the answer. Famous as the first women's-studies professor at that institution, she is the chief phrenologist of academic feminism. In the past, she has rejected conventional standards of evidence as masculine tools—and apparently meant it. Her best-selling 1982 book, In a Different Voice, argued that women have a moral psychology distinct from that of men. But other scholars haven't been able to confirm her findings and the three studies on which Gilligan supposedly based her work are suspiciously under wraps, unavailable for peer review. As Sommers writes, all of this has led to “serious complaints of a type that, in disciplines that respect scholarly standards, have been known to lead to censure—or worse.”

Fortunately for Gilligan, her specialty isn't quantum mechanics, but “gender theory.” In two books after Different Voice, Gilligan explored the way adolescent girls are traumatized by a “male-voiced” culture and quickly learn that “people … [do] not want to hear what girls know.” So, according to Gilligan, preteen girls “know” things that they then “forget” in their teens as they are beaten down by the patriarchy. This provocative conclusion is based on small samples and extremely subjective interpretations. To simplify: Bitchy or politically liberal statements from girls are considered “knowing” by Gilligan, while anything polite or accepting of authority is taken as evidence of the dominant male culture at work.

That Gilligan's latest work did more than provide grist for tendentious dissertations is a testament to the power of marketing. The New York Times Magazine trumpeted her findings. The Ms. Foundation latched on to them and launched Take Our Daughters to Work Day. The American Association of University Women commissioned two studies meant to support Gilligan's conclusions and pin the blame for girls' low self-esteem on discrimination in schools. Headlines blared—the AAUW spent $100,000 on research for the second study, $150,000 on promotion—and Congress passed the “Gender Equity in Education Act.” When the AAUW sponsored yet another study in 1995—this one much more scientifically rigorous—the results contradicted the earlier dire conclusions; according to Sommers, this third study was not mentioned in a single newspaper article.

In the late '90s, Gilligan turned to the subject of boys, whom, she concluded, were also being traumatized by the patriarchy (which at least is an equal-opportunity oppressor). A fellow charlatan named William Pollack won major media attention after Columbine by talking, in a similar vein, of “Ophelia's brothers.” The idea is that there is nothing wrong with boys that can't be fixed if they stop acting like boys. Or, as Gloria Steinem puts it, “We need to raise boys like we raise girls.” This gets to the heart of the matter. Critics often say feminists hate men. That's not quite it—they actually hate masculinity.

One Department of Education-funded consultant warns against Little League, “where parents and friends sit on the sidelines and encourage aggressive, violent behavior” (stealing bases, sliding home, etc.). The women at Ms. briefly suggested a boys' equivalent of Take Our Daughters to Work Day, which would have included a visit to abused women's shelters—just so the little guys would know what violent bastards men are. This is the subtext of—now effectively Supreme Court-mandated—sexual-harassment training in schools. So, boys are forbidden to engage in traditional boyish behaviors, and subjected to propaganda about the evils of men. If all this doesn't bleach the masculinity from them, well, that just shows—in the words of one influential feminist—the “need for [new] materials to defuse male resistance.”

The War against Boys bristles with examples of the kind that send parents fleeing from the public schools. Take Judy Logan, a middle-school teacher in San Francisco who is legendary among girl-partisans for her relentlessly feminizing pedagogy. Boys in her class are made to enjoy quilting, girls encouraged to vent their anger at men. In one project, Logan required each boy to give a presentation in the persona of an African-American woman. After one freckled-faced boy completed his rendition of Anita Hill, a delighted Logan exhorted the class, “Give her a hand, everyone!” The title of a chapter about Logan in an AAUW book: “Anita Hill Is a Boy: Tales from a Gender-Fair Classroom.”

The fight against masculinity waged by foot soldiers like Judy Logan is not a bizarre sideshow to American culture. It is fundamental to the liberal project. The incorrigible maleness of men is a standing rebuke to the Rousseau-inspired notions of human moral plasticity that are central to liberalism. Sommers provides a charming, if slight, example: Her 14-year-old received a gooey, self-esteem essay exercise at school, asking whether he compared himself to others, whether he made such comparisons to make himself feel better, and whether such comparisons made him feel inferior. His answers, respectively: “Sometimes,” “No, I do not,” and “No.” Academic feminists and their army of fellow-traveling psychologists and educational consultants must be scandalized by boys like this, who, despite everything, just refuse to play with dolls.

There is also an explicitly political element to the fight over boys. Tocqueville worried that the tender attentions of government would “soften” Americans and make them “timid.” The modern welfare state has that tendency, but feminists are working toward the goal even more directly. It is no coincidence that behaviors frowned upon by liberals—owning guns, smoking, risk-taking generally—are predominantly male activities. Government fosters dependency, while feminist cultural warriors seek to rid the national character of precisely those traits that are naturally resistant to the nanny state: It's a pincer movement.

This is why Christina Hoff Sommers has written such an indispensable book, and why a goal for conservatives just as important as cutting taxes and limiting government should be keeping America safe for recess and Little League.

Marilyn Gardner (review date 20 July 2000)

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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 boys, arguing that they are the new “victims” of female-dominated educational agendas and antimale cultural biases.

As Christina Hoff Sommers states in the opening sentence of her provocative and controversial book, The War against Boys, “It's a bad time to be a boy in America.”

In 1991, Sommers explains, a widely publicized and little challenged report by the American Association of University Women charged that schools routinely “shortchange” girls, giving them low self-esteem.

Three years later, Congress passed a Gender Equity Act, classifying girls as an “under-served population.” Around the same time, the Ms. Foundation's annual Take Our Daughters to Work Day began sending a similar message, failing to acknowledge that sons need exposure to a range of career possibilities, too.

Despite the popular '90s myth of the “fragile girl,” Sommers charges that it is boys who remain “on the weak side of an educational gender gap.” Boys trail in reading and writing. They dominate learning-disability lists, dropout lists, and suspension lists. They are less likely to graduate from college. And although more girls attempt suicide, more boys succeed.

As further evidence of an anti-male culture, Sommers points to the rise of sexual-harassment workshops in schools, some of them targeting boys as young as 3 and 4. Then there is the decline of recess. Behavior that once would have been approvingly viewed as “letting off steam” on the playground is now regarded as aggressive. Sommers tells of a boy in southern California who was punished for running during recess.

Sommers, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the mother of two sons, also warns against nonsexist child-rearing practices. Encouraging little boys to play with dolls, she says, promotes the idea that gender roles are cultural rather than biological. If current trends continue, she adds, boys will become “tomorrow's second sex.”

What to do? Borrowing a phrase from the novelist Tom Wolfe, Sommers calls for a “Great Relearning,” a process necessary whenever reformers “jettison basic values, well-proven social practices, and plain common sense.” Americans, she explains, “must now relearn what previous generations never doubted: that boys and girls are different in ways that go far beyond the obvious biological differences.”

Sommers points approvingly to Britain, which she says is 10 years ahead of the United States in its efforts to help boys. She suggests a return to single-sex classrooms. She also urges parents to stand up for their sons.

Some of her arguments warrant attention. But her lengthy attacks on Carol Gilligan, a Harvard University professor of gender studies whom she calls the “matron saint of the girl-crisis movement,” grow tiresome. So does the book's crisis-oriented rhetoric. Is American society really “poisoned against boys,” as her publisher dramatically claims? Male underachievement in schools long predates any “girl-friendly” initiatives of the past decade.

Sommers's voice is impassioned and articulate. But her book cries out for the voices of boys themselves, and for the perspectives of their parents and teachers.

If, as publishers' lists suggest, Sommers's book and others mark the beginning of what could become the Decade of Boys, they also indirectly offer an idea: Perhaps the time has come for those on both sides of the gender wars to declare a truce. It's time to abandon a culture of victimhood and polarization. Time to shine the spotlight on both sexes, not pitting one against the other but finding ways to support and encourage boys and girls alike.

As Sommers herself says, “Children need a moral environment. They do not need gender politics.”

Tom Regan (review date 24 July 2000)

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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 instance—but bear with me.

This tragic fight was a classic example of extreme male rage. And male rage has become a popular topic the past few years, particularly in light of the numerous school shootings in America, all carried out by young man (or in one case, young boys) whose unspoken rage seemed to fuel their acts. The result has been that mainstream media have created this image of boys in particular as being (in the words of one writer on the subject) “toxic.”

That's where Sommers enters the picture. A fellow at the conservative American Heritage Institute, Sommers has written a book called The War on Boys: How Misguided Feminism Is Harming Our Young Men. She attacks the creation of these toxic images, which she says are largely the result of the work of feminists (a group that Sommers herself has declared war on). To paraphrase her argument, Sommers believes that we've spent so much time worrying about how girls are treated, in schools for instance, that we've neglected boys and turned masculinity into a politically incorrect idea.

Sommers has a lot of good points, and her book has served to bring the issue to a wider audience. But in her ideological zeal to craft a conservative political message (which might be described as “Blame the feminists! Blame the feminists!”) Sommers has, well, missed the point. Or, as my mother might say, she's in the right church, but the wrong pew.

The redefinition of women's gender roles that has been occurring gradually—and sometimes dramatically—over the past few decades is in fact a very positive development. And as the father of two girls, I would be the last one to say that paying more attention to girls' needs is in some way a detriment to society—in fact, quite the opposite is true. But I'm also the father of a young boy about to enter school this fall, and I've spent more than a little time thinking about the messages society gives about what it means to be a boy, and the lack of support boys receive in our society.

The answer is not to reinforce the traditional male stereotype of the stoic, often brooding, male, who never has an emotional reaction to anything. If that's the only image of masculinity that conservatives want to return to, then I say, forget it. And I don't believe that this image is what boys themselves really want. (Apparently Sommers actually never spent any time talking to boys when she wrote the book War on Boys, which is a little like writing a book on gardening without ever having spent any time in one.)

What we do need to do is break what author William Pollack has described as “the boy code”—a set of strict cultural rules that forces boys to hide, as Mr. Pollack says, behind a “mask of masculinity.” Which means, to me, that we're pushing this stoic stereotype on boys at such an early age, and so forcefully through so many means, that we make boys feel socially isolated, misunderstood, and confused.

What is needed for boys is the kind of gender stereotype revolution that has helped girls, and thus women, redefine their role in society. And that means that parents, educators, media, etc., need to, as writer Dan Kindlon said in a recent article, give boys the same kind of encouragement to be “emotionally literate—to be expressive of their own feelings and to be responsive to the feelings of others,” that girls regularly receive from a young age.

Yet before boys can change, men, particularly fathers, need to change as well—especially in the way we deal with anger and aggression. Because our sons look to us as role models.

Allow me to give a personal example. Recently my children and I were at Logan Airport in Boston waiting for a flight, and we headed for the children's play area in our terminal.

While the kids were playing, a young boy came tearing across the room and smacked into my toddler daughter, which sent her flying back and she struck her head.

I completely lost control and turned on this young boy and literally roared at him, even though he had obviously not meant to hurt my daughter. His parents came and hurried him away, but I realized that I had terrorized him.

So a few minutes later I went looking for him, and when I saw him, I knelt down beside him and apologized for my response. I told him that I was upset because I thought my daughter was hurt, but that anger was the wrong way to respond, and that it didn't do anything except make us both feel bad. I don't know if my words comforted this young boy, but I looked up to see my own son standing looking at me. As we walked away, he took my hand and said, “You did the right thing, Daddy.”

If we sincerely want to help young boys become young men, then we all need to do the right thing more often.

And that doesn't mean blaming feminists for all the problems of boys, but instead finding meaningful ways that we can help boys be more complete human beings.

Stephen Goode (review date 21 August 2000)

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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 declared, “I regard Christina Sommers as one of the most heroic truth-tellers of our time.”

Now Sommers has brought out another controversial book, The War on Boys: How Misguided Feminism Is Harming Our Young Men, which hardly was at bookstores this summer before it began “to spark a furious debate,” in the words of Claudia Kalb, writing in Newsweek.

That debate continues to rage, particularly among the book reviewers who see Sommers either as spot on or profoundly wrong. The conservative National Review got it right, calling the book a major indictment of the antimale movement that has exerted enormous influence on America's schools and culture. But Sommers has been denounced by the liberal Washington Post for writing a “conservative polemic” and condemned by the New York Times because her tone is “argumentatively strained, [and] raised to a hectoring pitch.”

Clearly, Sommers—now a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute—has touched a nerve. As a philosopher, her specialty is ethics, and it's her notion that what's been done to boys is morally wrong and needs to be righted. Her theme is summed up in the first sentence of her new book: “It's a bad time to be a boy in America.” Why is it a bad time? Because, Sommers argues, radical feminism has spread far and wide the myth that it is girls who are at risk in America, who are systematically discriminated against in favor of boys and who as a result don't do well in school and have bad images of themselves. It's actually the other way around, Sommers shows: It is America's boys who don't do well in school, who increasingly are suicidal in greater numbers than girls and who have difficulty finding a comfortable niche in society.

But feminist writers such as Carol Gilligan have been so successful in convincing the educational and cultural establishments that it's girls who need what help society can bring to bear, says Sommers, that boys have come under siege. They're told that being a boy isn't okay anymore, that it's downright wrong. Sommers shows that what radical feminism wants to do is “rescue” boys from their masculinity, thus setting the stage for the transformation of the “patriarchy” the feminists say oppresses all women into a feminist paradise where masculine swagger never intrudes.

Sommers likewise goes after male authors such as William Pollack, whose books describe a crisis in masculinity among Americans that can only be relieved by teaching young men to express their feelings openly and abandon the stoicism and fear of self-expression they've mistakenly been taught are manly but which Pollack says are pathological.

Gilligan's and Pollack's books are widely read (Pollack's Real Boys stayed on the New York Times' best-seller list for six months after the Columbine High School massacre in Littleton, Colo.). But the best gauge of how deeply the war against boys has permeated our society is the Gender Equity in Education Act passed by Congress in 1993, which provided big doses of special aid to female students who were defined as an underserved population. And in 1997, the Department of Health and Human Services, or HHS, set in gear a program called “Girl Power!” to provide girls ages 9 through 14 with programs designed to help them make the most of themselves. As Sommers wryly notes, HHS does not have similar programs for boys.

It's not surprising that the liberal press has jumped on Sommers' books feet first. What's interesting is that so few of their often-contemptuous reviews so much as touch Sommers' arguments which after all the smoke and thunder stand as solid as ever.

The New York Times, for example, had the prestigious child psychiatrist Robert Coles review The War against Boys, but all Coles could come up with was a tsk-tsk in Sommers' direction for daring to question such widely respected writers as Gilligan and Pollack, both of whom teach at Harvard University, as does Coles. After all, writes Coles, Gilligan and Pollack are scholars “who have spent years trying to learn how young men and women grow to adulthood in the United States,” as though that precluded them from criticism.

Not for one moment does Coles ponder whether the charges Sommers lodges against the two might carry any weight. He even gets testy with Sommers for criticizing writers who are “anecdotal and impressionistic” and who rely on “heavy doses of psychoanalytical theorizing,” a point on which science assuredly agrees with Sommers but which Coles—who is, after all, a psychiatrist who makes use of psychoanalysis—finds distasteful.

But what's truly odd is that Coles ends the Times review with a “let us hope and pray” that the author of The War against Boys learns more about how boys really are by listening to Bruce Springsteen songs and reading such books about boyhood as novelist and short-story writer Tobias Wolff's autobiographical novel This Boy's Life. Springsteen's songs are pleasant enough and Wolff's book is a good read, but Coles seems to have missed how closely Sommers has watched her own sons' development and how effectively she sometimes weaves it into her text. She knows boys better than Coles allows.

But by far the most tendentious and fatuous of Sommers' reviewers to date has been E. Anthony Rotundo in the Washington Post. Rotundo teaches at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., and is author of his own book on boys, American Manhood: Transformations in Masculinity From the Revolution to the Modern Era.

“Examined carefully, Sommers' case does not hold up well,” Rotundo maintains. What disturbs him most is that Sommers has what he calls a “boys-will-be-boys” notion of how boys should behave that's old-fashioned and needs to be abandoned because it fosters aggression and unnecessary competitiveness. Rotundo tut-tuts that when all is said and done there's really little and maybe no difference between boys and girls and that anyone who tries to foster a difference is doing both a disservice.

“Most studies in sex difference in various forms of behavior,” he writes, “show no statistically significant difference” between boys and girls. “The studies that do find differences between the sexes tend to find much greater variation of behavior within each sex than between the averages of the two sexes.”

For Rotundo, this proves “that we're far more commonly human than we are male or female.” Well, yes, we are human. But we're male or female, too, and while certain statistics viewed in skewed ways may say there's no difference between the two, common sense (not to mention longtime practice and the observations of billions of parents over millennia) tells us something else, most would agree. So why abandon common sense in questions so basic?

It's sad that Rotundo admits that “boys do lag behind girls in reading and writing, and they do trail in extracurricular participation. They are both perpetrators and victims of violence more than girls are.” But he concludes that Sommers' “intemperate book” provides no answers. “Had Sommers written a calm, factual presentation of boys' academic and social problems, this could have been a valuable book,” Rotundo writes, at his most disingenuous. Not for a moment does he believe what he's writing, since calm or heated, Sommers' arguments remain the same and up to that point Rotundo has said repeatedly that he rejects what she has to say in toto. How could a change in Sommers' tone alter that rejection?

Sommers suggests that recent British experiments with boys-only schools, along with traditional drills and rote memorization that have improved the lot of boys, are a possible solution to the problems faced by boys in America. Here, too, the liberals balk. “Sommers' advocacy of gender-segregated schools seems a drastic leap backward,” Elizabeth Johnson intones in The Gazette of Montreal. But one might ask: What's wrong with a leap of any kind that helps children?

Still, it's Sommers who may have the last word, with support coming from an expected source. This summer, the U.S. Department of Education issued Trends in Educational Equity for Girls and Women, a report that examines 44 indicators of academic equity between the sexes. About half showed no differences between boys and girls. Girls, for example, are as likely to use computers at home and at schools as boys.

The report says that boys do a little bit better in science and math. Girls, however, are the superior students overall and certainly when we consider literacy: Eighth-grade girls are comparable to 11th-grade boys when it comes to writing skills.

That's precisely what Sommers says the problem is. It's her critics who choose to ignore the consequences.

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

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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 has never been more mobile, more capable of the archetypal journey of the heroic quest, a traditionally masculine myth.

(Paglia xi)

In Vamps and Tramps, Camille Paglia provocatively casts women as self-sufficient individuals on a quest to recover feminism's true nature from academic distortion. Paglia's book represents just one of several national, best-selling, “feminist” books published in the past decade, including Rene Denfield's The New Victorians: A Young Woman's Challenge to the Old Feminist Order, Katie Roiphe's The Morning After: Sex, Fear, and Feminism on Campus, Christina Hoff Sommers' Who Stole Feminism?: How Women Have Betrayed Women, and Naomi Wolf's Fire With Fire: The New Female Power and How It Will Change the 21st Century. Together, these “popular press feminists”1 have levied a powerful critique of academic feminism and offered a new vision grounded in a “purer” feminism from the past. In so doing, since the mid-1990s, they have received significant media attention, gracing the front pages of popular media and igniting a flood of public commentary.2 Organizations such as the Women's Freedom Network, the Independent Women's Forum, and the Network for Empowering Women, testify to the widespread appeal of these articulations of a “new feminism.”

Despite considerable media praise of these “popular feminisms,” several scholars and theorists have sought to expose the flaws in their arguments and refute the limits of these popular press feminists' works.3 For example, feminist theorist Patricia McDermott argues that such books generally “promote a version of women's studies that trivializes feminist analyses of power, undermines attempts to effect social change, and casts feminism as a hegemonic bully on American campuses” (1995, 671). Nevertheless, Pulitzer Prize winning author Susan Faludi notes that, despite persistent challenges to their works, these authors have gained legitimacy in the popular press to the extent that they are often the first contacted by journalists looking for a feminist perspective on an issue (1995, 37).

In this essay, we argue that the power of these popular-press feminist texts does not reside in the form of traditional arguments; rather, the power of these texts comes from the story that the authors tell. In other words, although Paglia, Roiphe, and Sommers engage in traditional argumentative strategies to create an understanding of the women's movement, they rely predominantly on story-telling as a persuasive vehicle. Beginning from the assumption that the narratives people tell profoundly shape the reality people come to know and share with others, we focus our analysis on the narratives in these books to understand the ways in which the discourses produce and revise the meaning of feminism. We treat the rhetorical strategies embedded in these texts as action—the narratives create an image of feminists, implicitly ask readers to adopt a particular attitude toward certain types of feminism, and urge readers to act in accordance with their attitudes.

