Guest Blog Post: Christina Hoff Sommers on “What’s Wrong and What’s Right With Contemporary Feminism”?

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Dear Readers,

As a conservative feminist, I am often invited by members of the Federalist Society to speak at their law schools and take part in debates. Bridget Crawford, a moderator of the Feminist Law Professor blog, has kindly offered me the opportunity to post one of my lectures.

I will also take this occasion, once again, to correct a false allegation that was made about me. On September 2, 2008 an entry on this blog mentioned that I had once called women’s studies professors “homely.” I never said any such thing. Fifteen year ago, an Esquire magazine writer misquoted me, made it up or confused me with someone else. When Washington Post writer Meg Rosenfeld did a profile of me in 1994, she asked the writer about the quote. He said his notes had gone missing (Washington Post, 7/7/1994.) The fact is: they never existed. No matter how many letters I write correcting the fabrication, it seems never to go away. I don’t mind being criticized for things I truly say and believe, so I welcome reactions to the lecture pasted below.

I hope you find merit in the lecture. In general, it elicits a good reaction from feminist students and professors. This past November I had a productive and civil debate with a feminist law professor at Penn State. On the other hand, when I spoke at Hamilton College two weeks later, a young woman fled the room close to tears and called me the “most disgusting person”she had ever met in her life. I sincerely hope you react more like the Penn State professor than the Hamilton undergraduate. My general outlook on feminism is always evolving, so I will take any criticism or advice you offer to heart.

Sincerely,

Christina Hoff Sommers

Resident Scholar

American Enterprise Institute

 

What’s Wrong and What’s Right with Contemporary Feminism?

Lecture by Christina Hoff Sommers*

For the past two decades I have devoted myself to studying the influence of feminism on American culture-:with a special focus on campus feminism. In the next 35-40 minutes I’ll give you the best information I have on this topic.But, of course, information is never the whole story; I have a point of view and you’ll hear about that as well.

This evening I will be arguing that contemporary feminism has taken a wrong turn. In my view, the noble cause of women’s emancipation is being damaged in at least three ways by the contemporary women’s movement. [1] First, today’s movement takes a very dim view of men; second, it wildly overstates the victim status of American women; and third, it is dogmatically attached to the view that men and women are essentially the same. In the time I have with you, I will try to explain and justify these criticisms, and conclude by offering what I think is a reasonable and humane alternative to current feminism. I will also extend an olive branch to the feminists I criticize. But first a few words about my background.

Before the early 1990s I was a feminist academic in good standing. I was invited to feminist conferences and asked to review papers for a feminist philosophy journal. My courses at Clark University were cross-listed with Women’s Studies. That all changed in 1994 when I published a book entitled Who Stole Feminism? The book was strongly feminist, but it rejected the idea that American women were oppressed. For the most part, feminism had succeeded, I said. By the nineties, I argued, American women were among the freest and most liberated in the world. It was no longer reasonable to say that as a group women were far worse off than men. Yes, there were still inequities, but to speak of American society as a”patriarchy”or to refer to American women as second class citizens was frankly absurd.

In the book, I showed how feminism was being hijacked by gender war eccentrics in the universities. And when I say eccentric I mean it. To give one quick example, one of my colleagues in feminist philosophy referred to her seminars as”ovulars.”[2] She rejected the masculinist”seminar”because the root of that word is associated with, well, the very essence of male power. It is actually very funny when you think about it. But this woman was not kidding.

When Who Stole Feminism? was first published, some prominent feminists actually agreed with what I had to say: I even received some fan mail –- but not much. For the most part, the feminist establishment was outraged. I was quickly subjected to a colorful attack for my heresies. Many feminist leaders and writers remain convinced that the United States is an oppressive patriarchy. They did not appreciate my plea for moderation. Some called me a backlasher, a traitor to my gender, anti-woman. One angry critic referred to Margaret Thatcher and me as “those two female impersonators.”