Throughout this paper, we explain how these texts derive their powerful appeal from assuming the form of an archetypal romantic quest narrative—a compelling story that engages the audience in a heroic struggle along with the authors (feminism's true heirs) against a formidable enemy (academic feminists). More specifically, each author adroitly weaves powerful depictions of themselves, academic feminists, and feminism into the context of a quest narrative form.4 Our analysis contributes to work in the communication discipline on narrative, particularly the theoretical inquiry of Walter Fisher, which suggests that narratives in discourse sustain multiple meanings and empower audiences to arrive at independent conclusions. After reviewing these texts, however, we argue that some narrative forms (e.g., the quest narrative) are less liberating, especially when combined with rhetorical depictions5 of heroes and villains that limit responses even further. In other words, when coupled together, the narrative form sets up rigid dichotomies between heroes and villains and creates double binds that limit possibilities for critical assessment of the work as well as honest debate and exchange.

Making our argument involves four main steps. First, we outline the rationale and theoretical framework that informs this study, including the narrative paradigm and the literary form of the quest narrative. Next, we trace the rhetorical development of the three texts, with particular attention to character depictions and plot lines. Third, we discuss the theoretical implications of this analysis for our understanding of narrative theory. Finally, we suggest productive ways that academic feminists might respond to the powerful narratives of these popular press feminists.


While many of the contemporary popular press feminist authors have received significant media exposure, we have decided to focus our analysis on three texts (Paglia's Vamps and Tramps, Roiphe's The Morning After, and Sommers' Who Stole Feminism?) for three main reasons. First, as already discussed, these three texts have received overwhelming media attention and enjoyed considerable public success. Second, all three authors identify each other as part of a similar project. For instance, Paglia commends Sommers for her use of “ingenious detective work to unmask the shocking fraud and propaganda of establishment feminism” (1994, xvi). Sommers cites both Paglia and Roiphe to support her arguments about date-rape and self-esteem. Sommers also identifies these authors as part of a group of protesters “outside the academy” who are not afraid to speak the truth and “who are not fazed by being denounced as traitors and backlashers” (1995, 274-75). In the introduction to her paperback edition, Roiphe credits Paglia with being the “lone dissenting voice” in a “cultural discussion” that “was not really a discussion at all” (1994, xxii).

Finally, all three texts forward arguments that are highly critical of women's studies programs in the academy and current proponents of the feminist movement. In these texts, the authors cast academic feminists as an elitist and out-of-touch autocracy who stifle dissenting voices. They argue that feminists propagate falsehoods and exaggerations about women's condition in society, feminists are paranoid and imagine all women as helpless victims, and feminists are repressed—sexually, emotionally, and intellectually. Such condemning depictions demand a response from feminists within the academy.

Given the success of these popular press feminist voices both in attracting the media's attention and subsequently the larger public's interest, we believe that the phenomenon of these texts requires critical attention. In addition to their overall widespread success as feminist spokespersons, these popular press feminists and their works merit study because they draw upon popular cultural beliefs and values such as individualism, personal responsibility and choice, and equal treatment of all people regardless of race, class, or sexual orientation (Wood 1996, 171-73). As a result, the arguments of these texts not only appeal to the general public, but also connect with a larger controversial debate among academics, journalists, and popular authors over cultural literacy, multiculturalism, and political correctness.

This context witnessed the rise of the Christian Right in politics and the waging of culture wars on college campuses, press headlines, and court systems (Bender and Leone 1994; Bloom 1994; Diamond 1995; D'Souza 1991; D'Souza 1995; Limbaugh 1992). As is evident in the popular press feminist books, arguments over cultural literacy, political correctness, and multi-culturalism embody characterizations of academic elites as out of touch with the educational needs of American children, as a new contingency of thought police “engaged in a project of ideological consciousness-raising,” and as the “latest enemy of the vitality of classic texts” (Hirsch 1988; D'Souza 1994, 87; Bloom 20). This larger discursive context of “cultural backlash” paved the way for Paglia, Roiphe and Sommer's claims and added power and legitimacy to their rhetorical visions.


Several communication and literary scholars have investigated the role of narratives in persuasive discourse. The works of Walter Fisher and Northrop Frye are especially germane to this project. Interested in the force of narratives and the way that stories work rhetorically to shape people's understanding of the world, Walter Fisher developed the narrative paradigm. For Fisher, the narrative paradigm offers a more comprehensive and heuristic way of understanding human communication. Fisher argues that humans are fundamentally storytellers and that “symbols are created and communicated ultimately as stories meant to give order to human experience and to induce others to dwell in them to establish ways of living in common, in communities in which there is sanction for the story that constitutes one's life” (1984, 6).

Embedded in Fisher's perspective is the assumption that the narrativity of public discourse empowers audiences to evaluate stories, arguments, and claims without the aid of technical experts or formal training in logic. In fact, Fisher claims that the narrative paradigm “engenders critical self-awareness and conscious choice” (1985, 349). In contrast to Fisher's assertions, however, our analysis of the popular press feminist narratives challenges our faith in the liberatory function of narratives in public discourse. We believe Fisher's insistence upon audiences' ability to judge a text critically downplays the power of discourse to shape and position audiences' understanding of their world in particular ways. Specifically, the structural logic of some narratives can limit an audiences' ability to assess those narratives critically.

One example of a powerful narrative form that does constrain an audience's ability to evaluate narratives is the romantic quest narrative. In his Anatomy of Criticism, Northrop Frye develops an extensive description of the mythic form known as the romantic quest. The quest story typically describes the adventures of a hero, who on a noble quest for a special object or person, encounters and defeats an evil villain. Frye explains that the romantic quest “has three main stages: the stage of the perilous journey and the preliminary minor adventures; the crucial struggle, usually some kind of battle in which either the hero or his foe, or both, must die; and the exaltation of the hero” (1957, 187). Throughout the quest story, the hero frequently calls for a return to “some kind of imaginative golden age in time and space” (186). Because the quest almost always involves conflict between two central characters—a protagonist (hero) and an antagonist (enemy)—the hero is virtually guaranteed that she will encounter opposition on her quest. Frye notes that the protagonist and antagonist often assume mythic qualities—“attributes of divinity” designated to the hero while the enemy takes on “demonic mythical qualities” (187). Ultimately, the quest story culminates in a battle in which the hero overthrows the enemy and the golden era is restored to renewed heights.

Importantly, the quest narrative is prevalent in mainstream American popular culture. Romantic quests undergird soap operas (e.g. Days of Our Lives), religious stories (e.g. David and Goliath), popular movies (e.g. The Star Wars Trilogy), myths (e.g. Jason's quest for the Golden Fleece), fairy tales (e.g. Cinderella), news spectacles (e.g. Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings), and popular television story plots (e.g. Law and Order). Each story features an underdog or a common person fighting against a powerful destructive force in order to restore a flawed and imperfect situation to its harmonious ideal. The good-evil dichotomies present in the quest story are rooted in many Western cultural systems. Legal codes (innocence or guilt), some religions (saint or sinner), and economic principles (bear or bull market), sustain themselves through similar dualistic thinking.

The power of this culturally familiar quest narrative form to circumscribe possible audience interpretations is best captured by Burke's definition of form as the “arousing and fulfillment of desires” (1968, 124). The quest narrative actively engages an audience by creating needs and desires and then gratifying and satisfying those needs and desires. Consequently, the form itself dictates the outcome of the story, effectively reducing an audience's ability to critically assess the narrative and envision alternative outcomes. Even Fisher acknowledges that “the most compelling, persuasive stories are mythic in form” (1984, 16). As is evident in the following analysis, the structural logic of the quest narrative form complete with powerful characterizations of heroes, villains, and impending battles limits an audience's ability to test the rationality of the narrative and position itself within the narrative critically.



In their narratives Paglia, Roiphe, and Sommers present themselves as heroes by juxtaposing themselves with the villains, academic feminists. All three writers discursively construct themselves as personally concerned with reclaiming the heart of the women's movement from its present state of corruption. In addition, the authors describe themselves as independent, rational, and scholarly in their intellectual endeavors.

First, all three authors demonstrate their investment in re-claiming the woman's movement from elitist, self-motivated, academic feminists who have co-opted or stolen the movement and perverted its true goals. For instance, Sommers distinguishes between two types of feminists: the equity feminists and the gender feminists. Sommers sees herself as an equity feminist and she argues that “The gender feminists have stolen ‘feminism’ from a mainstream that had never acknowledged their leadership.” She goes on to declare that “I have been moved to write this book because I am a feminist who does not like what feminism has become” (1995, 18).6

Similarly, Roiphe begins her book by explaining that she comes from a family that believed in the women's movement and that encouraged her and her sisters to speak up and have opinions. In fact, she reveals that her mother would not let her watch the Brady Bunch because it was sexist, and her father sent her to an all-girls school because “he wanted his daughters to learn to speak their mind” (1994, 4). As a product of a feminist household, Roiphe declares she was surprised and bewildered by her introduction to feminism in the academy. She states, “The feminism around me in the classrooms, conversations, and student journals was not the feminism I grew up with. … All of a sudden feminism meant being angry about men looking at you in the street and writing about ‘the colonialist appropriation of the female discourse’” (4-5). Shocked at what feminism has become, Roiphe vows to reclaim the feminism of her youth.

Paglia expresses similar dismay over the current state of feminism. Because she believes that academic feminists have misappropriated feminism, Paglia claims for herself a role as “militant reformer of feminism and academe” whose primary vehicle of reform is the “Sixties design of protest and opposition” (1994, xvi). Paglia further argues that she wants to “revamp” feminism and she portrays herself as a leader of the resistance against inauthentic feminism. For example, she contends “I am arming the rebels” and she also states that her work provides “a set of can openers by which dissenters can pry open the solipsistically sealed discourse of poststructuralism. I seek no followers. I am an irascible Aries warrior …” (xvii). Like Sommers and Roiphe, Paglia also proclaims her commitment to recover feminism's lost roots. Further, while Paglia denies that she seeks followers, she nevertheless devotes considerable energy to recruiting adherents through articulating her views in the popular press and persuading readers to follow her lead in salvaging feminism.

Second, all three authors highlight their nature as independent thinkers in contrast to the groupthink and uncritical mentality of academic feminists. The authors distinguish themselves by claiming responsibility for breaking new ground and staking intellectual claims even when doing so is unpopular. For instance, in the preface to her book, Sommers seeks to demonstrate her ability to question and verify the statistics and results of feminist studies. She claims she has a healthy skepticism of feminist methodologies and is willing to adopt a critical stance for the sake of “Truth.” Likewise, Roiphe notes that she is “writing against the grain” of current feminist thinking (1995, xiv). Throughout The Morning After, Roiphe suggests that she is a dissenter in an environment of fear and mass thinking. She further claims that she is fighting against an “Orwellian” culture that has “become astonishingly intolerant of dissent” (1994, xvii, xviii). Accusing academic feminists of publishing the startling results of a flawed study on rape on university campuses, Roiphe characterizes herself as the lone skeptic:

I remember standing outside the dining hall in college looking at a purple poster with this statistic written in bold letters. It didn't seem right. … If I was really standing in the middle of an epidemic, a crisis, if 25 percent of my female friends were really being raped, wouldn't I know it?


Also highly individualistic, Paglia depicts herself as a libertarian sixties rebel, a champion of diversity and a pagan outcast who is sexually free, original, and spontaneous. “My highest ideals are free speech and free thought,” she proclaims as she assumes the persona of a “streetwalker,” “a prowler and predator, self-directed and no one's victim” (1994, x, xvi). Clearly, all three authors depict themselves as independent “outlaw” scholars. In so doing, they invite audience members to embody such a position, and like the authors, assume the persona of a free-thinking hero.

In addition to their courageous and independent nature, these authors claim adherence to a rigorous program of intellectual scholarship marked by science and objectivity as they quest after “Truth.” Sommers portrays herself as reasonable and rational, motivated by a search for “Truth” in contrast to the gender feminists who are politically motivated. Sommers charges revisionist feminists, in their effort to reclaim women's artwork, with using remedial standards that result in their erroneously equating the inferior artistry of quilts to the canvases of Titian and Rembrandt. She argues that true feminists must reject as “unworthy” the revisionist stance's goal to “rewrite the historical record or to change the standards of artistic excellence to put women's art on a par with the highest classic achievements” (1995, 63). Throughout her book, Sommers continues to bemoan the harm done to “Truth” and knowledge by politically motivated attempts at scholarship. She argues that gender feminists' critiques of science's “methodology, its rules of evidence, its concern for empirical grounding [and] its ideal of objectivity … are a distinct embarrassment and a threat to any woman with aspirations to do real science” (71). In contrast to these “false” feminists, Sommers claims to enact a truth-based research approach grounded in material conditions. For example, she begins her chapter on rape research inquiring:

How can one quantify the sense of deep violation behind the [rape] statistics? Terms like incidence and prevalence are statistical jargon; once we use them, we necessarily abstract ourselves from the misery. Yet, it remains clear that to arrive at intelligent policies and strategies to decrease the occurrence of rape, we have no alternative but to gather and analyze data, and to do so does not make us callous. Truth is no enemy to compassion, and falsehood is no friend.


In this passage Sommers reinforces the notion that a person's politics should not be a part of empirical investigations, and she implies that any perspective that is not detached and objective taints the data and produces false knowledge that is ultimately harmful to those it seeks to help. Instead, she suggests that her scientific and rational approach to rape research is the only way to create a responsible and accurate political agenda.

Roiphe also contrasts her reasonableness to the politically motivated academic feminists, who are unable to distinguish between fact and fiction. For instance in her critique of Andrea Dworkin's work on gender violence, Roiphe argues that

The idea that men are safe and women are not, that danger is a gender issue, springs from something other than fact. Fear is not exclusively female. Although Andrea Dworkin doesn't seem to think so, Little Red Riding Hood is just a fairy tale, and whatever big bad wolves are out there are out to get all of us, flesh and blood, male or female.

(1994, 47-48)

According to Roiphe, her independent thinking and rational scholarship provide her with insights into contemporary issues that academic feminists miss because of their political, biased, and unscholarly approach to knowledge. Going further, Roiphe argues that academic feminists are blind to the fact that their focus on the danger and violence associated with sex reinforces age-old sexism. She claims that in “institutionalizing the assumption that rape is universally life-threatening, feminists are institutionalizing female weakness” (74).

Like Sommers and Roiphe, Paglia is committed to demonstrating her intelligence, reasonableness and academic finesse. Claiming that she can “talk trash with the rest of the human race,” Paglia adopts a matter-of-fact tone, noting that “I call my feminism ‘streetwise’ or ‘street-smart’ feminism” (1994, 36, 51). She further urges a return to the “plain voice of common sense” and she advocates a “simple, rational” and self-critical analytical approach to reforming educational standards (xvi, xviii, 38). With a wide variety of references to deconstructionism, Greek mythology, psychopathology, the Conservative Right, and Romanticism, Paglia bombards her readers with a smorgasbord of theoretical wisdom. For example, she cites a myriad of intellectuals including Allen Ginsberg, Donatello, Caravaggio, Marshall McCluhan, Michel Foucault, Oscar Wilde, Horace, Juvenal, Euripides, Rosseau, Emile Durkheim, and Sigmund Freud (vv, xvii, 24, 25, 88, 106, 149, 194, 400). As a result, she lends credibility to her position as a well-read and informed scholar; while simultaneously and implicitly contrasting her diverse knowledge with the myopic and uncritical view of academic feminists.

In summary, the authors, as heroes, embody all that is good about living in a democratic society—they are willing to take a stand for what they believe in; they are willing and able to think rationally for themselves; they want to preserve scientific truths and objectivity; they are self-reliant and responsible individuals. On the other hand, academic feminists are portrayed in stark contrast to the stories' popular press feminist heroes.


In these narratives, academic feminists are represented as the real enemies of women in today's society. Paglia, Roiphe, and Sommers use vivid and colorful language to portray academic feminists as “ideologues” who are “divisive and resentful” (Sommers 1995, 17). According to Sommers, “American feminism is currently dominated by a group of women who seek to persuade the public that American women are not the free creatures we think we are” (16). Paglia demonizes academic feminists by terming them “Stalinist” and “corrupt palace elites,” arguing that they practice a “Betty Crocker feminism,” and are comparable to “Nazis” (1994, xvi, xvii, 20, 25). She further describes feminists as “bourgeois,” “snippy neurotics” whose own sexual repression has resulted in the creation of a “spectral sexual hell” for other women (ix, 30, 32, 50). In general, the authors depict academic feminists in three ways: self-absorbed, unscholarly, and exclusionary.7

First, all three authors portray academic feminists as self-involved. For instance, Sommers asserts that the “New Feminists, many of them privileged, all of them legally protected and free, are preoccupied with their own sense of hurt and their own feelings of embattlement and ‘siege’” (1995, 24-25). As a result of what she calls their melodramatic, uncritical stance, Sommers charges that these feminists see “revelations of monstrosity in the most familiar and seemingly innocuous phenomena” (27). Similarly, in her depiction of student rallies, Roiphe portrays feminists as so self-indulgent with their “victim mentality” that they celebrate the most mundane of activities: “In the context of Take Back the Night, it is entirely acceptable to praise yourself for bravery, to praise yourself for recovery, to praise yourself for getting out of bed every morning and eating breakfast” (1994, 37). Roiphe suggests that the participants at these rallies get caught up in the emotional show, and they compete with each other to see “whose stories can be more Sadean, more incest-ridden, more violent, more like a paperback you can buy at a train station” (42). Citing the prostitute as the most liberated type of woman, Paglia further charges that academic feminists' activism against prostitution reveals their own self-absorption. She explains that “[i]n reducing prostitutes to pitiable charity cases in need of their help, middle-class feminists are guilty of arrogance, conceit, and prudery” (57).

A second critique these authors levy against academic feminists is that they are unscholarly as evidenced by their use of inaccurate statistics, unsound methodology, and emotional appeals to make their points. Sommers begins her book implying that feminists relied on a false statistic to create hysteria around the issue of anorexia. Roiphe, too, argues that the pull of the feminist clique is so strong that some women are willing to lie to be a part of the group. She relates the example of a woman named Mindy who fabricated a rape story so that she could participate in the Take Back the Night rally at Stanford. Roiphe suggests that the incident may not be unique: “If Mindy's political zeal and emotional intensity blurred the truth of her story, one wonders how many other survivors experience a similar blurring” (1994, 41). Paglia also charges feminists with distorted and inaccurate thinking that obfuscates truth. For example, she states that

Social constructionism was a crude distortion of the vast Sixties cosmic vision. It was promulgated for sectarian political purposes by … the new Seventies breed of Stalinist feminist[s] [who] tried, in the abortion crusade, to wipe out all reference to nature or religion—a misconceived strategy that backfired and simply strengthened the pro-life opposition.

(1994, 20)

The authors also portray feminists as anti-intellectual because of their confused methodology and emotional thinking. For instance, Sommers argues that because of their hostility to “exact thinking” and their disrespect for science and rationality, academic feminists are driven more by their emotions and psychological states than by any real intelligent insight. She states, “I believe that how these feminist theorists regard American society is more a matter of temperament than a matter of insight into social reality” (1995, 26). Sommers further contends that “[m]uch of what students learn in women's studies classes is not disciplined scholarship but feminist ideology” (51). Similarly, Roiphe claims that feminists' political approach to knowledge leaves them misdirected in their concerns and conflicted about their convictions. For instance, Roiphe argues that academic feminists have mistakenly identified a sexual identity crisis for a rape crisis, and in the process, are perpetuating the problem:

The movement against date rape is a symptom of a more general anxiety about sex. … Take Back the Night offers tangible targets, things to chant against and rally around in a sexually ambiguous time. Take Back the Night is a symptom of conservative attitudes about sex mingling with the remains of the sexual revolution. The crisis is not a rape crisis, but a crisis in sexual identity.

(1994, 26-27)

Further, Paglia stereotypes the academic feminists as being devoid of critical thinking skills claiming, “I have written and spoken extensively about the need to demolish women's studies, a corrupt autocracy that was flung together without regard for scholarly standards or objective criteria of professional credentialing” (1994, xxii-xxiii). She also charges that the “process of curricular reform has been complicated by the insularity of humanities faculty, most of whom seem naively oblivious to the political complexities and inner turbulence of contemporary America” (xviii-xix).

Paglia argues that this irrationality encourages academic feminists to exclude authentic feminists from the movement. Paglia recounts her experiences in the academy:

At Harvard and elsewhere I was boycotted by the feminist faculty, and at several colleges leaflets were distributed, inaccurately denouncing me as a voice of the far right. Following my lecture at Brown, I was screamed at by soft, inexperienced, but seethingly neurotic middle-class white girls, whose feminist party-line views on rape I have rejected in my writings. Rational discourse is not possible in an atmosphere of such mob derangement.


In this passage, Paglia sets up a powerful dichotomy between herself as a rational leader interested in discussion with other feminists and irrational, erratic, and unstable academic feminists who are desperate to exclude Paglia's informed opinions from the academic sphere.

In essence the texts vilify feminists within the academy by painting an unappealing picture of their psychological and social profile. The principal thrust of the rhetoric is that these academic feminists have corrupted feminism to serve their own personal psychoses and political agendas. Thus, the three authors caricature academic feminist theories and practices as destructive and negative. Academic feminists are constructed as the dangerous villains in the narrative quest who must be defeated if the soul of feminism is to be saved.


Throughout their books, Paglia, Roiphe, and Sommers portray themselves as heroes, identify academic feminists as antagonists, and suggest a necessary conflict between authentic and “false” feminists for the soul of feminism. As a result, they create a highly persuasive romantic quest narrative with widespread appeal. In keeping with the form of the narrative quest, all three authors locate the corruption of mainstream feminism in its straying from feminism's true roots. Each author champions a golden age where feminism is practiced appropriately and successfully. For example, Roiphe (1994) reminisces about the “true” feminism she grew up with in her home. Similarly, evoking women's mythical past of being vamps and tramps (“queens of the night,” “prostitutes,” “sexual seductresses”) Paglia urges a return to a purer “sixties” style feminist past which she brands “tough-cookie feminism” (1994, ix, xii, xiii). Her “equal opportunity feminism … demands the removal of all barriers to woman's advance in the political and professional world—but not at the price of special protections for women, which are infantilizing and anti-democratic” (x). Finally, Sommers laments that “It is unfortunate for American feminism that their [the gender/academic feminists] ideology and attitude are diverting the women's movement from its true purposes” (1995, 21). Sommers celebrates the feminism of a bygone era—a feminism of the nineteenth century. She states that “American women owe an incalculable debt to the classically liberal feminists who came before us and fought long and hard, and ultimately with spectacular success, to gain for women the rights that the men of this country had taken for granted for over two hundred years” (17). Sommers contrasts the feminism of Seneca Falls with the feminism of today and in her description suggests that all that feminism was back then (Seneca Falls) is all that feminism is not today: “The aims of the Seneca Falls activists were clearly stated, finite, and practicable. They would eventually be realized because they were grounded in the tradition of equity, fairness, and individual liberty” (35). Sommers' portrayal of the nineteenth century women's rights movement, however, ignores the fact that it took almost a century for women to gain the right to vote, and her account ignores the ideological struggles within the movement's long history.8

On their journey to reclaim the soul of feminism, the authors predict an inevitable battle between authentic feminists (people like themselves) and academic/gender feminists—a fight that authentic feminists must endure in order to redeem feminism. For instance, Paglia repeatedly contends that she is “at war” with individuals such as Catharine MacKinnon in battles over sexuality and feminism (1994, 107). In a play script entitled “Glennda and Camille Do Downtown,” Paglia spars with anti-porn feminists and describes how one protesting woman “strikes at the camera with her poster … [and] there is pushing and shoving and a general melee” (285). A satirical spoof on feminist protests, Paglia's account nevertheless underscores the essence of conflict and battle in the war over feminism. As a result of her efforts, Paglia suggests that she has been increasingly successful in reclaiming feminism's true nature. For example, she states:

In the past four years since I arrived on the scene (after an ill-starred career that included job problems, poverty, and the rejection of Sexual Personae by seven major publishers), there has been a dramatic shift in thought in America. The fascist rigidity of political correctness, in academe and the media, has begun to melt. Heretical ideas that, when I expressed them in essays and lectures in 1991 and 1992, got me pilloried and picketed, in a torrent of abuse and defamation, have now become common coin. My terminology and frame of analysis have passed into general usage.


In this passage, Paglia clearly presents herself as a determined heroine engaged in a relentless struggle against academic feminists. Notably, she casts herself as the likely victor.

Similarly, Sommers also predicts a coming battle between the equity feminists who represent “Truth” and the academic feminists who represent “Ideology.” She states that “All indications are that the new crop of young feminist ideologues coming out of our nation's colleges are even angrier, more resentful, and more indifferent to the truth than their mentors” (1995, 18). As such, others must take up the challenge to rescue feminism from the wrong hands. She declares that “Only forthright appraisals can diminish its [academic feminism] inordinate and divisive influence. If others join in a frank and honest critique, before long a more representative and less doctrinaire feminism will again pick up the reins. But that is not likely to happen without a fight” (18). Here again, Sommers positions herself and her would-be followers on the side of Truth engaged in a battle over the heart of feminism. Like Paglia, Sommers also slants the impending victory in her favor.

Finally, Roiphe also characterizes the current situation as a war:

The cliché about the war between the sexes has, like all clichés, its grain of truth: this war has its propaganda and its blind patriotism. When the maps and alliances and battle lines are drawn, loyalties pledged, sides declared, all ambiguities, doubts, and subtleties seem to disappear. This is a war of absolutes.

(1994, xiii)

In all three texts, the militaristic language of propaganda, patriotism, alliances, and battle lines invokes a vocabulary of heroes and villains; a cleaved society with clear distinctions between good and evil. In these narratives the authors suggest that their readers must be willing to fight if feminism, the academy, and society are to be saved. Just in case the audience is reluctant to engage in an all-out-war, the narratives of Paglia, Roiphe, and Sommers detail the dangerous consequences of refusing to do battle.

Much is at stake in this battle for the soul of feminism and the academy. The authors argue that the world and their audience's values are at risk. Sommers argues that under the rule of academic feminists, students are not able to get the basic knowledge necessary to function effectively in the world: “Those who deploy the new scholarship in an attempt to make up for the short-comings of the ‘male-centered curriculum’ almost inevitably shortchange their students” (1995, 63). She paints a very bleak future for the academy if the academic feminists' efforts are not curtailed:

But when future historians go back to find out what happened to American universities at the end of the twentieth century that so weakened them, politicized them, and rendered them illiberal, anti-intellectual, and humorless places, they will find that among the principal causes of the decline was the failure of intelligent, powerful, and well-intentioned officials to distinguish between the reasonable and just cause of equity feminism and its unreasonable, unjust, ideological sister—gender feminism.


Sommers' concern for the force of academic feminists does not stop with the academy, however. She believes the academic feminists' critique of knowledge production and curriculum transformations is “an illiberal, irrational, and anti-intellectual program that is a threat to everything. … American democracy, liberal education, academic freedom, and the kind of mainstream feminism that has gained women near-equality in American society” (82-83). In her view, academic feminism undermines feminism as well as the American ideals of democracy, free speech, and equality.

For Roiphe what is at stake in the ultimate battle over feminism is freedom of speech, and she faults academic feminists for their intolerance of opposing views. As an example, Roiphe claims that academic feminists insist “on a type of politicized language, on words like ‘patriarchy’ or ‘gender, race, and class.’ Such language offers easy code words for ‘on our side’ … What is ominous about this particular form of intolerance is that it dictates a certain homogeneity” (1994, xx). Thus, Roiphe's language choices portray academic feminists as a powerful force that dictates thought and identifies allies and enemies through a secret language.

Roiphe warns that current feminist rule crushes individual freedom and demands blind allegiance to a single mode of thought: “The concept of the individual writer thinking ragged individual thoughts, writing in his or her own ragged individual idiom, is sacrificed to the idea of the sleek political mechanism churning out endless, methodical analyses written in the common language” (xx). Like Sommers, Roiphe asserts that academic feminist thought runs counter to widespread American values such as individualism and freedom of expression. Roiphe suggests that she and other popular press feminists are among the first to challenge the excesses and exclusions of a narrowly defined feminism (xiv).

Of course, in order to make her argument, Roiphe must ignore existing voices within the feminist movement who have “continually critiqued the very excesses she names” (hooks 104). As bell hooks has indicated, radical black women, women of color, and progressive white women throughout feminism's history have challenged the assumptions and limits of “sentimental white bourgeois feminist thought” (106; Wood 1996, 181).

Similarly, Paglia worries that the “left” has lost control of ideas to a powerful conservative right. She explains:

Progressive values are damaged when the left has lost touch with reality and when the plain voice of common sense is heard mainly on the right. Conservative Christian organization have made enormous gains in America because most of their issues are legitimate ones that have been misunderstood, misrepresented, or treated with sophomoric disrespect by what Dan Quayle correctly called the “cultural elite.” The only way to slow or stop the national drift to the right is for intellectuals to reclaim these issues and methodically recast them, one by one, in a new progressive language comprehensible to middle America but divested of narrow Christian moralism. The people can and must be pulled back toward the center. Civil liberties, as the Sixties understood them, are at stake.

(1994, xviii)

Because elitist academic feminists are out of touch with reality, Paglia argues that the power of the right is increasing at an alarming rate. Self-appointed as intellectual and public spokeswoman, Paglia assumes responsibility for redirecting feminism on an appropriate course so that “the intellectual and artistic creativity of America will [not] suffer” (xxiii). Indeed, Paglia champions herself as a defender of free speech and free thought: “I condemn all speech codes and espouse offensiveness for its own sake, as a tool of attack against received opinion and unexamined assumptions” (xvi).

Clearly, each author makes use of a quest narrative as a central persuasive strategy. Each is engaged in a battle over true feminism with an unsavory and corrupt academic feminist opponent. Each author casts herself as a hero and predicts her eventual triumph. And each recalls a more glorious feminist past that must be restored. As we explain in further detail in the following paragraphs, this quest narrative circumscribes possible audience interpretations of the authors' messages precisely because the form (genre) dictates the presence of heroes and villains, a lost past to be reclaimed, and inevitable ultimate battles.


Throughout this essay we have demonstrated that an analysis of three popular press feminist books reveals the persuasive appeal and power of the quest narrative. Specifically, we argue that this quest form positions audiences (readers) in powerful ways. The quest form outlines an impending battle between good and evil and characterizes the victors and losers in this battle. The very form of the narrative encourages readers to identify with the heroes (authors) and disparage the villains (academic feminists). Such a form is not conducive to the liberating capacity of narrative rationality articulated by Fisher (1984; 1985).

In contrast to Fisher's theory of narrative rationality as a judgment that the audience brings to a text, our analysis suggests that some narratives, ones that are mythic in form like the quest narrative, carry within them their own narrative logic. This narrative logic works much like formal logic—the form itself effectively limits audiences' abilities to resist and challenge the story being told. Within the quest narrative, the presence of oppositional binaries combined with associations between the heroes and idealized cultural values encourage readers to identify with popular press feminists.

Oppositional binaries are central to both the form of the quest narrative and the depiction of the hero and the enemy. Because of this binary structure, the romantic quest narrative favors simplicity and absolutes over subtlety and complexity. Consequently, in these narratives, readers are encouraged to see themselves as either victim or victor, antagonist or protagonist, ideological or scholarly, oppressed or liberated, automatons or individuals, powerless or powerful, members of Orwell's “Ministry of Truth” or advocates of free speech (Roiphe 1994, xviii).

Paglia, Roiphe, and Sommers invite readers to participate in the quest narrative, and in doing so position the readers in such a way as to be either for or against the quest. Frye states that in a quest narrative “[c]haracters tend to be either for or against the quest. If they assist it they are idealized as simply gallant or pure; if they obstruct it they are caricatured as simply villainous or cowardly” (1957, 195).

The quest narrative, however, provides powerful incentives for readers to identify with the heroes. Frye explains that audiences of the quest narrative rarely have a true choice in being for or against the quest: “The central form of romance is dialectical: everything is focused on a conflict between the hero and his [or her] enemy, and all the reader's values are bound up with the hero” (187).

Kathleen Hall Jamieson refers to this no-choice choice as a double bind. She explains:

Rhetoric, as critic Kenneth Burke notes, is a reflection as well as a selection and a deflection. Rhetoric makes sense of otherwise inchoate experiences. It structures. It orders. It focuses. It attempts to limit our angle of vision to that of the writer or speaker. A double bind is a rhetorical construct that posits two and only two alternatives, one or both penalizing the person being offered them. … When a bind casts one alternative as loathsome, it points to the other as a woman's only appropriate choice.

(1995, 13-14)

These popular press authors' quest narratives create such a bind for their readers. If readers resist (or even reject a part of) Paglia, Roiphe, and Sommers' rhetorical vision, they are encouraged to see themselves as the authors depict the academic feminists—uncritical, self-indulgent, misdirected, and opposed to many cultural ideals. Further, the readers may view themselves as antagonists who are thwarting progress and supporting a false feminism. In contrast, if readers agree with Paglia, Roiphe and/or Sommers, they, like the authors, become heroes and advocates for authentic feminist principles and values.

The quest narrative further directs the audience to identify with the authors by associating the authors with revered cultural values of independence, rationality, objectivity, and freedom of thought and expression. The authors characterize themselves and their followers as critical and rational scholars, authentic feminists, and independent, powerful women. Paglia portrays her audience as “queens of the night,” rulers of the sexual and emotional sphere, autonomous, no one's victim, and responsible (1994, ix, xii, 31). Similarly, Roiphe depicts her readers as independent, individualistic, and superior to the misdirected feminists and their disillusioned followers (1994, 72). Sommers describes her audience as objective and philosophically aligned with feminism's true roots (1995, 22, 71).

Clearly these depictions invite readers to imagine an ideal and attractive feminist world, a utopia that may not reflect the real world experiences of many women. For instance, many women are constrained by obligations such as family responsibilities, employment, economic disadvantages, and relationships. In this sense, women are not completely autonomous or independent. Still, Roiphe, Paglia, and Sommers construct a powerful vision of how women would like to perceive themselves. As narrative theory predicts, such idealistic stories have tremendous appeal. Fisher explains that:

the narrative perspective leads to the conclusion that idealistic stories … generate adherence because they are coherent and “ring true” to life as we would like to live it. Such stories involve us in a choice of characters in competition with other characters, leading us to choose our “heroes” and our “villains”; the choice is existential.

(1985, 362)

The popular press authors maximize this pleasing worldview by writing in straight-forward, common language, offering simple right/wrong and good/bad choices, and enacting the scientifically-privileged positivistic approach to knowledge. Further, all three authors use the first-person plural form of “we” to refer to themselves and their readers, a powerful strategy that encourages readers to identify with the authors' position. How much more appealing (or at the very least, easier to comprehend) are these depictions than the ones that we academic feminists create with our subtle open-ended arguments, discipline-specific language, complex choices, and critical approaches that make problems out of positivistic thinking with no easy solutions?


Beyond theoretical implications, our analysis indicates that academic feminists must attend and respond to the power of these popular press feminist works and similar discourses. Based on our analysis, we suggest a variety of stances feminists in the academy may take to reduce the rhetorical force of these popular press feminist texts including: (1) deconstructing Paglia's, Roiphe's, and Sommers' narratives, (2) shifting the nature of the argument over feminism; and (3) appropriating some of Paglia's, Roiphe's and Sommers' strategies.

Academic feminists can adopt two main approaches to deconstructing the archetypal narratives. One way feminists in the academy can deconstruct the narrative is by identifying the presence of double binds. Jamieson states that:

The first step in overcoming a double bind is seeing it for what it is. Reframing invites an audience to view a set of options from a different perspective and confront the fact that the options offered are false—whether they present a no-choice-choice, a self-fulfilling prophecy, a no-win situation, a double standard, or an unrealizable expectation.

(1995, 190)

Our rhetorical critique of these texts was intended to do just that—reframe Paglia's, Roiphe's, and Sommers' arguments to illustrate the underlying narrative structure that places the audience in a double bind and discourages them from adopting a critical stance toward the author's arguments.

Another deconstructive approach that feminists might adopt is exposing the inconsistencies that are present in the archetypal narratives. For instance, Sommers frequently uses the same methodologies she critiques to make her argument. She accuses academic feminists of dichotomizing social reality “into two groups politically at odds, one of whom dominates and exploits the other” (1995, 42). As already demonstrated, Sommers creates a similar dichotomy by dividing feminists into gender (academic) versus equity feminists—one embodying all good the other all evil. In addition, Sommers disdains academic feminists for using the practice of “scare quotes to indicate the feminist suspicion of a ‘reality’ peculiar to male ways of knowing” (66). However, Sommers also uses this tactic of scare quotes to indicate her own suspicion of academic feminists' ways of knowing. For instance, she asserts that social studies texts are full of “filler feminism” and this “filler feminism pads history with its own ‘facts’ designed to drive home the ideological lessons feminists wish to impart” (60). By revealing the problems of incoherence and inconsistency embedded within these narratives, academic feminists can expose the limits of popular press feminists' claims.

To gain increased legitimacy, academic feminists can also shift the argumentative ground of the debate. Roiphe, Sommers, and Paglia occupy a position of success, in part, because they construct feminism in terms of a battle between true feminists (themselves) and false feminists (academic feminists). Any attempt by academic feminists to respond within this framework presents problems because academic feminists occupy an inferior, antagonistic position in these authors' narratives. In addition, any direct attacks by academic feminists on these popular texts only reinforce the authors' view—that authentic feminists are besieged outsiders fighting a tyrannical feminist establishment.

Thus, academic feminists should consider re-situating the nature of the debate. For example, Roiphe's, Sommers', and Paglia's primary strategy for reclaiming feminism is engaging in an empirical debate over the accuracy of statistical information and locating the origins of authentic feminism. Instead, academic feminists might shift the argumentative ground to one of improving material conditions for women. Sommers argues in her book that “Gender feminists are committed to the doctrine that the vast majority of batterers or rapists are not fringe characters but men whom society regards as normal—sports fans, former fraternity brothers, pillars of the community” (1995, 198). Sommers then proceeds to “prove” that batterers are really criminals and sociopaths and that gender feminists have inaccurately stereotyped innocent men as potential batterers. Paglia adopts a similar move when she states

I categorically reject current feminist cant that insists that the power differential of boss/worker or teacher/student makes the lesser party helpless to resist the hand on the knee, the bear hug, the sloppy kiss, or the off-color joke. … That a woman, whether or not she has dependent children, has no choice but to submit without protest to a degrading situation is absurd.

(1994, 48)

In arguing as they do, both Paglia and Sommers ignore material reality. Regardless of the number of women being battered, the fact of the matter is that women do suffer from physical and psychological abuse and arguing over the accuracy of statistics does not change that fact nor does it provide necessary help for battered women. Likewise, Paglia ignores the presence of power relationships and fails to consider real situations in which women cannot simply walk away from battery for a variety of reasons including fear for one's life, economic survival, and perceived dependence.

Instead of playing the popular press feminist game of engaging in debates in which academic feminists must necessarily lose as a result of the quest narrative construction (Paglia, Roiphe and Sommers have already cast themselves as heroes and academic feminists as villains), academic feminists might respond from alternate argumentative ground. Rather than arguing endlessly over statistical data, for example, academic feminists could demonstrate the ways in which their social advocacy deals with material reality and works to improve women's lives.

A final method academic feminists could use to gain legitimacy is to appropriate some of the strategies Paglia, Roiphe and Sommers employ with success. While we certainly do not advocate that academic feminists construct their own quest narratives, thereby reinscribing and reinforcing destructive dichotomies and binary thinking, we do acknowledge that academic feminists can learn from these authors. For instance, as demonstrated throughout this paper, the stories Paglia, Roiphe, and Sommers tell derive considerable power because they contain simple language and draw on cultural values and myths.

Currently, many academic feminists write in discipline-specific language, provide complex analyses, and use complicated theoretical constructs to support their arguments. As a result, academic feminist work frequently does not lend itself to general public readership and as such reinforces popular stereotypes that feminists in the academy are elitist and out of touch with the concerns of everyday people. While explaining complex concepts in easy to understand language is difficult, academic feminists must learn to convey their messages in ways that appeal to the popular press if they want to define the nature and function of feminism. In the words of feminist theorist Carol Cohn: “If we [academic feminists] refuse to learn the language, we are guaranteed that our voices will remain outside the ‘politically relevant’ spectrum of opinion” (1990, 50).

Roiphe, Sommers, and Paglia levy a powerful and compelling critique against academic feminists, simultaneously forcing academic feminists to find answers to central questions such as: How can we, as academic feminists, act responsibly and productively in our communities, which often operate using dichotomous belief systems? How can we convey the legitimacy of our work as well as utilize popular sites for knowledge production? Moreover, Roiphe, Paglia and Sommers clearly have positioned themselves successfully as feminist spokeswomen.

Academic feminists must follow this example and create discursive sites to speak as public intellectuals. Women's studies advocate Patricia McDermott (1985) suggests that academic feminists must position themselves at the crossroads of movements, media, and the academy in order to gain a powerful voice in contemporary popular culture. Academic feminists cannot afford to confine their actions to the academic realm or they risk reinforcing popular feminist stereotypes that academic feminists exist in an ivory tower and are out of touch with “true” feminist concerns. Thus, academic feminists must continue to draw attention to their work inside and outside the academy by forming coalitions with women's activist groups, writing in non-discipline specific language, developing productive relationships with the media, and actively engaging popular press “feminists” in dialogue. By doing so, they can increase their influence in and responsiveness to popular culture.


  1. Throughout this paper we refer to authors such as Paglia, Roiphe, and Sommers as “popular press feminists” to facilitate their self-identified distinction from academic feminists. While we respect the desire of these authors to identify themselves as feminists, we do believe that their work is limited in scope in that the authors present a largely white, heterosexual, middle-class woman's standpoint as representative of women, in general. As such, we think these works are ultimately counter-productive to many of feminism's goals such as collective action and political and social advocacy within a complex matrix of racial, ethnic, gender, sexual, religious, socio-economic, and political diversity.