Just as an aside, I should tell you that all of this notoriety has not been easy for my parents — who are veryliberal and dismayed to find their daughter reviled by people they admire — like the feminist leader Gloria Steinem–or, much worse, admired by people they regard as diabolical. (My father was driving along a country road in Vermont when he heard conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh praise something I had written. He almost smashed into a snow bank.) But of course, whatever their reservations, my parents remain loyal fans. When a columnist from Playboy magazine interviewed me, my father was eager to get hold of that issue. The problem was how do you buy a copy of Playboy when you are an old-fashioned gentleman, living in a small Vermont town where everyone knows you.

He solved the problem by quietly crossing the border into Keene, New Hampshire where no one knew him. He was still more than a little embarrassed: feeling the need to explain himself to the sales clerk he told her,”It’s OK, I’m only buying this because my daughter’s in it.”

Well, anyway — I am not a backlasher, a traitor, anti-woman or a female impersonator. What I am is a philosophy professor with a respect for logic, clear thinking, rules of evidence and –- I hope –- a strong sense of fairness. In fact, I think it’s my bias toward logic, reason, and fairness that has put me at odds with the feminist establishment.

I am not here to urge you to reject old-fashioned classical feminism of the sort that won women the vote, educational opportunity and many other freedoms. I am a passionate supporter of that style of feminism, which I call equity feminism. An equity feminist wants for women what she wants for everyone:-fair treatment, respect, and dignity. Equity feminism promotes harmony and good will between the sexes and it can lead to a much saner, happier and more ethical world.

[lecture continued here]

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16 Responses to Guest Blog Post: Christina Hoff Sommers on “What’s Wrong and What’s Right With Contemporary Feminism”?

  1. Bridget Crawford says:

    In response to one of my blog posts, Christina Hoff Sommers of the American Enterprise Institute commented with a correction. We subsequently corresponded by email. I am delighted that she has taken me up on the invitation to do a guest post her at Feminist Law Profs.

    As I tell my students, I sincerely believe that some of our greatest opportunities for learning come when we engage in reasoned discourse with people whose viewpoints are different from our own. I agree with some of Professor Sommers’ ideas; I disagree (sometimes strongly) with others. But I welcome and appreciate the contributions she makes to the ongoing conversation about the significance, implications and future of feminism.

  2. Here are my three immediate thoughts. First, to the extent Professor Sommers is pointing out factual inaccuracies in the literature, I agree with her that that’s an important thing to do. No one benefits from myths being propogated. I’m still always concerned though that anecdote is mistaken for data, so I am skeptical (although willing to be convinced) that this is a widespread problem.

    Second, I strongly contest her theories about feminist hatred of men. For the past two decades, I’ve now been a very outspoken feminist man on three very different university campuses, within one prominent feminist legal advocacy group, and as a frequent blogger on this blog. With the advocacy group I worked for for 7 years, I worked with many other feminist legal advocacy groups. In none of these settings was I ever once treated in any way that made me feel that the (mostly all, but not exclusively so) women hated me or men generally. They (as do I) hate men who do bad things to women (and other men). But, there is no general hatred of men. Sommers’ claims to the contrary are just wrong. In fact, I often found (and still find) myself in a position I didn’t want to be in — being praised for my feminist work because of the work but also because I was a man. I appreciate the first part of that but feel like the second part is wrong-headed and unnecessary.

    Third, there are certainly differences between men and women. But, those differences are often overblown by people who state them almost as categorical rather than what they often are: for a given characteristic that people say there is a difference for, given a room of 100 men and 100 women, you’ll probably find 52 women and 48 men with one disposition and 48 women and 52 men with the other. Sure, that’s a difference, but is it a difference you want to base any kind of policy judgment on? Sommers cites a 1998 compilation of scientific studies on difference. I suggest she look at this 2005 meta-analysis from Janet Shibley Hyde coming to the opposite conclusion. To the extent that Sommers’ claims are based on fact, she’d be well-served including Hyde’s more up-to-date research in her analysis.

  3. Ann Bartow says:

    I got to the sentence that says:

    In fact, I think it’s my bias toward logic, reason, and fairness that has put me at odds with the feminist establishment.