  2. For example, within months of its release, Christina Hoff Sommers' book, Who Stole Feminism? How Women have Betrayed Women, was reviewed in numerous national and local newspapers and magazines including: the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, and U.S. News and World Report. Newsweek claimed, for example, that Sommers' book was “likely to be the most talked-about manifesto since Susan Faludi's ‘Backlash’” (“Sisterhood” 68). In addition, national television and radio talk shows such as The McLaughlin Group, CNN's Crossfire, ABC's Nightline, and CBS's Eye to Eye with Connie Chung discussed Sommer's book. More recently, Sommers was the feature cover story author of the Atlantic Monthly in May 2000 (“The War against Boys”). Katie Roiphe's The Morning After: Sex, Fear, and Feminism received several favorable reviews and was the cover story of the New York Times Magazine, the lead story in the Washington Post's Style section, and a feature interview for the fashion magazine Mirabella. A New York Sunday Newsday review heralded Roiphe as a “prominent—and provocative—new voice in feminist debate” (Roiphe 1994, back cover). Further, after publishing Sexual Personae, Camille Paglia earned a place on the front cover of New York and Harper's (Faludi 1995, 319). In Vamps and Tramps, she devoted over 75 pages to a media chronicle, a collection of cartoons, book reviews, and commentaries about her work.

  3. bell hooks argues convincingly that these authors, who are young, white, privileged women, “write as though their experiences reflect the norm without testing many of their assumptions to see if what they have to say about feminism and female experience is true across class and race boundaries” (1994, 102). Time book reviewer Barbara Ehrenreich accuses Sommers of downplaying important feminist concerns while New York Times book reviewer Nina Auerbach charges that Sommer's book is vitiated by logical flaws (Auerbach 1994, 13; Ehrenreich 1994, 61). And, feminist scholar Molly Dragiewicz (2000) critiques Katie Roiphe for distorting rape statistics and research. Also consult the works of Dow (1996), Parry-Giles (1998), and Wood (1996).

  4. Interestingly, Paglia, Roiphe, and Sommers are not the only critics of feminism who are drawn to the mythic form. For example, Martha Solomon (Watson) notes that the archetypal pattern of the romantic quest narrative characterizes the rhetoric of STOP ERA. Solomon argues convincingly that “the most effective rhetorical visions (and those least amenable to logical refutation) draw from a reservoir of myth” (1979, 263).

  5. We borrow the term rhetorical depiction from Michael Osborn's (1986) work on depiction. Defined as “strategic pictures, verbal or nonverbal visualizations that linger in the collective memory of audiences as representative of their subjects,” rhetorical depictions assume a variety of forms including extended anecdotes, metaphors, allegories, illustrations, and empirical evidence (79). In the context of this paper, the depictive forms function to create a vivid picture of feminism's heroes and villains.

  6. Sommers offers a lengthy description of gender feminists: “American feminism is currently dominated by a group of women who seek to persuade the public that American women are not the free creatures we think we are. The leaders and theorists of the women's movement believe that our society is best described as a patriarchy, a ‘male hegemony,’ a ‘sex/gender system’ in which the dominant gender works to keep women cowering and submissive. The feminists who hold this divisive view of our social and political reality believe we are in a gender war. … The ‘gender feminists’ (as I shall call them) believe that all our institutions, from the state to the family to the grade schools, perpetuate male dominance. Believing that women are virtually under siege, gender feminists naturally seek recruits to their side of the gender war” (1995, 16.)

  7. Paglia, Roiphe, and Sommers rarely acknowledge the existence of a wide variety of academic feminist philosophies including liberal, radical, revisionist, and cultural feminisms. Instead, they frequently conflate these diverse categories into one branch of feminism that they refer to as liberal feminism. Julia Wood (2000), provides a concise discussion of the differences among several branches of feminism in her book Gendered Lives (2000, 64-87).

  8. For instance, after the civil war, the women's rights movement split into two distinct organizations because of the debates concerning the passage of the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth amendments. The American Women's Suffrage Association, headed by Lucy Stone and Julia Ward Howe, argued that it was more important to ensure that African-American men obtained the vote with the passage of the amendments, while the National Women's Suffrage Movements, led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, argued that women's suffrage should also be included in an amendment to the Constitution. In addition to this ideological division, working-class women and women of color persistently challenged the limits of the movement, which was composed primarily of white, middle-class women who defined women's emancipation largely, although not exclusively, in terms of the franchise. For more information, consult Eleanor Flexner's (1975) account of the women's rights movement in Century of Struggle.


Auerbach, Nina. 1994. “Sisterhood is Fractious.” Review of Who Stole Feminism, by Christina Hoff Sommers. New York Times Book Review, 12 June, 13.

Bender, David and Bruno Leone. 1994. “Introduction.” Pp. 13-14 in Cultural Wars: Opposing Viewpoints, eds. David Bender and Bruno Leone. San Diego: Greenhaven.

Bloom, Allan. 1994. “The Influence of Western Civilization Must Predominate.” Pp. 17-22 in Cultural Wars: Opposing Viewpoints, eds. David Bender and Bruno Leone. San Diego: Greenhaven.

Burke, Kenneth. 1968. Counter-Statement. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Cohn, Carol. 1990. “‘Clean Bombs’ and Clean Language.” Pp. 33-55 in Women, Militarism, and War: Essays in History, Politics, and Social Theory, eds. Jean Elshtain and Sheila Tobias. Savage, MD: Rowan and Littlefield.

D'Souza, Dinesh. 1991. Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus. New York: Free Press.

———. 1994. “Political Correctness is Harmful.” Pp. 84-91 in Cultural Wars: Opposing Viewpoints, eds. David Bender and Bruno Leone. San Diego: Greenhaven.

———. 1995. The End of Racism: Principles for a Multiracial Society. New York: Free Press.

Denfield, Rene. 1995. The New Victorian: A Young Woman's Challenge to the Old Feminist Order. New York: Warner Books.

Diamond, Sara. 1995. Roads to Dominion: Right-Wing Movements and Political Power in the United States. New York: Guilford.

Dow, Bonnie. 1996. Prime-Time Feminism: Television, Media Culture, and the Women's Movement Since 1970. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Dragiewicz, Molly. 2000. “Women's Voices, Women's Words: Reading Acquaintance Rape Discourse.” Pp. 194-221 in Feminist Interpretations of Mary Daly, eds. Lucia Hoagland and Marilyn Frye. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Ehrenreich, Barbara. 1994. “A Feminist On the Outs.” Review of Who Stole Feminism, by Christina Hoff Sommers. Time, 1 August, 61.

Faludi, Susan. 1995. “I'm Not a Feminist But I Play One on TV.” Ms. (March/April): 31-39.

Fisher, Walter. 1984. “Narration as a Human Communication Paradigm: The Case of Public Moral Argument.” Communication Monographs 51: 1-22.

———. 1985. “The Narrative Paradigm: An Elaboration.” Communication Monographs 52: 347-67.

Flexner, Eleanor. 1975. Century of Struggle: The Women's Rights Movement in the United States. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Frye, Northrop. 1957. Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Hirsch, E. D. 1988. Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. New York: Vintage.

hooks, bell. 1994. Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations. New York: Routledge.

Jamieson, Kathleen Hall. 1995. Beyond the Double Bind: Women and Leadership. New York: Oxford University Press.

Limbaugh, Rush. 1992. The Way Things Ought to Be. New York: Simon and Schuster.

McDermott, Patricia. 1995. “On Cultural Authority: Women's Studies, Feminist Politics, and the Popular Press.” Signs 20: 668-84.

Osborn, Michael. 1986. “Rhetorical Depiction.” Pp. 79-107 in Form, Genre, and the Study of Political Rhetoric., eds. Herbert W. Simons and Aram A. Aghazarian. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press.

Paglia, Camille. 1994. Vamps and Tramps. New York: Random.

Parry-Giles, Shawn. 1998. “Image-Based Politics, Feminism, and the Consequences of Their Convergence.” Critical Studies in Mass Communication 15: 460-468.

Roiphe, Katie. 1994. The Morning After: Sex, Fear and Feminism. Boston: Little, Brown.

“Sisterhood Was Powerful.” 1994. Newsweek 20 June, 68.

Solomon, Martha. 1979. The “‘Positive Woman's’ Journey: A Mythic Analysis of the Rhetoric of STOP ERA.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 65: 262-74.

Sommers, Christina Hoff. 1995. Who Stole Feminism?: How Women Have Betrayed Women. New York: Simon and Schuster.

The War against Boys.” 2000. The Atlantic Monthly 285.5: 59-74.

Wolf, Naomi. 1993. Fire With Fire: The New Female Power and How it Will Change the Twenty-First Century. New York: Random House.

Wood, Julia T. 1996. “Dominant and Muted Discourses in Popular Representations of Feminism.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 82: 171-205.

———. 2000. Gendered Lives: Communication, Gender, and Culture. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

John Attarian (review date October 2000)

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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, timely book, former philosophy professor Christina Hoff Sommers, W. H. Brady Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, persuasively shows that the reality is grimly different. Educators are demonizing and discriminating against boys, forcing them to act against their own nature. Americans are turning against boys, Sommers argues, forgetting that normal males' energy, competitiveness, and corporal daring are highly beneficial. And bad boys are not products of macho socialization.


The prevailing myths regarding boys and girls are products of deliberate promotion, Sommers reveals. In 1990 Carol Gilligan, professor of gender studies at Harvard's Graduate School of Education, announced that girls were being educationally victimized and psychologically stifled. The popular media seized on Gilligan's work and began deploring a “crisis” among girls. So did organizations with feminist agendas. In 1991 the American Association of University Women (AAUW) commissioned a poll revealing that most adolescent girls had a “poor self-image.” The following year it commissioned and vigorously promoted another study, How Schools Shortchange Girls, which claimed a causal link between girls' alleged second-class academic status and poor self-esteem. Only years later did it emerge that these studies were biased against boys and erroneous.

“It is really clear that boys are No. 1 in this society and in most of the world,” pontificated Patricia O'Reilly, director of the University of Cincinnati's Gender Equity Center. “It may be ‘clear,’ but it isn't true,” Sommers bitingly retorts, citing abundant evidence. Girls outnumber boys in all extracurricular activities except sports. They outperform boys academically, too—reading more, getting better grades, matching or exceeding boys' enrollment in high school math and science courses. Girls are more interested in school and spend far more time on homework. Boys increasingly lag in reading and writing. And in a historic reversal, far more girls than boys now attend college. Far more adolescent boys than girls commit suicide.

The truth about boys' underachievement and demoralization is seeping out, but feminist groups such as the AAUW are resisting, even training educators to cope with “revisionists” who challenge the short-changed-girl dogma. To help boys, Sommers argues, we must repudiate the partisanship distorting discussions of sex differences among schoolchildren and objectively, fairly analyze the causes of those differences. But this cannot happen while the divisive pro-girl campaign goes unchecked and unchallenged.


The propounders of the manufactured crisis of diminished girls now argue that boys need special efforts to undo society's foisting of violence-promoting masculine stereotypes on them. Specifically, we must feminize boys. “We have an incredible opportunity,” gushed one gender-equity specialist. “Kids are so malleable.”

In justification, gender-equity advocates such as Katherine Hanson, director of the Women's Educational Equity Act (WEEA) Publishing Center, claim that nearly four million women are beaten to death every year, that battering by a man at home is the leading cause of injury to women, and so on. These assertions, Sommers shows, are wildly inaccurate. Equity promoters also maintain that children are born androgynous and socialized into their gender identities, and that they can be easily molded into another identity to promote equity and social justice. In fact, accumulating empirical evidence discloses that gender differences are largely innate, not learned, and that children's play preferences are mostly determined by hormones.

In a disturbing valuation of ideological correctness over truth, feminists pillory scientists researching innate gender differences, try to discourage this research, and deny the validity of its findings. Why? It is obvious, Sommers argues, that feminists have an understandable fear that these findings will be used to restore old, demeaning stereotypes of female inferiority that invoked innate differences to oppress women.

Here, as in her repeated crediting of the gender benders with good intentions, Sommers is much too generous, even naive, denying the highly plausible and more sinister possibility that gender-equity advocates are ideologues in revolt against reality. Moreover, her focus on the immediate present precludes definitiveness. The evidence is overwhelming that feminists have been waging a holy war of hate against men and maleness, and that it didn't start with Gilligan. Before World War I, even in such prominent outlets as the Atlantic Monthly, feminists were demonizing men. Seething with hostility, they asserted gender interchangeability, condemned socialization of males to violence and competition, and called for feminization of men. Today's androgyny project started in the sixties; scientific evidence of innate gender differences was already emerging in the seventies.

Otherwise, Sommers is persuasive, as when she concludes that promoters of gender equity “are far too reckless with the truth, far too removed from the precincts of common sense, and far too negative about boys to be playing any role in the education of our children.” She also rightly condemns their authoritarian, high-handed approach.

Ominously, the feminizing of boys proceeds apace in public schools. Children in grades K-3 are indoctrinated against sexual harassment. Equity advocates and teachers stress cooperative activities, such as “nonthreatening” versions of tag. Grade-school boys are urged to dress like girls, play with dolls, and assume female roles for class projects. That boys and even girls are unhappy with this leaves educators unmoved.

The federal government and legal system mightily facilitate this gender-bending project. Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 forbids sex discrimination in any educational institution getting public funds. To avoid discrimination charges and penalties, many schools and school districts employ feminist equity advocates. Moreover, the Department of Education funds many boy-reconstruction projects and materials; its WEEA Publishing Center distributes literature proclaiming that innate gender differences are minimal. Terrified of lawsuits, schools treat normal boys as sexist criminals; thus a three-year-old was punished for hugging a classmate. A 1999 Supreme Court decision that sexual harassment laws may be applied to schoolchildren will, Sommers plausibly predicts, make matters even worse.

Sommers fingers Gilligan as the person most responsible for the shortchanged-girl myth that has given gender reconstruction intellectual respectability. In A Different Voice (1982), Gilligan argued that females stress caring and connection in addressing moral problems, whereas males emphasize justice and rules. Her Making Connections (1990), drawing on interviews with girls at a New York school, asserted that girls were being shortchanged and “silenced.” In 1995, Gilligan turned to boys. Children, she claimed, are born androgynous, and boys are emotionally scarred by being separated from their mothers, isolated from their own feelings, and pushed into a competitive, striving male identity.

In one of her book's strongest parts, Sommers weighs Gilligan's work at length and, quite persuasively, finds it wanting. Gilligan is extremely protective of her 1982 book's data, refusing repeated requests from Sommers and others to see them, which naturally raises questions about their quality. (With this fact now public, will she finally disgorge them?) Also, Gilligan's scanty, anecdotal evidence hardly supports her 1990 claims; she gave shallow statements by clueless girls significance far beyond their merits. Her explication of her key concept of “voice” rests on circularity (“by voice I mean voice”) and cloudy metaphors (“psychic breathing”).

As for Gilligan's work on boys, Sommers is devastating. Gilligan offers no evidence for her claims and “does not seem to feel that her assertions need to be confirmed empirically.” The problem with unhappy, violent boys is not separation from the mother but absence of a father; empirical evidence reveals high correlation between fatherlessness and crime. Yet Gilligan is oblivious to this, being more interested in reconstructing boys. Her understanding of and empathy with boys are questionable, as are her wisdom and objectivity.

The evidence Sommers presents thoroughly justifies her conclusions:

We have yet to see a single reasonable argument for radically reforming the identities of boys and girls. There is no reason to believe that such reform is achievable, but even if it were, the attempt to obtrude on boys and girls at this level of their natures is morally wrong. The new pedagogies designed to “educate boys more like girls” (in Gloria Steinem's phrase) are not harmless. Their approach to boys is unacceptably meddlesome, even subtly abusive.

Male supporters of Gilligan, such as Dr. William Pollack of Harvard Medical School's McLean psychiatric hospital, are just as wrong in seeing normal boys as pathological and in need of rescue. In a refreshing, long-overdue reality check, Sommers points out that the military ethos damned by Gilligan, Pollack, and others has many virtues: honor, camaraderie, and self-sacrificing devotion. And there is nothing wrong with pursuing stoicism rather than self-indulgent gushing.


Boys are also being maleducated. Despite evidence that a demanding, highly structured approach to teaching language and literature works well with boys, American educators are de-emphasizing learning, competitive grading, and structure, with grim implications for our future in an increasingly competitive, skill-based world.

British boys trail behind girls in reading and writing, too, but the British are deeply concerned about this. They are committed to improving boys' performance and restoring traditional approaches: highly structured learning, demanding standards, all-boy classes, homework checks, and frequent tests. Performance is improving markedly with these methods. Yet American educators' debates over pedagogies ignore the issue of which one works best for boys—which Sommers rightly finds frustrating. Hence nothing is being done to help underachieving boys.

This started, Sommers maintains, with eighteenth-century German and Swiss educators who analogized children to plants, arguing that children, like plants, should be allowed to develop freely. American Progressive educators also stressed low-pressure learning and letting children follow their own interests. True enough—although, oddly, she never mentions John Dewey.

British success with traditional pedagogies implies, she argues, that boys are “paying the highest price for the current misguided fashions in education.” Yet such fashions persist. American experience with single-sex education of boys, while limited, is quite encouraging—but feminists are fanatically resisting all-male education. Moreover, the feminist-inspired 1996 Supreme Court ruling on the Virginia Military Institute greatly discouraged all-boys' education. Nevertheless Sommers is optimistic, arguing that once the American public understands the situation, sensible reform will follow quickly. One hopes she's right.

The maleducation of boys extends to their moral formation. While all children need clear, firm moral guidance, this is especially true of boys, who are far more prone than girls to mischief, mayhem, crime, and violence. Civilizing them requires much constraint by adults. When boys don't receive it, barbarism ensues. Sommers cites group sexual assault on girls in public swimming pools in the South Bronx; the rape of a retarded girl by high school athletes in Glen Ridge, New Jersey; and the Spur Posse gang of Lakewood, California, whose members competed in sexually exploiting girls. To feminists, these outrages indicate pervasive violent misogyny, caused by sexist male socialization. But Sommers, examining the Glen Ridge and Spur Posse cases more closely, found that the boys had been allowed to misbehave for years with impunity. She argues convincingly that “the problem with these young male predators was not conventional male socialization but its absence.” Faulting masculinity as such is a red herring, she adds; focusing on this distracts us from the failures of moral education.

Unfortunately, some educators and jurists still refuse to grasp this reality. Sommers rightly traces this to modernity's embrace of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's repudiation of original sin. Seeing children as inherently good, Rousseau argued that they should be allowed to develop freely. Having swallowed Rousseau's ideas, American education has abdicated its character-formation role, leaving children to flounder. Sommers likens this to turning them loose in a chemistry lab to discover their own compounds. “We should not be surprised when some blow themselves up and destroy those around them.” Here, as elsewhere, Sommers bears out conservative philosopher James Burnham's observation that “the best cure for a bad case of ideology is a strong dose of common sense.”

Herself a mother of sons, Sommers closes optimistically. She cites feminist mothers who tried to raise their sons by feminist dogmas but stopped when they realized that “they were coercing their sons to act against their natures.” Thanks to the mothers' love for their sons, reality and fairness trumped ideology—a hopeful sign that America, too, will return to its senses.

The War against Boys is a frightening revelation of a deeply disturbing phenomenon: an ideology radically at odds with reality laying hard hands on helpless children. Not since Marxist-Leninist states tried to reconstruct their peoples through indoctrination and compulsion has there been such a heavy-handed campaign to warp human beings to fit ideology. That these ideologues regard other people's children as putty to be molded as they like should outrage all Americans, regardless of their politics, especially parents. Sommers observes that parents have no idea what's happening to their sons. Her badly needed book will enlighten them. If it finds the readership it deserves, it may spare millions of children unwarranted misery.

Mark Edmundson (review date 9 October 2000)

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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 propitious time, the organizers thought: October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. The activities that the Ms. Foundation recommended included taking your son (or “son for a day”) to an event focused on ending men's violence against women (“Call the Family Violence Prevention Fund at 800 END ABUSE for information”); playing a game with no scores and no winners; helping to make siblings' lunches and lay out their clothes for the school week ahead; shopping for and preparing the evening meal. And then, presumably, just kicking back and letting the good times roll on.

Ultimately, Son's Day was canceled; its originators backed off. “Nevertheless,” says Christina Hoff Sommers in The War against Boys, “Ms.'s attempt to initiate a boys' holiday is illuminating. It shows the kind of thinking girl advocates do when they reflect on what influences would be good for boys.” Sommers believes that girl advocates—or “misguided feminists”—are ascendant now in American culture and that they're turning boys' lives into a sorry morass.

The overt gist of Sommers' book [The War against Boys], written in stolid, mass-production-style prose, is that we've begun to think of boyhood as a pathological state. What society once considered a normal part of being a boy—aggression, energy, noise, restlessness; rampant, crude curiosity—now looks like sick behavior. The current archetypes for boys, the figures that popular culture takes to epitomize being young and male, are the thugs from the Spur Posse in California and the killers at Columbine High. The result is that boys are coming to hate themselves simply for being who they are.

This situation Christina Hoff Sommers is determined to amend. She's hot with righteous indignation on boys' behalf: Judgment Day approacheth.

To Sommers it's supremely patronizing (and dead wrong) to argue that strong masculinity is a disease, one that can, with the right kind of socialization, be cured. Boys need some indulgence if they're going to transform their wilder energies into civilizing drives. Turning furies into muses is no easy trick.

Sommers' book has a very contemporary feel to it. She spends a lot of time pulling together horror stories we've all heard from the recent news and organizing them to make a full-blown, quasi-legal case for the view that boys, en masse, are being repressed by an alien regime. She talks about the kid who was suspended for kissing a girl in school, and about boys forced to study exclusively female figures in an American history class. She describes boys brainwashed into believing myths about their own inborn turpitude: It comes with the testosterone.

One of the best Sommers horror stories is about the hugger:

In [an] unpublicized case, a mother in Worcester, Massachusetts, who came to pick up her son was told that he had been reprimanded and made to sit in the “time-out” chair for having hugged another child. “He's a toucher,” she was told. “We are not going to put up with it.” That little boy was three years old.

The tales of “Son's Day” and the hugger, and the other stories that Sommers picks off TV news and from the daily papers, often make The War against Boys, seem like a pure artifact of the way we live now. But in another of its dimensions, this book is very old-fashioned. For Sommers assumes that she knows something that probably no one can know, or at least that many people gave up claiming to know thirty years ago. For her, the old gender wisdom pretty much holds: Boys are active, aggressive, outgoing; girls are inclined to be quiet, nurturing, restrained.

Sommers has recourse to some standard research findings to buttress her views: Boys are better at spatial reasoning (a little); girls are more verbal; male and female brain structures look, to some scientists, rather different; boys have more testosterone, girls estrogen, etc., etc. From this, much follows. “There will always be far more women than men who want to stay home with the children,” Sommers avers. (Always? Far more?)

One has heard the purportedly scientific evidence for these views before, and though it's surely suggestive, it's hardly clinching. How many times in the past has science followed, mistakenly, in the ruts of this or that social dogma? The history of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century “scientific” investigations into race—which almost inevitably affirmed the inferiority of all nonwhite people and endorsed their need to be guided, enlightened, colonized, converted, what have you—should put us on guard.

What's going on in Sommers' book, beneath all the protests on behalf of masculinity and all the antifeminist invective? This is actually another installment in the old nature/nurture wars. Both sides, Sommers and her antagonists, have taken extreme positions. Both sides are attempting to turn back the social clock, trying to sabotage an ongoing, painful and very promising gender revolution.

Sommers suggests that she knows what real boys and real girls are at their biological core—she thinks she has a direct line to nature. The feminists she detests (for the most part, she's vague when it comes to naming them) are similarly smug. They know that it's all a matter of nurture. They think biology barely matters. They're prone to believe that if you socialize a boy as you would a girl, well, what you'll have is a biological male who behaves like a female in every significant way. (And wouldn't that be lovely?) Sommers has a splendid time deflating this kind of thinking; some of her best pages jump with invective against the nurture/nurture crowd.

Sommers takes pains to document the deep investment that the Education Department has in the all-nurture side of the question. She notes how the Women's Educational Equity Act Publishing Center (which is the national resource center for “gender-fair materials,” maintained by the Education Department) has declared, “We know that biological, psychological, and intellectual differences between males and females are minimal during early childhood. Nevertheless, in our society we tend to socialize children in different ways that serve to emphasize gender-based differences.”

It's wobbly lobs like this that Sommers delights in smashing back over the net: “In fact,” she virtually hollers, “‘we know’ no such thing.” Hard science—she's quite right—simply hasn't gotten us to such a point, assuming it ever could.

A few pages later, Sommers homes in on a researcher named Elizabeth Debold, who “firmly believes that so-called male behaviors—roughhousing and aggressive competition—are not natural but artifacts of culture.” To Debold, superheroes and macho toys cause boys “to be angry and act aggressive.” No testosterone involved. Debold reports on 3- and 4-year-old boys who delight in a good, bracing game of house until the sorry moment when “peer socialization and media images kick in.” Sommers goes on to quote the feminist philosopher Sandra Lee Bartky as saying that human beings are born bisexual into a patriarchal society and then, through conditioning, are “transformed into male and female gender personalities, the one destined to command, the other to obey.”

But the real dragon in Sommers' bestiary is Carol Gilligan, author, most famously, of In a Different Voice. It was Gilligan who, in that 1982 volume, protested the ways that girls were being socialized. She claimed that their desires for community and connectedness were being systematically denigrated by educators and psychologists. The abiding ideal was the male wish for autonomy and independence. No one was listening to the “different voice” in which girls expressed their own, often quite admirable, morality. After Gilligan, Sommers claims, everyone turned away from the boys and began spending all their time nurturing girls—and there the problems began. Sommers dislikes Gilligan so much that occasionally she shoves her onto the nurture side of the debate, where by and large Gilligan doesn't belong. Gilligan, as Christopher Lasch pointed out in an influential—and biting—essay on her work, is basically a Rousseauian. She seems to believe that girls have a nature, an inborn need for community and attachment, that it's good (very good indeed) and that society squelches it. It's not that the nurture camp is underpopulated—Debold, Bartky and the Education Department gang represent a real trend. It's just that Gilligan, whatever shortcomings she may have, doesn't really belong in the clammy cell into which Sommers is determined to thrust her.

What follows from the idea that nurture is all, Sommers says, “is the notion that what society has constructed amiss can be torn down and reconstructed—in the right way. It is assumed that, at bottom, we are all essentially androgynous.” The word “essentially” has a bad odor in intellectual discourse now; we're perpetually cautioned against declaring that we know the “essential” nature of the text, the individual, the culture. And that, from my pragmatic, Emersonian perspective, is all to the good.

But Sommers is a literalist herself, an essentializer in her own right—she just works the other side of the street. Rather than assuming that we're all essentially androgynous, she tends to assume that we're each essentially male or essentially female.

In fact, many people pushed away both these literal ways of thinking some time ago—and not without reason. Part of the sixties rebellion, part of feminism at its best, was a rejection of sexual stereotypes. Men were no longer going to be compelled to conform to the box-shouldered gray-flannel-suit norm. Women weren't going to be ladies—at least not under duress.

And so childrearing had to change. The idea, put simply, was to wait and see. You brought out traditional boys' and girls' toys, put them in front of the child and watched. What does he respond to? What gets her going? When the little boy grabs Barbie by the legs, bends her at the waist and begins shooting, you can only smile. But it doesn't always happen that way, not at all. Lots of boys like to sing, dance and act to the exclusion of nearly all else (my 8-year-old is one such); plenty of girls will be pleased to fire the soccer ball in the general direction of their opponent's kisser, hoping if not for breakage or blood then at least for a pleasant-sounding smack.

The hypothesis that took hold in the sixties was that the identity of the individual might come before her or his gender identity. A person wasn't pre-eminently male or female, M or F, but a range of possibilities, informed, but not determined, by gender. People no longer had to subordinate themselves to stereotypes against their will. We were going to hold the notion of “real boys” and “real girls” at arm's length, put those generalities a few steps in abeyance and see what would develop.

When I was growing up in the fifties and sixties, the schoolyard seemed to have room for only three types of boys: There were the bullying alphas; the betas who followed them around, performing rituals of submission, exposing their necks and ducking their heads on cue; and then there was group three, “the faggots.” Now more boys seem willing to go their own ways, take their satisfaction and status from a range of things: their computers, their pets, their books, their skill with a pencil, their fluency with jokes.

What the women's movement and the sixties rebellion have begotten is a sort of public Romanticism. That is, we took a collective step toward the belief that people could make themselves without conforming to pre-established standards (though without ignoring those standards, either), and that by doing so they would be better—freer, more interesting, more creative, happier.

This Romantic urge for self-reinvention can have strange results. On the individual level, it's often a weird thing to behold. The doctor living down the street, who's been a lifelong traditionalist, a stone allopath, suddenly gets tired of pushing “poison” on her patients and heads for New Mexico, there to study an arcane herbalism from native medicine men. She leaves her husband distraught and her colleagues muttering about menopause and midlife crisis. Out in New Mexico, the doctor's behavior is anything but beyond reproach. After a time, though, if all goes well, she takes what she's learned and merges it with the best of her former self, and perhaps goes back home a healer of enlarged prowess.

A process like this is guaranteed to be tumultuous. Now conceive the chaos that's got to ensue when a whole society takes the plunge into self-remaking. Because that is exactly what American culture has done in the past quarter-century. Many of us have called into question—not forgotten, not denied, but questioned—all the old assumptions about gender that we grew up with. We've backed off, given kids more choices.

Plenty of bad things have gone down, to be sure. The confusion that's come in the wake of the gender rebellion has produced lots of horror stories. Some boys have seen the new freedom, got scared and retreated to the macho grunt-and-clobber style. Some girls, weaned on resentful brands of feminism, have grown rancorous and blamed the patriarchy for every rotten personal choice they have made. And sometimes things get so weird one wonders if it might not be better to go back to a world in which we had unified expectations for all boys and all girls, where we acted as if we knew their essence and treated them accordingly. As a parent, I can see the advantages: Ah, yes, a boy: I know what to expect. We can raise the kid right.

Books about boys and their crises and girls and theirs—despite their professed aims—often have a covert appeal. People buy them to find out just what they have on their hands—what defines a boy, what defines a girl. Or, if they're reading a member of the nurture/nurture crowd, to learn that nothing defines them by nature and that all the shaping is up to parents. The experts want to deliver us from the current questioning—where we're not really sure how much is nature and how much is nurture—and bring us back to an earlier day. They want to make life literal again.

Sommers and the nurture/nurture feminists she rails against may not like each other much, but they're sisters under the skin. They are conservatives in a time of quiet, ongoing rebellion. They want to shut out indeterminacy and replace it with Truth.

There's something about certain social scientists—and all of us are probably infected in some measure with this malady—that cannot bear being in uncertainties, mysteries and doubts, as that arch-self-maker John Keats put it. They want the truth and they want it now. They take us away from rich confusion, give us the answers.

It's also probably true that current media culture gives grinding, one-idea books like Sommers' more prominence and cultural influence than they deserve. To hit the talk-show circuit, to get on the news, to generate buzz with a social-crit-type book, you need a thesis that can be spit out in under five seconds flat: There's a war against boys! To the barricades before it's too late! Hard-working, smart writers like Sommers have ever more pressure on them to write fat, knowing books that seem encyclopedic in their range but actually have theses so small one could lose them in a watch pocket. Subtler, more careful studies, in which the author feels free from time to time to shrug and say “We don't know,” “We're not sure,” get shoved aside.

How do boys learn best? Sommers, knowing what she knows, can tell you. They need lots of information, lots of memorizing, plenty of facts, traditional schooling, if you please. Sometimes, it seems, social scientists envision the kind of society they want—in this case, one in which there's more respect for facts, more obeisance to authority—then design a story about human nature, highly scientific, of course, to fit that vision to a T.

In fact, a lot of current childrearing resembles a sloppy, loving dialogue. You offer your child various possibilities, enforce various rules. Then you watch the results. Is he happier, smarter, wiser? But you're also cautious: You suspect that he may have a nature—maybe even a nature based on his gender—and you take pains not to outrage it. You steer a course, in other words, between the two belief systems. And the effects of this course-steering can be genuinely freeing. I remember how my 10-year-old heart swelled when a teacher looked at my skinned knees and bruised face and declared me “all boy.” My own sons—and most of their friends—would pull a look of cartoon puzzlement at that accolade. All to the good.

What a literalist like Sommers usefully reminds us of is how badly this grand experiment could go awry. For if nature does insist that the boy be aggressive, and he bottles it up, we don't need a psychoanalyst to tell us that there will be a cost down the line. And if we raise a little girl to conquer the world, when what her nature really demands is that she bank feathers in a comfy nest, then she'll no doubt suffer a more than common unhappiness. The result of too many choices, too open a field, can be fright, confusion, rage. The French Revolution convulsed its way back toward tyranny when it seemed suddenly that too much was up for grabs. In the gender revolution, a great deal now is indeterminate, and it makes us uneasy. We may well be collectively flying in the face of nature.

But almost every dramatic gain for civilization has occurred when people challenged what previous generations took to be the natural order of things—whether it was the rule of the aristocracy or the supremacy of the white race. In the future, old assumptions about nature and gender will probably look the way essays on the divine rights of aristocrats or treatises on the inferior brain structure of dark-skinned peoples do now.

Sommers wants the quiet, complex gender revolution to stop. She's here with all the answers, all the facts. And people will no doubt pause for a bit, mull the old truths over, give them their due. But the gender revolution has opened up too many possibilities for most of us to give up now. Conservatives like Sommers and the all-nurture feminists, supposed experts, are going to have to look on from the sidelines while the amateurs, actual parents who never conducted a survey or compiled statistics, keep all the rich uncertainties, mysteries, doubts—and hopes—alive.

Cherie Harder (review date 24 November 2000)

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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 denounces in her provocative book The War against Boys. At issue, Sommers claims, is a clash of worldviews—over what human nature in general, and masculinity in particular, is and should be—fought in the arena of the schools. Whoever the victor of the battle, the victims are boys.

Sommers details how Harvard professor Carol Gilligan, the American Association of University Women (AAUW), and other like-minded organizations have imposed their strange brand of feminism in the schools, and popularized the notion that girls are being silenced, subdued and subjugated, while boys are aggressors-in-waiting who must, for the good of society, be conditioned to be more nurturing and emotive—and less boy-like.

However dubious their arguments, they have managed to initiate numerous federally funded programs, which they then develop and administer, effectively cornering the market on school-based gender-equity programs, and ensuring a captive audience of children to promote their ideas.

Sommers effectively picks off the sensational and largely unsubstantiated claims that girls are “shortchanged” and demoralized in school. She shows that “it is boys, not girls on the weak side of an educational gender gap.”

Boys lag behind girls in reading and writing, are less likely to graduate and go to college, and are more likely to be suspended, held back, commit crimes, and abuse drugs. Sommers' reliance on hard data contrasts starkly with the research conducted by Prof. Gilligan and the AAUW, much of which has never been subjected to peer review, and remains unavailable to the public.


But if Gilligan and others keep their data close to the vest, they wear their disdain of boyhood behavior on their sleeve. They portray boys as almost inherently pathological, claiming that “violence is gendered, and its gender is male.” If one starts with the presupposition that all boys are potential, if not actual, criminals, it follows that the way to reduce violence is to recondition men. Reconditioning never comes easily, so boys' resistance is to be expected but overcome. One cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs.

The picture Sommers paints of boys' mistreatment and reconditioning in schools is frightening; fortunately for boys, it is incomplete. When it comes to influencing children, parents and popular culture exert as much pull as do teachers, and do so in a different direction.

Parents exert the most influence in raising their kids and cultivating their character; they presumably would form the front lines of resistance against any attack on their boys. But Sommers offers little analysis or advice on a parent's role in the battle.

If parents (and particularly fathers) are engaged in their son's lives, they can do much to raise boys to be virtuous, disciplined and admirable men. If, on the other hand, parents cede the cultivation of their children's character to the schools, then boys' problems will extend far beyond a feminizing princessipal.

Sommers also ignores the powerful (if regrettable) influence of popular culture on boys. The entertainment industry with its endless production of violent, vulgar, and frequently misogynistic movies, music and video games largely caters to an adolescent male audience. Some feminists may want to “cure” boys of their masculinity; Hollywood would rather exploit it.

Given that the average boy spends more time each year in front of a movie, TV or video game screen than in the classroom, the messages of the antiboy partisans will be diminished, if not altogether drowned out, by the siren call of indulgent and titillating entertainment.

Perhaps the most important contribution of The War against Boys is its clear presentation of the results of the worldview undergirding the antiboy offensives. The battle against boyhood is predicated on the belief that human nature is constructed by societal influences, and can therefore be “torn down and reconstructed—in the right way” (emphasis in original).

The fact that “a growing body of empirical data … strongly supports the experience of parents and the wisdom of the ages: that many basic male-female differences are innate, hardwired, and not the result of conditioning” doesn't daunt Gilligan and her compatriots. While flouting research standards and ignoring hard data, Gilligan instead “compares her methodology to Darwin's.”

The comparison is revealing. Like Darwin, her findings are far more than a collection of discoveries; they are articles of faith, with enormous implications for moral reasoning, education and societal norms.

The belief that human nature is our own construction, and can thus be deconstructed and reconstructed at will flies in the face of what humanity has observed himself to be from the dawn of history, and is squarely at odds with both classical assumptions and the veritable Judeo-Christian affirmation that God created the human race to be male and female, equal but dissimilar, and stamped with the image of the divine. Thus, the war against boys is a war against human nature, and a denial of a Creator. The impulse to recondition human nature according to human tastes is as old as the desire to play God.

There were numerous other experiments in human reconditioning in the last century; all of them ultimately failed. Boys will always be boys, but the misguided agenda of the gender equity activists can still do great harm to boys and girls. All children need moral instruction, discipline and correction; they do not need to be reprogrammed or pathologized. Sommers' brave book shows the dangers of playing God with human nature, and the futility of the attempt.

Miriam Karmel (review date November-December 2000)

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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 was right: While boys and girls in advanced-placement social studies classes got about the same grades, in standard classes, girls outsmarted boys. Still, not everyone was convinced.

Christina Hoff Sommers tells the Scarsdale story in The Atlantic Monthly (May 2000) to prove a point: Teachers simply won't believe that girls are thriving in the classroom. Why? Because that would contradict what everyone is presumed to know: Girls are treated as the second sex in school, while boys are accorded privileges.

Citing data from the U.S. Department of Education, the National Center for Education Statistics, and several recent university studies, she argues that girls “outshine boys” in everything from participation in advanced-placement classes and higher-level math and science courses to study-abroad programs. Girls read more books and get better grades. They enroll in college at a higher rate than boys do.

Boys, on the other hand, are more involved in crime, alcohol, and drugs. They are three times as likely to receive a diagnosis of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. And while girls attempt suicide at a higher rate, boys more often succeed.

Sommers traces this pervasive belief in girls' victimization to a 1982 book by Carol Gilligan, Harvard's first professor of gender studies, called In a Different Voice. In the book, which received widespread attention, Gilligan argued that America's adolescent girls were in crisis. But the research was flawed, Sommers says. It was anecdotal, lacked solid empirical evidence, and ignored the conventional protocols of social science research. Yet from it flowed a spate of “victimology” literature, most notably Mary Pipher's Reviving Ophelia (1994), which argued that girls psychologically crash and burn in adolescence because of pressures to live up to unattainable standards of beauty and femininity. Polls conducted in the early '90s by the American Association of University Women seemed to confirm this view: Girls were being short-changed in the classroom.

This flawed research, says Sommers, was touted by gullible news media that accepted it at face value. And it resonated with women's groups who used it to further their political agenda. Gilligan has defended her research in an ongoing online joust with Sommers, and is backed up by family therapists like Marianne Walters of the Family Practice Center in Washington, D.C., who tells Family Therapy Networker (July/Aug. 2000), “Gilligan never said girls go into a funk. She said only that they lost their voice during those preadolescent and adolescent years because of competition for the attention of boys. … It's so clear. Why would anyone want to distort it the way this woman is distorting it?”

As Howard Muson writes in Family Therapy Networker, “Sommers has made a vocation out of bird-dogging weaknesses in research invoked to redress the wrongs done to girls.”

Muson agrees that “girls are clearly on top” academically. Yet this hardly proves there's a war against boys in school, or even that boys are in trouble socially. As Evan Imber-Black of the Center for Families and Health at the Ackerman Institute in New York puts it, “A lot of our children are in trouble.”

Ironically, Gilligan has since switched her focus to boys. But while Sommers blames boys' aggression on absent fathers, Gilligan says they need to be more in tune with their feminine side.

Olga Silverstein, author of The Courage to Raise Good Men, has another view. She told Muson, “We're all created by our culture, and if you look at different cultures, you'll see that men behave differently according to what the culture expects of them.”

But the view that the culture is to blame, rather than “man-hating feminists,” misses the point, too, says Muson, who suggests moving beyond blame. If Sommers calls attention to the serious problems that boys face, she also reminds us that schools are not appropriate turf for gender warfare. As Imber-Black points out, “We need girls and we need boys. We need to be paying attention to everybody.”

Cathy Young (review date February 2001)

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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.]


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 Differences Between Boys and Girls.” Each event largely followed a predictable script. On the AAUW side, there was verbiage about “gender, race, and class” and hand-wringing about the “conservative backlash”; despite an occasional nod to innate sex differences, “gender equity” was pointedly defined as “equal outcomes.” On the IWF side, there were affirmations of vive la différence and warnings about the perils of trying to engineer androgyny; despite some acknowledgment that there are not only differences between the sexes but much overlap, the old-fashioned wisdom about men and women was treated as timeless truth. And yet both discussions shared one major theme: the suddenly hot issue of boys—to be more specific, boys as the victimized sex in American education and culture.