    And I decided to stop reading. Maybe she didn’t call Women’s Studies Professors “homely” but I can certainly see why people might assume she had.

  4. historiann says:

    Bridget–thanks for posting this. I read the speech all the way through. My question for Prof. Sommers is this: since you say that you “Well, I don’t actually deny” that “women in the United States continue to a face serious sexist discrimination,” what do you think the goals of U.S. feminism should be? I agree with you that on balance, American women are better off than their counterparts in many places around the world. Since you say that things aren’t yet perfect for women even in “equity feminist” terms, what is the unfinished business of feminism here in the U.S.?

    I would say that the problems Prof. Sommers cites in the law textbook on domestic violence are a problem of peer review, not inherent problems in the scholarship on domestic violence. (I have to say that historical citation to the “rule of thumb” had me rolling my eyes–but so what? It’s tangential to the actual subject of the book. I certainly wouldn’t toss something like that in my scholarship, but then, I don’t write textbooks, which are written for more general audiences.) I think perhaps the essentially interdisciplinary nature of domestic violence law may also be the caue of some of these groaners. I haven’t read this book, but I’m guessing that the author uses information and ideas from history, sociology, criminology, medicine, and the law–and perhaps lots of others I’ve left out. Errors should be corrected–I’m sure the author of the text would be grateful to have them pointed out to her so that she can verify and/or correct the misinformation.

  5. Anita Bernstein says:

    Ditto to David and Ann. And it’s interesting at the end (unfortunately I, unlike Ann, persevered), when a gentle interlocutor asks Sommers if she has anything good to say about any feminist, she mentions Eve Ensler’s and Catharine MacKinnon’s offshore projects. More of the rightwing meme that American feminists are hypocrites for not attacking the Taliban enough.

    Sommers also intones that men are better at the usual stereotypically assigned tasks (spatial perception, math, etc.) while women are better at verbal tasks. Even if this dichotomy is correct, we’re left waiting for her to explain why women don’t control publishing and most branches of the academy, including law schools, the way men control the manufacturing sector and science/engineering in academe.

    Women don’t want power and success enough to try for them, you say, Dr. Sommers? Well then, careerism and brute shoving have pushed out that innate “verbal” superiority. You’d think she’d mind.

  6. barbara burke says:

    Dear Ms. Sommers,

    I am a second-year evening law student. During the day, I teach young women at an inner-city high school in New York. I have been teaching for fifteen years and was for five years a grade school prinicpal in this same community. I witness first-hand the oppression and exploitation that young women experience. Their narratives are real;and each young woman’s story is proof that gender inequality is ever present in our society. May I suggest that you simply scroll down on this blog to a documentary posted earlier. It is entitled, “Black Woman Walking.” I suggest that this documentary could have taken place in many parts of the United States.

    You seem to take issue with the concept of equality of outcome. Yet isn’t that the measure of equality of opportunity. Aren’t the two integrally related?

    Finally, you mention that you speak on behalf of the Federalist Society. This in itself makes me question your professed goals of equality for women. As a law student, I have found the statements and beliefs of this group to be inimical to values of equality and fairness. As you have done in your posted speech, Ms. Sommers, the tenured law professor at my school who represents the Federalist Society speaks in over-broad and dishonest generalizations. As you have done with Eve Ensler, this professor too has appropriated and misused the writings of scholars such as Robin West and Regina Austin to support his skewed views. Few things are more intellectually dishonest than that.

    Sincerely,

    Barbara Burke

  7. fannie says:

    I also got to “In fact, I think it’s my bias toward logic, reason, and fairness that has put me at odds with the feminist establishment” and rolled my eyes. But I did finish the article.

    Near the end, Sommers urges all feminists to work together to help women who have it worse in other countries. It would be amazing if that could happen, and civil conversations only help. Yet, I disagree that the onus is only on liberal feminists to “make room for” “moderate and conservative” feminists in this collaboration. I think it has to work both ways.