Just a few years ago, of course, girls were the ones whose victimization by sexist schools and a male-dominated society was proclaimed on the front pages of newspapers and lamented in editorials, thanks largely to widely publicized reports released by the AAUW in the early 1990s. It was probably only a matter of time before somebody asked, “But what about boys?” By the end of the decade, headlines like “How Boys Lost Out to Girl Power” began to crop up in the media, and boys-in-crisis books began to hit the shelves.

But as the two National Press Club panels underscored, two contrasting arguments are being made on behalf of boys. In one room, there was sympathy for boys who yearn to be gentle, nurturing, and openly emotional but live in a society that labels such qualities “sissy”; in the other, there was sympathy for boys who want only to be boys but live in a society that labels their natural qualities aggressive and patriarchal. Harvard psychiatrist William Pollack, author of the 1999 bestseller Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons From the Myths of Boyhood, believes boys are suffering because our culture traps them in the rigid codes of traditional manhood. American Enterprise Institute scholar Christina Hoff Sommers, author of the controversial new volume The War against Boys: How Misguided Feminism Is Harming Our Young Men, believes boys are suffering because our culture seeks to “feminize” them and devalues manhood. (Guess which of them spoke on which panel.) One camp wants to reform masculinity, the other to restore it; one seeks to rescue boys from patriarchy, the other from feminism.

Both sides, however, agree that something is rotten in the state of boyhood. Real Boys opens with the assertion that boys, including many who seem to be doing fine, are “in serious trouble” and “in a desperate crisis.” Pollack and other gender reformers paint the typical American boy as an emotional cripple, if not a walking time bomb ready to explode into a school massacre. The shooters of Littleton and Jonesboro, Pollack has said, are merely “the tip of the iceberg.”

In The War against Boys Sommers persuasively challenges this hysteria, noting that it's ludicrous to generalize from a few sociopaths to “millions of healthy male children” who manage to get through high school without gunning down a single person. (She fails to mention that some people in the pro-manhood camp have been just as eager to use homicidal boys as symbols of a male crisis: A couple of years ago in Commentary, Midge Decter wrote that “raging schoolyard murder” is what happens when boys are deprived of “manly instruction” and honorable ways to assert their masculinity.) Sommers argues that most children, male and female, are in fairly good psychological health and in no need of “fixing.”

Yet Sommers herself refers to boys as “the gender at risk, and her book is hardly free of alarmism, from the title to an opening that rivals Pollack's: “It's a bad time to be a boy in America.”


The most tangible and effectively documented cause of concern is male academic underachievement:

  • • Girls make up 57 percent of straight-A students; boys make up 57 percent of high school dropouts.
  • • In 1998, 48 percent of girls but only 40 percent of boys graduating from high school had completed the courses in English, social studies, science, math, and foreign languages recommended as a minimum by the National Commission on Excellence in Education. (In 1987 there was no such gender gap, though only 18 percent of students met these requirements.) According to the National Center for Education Statistics, high school girls now outnumber boys in upper-level courses in algebra, chemistry, and biology; physics is the only subject in which males are still a majority.
  • • On the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) tests in 1996, 17-year-old girls, on average, outscored boys by 14 points in reading and 17 points in writing (on a scale of 0 to 500). While boys did better on the math and science tests, it was by margins of five and eight points, respectively.
  • • Women account for 56 percent of college enrollment in America. This is not due simply, as some feminists claim, to older women going back to school; among 1997 high school graduates, 64 percent of boys and 70 percent of girls went on to college. Female college freshmen are also more likely than men to get a degree in four years.

These differences do not cut across all racial and social lines. The gender gap in higher education has reached truly startling proportions among blacks. From 1977 to 1997, the number of bachelor's degrees awarded annually rose by 30 percent for black men but by 77 percent for black women; among 1996-97 college graduates, black women outnumbered men almost 2 to 1. The “man shortage” among college-educated blacks, which has contributed to tensions over interracial dating, is singled out as a “cause for concern” in the Urban League's recent report The State of Black America 1999.

Among non-Hispanic whites, women now receive 55 percent of bachelor's degrees. Feminists are correct when they say this imbalance is partly due to older women going back to school after growing up in an era when girls were expected to pursue the “MRS degree.” In 1998, according to the Census Bureau, 48 percent of white college students under 35 were male. But for blacks and Hispanics, a female-to-male ratio of about 3 to 2 persists even when older students are excluded.

For middle-class girls and boys, college is now as much of a given as a high school diploma. Girls from working-class and poor families, on the other hand, are significantly more likely to go to college than boys. There are complex reasons for this. About one-tenth of women in college are training for the health professions, “feminine” jobs similar in status to predominantly male skilled trades that don't require college studies. (Interestingly, female registered nurses and therapists now outearn male mechanics and construction workers.) There is also a theory that, in the new economy, a certificate from a high-tech company's training program may be worth more than a college degree, and that it's mostly young men who skip college to pursue such options. But this explanation, appealing to many feminists, remains speculative. No one knows how many people actually do this; generally, for men or women, the lack of a college degree is still a serious handicap in the marketplace.

In many cases, the “college gap” indisputably reflects a trend toward more upward mobility for women. In a 1999 Rutgers Marriage Project study of sex and relationships among non-college men and women under 30, David Popenoe and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead report that the women in their focus groups came across as more confident and responsible, with “clear and generally realistic plans for moving up the career ladder,” including plans for going back to school. The men seemed less focused and mature; when they talked about their plans for getting ahead, it was often in terms of such “goals” as winning the lottery.


Perhaps the social changes of the past three decades have made young women more self-assured and eager to use their new opportunities, while leaving many men unnerved and confused about what's expected of them. It may also be that boys, particularly those from low-income families, often become alienated from school early—both because their slower developmental timetable causes them to fall behind girls and because school is a “feminized” environment with mostly female authority figures and boy-unfriendly rules that emphasize being quiet and sitting still.

Some teachers may be prejudiced against boys, regarding them as little brutes or rascals. In a 1990 survey commissioned by the AAUW, children were asked whom teachers considered smarter and liked better; the vast majority of boys and girls alike said “girls.” Journalist Kathleen Parker recalls that her son, now a teenager, had a grade school teacher who openly said she liked girls more and singled out boys for verbal abuse—such as telling a student who had his feet up on the desk, “Put your feet down; I don't want to look at your genitalia.”

Traditional schoolmarmish distaste for unruly young males may be amplified by modern gender politics. Some educators clearly see boys as budding sexists and predators in need of reeducation. Some classrooms become forums for diatribes about the sins of white males, and some boys may be hit with absurd charges of misconduct—such as Jonathan Prevette, the Lexington, North Carolina, first-grader punished with a one-day suspension in 1996 for kissing a girl on the cheek.

“If you listen to 10- or 11-year-old boys, you will hear that school is not a very happy place for them,” says Bret Burkholder, a counselor at Pierce College in Puyallup, Washington, who also works with younger boys as a baseball coach. “It's a place where they're consistently made to feel stupid, where girls can walk around in T-shirts that say ‘Girls rule, boys drool,’ but if a boy makes a negative comment about girls he'll have the book thrown at him.”

Even apart from feminism, some “progressive” trends in education may have been detrimental to boys. For example, British researchers have found that “whole language” reading instruction, based on word recognition by shapes, pictures, and contextual clues rather than knowledge of letters, is particularly ineffective with male students.

Early “school turnoff” may cause many boys to develop an anti-learning mindset the British have labeled “laddism”—a mirror image of the prefeminist notion that it isn't cool for a girl to be too bright. “The boys become oppositional and band together in the belief that manly culture doesn't include grade grubbing,” observes University of Alaska psychologist Judith Kleinfeld. For black boys, this attitude may be exacerbated by the notion that learning is a “white thing.”

Sommers convincingly argues that boys' academic short-comings have not received proper attention because the discussion of gender and education has been hijacked by “girl partisans.” In the 1992 report How Schools Shortchange Girls, the AAUW brushed aside boys' disadvantages and explicitly warned against targeted efforts to remedy their deficits in literacy. A few years later, it effectively hushed up a study it had commissioned—The Influence of School Climate on Gender Differences in the Achievement and Engagement of Young Adolescents, by University of Michigan psychologist Valerie Lee and her associates—when the findings failed to support the short-changed-girls premise.

These days, feminists are more willing to admit the good news about girls. The AAUW's new leitmotif, evident at the “Beyond the Gender Wars” symposium, is that we should stop pitting girls against boys in a victimhood contest and work to make the schools better for everyone—which sounds fine, except that it's a little disingenuous to trumpet girls' victimization and then shout, “Let's not play victim!” as soon as boys' problems are mentioned. What's more, the “gender equity” crowd still grasps for any excuse to discount young men's problems. If more women go to college, said some AAUW panelists, that's because they need it just to break even with men who finish high school. In fact, while female college graduates over 25 earn only 15 percent more than male high school graduates, that group includes older women who went to college with no plans for a career and were out of the labor force for years as well as women who went back to school after raising a family and have limited work experience. This hardly means that young women who are going to college today will do only slightly better financially than young men who are not.


“Boy partisans” can exaggerate too. In his remarks at the IWF's National Press Club event, Rutgers University anthropologist Lionel Tiger inflated the 2-to-1 female-to-male ratio among black college graduates to 5 to 1. (When pressed afterward, he could not recall the source for this surprising figure.) In The War against Boys, Sommers asserts that recent data on high school and college students clearly lead to “the conclusion that girls and young women are thriving, while boys and young men are languishing.” Yet this dramatic statement is contradicted further down the page by her own summary of Valerie Lee's study of gender and achievement, which she lauds as “responsible and objective.” Lee reports that sex differences in school performance are “small to moderate” and “inconsistent in direction”—boys fare better in some areas, girls in others.

More boys flounder in school (and, as Sommers acknowledges, more of them reach the highest levels of excellence, from the best test scores to top rankings in prestigious law schools). But it's important to put things in perspective. Boys are twice as likely as girls to be shunted into special education with labels that may involve a high degree of subjectivity or even bias, but we are talking about a fairly small proportion of all children. About 7 percent of boys and 3 percent of girls are classified as learning disabled, 1.5 percent of boys and 1.1 percent of girls as mentally retarded; just over 1 percent of boys and fewer than half as many girls are diagnosed with severe emotional disturbances.

Clearly, many boys are doing well; just as clearly, it's an overstatement to say that girls in general are “thriving,” since all too often the educational system serves no one well. Twelfth-grade girls may do better than boys on reading and writing tests, but their average scores still fall short of the level that indicates real competence—the ability to understand and convey complicated information.

There's quite a bit of exaggeration, too, in the notion of schools as a hostile environment for boys. Few would dispute that boys tend to be more physically active and less patient than girls; but these differences are far less stark than the clichés deployed in the “boy wars.” In a 1998 Department of Education study, 65 percent of boys and 78 percent of girls in kindergarten were described by teachers as usually persistent at their tasks, and 58 percent of boys and 74 percent of girls as usually attentive—a clear yet far from interplanetary gap.

Still smaller are the differences between boys' and girls' views of the school climate. Surprisingly, in a 1995 survey by the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, virtually the same percentages of female and male high school seniors said they liked school. When the question “Whom do teachers like more?” is posed in such a way that they must select one favored sex, kids are likely to answer “girls.” Yet when asked about their own experiences, boys are only slightly less likely than girls to say that teachers listen to them, that they call on them often and encourage them, and that discipline and grading at their school are fair.

Even the image of sexual harassment policies as a wholesale anti-boy witch hunt is too simplistic. For one thing, girls also get caught in the net; last fall, two eighth-grade girls in Euless, Texas, were punished for hugging in the hallway. The bizarre overreactions (which even the Department of Education cautions against) reflect not only gender warfare but the zero tolerance lunacy that has also caused children to be suspended under anti-drug policies for giving an aspirin to a friend. Moreover, these stories coexist with cases in which real sexual assaults are ignored or covered up by school officials.

Some critics of girls-as-victims mythology are uncomfortable with sweeping claims about the plight of boys. “All this haggling about who's the real victim is absurd—and unseemly, coming from Americans and describing what must be the most fortunate generation of young people ever to inhabit the planet,” says Daphne Patai, a comparative literature scholar at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and author of Heterophobia: Sexual Harassment and the Future of Feminism.

Judith Kleinfeld, who authored the 1996 paper “The Myth That Schools Shortchange Girls,” published by the Washington, D.C.-based Women's Freedom Network (of which I am vice president), credits Sommers with drawing attention to an often-ignored problem but wishes her argument had been more nuanced. “We used to think that the schools short-changed girls; now the news is that schools are waging a war against boys, that girls are on top and boys have become the second sex,” says Kleinfeld. “Neither view is right. We should be sending a dual message: one, boys and girls do have characteristic problems, and we need to be aware of what they are; two, boys and girls are also individuals. Unfortunately, there's a lot of exaggeration going on, and a lot of destructive stereotyping by both sides.”


Stereotypes and exaggerations fly just as freely when it comes to the larger debate about how boys should be raised in an age of sexual equality. Gender reformers like Pollack and his Harvard colleague Carol Gilligan, the psychologist and professor of gender studies who pioneered the notion of girls' failing self-esteem in the 1980s before turning her attention to boys, lament that patriarchal norms force boys to separate prematurely from their families, especially their mothers, and to deny their pain, sadness, vulnerability, and fear. As a result, Pollack argues, boys disconnect from their true selves and go into a kind of emotional deep freeze, or even become bullies to prove their manhood.

Real Boys is full of “gender straitjacket” horror stories in which boys barely out of diapers are called “wimps” and told to “act like a man” (usually by fathers) when they are scared or upset. Pollack's dismay is understandable, but how many American fathers really act out such John Wayne parodies? The generalizations are especially shaky since most of Pollack's conclusions seem to be based on troubled boys in his clinical practice. While he occasionally tempers his melodramatic claims, observing that “many, if not most, boys maintain an inner wellspring of emotional connectedness,” this does little to change the bleak overall picture.

Mark Kiselica, a psychologist at the College of New Jersey and past president of the American Psychological Association's Society for the Psychological Study of Men and Masculinity, bristles at the notion of boys as “emotional mummies” cut off from relationships. In fact, recent studies by psychologist Susan Harter and her colleagues at the University of Denver, which refute Gilligan's theory that girls lose self-confidence as teenagers, also suggest that adolescent boys are only slightly less open about their thoughts and feelings with parents and friends than are girls. In a 1997 survey by Louis Harris and Associates for the Commonwealth Fund, only one in five teenage boys (and one in seven girls) said they talked to no one when they felt stressed or depressed.

If there's a truth in the arguments of would-be reformers of masculinity, it is that in the past 30 years “gender rules” have been loosened for women more than for men: A boy taking ballet classes raises more eyebrows than a girl playing hockey. But these issues shouldn't and won't be resolved by a bureaucracy of social engineers. The reformers, in any case, vastly overestimate the rigidity and the power of traditional male norms, depicting masculinity as far more monolithic than it has ever been. Most parents don't need Pollack to remind them that, when talking to sons about male family members or friends, they should praise these men's warm and nurturing qualities.

If the “save the males” crowd inflates the harm hyper-masculine cultural values can do to American boys at the turn of the millennium, many conservatives probably underestimate it—and, in turn, inflate the perils of creeping androgyny. To be sure, there are educators eager to impose their egalitarian vision on other people's children by banning toy guns from preschools, prohibiting “segregated” play at recess, or herding boys into quilting groups and prodding them to talk about how they feel. It's difficult to tell how widespread this is outside the elite Eastern private schools from which Sommers gets several of her examples, where parents not only choose but pay big money to send their offspring. On the other hand, in many communities, boys still face strong pressure to be jocks—and the jock culture probably is more damaging to boys' learning than the occasional quilting circle.

Not unlike the feminists, many conservatives have a vision of a monolithic, virtually unchanging “culture of manhood” that boys must join. Yet one does not have to believe that gender is only a “social construct” to know that standards of male behavior and beliefs about male nature in different times and places have varied as greatly as male dress. Two hundred years ago, it wasn't unusual or inappropriate for men to weep at sentimental plays and for male friends to exchange letters with gushy expressions of affection.

The truth is, both efforts to produce “unisex” children and efforts to enforce traditional masculine or feminine norms are likely to warp children's individuality. Kleinfeld had a chance to observe this when raising her own children: a girl who liked mechanical tools and had an aptitude for science, yet resisted efforts to get her interested in a scientific career and chose humanitarian work instead, and a quiet, gentle boy who was an avid reader. “We tried to get him active in sports, but we were fighting his individual nature,” says Kleinfeld. “The one time he made a touchdown in football, he was running the wrong way.”

In The War against Boys Sommers praises feminists who came to honor and cherish their sons' masculine qualities, among them a pacifist-liberal writer whose son chose a military career. But would conservative champions of boyhood also praise traditionally masculine fathers who came to honor and cherish their sons' “soft” qualities, even when those sons chose to become elementary school teachers or hairdressers?


While boys may not be a “second sex,” there are clearly distinct educational problems that disproportionately affect male students. Surely it makes sense to look at these problems and consider some gender-specific solutions. Yet such efforts have been virtually nonexistent, largely, no doubt, because they are seen as politically incorrect. In November 1999, Goucher College in Baltimore held a conference called “Fewer Men on Campus: A Puzzle for Liberal-Arts Colleges and Universities.” While the event was ostensibly free of any anti-feminist stridency, it drew hostile barbs from the AAUW and warnings about a “backlash” against women's gains from the American Council on Education's Office of Women in Higher Education. (ACE has no special office addressing the issues of men, the new minority on college campuses.) Government efforts to advance “gender equity” in education remain focused solely on inequities allegedly holding back girls and women.

While programs to remedy girls' underachievement in math, science, and computers have proliferated in recent years, funded by the government and by private groups such as the National Science Foundation, there are no programs targeting boys' deficits in reading and writing. (Such programs seem to be working well in England.) Literacy is a popular issue for politicians of both parties, and this year the U.S. Department of Education has given nearly $200 million in grants to state initiatives aimed at improving reading skills in elementary school as part of the Reading Excellence Program. But when I asked project coordinators in Pennsylvania, Illinois, and the District of Columbia if any of these programs would address the gender gap in literacy, it was obvious that the question took them by surprise.

Efforts to help boys can be regarded as suspect even if they target black boys, who have an acknowledged place in the pantheon of the oppressed. In 1996, acting on a complaint from a female student's mother, the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights ruled that the Black Male Achievement Initiative, a mentoring network in the predominantly black schools of Prince George's County, Maryland, that matched boys with successful professional men, had to be opened to girls. Zack Berry, a staffer in the school district's Office of Youth Development, has no doubt that boys suffered as a result: “Once the program went coed, we found we were doing very well by the young ladies but we were losing our boys left and right, especially in high school.” In a few schools, he says, male participation dwindled to less than one-fifth of the total.

This bias against male-only services may be waning. Even the story of Black Male Achievement Initiative has something of a happy ending. In 1999, after the school district collected data showing that boys did not fare as well as girls and presented them to the Office of Civil Rights, the OCR reversed itself and gave a green light to single-sex mentoring programs and activities. Another all-male program that has chapters in several mostly black public schools in Maryland, BROTHERS (Brothers Reaching Out To Help Each Reach Success), has met with no objections so far. “Faculty and adults have rallied around BROTHERS because it has helped a group of kids who just weren't buying into school,” says Mike Durso, the principal of Springbrook High School in Silver Spring. The group, which arranges for teens to mentor and tutor younger boys, has been credited with improving discipline, graduation rates, and college enrollment.

Single-sex education, whose popularity for girls surged after the girl crisis hysteria of the early 1990s—leading to the somewhat controversial opening of an all-girl public charter school in New York in 1996 and a sister school in Chicago last fall—deserves more consideration for boys as well. True, there are few reliable data on how children fare in single-sex vs. coed classrooms; if single-sex schools often do better, it may be because they are the product of a conscious effort to create a more academically oriented, more orderly, more individually focused learning environment.

Nonetheless, single-sex schooling may be the best option for some boys and girls, not necessarily because the sexes are so radically different but because some teenagers learn best without the distracting presence of the other sex. Susan Harter and other researchers have found that the fear of looking stupid in front of opposite-sex classmates is a major deterrent to speaking in class for boys and girls alike. Boys in particular may try to impress girls by acting “cool” or goofy. Counter-intuitively, many education experts believe that all-boy classrooms may also allow boys to show their gentle side—pursue interests in art or poetry, discuss the emotions of literary characters—without the fear of appearing “girly.”

As for coeducational schools, it goes without saying that they should not be places where children are insulted because of their sex or turned into lab rats for social engineers bent on reinventing gender. Fortunately, unlike the parents of college students, people with children in primary or secondary schools usually have some idea of what's happening in classrooms, and they can help keep the gender warriors in check. Several years ago, a particularly noxious sexual harassment prevention curriculum introduced in Minnesota, which would have had 7-year-olds reciting a solemn pledge to combat harassment, was shelved because of parental opposition and adverse publicity.

Many of the “unmanly” educational fads conservatives deplore are bad for reasons that have little to do with gender. “Cooperative” teaching can turn off bright girls as well as competitive boys. Nor is touchy-feely pedagogy, such as writing assignments requiring students to explore intimate issues, necessarily “female-friendly.” Girls who like sharing confidences with each other may balk at “sharing” with teachers. A 1994 Los Angeles Times story described reactions to a controversial statewide exam with essay questions about conflicts with parents and regrets about the past. Most of the students who were quoted as complaining about invasive questions were girls.

On the other hand, it's doubtful that many people will worry that their sons will be emasculated by making quilts at school, or by adopting the persona of a famous woman in a class presentation. It would be interesting, though, to see a feminist teacher's reaction if a boy chose Margaret Thatcher as his heroine instead of Anita Hill.


If there's an answer to the “boy question,” it lies in getting away from a one-size-fits-all model, whether feminist or traditionalist, and making sure that parents and children have as many choices as possible. Right now, parents with sexually egalitarian values can generally rely on free government schools to transmit these values to their children, while those who want their children's education to instill traditional beliefs about sex roles have to pay tuition at a private school (as well as taxes to help finance the public schools). Parents who want single-sex schooling for their children are also left with fewer and more expensive options than those satisfied with coeducation. This is one problem that school vouchers could address.

The more diversity there is in education, the more it can be tailored to each child's individuality. Even those who agree that boys have specific needs based on sex-linked traits may define these needs quite differently. Sommers stresses strict discipline in a teacher-led, structured classroom; Kleinfeld suggests that active and nonconformist children, who are disproportionately male, would do well in “open classrooms where children move around a lot,” with “teachers who enjoy wiseacres.” Each prescription is undoubtedly right for some boys. And there are still other boys who, defying averages, do not thrive on competition and do better in cooperative settings.

We are still far away from a truly diverse educational system. But we have come a long way toward a diverse society that respects both the maleness and the individuality of boys and young men. This diversity will always have room for conservative subcultures that uphold traditional ideals of manhood, as well as for feminist-pacifist communes in which a little boy who uses a stick as a toy sword immediately has the weapon confiscated. But I'd like to think that the future belongs to the feminist who can respect her son the career soldier and to the career soldier who can respect his son the hairdresser.

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

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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 she eloquently attacked. “I know I became a feminist because I didn't like male chauvinism,” Sommers tells Insight. “But I do not appreciate female chauvinism, either.”

Last year Sommers brought out another deeply controversial book, The War against Boys: How Misguided Feminism Is Harming Our Young Men. Misguided feminism, she argues, is causing American education to focus on girls at the expense of educating boys in the mistaken belief that girls are behind boys and need all the help they can get from government and educators to set that disparity right, even if it means ignoring young males. But, as Sommers shows, girls aren't behind boys. Far from it: They're way ahead and will continue to be until American education strikes a fair balance between the needs of boys and girls and treats both sexes with genuine equity.

[Goode]: Did the idea for The War against Boys come out of your experience writing Who Stole Feminism?

[Sommers]: Yes, because one of the things I did in the first book was uncover a lot of careless research and dubious statistics. In fact, I found at the heart of establishment feminism this body of egregiously false information.

What is sad and unfortunate is that this information is driving public policy by driving funding. And the area in which I found the largest number of mistakes and the most shoddy research was in education. The idea that girls are second-class citizens in our schools is preposterous.

The exact reverse is true. Boys are behind girls significantly in most areas and falling further and further behind. The college gap [the fact that there are more women in college in America today than men] favors girls and threatens to become a chasm.

It's a huge issue that wasn't getting any attention because we were misled. The American Association of University Women [AAUW], the Wellesley Center for Research on Women, the National Organization for Women [NOW] were able to give an entire nation a false portrait of our children, showing girls as languishing in silence while boys thrived, when exactly the opposite was true.

There probably never was a time when girls had more opportunities and were more ambitious and successful. But, if you look carefully, our boys are being put on the back burner in their educational needs.

Will women dominate in the professions in the America of the future while men take blue-collar jobs?

There's going to be more of that. In Europe, they're already ahead of us worrying about what happens when males become the second sex and whether this was anyone's idea of equity and fairness. It simply isn't in the interests of anyone to shortchange boys.

What is Europe doing?

In Britain, there have been several conferences of headmasters and headmistresses on what to do about the underachievement of British males. They believe that what we call junior high—the seventh and eighth grades, 12- to 13-year-old boys—is a critical time when you can lose that student and never get him back again.

They're experimenting with all-male schools. They're bringing in what one headmaster who wrote about it described as practices that hadn't been seen in British schools for 30 years, an old-fashioned pedagogy using war poetry and all-male classes. When a teacher divides a class into teams, everything is a competition [whereas current education fads frown on competition in any form], and the boys are thriving!

We could not do that here! If you tried to have all-male classes and competitions and war poetry! It's just not going to happen.

They're getting back to the old-fashioned notion that boys and girls are different?

That's right. Mother Nature is not a feminist; boys and girls are different. But our educational establishment seems to have accepted the idea, fashionable in gender studies, that the sexes are the same.

The philosophy and the logic of gender studies contend that any advantage boys have over girls is discrimination, but any advantage girls have over boys is a triumph. So, for girls, it's heads I win, tails you lose.

If Mother Nature isn't a feminist, she isn't what might be called a “masculinist,” either, is she?

No. But she's fair. For example, girls have certain advantages with verbal skills. If you gave a test and asked a demographically correct group of boys and girls to generate synonyms, the girls probably would do better. Boys have an advantage with spatial reasoning, which gives them some edge in mathematics.

So, as we would expect, girls gravitate more toward the languages and boys more toward math and science. I thought it was fine that schools want to make a special effort to interest girls in math and science and help them. But why didn't they do something for boys at the same time in reading and writing? We haven't seen that.

Also, girls care more about school, and this is probably the most important difference. They want the teacher to like them, so they'll do better in school and be better readers. They'll win the prizes. A lot of little boys don't care one single bit about school.

I have a son who didn't care. He cares now, but he's in the 11th grade. Early on he couldn't understand why I thought it was important to please the teacher. You have to make a special effort to interest boys in school. We are not making that effort.

Of course, there always will be exceptions. There are going to be as many as 20 percent of kids who will defy the stereotypes. But 80 percent will not, and that's what we have to remember.

Isn't it true that boys are at both ends of the extreme when it comes to math and science?

That's another tricky thing about the differences between the sexes. If you look at the very high end of the ability distribution, at the kids who are math and science prodigies and take the [math] SAT in the seventh grade and get 700 or 800 [800 is the perfect score], they are mostly boys.

I've heard everything from 13-1 favoring males to 7-1. There simply are more male math geniuses. Now, that's a small group of kids—we're not talking about the average boy in the seventh grade. But some feminists bristle at the idea that there are more boy than girl math and science prodigies. Yet if you go to the other extreme and look at the kids with learning disabilities, the borderline retarded and the kids who are total academic failures, most of them are boys, too. So at the very extremes you have more males.

What policies can we use to treat boys more equally?

I think the first thing to do is to realize that we have to work in both directions. We have to help girls and we have to help boys. And we have to realize that both have their special strengths and weaknesses, and schools should acknowledge that. It should no longer be the case that all attention is focused on the needs of girls and that boys are ignored and neglected.

In The War against Boys you write about teachers who openly are hostile to boys.

It's now clear to me that almost every boy will encounter a teacher who is hostile. Most teachers are not hostile—they love children, and they know that boys and girls are different. But then there is the young teacher who has come out of a teacher's college and who believes a lot of the false statistics and misinformation. She may come into her classroom with anger at little boys, viewing boys as obstacles to the success of girls, so they have to be taken down a little.

Some parents think, “Well, I don't need to worry because my son is gifted.” But if you have a gifted child, and it's male, there could be a lot of hostility because maybe he's just a little bit too much interested in math and science. Maybe he's too far ahead of the girls.

There was a satirical book called Women Are From Venus; Men Are From Hell. That could be the slogan of the modern feminist movement. Men can handle it, but for little boys to meet up with some of these resentful, angry women—well, it's just sad.

I've heard sad stories from boys telling me there would be a special science program or artificial-intelligence seminar and they couldn't wait to go but were told it's only for girls. Now, that is ridiculous. And I also could have written a book called The War against Girls based on the experience of the girls forced to go to those seminars.

So girls suffer too?

A lot of what goes on is just mean-spiritedness when it comes to not approving of what girls do. You might have a girl who has an aptitude to do science, but maybe she's more interested in education or dance or creative writing. Sometimes such girls are, for purely ideological reasons, bullied by their science teachers into science.

There are huge amounts of resources spent these days [on getting women into science], and there are great, brilliant women scientists. But, even if she has the aptitude for science, if that's not what interests her and that's not where her heart is, then why force her in that direction?

So they want to change the number of women in science, come what may?

They're desperate to change that. Now some feminists will say they need to do this because of sexism in engineering. Well, there was sexism in every field. There was sexism in journalism, medicine, law—fields in which women are approaching parity with men.

So if sexism wasn't enough to hold women back in the seventies and eighties when the great changes occurred, it's something else that is holding down their numbers in engineering and physics and math. Those are the three fields [where there are more men than women]. Women's groups frame this as a “crisis” when it comes to those three fields.

But it's not framed as a crisis that psychology is dominated by women now, or veterinary medicine. Pharmacy is female-dominated, but it's not in crisis, that's not a problem.

How has your professional training in philosophy influenced your attitude toward feminism?

If you go to graduate school in philosophy it's like getting a nonsense detector installed in your brain. You become very alert to fallacies. As a result, when I started reading feminist philosophy in the eighties, I found it unbalanced, to say the least.

I was a liberal and a feminist. The chair of my department asked me to teach feminist philosophy, so I sent off for the textbooks thinking that they would be like other philosophy textbooks in which you would read pros and cons on controversial issues.

You'd read about a philosopher who strongly believes in free will and one who strongly believes in determinism, so that a student comes away being able to argue both sides. The teacher's job was to give students a logical apparatus with which to analyze the arguments.

That's what I thought feminist philosophy would be when I ordered those textbooks, expecting to examine arguments for and against abortion, affirmative action and surrogate motherhood. Instead, it was conspiracy theory about the patriarchy, and the articles were organized mutually to reinforce one another so that the student came away angry and paranoid about American society.

One of their favorite themes was that America is a rape culture. Male hegemony is another, and that [women] are victims of a capitalist, heteropatriarchal, oppressive system. And that's fine, if you then have someone defend the capitalist heteropatriarchy. But they left that out.

When I would debate my colleagues in philosophy it quickly would come down to disagreements about facts. They would claim that one in three American women is battered and that there are masses of women with eating disorders. They would give a picture of American society that was quite horrible and didn't fit with my experience and intuition. When I started to check their facts, I found many of them to be wrong.

Do you think this sort of thing will continue to influence American education?

Oh, I don't think it can continue for very long because I'm basically an optimist about the good sense of the American people. We swing in one direction and have to be brought back. I think the pendulum has gone about as far as it can go with this girl crisis and will have to come back to reality and fairness.

But it's going to take some work. The groups that promoted this view weren't terribly good statisticians or researchers, but they were excellent networkers and publicists. I admire the AAUW for those talents. They really knew how to get publicity. They would do a study and it might be very poorly organized, but they were good about getting it highlighted in Time magazine or the New York Times and then mobilizing members of Congress to, say, pass the Gender Equity Act.

We have millions of dollars targeted for underprivileged kids, which is fine, but now they have girls included in the list of the underprivileged. Really, along with Native Americans, handicapped kids and African-Americans, you have girls. So it's basically just boys who are left out. Even the boys in the other designated groups are left out of many of those programs. So the whole thing is unfair. But it takes longer to untie knots than it does to tie them.

Are you working on a book right now?

Yes. The tentative title is The Republic of Feelings. It's about how as a society we are told we should be in touch with our feelings and open about them and disclose them and share everything and be self-involved. I am defending stoicism, bringing that back against all of this emotivism.

Virginia Quarterly Review (review date spring 2001)

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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 and sarcastically calls, “gender equity experts” and the “gender-bias industry,” she contradicts this belief by saying that it is boys and not girls who have been lagging behind girls for some time in nearly every emotional, socio-economic, and educational criterion. If our cultural and educational systems do not change, she contends, most notably in their tendency to perceive of and treat boys as if they were “protosexists, potential harassers, and perpetuators of gender unequity,” we may be faced with a boy-centered crisis of shocking proportions. Although Hoff Sommers' deft, fruitful handling of extant information is astounding, the excessive fervor (accompanied by bravado, in some cases) with which her findings are presented could leave any reader doubting not only the veracity of her own statements, but also the spirit in which they are presented. One is unfortunately left wondering if her bristling distaste for out-of-step researchers is because of vengeance or a sincere refutation of their findings. In any regard, The War against Boys is nothing if not thought-provoking and startling. Furthermore, it convincingly suggests that our nation's boys are in fact perched at catastrophe's edge. Additionally, it appears that outspoken child advocates—not girl- or boy advocates—like Christina Hoff Sommers are part of the solution to our youth's—and especially our boys'—apparent emotional and educational cul-de-sac.

Melanie Phillips (review date 6 April 2001)

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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 Sommers's work should be required reading for those who think political correctness is no more than a faintly tedious joke.

In her new book, The War against Boys, Hoff Sommers maintains that this is a bad time to be a boy in America. The conventional view is that American society is a “girl-poisoning” culture, in which boys are given preferential treatment at school, which they repay by playground violence and sexual harassment. But the evidence shows that the opposite is the case. It is girls who earn better grades in school; girls who are the majority sex in higher education. Boys are on average a year and a half behind girls in reading and writing in American schools. And far from girls suffering from shattered self-esteem, boys are committing suicide at a faster rate than girls.

Despite these facts, modern feminism continues to depict masculinity as the source of all evil; although the vast majority of men do not batter, rape, or terrorize women but live peaceful, responsible lives, violence is regarded as a defining male characteristic.

According to Hoff Sommers, in American schools this ideological belief has resulted in a wholesale attempt to reprogramme boys' behaviour. Children are made to act out stories with “gender blind” casting, which nevertheless incorporates the message that men have murderous patriarchal power over women. Little boys who chase girls in the playground are said to be committing acts of “gendered terrorism”. Such “gender blindness” is a way of indoctrinating children with the belief that men are to be reviled.

As in Who Stole Feminism?, Hoff Sommers is at her most impressive when she runs to earth not just the false evidence behind such claims, but the researchers who produced it and the reporters who credulously reproduced it. She records to great effect their denials and evasions. Katherine Hanson, the Director of the Women's Educational Equity Act Publishing Center which produces “gender-free” materials for schools, claims that every year 4 million women are beaten to death by men. But as Hoff Sommers points out, only 1 million women die in total from all causes. Only a fraction of these deaths are caused by violence; and only 1 per cent of injuries to women are caused by male partners.

There are certainly serious behaviour problems in schools. Bullying, incivility and profanity are rife among both girls and boys. But the schools ignore such bullying and run instead anti-harassment programmes, which are merely a means of promoting the belief that society is male-dominated and sexist. Fear of being sued in court forces schools to label boys as young as six or even three as sexual harassers and punish them.

Perhaps the most alarming aspect of all is the role being played in this gendered Salem of the classroom by the American courts in enforcing federal laws on sexual equity. In 1999, the Supreme Court ruled five to four in favour of applying these sexual-harassment rules to schoolchildren. The majority judges ignored the obvious fact that bullying is done by both boys and girls and upheld instead the view that it amounted to sexual discrimination against girls.

The Columbine High School massacre by two teenage youths was said to illustrate a crisis among perfectly normal boys, who were also said to be lonely and repressed because of the way they were being brought up. Yet all the evidence suggests that emotional continence makes young men happier and more able to deal with life's vicissitudes than wearing their hearts on their sleeves. And rather more to the point, the Columbine schoolboy killers' bizarre and antisocial appearance and behaviour were simply ignored by their teachers—no doubt because it didn't amount to “sexual harassment”.

Any British smugness about American capacity for credulity should be resisted. Christina Hoff Sommers is wrong to suggest that Britain is addressing the needs of boys. Here, too, the role of the male breadwinner is being eroded, figures for domestic violence are twisted to demonize men, and men are discriminated against in the divorce courts. Britain may not yet have descended to American extremes, but the war against boys crossed the Atlantic long ago.

Andrew Hacker (review date 11 April 2002)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5442

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.]


“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 become pregnant and hope a birth will result. Even so, those who feel this way are not typical, as one might think. A survey of pregnant women by the National Center for Health Statistics found that almost 40 percent were not elated about their condition, and most in this group did not want it to proceed.1 If these women are also to have a choice, abortion services must be widely available.

Between 1974 and 1997, the years for which we have figures, almost 35 million abortions were performed in the United States, or 390 for every 1,000 live births. If most “pro-life” proponents had their way, virtually every pregnant woman would be compelled to bear her child, with only an exemption if her own life might be at stake. They also think that if abortion were abolished, there would be less sex of the sort that now leads to clinic visits. On the other side, many “choice” advocates believe that women would want to have even more abortions, but have been thwarted by obstacles created by hostile states and localities. Some also feel the number would rise if counseling were offered to teenagers who haven't pondered the consequences of early motherhood.

Abortions have recently been declining, from a height of 1.6 million in 1990 to just over 1.3 million in 1997, lowering the ratio to 342 for every 1,000 births. Even Planned Parenthood does not believe that clamoring pickets and restrictive regulations have had much to do with the drop. One reason is that contraceptive use is up, even if only modestly, encouraged by fears of AIDS and other venereal risks. Also, with an aging population, there are fewer teenagers and young women to have unwanted pregnancies; teenagers' share of all abortions has dropped dramatically. But the chief cause has been an increasing choice by unmarried girls and women to complete their pregnancies and take the babies home, which has lifted non-marital births to an all-time high. Among women who are now raising children on their own, fully 43.3 percent have never been married, by contrast with the 6.8 percent a generation ago. As for the fathers, fewer of them feel pressured or obliged, let alone inclined, to wed the women they made pregnant. (So today, brides with a baby on the way are less frequent.)

Rickie Solinger, in Beggars and Choosers, dismisses the whole idea of choice as “fairly ridiculous,” since not all women have a full range of reproductive options. Freedoms that in theory are available in fact have price tags attached. She cites the Hyde Amendment, which bars federal Medicaid funds from being used for abortions. The poor must join the rich in paying for the procedure themselves. As for women on a tight budget, one senator advised them to scrape up the cash by “sacrificing on some item or other for a month or two.”

Solinger doesn't mention that states can pick up the tab, as nineteen do. Still, populous ones like Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Texas are among those that don't. She recalls how women considered improvident or unfit were once routinely sterilized, and goes on to show that the sentiment behind such steps hasn't wholly disappeared. Thus some of the pressure for making single mothers take jobs is accompanied by a hope that they'll come home too tired to make more babies. The “family values” credo according to which youngsters are served best by having a full-time mother is reserved for those who have found and kept a husband who can foot the bills. Through messages like these, Solinger writes, poor women are told they have a “reproductive duty to refrain from reproducing.” I don't recall seeing the word “eugenics” in her book, but she essentially accuses many better-off Americans of seeking to halt what they see as promiscuous breeding at lower social levels. (A group in California offers payments for tubal ligations.)

The bottom line for Solinger is what she calls “reproductive autonomy,” which ensures “the right to decide whether and when to become a mother and the right to decide whether or not to raise one's child.” Like “choice,” at first reading this also seems beyond challenge. After all, few Americans openly support giving some agency the power to decide who may create children. But the issue hardly ends there. In fact, much of the procreation we see occurring is fortuitous, if not capricious, on the part of people who have no moral business becoming parents.

To voice this concern is not to hold that all prospective parents must be declared fit before they can have a baby. Rather, this is one of those matters in which while many of us don't favor official intervention, we still find ourselves wishing that certain kinds of behavior didn't occur. Prominent in the news this year has been the case of a middle-class Texas couple who kept on having children despite the wife's history of depression; then one afternoon, she drowned all five of them. They, like others who are neglected and abused, are the ones who pay for the freedom adults have to procreate.

Last summer, one man who came before Wisconsin's supreme court was $25,000 behind in support for nine children he had fathered by four different women. A lower court judge had ruled that if he did any more procreating, it would be deemed a violation of parole and he would be sent to prison. The Wisconsin supreme court voted 4-3 to sustain that ruling, holding that the state had a legitimate interest in preventing him from siring more children, who were bound to become dependent on public funds. (In other states, judges have given men the option of having a vasectomy.) As it turned out, the majority consisted of the four men on the court, while the dissenters were its three women, who issued an impassioned response. “Men and women in America are free to have children, as many as they desire,” one wrote, and “they may do so without the means to support the children.” While parents may be penalized for failing to provide support, “the right to have a child has never been rationed on the basis of wealth.”2

For her part, Solinger doesn't say whether she wants to safeguard the “reproductive rights” of fathers, even if they walk away from the young lives they have helped to create. In this tangled issue, feminist and right-to-life positions are not far apart. Feminists do not want men telling women how they may use their bodies, even if the women keep on having babies on almost an annual basis. Pro-life proponents must also support these births, since they indicate a rejection of the abortion option.

Natalie Hull and Peter Hoffer in their new book want to show how tenuous Roe v. Wade has become, especially since the US Supreme Court has allowed state legislatures to curb the availability of the procedure. One state rule requires two visits, separated by at least twenty-four hours, before an abortion can take place; this can deter women who must come long distances, in states with few abortion clinics. A new tactic is to require excessive renovations of clinics and equipment, ostensibly for the benefit of patients. Added to which, our current president needs only to name two Supreme Court justices to overturn Roe, a tacit pledge he made to his party.

But despite their sympathies, Hull and Hoffer feel compelled to criticize Roe. In their reading, it “badly mangles the complex multiplicity of real-life factors in abortion discussions.” In particular, Justice Harry Blackmun's opinion in 1973 relied on a “paternalistic medically driven argument that doctors should be free of state interference in taking care of their pregnant patients.” In their view, it was almost as if gynecologists, mainly men at that time, were the plaintiffs in the case. The authors would have preferred a “new paradigm of women's voice in the law,” affirming “women's control of their reproductive lives”:

Women's bodies belong to women, not men, not doctors, not pressure groups, not Congress, not lobbyists, and certainly not judges and justices in court.

Stating the principle in this way may not win the authors many converts. As Table A … shows, views on abortion range across a spectrum and reflect mixed feelings, with women's opinions not much different from men's. It's not just pro-life zealots who are put off by the use of the term “fetus,” which considers its excision akin to removing a cyst.3 At issue, also, is the status of the patient. If there is sympathy for victims of rape, and often for terrified teenagers, it recedes if professional women are perceived as wishing to forestall a birth because it would be at a bad time for their careers. And there is even less support for those who have availed themselves of Roe more than once. Indeed, among patients in their thirties, almost half have had at least one previous procedure; and for one in four, it was their third. But this kind of counting may become moot. If RU-486 or morning-after pills are routinely taken, we won't even know how many pregnancy terminations are taking place.


One American child in three is now born to unmarried parents, whereas in 1960 the figure was one in twenty. For white births, the out-of-wedlock ratio is 22.1 percent, and each year it moves closer to the black rate, now 69.1 percent. This makes the black figure 3.1 times that for whites; the 1970 ratio was 6.6, or over twice as great. In 1970, also, half of all non-marital births were to teenagers. By 1999, the most recent year for figures, they had declined to 29.3 percent of the total. So more of unwed births are to older women; over half of unwed mothers have had another pregnancy earlier, and for a quarter, it is at least their third.

In the early 1970s, half of premarital pregnancies led to marriage. By the 1990s, fewer than a quarter did. Before 1973, the year of Roe v. Wade, one fifth of “nonmarital” infants were adopted. Currently, only one in thirty is. In the 1950s, fully 82.8 percent of first children were conceived after marriage. By the 1990s, that proportion was down to 47.2 percent. Another reason why the nonmarital ratio is higher is that there are fewer births overall within marriage. Couples who used to have three children now stop at two, while others are having one or none.

Should these trends be a cause for concern? The US Congress certainly thinks so. In 1996, it created a competition among the states, offering annual rewards of up to $20 million for those showing the greatest reductions in their out-of-wedlock birth rates (with a proviso that they could not be attained by abortions). In 2000, Arizona was one of four winners, because its rate dropped by three tenths of a percentage point, from 38.5 percent to 38.2 percent. Measured in actual numbers, Michigan recorded 719 fewer nonmarital births, and by my calculations netted $27,816 for each non-born child.

Why try to curtail the birth of such “nonmarital” children? To my knowledge, no studies have shown that people whose parents were not married, as a group, cost society more than they contributed. True, these children tend to start out poorer, which often means they do not do as well in school and are more likely to get in trouble with the law. And the odds are high they will have nonmarital children themselves. But the vast majority also get jobs, pay taxes, and do their best to better themselves. Whether they lead less satisfying lives is not easily measured. But if they do, it may to some degree be owing to the designation others give them.



Men Women
Always legal 20٪ 21٪
Mostly legal 38٪ 41٪
Mostly Illegal 29٪ 23٪
Always Illegal 13٪ 15٪
100٪ 100٪


Men Women
Allowed 41٪ 47٪
Not Allowed 59٪ 53٪
100٪ 100٪

Source: The Washington Post, January 16, 2001. Figures based on those having opinions.

But let's stipulate that, all things considered, two parents are preferable to one. They may or may not provide a better setting in which to grow up. But if nothing else, two parents may mean there will be two incomes; or if one, it will generally be a man's. The most recent census figures show that the median income for all married couples with children is $60,168. It is $45,315 when only the father works, but rises to $72,773 when both parents are employed full-time. In contrast, the median for women raising children on their own is $19,934, and for those who have never married it is a poverty-level $13,048. (The median for solo fathers is $32,427.)




Married Biological Parents 60.4٪
Unmarried Biological Parents 2.1٪
Mother and Stepfather 5.2٪
Father and Stepmother 1.4٪
Adoptive Parents 1.0٪
Foster Families and Others 0.8٪
Mother only 22.8٪
Father Only 2.5٪
Grandparents 1.8٪
Other Relatives 1.0٪
Non-Relatives 1.0٪


Both Biological Parents 83.4٪
Mother Only 10.1٪
Father Only 1.8٪
All Other Households 4.7٪

Source: Bureau of the Census

So children in two-parent homes are more likely to have new sneakers, computers, and live in districts with superior schools. And since childrearing can be exhausting, having two sets of hands helps.4 There is also evidence that boys who grow up without resident fathers make less of their lives. But observations like these can apply as much to the effects of divorce as to nonmarital origins. If parents aren't marrying at the rates they once did, those who do are breaking up or switching partners, despite the consequences for their children. The median income for divorced mothers is $24,363, including such child support as they receive. This means the children must live within a budget less than half of that enjoyed by those whose parents remain married. (True, families with resident fathers also have to foot his bills.)

Reasons for the rise in nonmarital sex are not hard to find. A society so overtly libidinal, from erotic soap operas to torrid advertising, impels people into bed at younger ages and with fewer formalities. Women and men now have longer spans before marriage during which they are unlikely to remain celibate. The high incidence of divorce means there will be more post-marital sex. But if conditions like these account for increased intimacy, they don't tell us why the sex so often occurs without effective birth control. (The United States leads the advanced world in pregnancies among the young.) Or why so many single women are choosing to bear the babies and then raise them. Indeed, in the National Center for Health Statistics study cited earlier, almost half of unmarried mothers reported that their pregnancies were planned.

Of course, there is less of a stigma to being an unmarried mother than there used to be. “Illegitimacy” is a word hardly heard nowadays, and “bastardy” not at all. Even “out-of-wedlock” is being joined by “nonmarital,” as if to suggest that having children within or outside marriage is an equally acceptable option. Single women who welcome their pregnancies range from teenagers who look forward to bearing babies, to actresses and executives who decide they want to have a child. So Jodie Foster and Madonna along with Rosie O'Donnell and Wendy Wasserstein serve as models who may give young people confidence. (Madonna's song “Papa Don't Preach” expressed the determination of a girl to go through with her pregnancy.) These choices are also statements. One message is that a woman can sustain a family without a male presence. Or that there is a shortage of reliable men, a sentiment that—intended or not—may be passed on to their daughters.

Out of Wedlock consists of fourteen papers sponsored by the Russell Sage Foundation, an ambitious effort involving twenty-eight authors. The studies are based on solid research, and provide new perspectives on a subject too often entangled in emotions. For example, they note that the number and proportion of teenagers having babies has actually been declining, whereas the rates for older women have been rising.

Figures for 2000, collated in Table B, show that close to a quarter of American children—22.8 percent—are living only with their mother, more than twice the figure for thirty years earlier. What has also changed is the character of these households. In the past, the great majority of single mothers were divorced and raising children from those unions. Now fully 43.3 percent have never been married, which explains the Russell Sage finding that “second births to unmarried women are nearly as prevalent as second births to married women.” Still, most women stop at two. True, we read and hear of those who have had seven or eight children by a succession of men, often in cases that get into the news. In fact, among the group the census calls “never-married mothers” only 13.4 percent have more than two children.

Out of Wedlock does much to dispel misconceptions about single mothers. A common belief is that such women carry something of a taint, probably impairing their marriage prospects. Not so, the Russell Sage studies show, by comparing them with the majority of women who don't have children before getting married. Of those who avoid premarital motherhood, 88.3 percent find a husband by the time they reach forty. And for those who start childbearing on their own, a respectable 71.7 percent are also married by forty, generally to someone other than the child's father. So it seems that men are less judgmental on this score, which should be welcome news. But it was also found that “the presence of nonmarital children increases the risk that a marriage will dissolve.” In fact, this also happens when divorced women bring their children to a second marriage. Even if their new husbands make an extra effort, it is not always easy to create amiable relations with another man's offspring. (There are also not wholly rare cases of stepfathers who take to molestation.)

Another popular image is of single mothers who are completely on their own, with the child's father either wholly out of the picture or an infrequent presence. While this is often the case, another kind of arrangement is becoming increasingly common. At the most recent count, almost 40 percent of nonmarital births were to couples who were already living together and could thus bring the baby into an established household. The Russell Sage authors call this “cohabitation,” which they hope to certify as a new family arrangement. It can now be found in all classes, ranging from trailer parks to celebrity couples whose babies are heralded in fan magazines.

Even so, the studies also admit that “the average duration of cohabiting unions remains relatively short,” and “only about half last more than eighteen months.” Some couples end up marrying; but of these, as many as 40 percent divorce within five years. Also, the median income for unmarried couples is $39,838, well under that of their married counterparts, although some of the difference may be caused by their being younger. And compared with divorced dads, “after a breakup, formerly cohabiting fathers would be even less involved in their children's lives.” Given so much tenuousness, it isn't evident that these liaisons should be taken as a variant of marriage. However formalized unions themselves are showing less staying power, so the difference between the two arrangements may in fact be narrowing.

Not only several of the books under review, but a number of other sources suggest that many adults are setting young lives in motion without much thought about being dependable parents. As Table B shows, only 60.4 percent of the nation's youngsters are living with the two people who created them. Even now, according to the Russell Sage studies, “about half of all children are predicted to spend some time in a single-parent family.” Once the figure moves a point or two higher, single parenthood could be our new norm.

While the Out of Wedlock authors take note of the general decline in births, they seem unconcerned that native-born Americans are not reproducing themselves. Moreover, the replacement ratio would drop even further if nonmarital births could be reduced. In view of the prospect of a graying population, we will need more children; if not our own, then those of immigrants.

At one point, Out of Wedlock alludes to a diminishing pool of “marriageable” men. While there are noteworthy exceptions, most women would still like a husband who brings home at least a slightly higher paycheck than their own. And this usually happens, since in almost all occupations men end up with higher earnings.5 The disparities begin early, when the first promotions are awarded, and grow as men accumulate more work experience. This means that for every woman there is a better-off man, so why speak of a shortage of potential mates?

There is a paucity of marriageable men among black Americans, owing largely to imprisonment, addiction, and early mortality. The best index is employment, where black women make up 52.1 percent of those working full time. With white women, the figure is 41.6 percent, and is similar for other ethnic groups. All told, the great majority of men should still be considered “marriageable,” if what is wanted is a steady job or the prospect of securing one. But now a great deal more is expected, apart from his not being violent or alcoholic or mentally unbalanced. Today, women who are contemplating marriage set higher standards for possible husbands than their mothers and grandmothers did. They find all too many men self-centered, wary of commitment, or just plain boring and lacking cultural interests. This may explain, at least in part, why twice as many women are now reaching their forties without marrying, which is twice the figure for a generation ago, while most heterosexual men marry by the end of their thirties.


Most girls and young women are not dropping out to have premarital babies. In fact, as a group they are generally having more educational and professional success than ever. This theme recurs throughout Christina Hoff Sommers's The War against Boys, a meticulous rendering of how young people are faring, especially in the competitive world of education. By almost every measure, the girls are well ahead. “Boys, on average, are a year and a half behind girls in reading and writing,” she writes. “They are less committed to school and less likely to go to college.” Studies by the College Board and the National Center for Education Statistics show that boys have lower grades in high school, largely because they are less likely to do their homework, and there are fewer of them in advanced placement courses. They also spend more time watching television and read fewer books on their own.

To my mind, the most striking single figure is that women are now estimated to make up 56.8 percent of all students who earn bachelors' degrees, which means that 131 women graduate for every 100 men.6 Where are the missing men? One explanation might be that many now go directly from high school to well-paying jobs. But construction sites hire very few eighteen-year-olds, even if they have family connections. Nor can it be shown that high-tech firms are taking on many teenage computer hackers. (And now, neither these industries nor others are doing much hiring of any sort.)

Girls seem more willing to stick out the years of schooling. By junior high school, boys start wishing they were elsewhere and begin falling behind. In addition, girls tend to take more care with their assignments and think about what their teachers want. Boys are more apt to wing it, feeling they understand a question, when in fact they don't (which is why their hands shoot up first).

Sommers also mentions a new development in college attendance, which can be detected in who takes the Scholastic Assessment Test. “More girls from lower-income homes,” she notes, “attempt the SAT than boys from the same background.” She doesn't cite the figures, but it is worth taking a moment to do so, since more is involved than scores on a test. In 2000, girls made up 54.8 percent of all those who reported their family income when taking the SAT. But at the highest income level, over $100,000, the sexes were equally represented. So up there, parents are able to motivate their sons toward college. However, by the next bracket, which is a fairly comfortable $60,000 to $80,000, boys have fallen to 47.2 percent. At $20,000 to $40,000, they are down to 42.2 percent of those who take the test, and are only 37.9 percent at under $20,000. It used to be that poorer families would allow only their sons to stay in school, while the daughters went to work. Today, the reverse is the case. Insofar as higher education will remain an avenue of upward mobility, more women—and fewer men—will be able to list the expected credentials.

For many people, not any bachelor's degree will do. After all, more than a million are awarded every year, by over two thousand institutions. Hence the undue attention given to schools regarded as highly selective, whose names are widely known and whose alumni are thought to have an extra edge. Of course, not everyone will agree on which schools make the grade; but among coeducational schools, a fairly representative sample might include the eight in the Ivy League (Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Pennsylvania, Princeton, and Yale), along with two smaller colleges (Amherst and Williams), plus Stanford and Duke, which now have reputations equal to the older schools.

Table C shows the ratios of men and women at these twelve schools, first in 1970, and then more recently, in 2000. In 1970, five of the twelve enrolled no women at all, and Princeton had admitted them in that year's freshman class. Among the six that had long been coeducational, the women's enrollments ranged from 20.6 percent at Harvard to 37.9 percent at Duke, so even they were a distance from equal enrollments. In the twelve together, 21.8 percent of all undergraduates were women.

Fast-forward to 2000. All have now embraced coeducation; and those that had only men raised their enrollments to accommodate women. The basic result is that women now make up 49.0 percent of the student bodies of the twelve highly selective colleges under consideration, varying from 46.3 percent at Harvard to majorities at Columbia, Cornell, and Brown. The larger picture is that all twelve schools now have 18,994 more women than they did in 1970 and—even more consequential—7,541 fewer men. Yale, most notably, rejected 2,072 men who would have been accepted thirty years earlier.7

So these and other men will not have the credentials that would have been theirs a generation ago. This is not to say they will end up doing manual labor. Instead of Yale, they will have to settle for Colgate, or make do with Syracuse rather than Stanford. Here, also, we are witnessing the downward movement of a cohort of men whose places are being taken by women who have better records and show greater promise. (Or will men begin to dispute current conceptions of merit?)8



Change in Number of Undergraduates, 1970 to 2000 Percentage of Women
Men Women 1970 2000
-376 +801 Amherst 0 48.1٪
-242 +1,855 Brown 28.4٪ 52.6٪
-730 +2,005 Columbia 0 51.2٪
-84 +972 Cornell 37.2٪ 51.2٪
-1,161 +1,938 Dartmouth 0 47.9٪
+287 +1,201 Duke 37.9٪ 48.0٪
-1,198 +1,853 Harvard 20.6٪ 46.3٪
-127 +1,985 Penn 34.5٪ 48.9٪
-775 +1,735 Princeton 11.1٪ 46.5٪
-763 +1,032 Stanford 34.9٪ 49.1٪
-300 +1,016 Williams 0 49.0٪
-2,072 +2,601 Yale 0 49.5٪
-7,541 +18,994 All Twelve 21.8٪ 49.0٪

Colette Dowling wrote The Cinderella Complex twenty years ago. Its thesis was that even with change in the air, all too many women still wanted to be taken care of by fathers, husbands, lovers, mentors, rather than to create lives of their own. Her latest book, The Frailty Myth, has a rather different tone. She remains concerned that too many girls and women are “stripped of the power of their bodies,” whether by undue attention to fashion or worrying that real women don't sweat. Whereas her Cinderella was emotionally dependent, the “learned weakness” of her new book has more to do with undeveloped muscles.

Dowling has toured the gyms and spas and jogging trails, and is pleased with what she sees. The “strength gap” between men and women is closing, because more women are exercising and mindful of what they eat. “The suspicion begins to arise,” she writes, “that maybe, when all is said and done, there is no appreciable strength difference between men and women,” and what we see is due mainly to “girls' lack of opportunity and training.”

She grants that even in a physically equal future, the top-ranked men's team in any sport will defeat the leading women's team. Similarly, in golf and tennis, men stars will beat the best women. Yet there are significant exceptions. In the grueling swim around Manhattan Island, a woman holds the fastest record, which ought to dispel “the myth of the weaker sex.” So it would be useful to look at sports where the sexes take part together, even if times or scores are recorded separately.

A good case is New York City's marathon. From 1980 to 2000, the number of women increased fivefold, while men barely doubled. This signifies that fewer men are applying, while more women are. Put another way, the pool of men who wish to run the race isn't growing, while that of women plainly is. But even more striking is that each year more women are among the first 100 finishers, a super-elite that in 2000 included only one third of one percent of all who completed the race. That year, there were sixteen women in the first one hundred to cross the tape, which also meant they came in ahead of 99.6 percent of the men in the race. Needless to say, men will always prevail when it comes to lifting weights. But on an equally demanding terrain, and a marathon is surely that, each year finds more women passing and surpassing thousands of men.

Many of the issues raised here will receive national notice as a result of recent legislation requiring all states to test students annually on academic skills. There is every likelihood that the results will be widely publicized; and if it turns out that girls are doing better, the inferior performance among boys may well become prominent among the concerns of politicians and the public.


  1. Fertility, Family Planning, and Women's Health (National Center for Health Statistics, 1997), Table 16.

  2. Justice Ann Walsh Bradley, State v. Oakley (No. 99-3328-CR, July 10, 2001), p. 46.

  3. While Solinger and Hull and Hoffer provide lengthy lists of references, they neither quote nor cite Kristin Luker's classic study, Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood (University of California Press, 1984), which offers an evenhanded analysis of mainstream opponents of abortion.

  4. But do the two adults have to be of the same gender? For a bemusing alternative, see the children's book Heather Has Two Mommies, by Leslea Newman, with illustrations by Diana Souza (Alyson Publications, 1990).

  5. According to the Census, she makes more than he does in 14.9 percent of marriages. However, its figures do not report the ages of these spouses. We should know how often he may be in graduate school, while she has a full-time job; or among older couples, when he has retired, and she is still working. See America's Families and Living Arrangements (US Census Bureau, June 2001), Table FG3.

  6. Digest of Education Statistics (National Center for Education Statistics, March 2001), Table 248.

  7. In 1970, the six best-known women's colleges (Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Smith, Vassar, and Wellesley) had a total of 10,350 students. Even if they are added to the 10,740 women then at the other schools, they were still well behind the 38,443 men. In 2000, the six women's colleges enrolled 11,517 students (in fact, Vassar also had 892 men).

  8. Of course, they will still face obstacles in business and professions; many talented women still find their careers blocked in the middle tiers. According to a recent book by the economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett, the few who rise higher have generally done so by foregoing becoming mothers, so they can always be on call. See Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children (Miramax, 2002).

Works Cited

Beggars and Choosers: How the Politics of Choice Shapes Adoption, Abortion, and Welfare in the United States by Rickie Solinger.

Roe v. Wade: The Abortion Rights Controversy in American History by N. E. H. Hull and Peter Charles Hoffer.

Out of Wedlock: Causes and Consequences of Nonmarital Fertility edited by Lawrence L. Wu and Barbara Wolfe.

The War against Boys: How Misguided Feminism Is Harming Our Young Men by Christina Hoff Sommers.

The Frailty Myth: Redefining the Physical Potential of Women and Girls by Colette Dowling.


Principal Works


Further Reading