    For instance, I can acknowledge that Sommers makes some good points that should be addressed, especially with respect to correcting errors in textbooks. Yet, “moderate and conservative” feminists also have some work to do if we’re going to be able to collaborate. To be general here, moderate and conservative feminists are pretty good at perpetuating misinformation about what mainstream feminism is. I commend Sommers for being one of the more civil, yet some of her criticisms of feminism are nothing more than ridicule (the “seminar”/”uvular” example), inaccurate representations (eg- feminists hate men), and uptightness about graphic sexual descriptions (in Vagina Monologues). These critiques are subjective and just aren’t really legitimate.

  8. Pingback: Feminist Law Professors » Blog Archive » Watch Christina Hoff Sommers Give Her Lecture Live

  9. Pingback: Response to Christina Hoff Sommers, part 1: Ovulars instead of Seminars? « Blog By Barry

  10. Pingback: Alas, a blog » Blog Archive » Response to Christina Hoff Sommers, part 1: Ovulars instead of Seminars?

  11. Pingback: mattababy.com » Blog Archive » Ovulars

  12. Pingback: Response to Christina Hoff Sommers, Part 2: Do Feminists Hate Men? « Blog By Barry

  13. Pingback: Alas, a blog » Blog Archive » Response to Christina Hoff Sommers, Part 2: Do Feminists Hate Men?

  14. Pingback: Alas, a blog » Blog Archive » Response to Christina Hoff Sommers, part 3: Truths and Lies

  15. Pingback: Response to Christina Hoff Sommers, part 3: Truths and Lies « Blog By Barry

  16. Sommers22 says:

    Reply to Critics: Christina Hoff Sommers

    A few weeks ago, I posted a lecture on this site setting forth my perspective as a conservative feminist and criticizing many aspects of contemporary feminism. My responses to some of the posted comments follow.

    Professor David Cohen writes:”I strongly contest her theories about feminist hatred of men.”

    I do not believe that feminists hate men, but I do believe that contemporary feminist ideology is permeated with a”women are from Venus, men are from Hell”philosophy. My talk illustrated this by examples from Eve Enlser’s play The Vagina Monologues, where every male is either a brute or a buffoon. I also referred to a litany of faulty feminist factoids on domestic violence that wrongly and unjustly implicate the average American male in social atrocities. I noted that many academic feminists still believe and teach that the United States is a patriarchal”sex gender system”where women are oppressed and subordinated by men. These anti-male attitudes are unfounded and unjust, and promote rancor. They help explain, for example, why so many otherwise fair-minded and enlightened faculty at Duke University sat by and said nothing while three young men on the lacrosse team were subjected to the horrors of a modern day witch hunt.

    Mr. Cohen also faults me for citing a 1998 book that summarizes masses of evidence suggesting that male and female brains may not be precisely interchangeable. He refers readers to more recent (2005) research by psychologist Janet Hyde. Janet Hyde is a distinguished scholar, but she is well known as someone who tends to downplay male-female difference. Still, I will take Mr. Cohen’s advice and offer a more recent reference. Those interested in the debate over difference should look at Why Aren’t More Women in Science?: Top Researchers Debate the Evidence (Stephen Ceci and Wendy Williams, eds., American Psychological Association, 2007). Professor Hyde is included, but so are many distinguished authors who strongly disagree with her. The debate over sex difference is very much alive and it is intellectually irresponsible to pretend otherwise.

    Professor Anita Bernstein (Brooklyn Law) says that if it is true that men are better at spatial perception and math, while women are better at verbal tasks,”why don’t women control publishing, and most branches of the academy, including law schools?”What Bernstein overlooks is that there are other biologically based differences between the sexes besides verbal and spatial skills that could explain why men and women, as groups, have different life priorities. We know for example, that men are greater risk takers and women are more nurturing, empathetic, and bonded to children. Human nature:not the patriarchy:could be implicated here. Anyway, now women do”control the academy”in many respects; they are president of Harvard, Princeton, University of Pennsylvania, and MIT (and until recently dean of Harvard Law School), for example.

    Professor Ann Bartow (University of North Carolina) first writes that she decided to stop reading my lecture early on when I said that it was”my bias toward logic, reason and fairness that has put me at odds with the feminist establishment.”Isn’t it a basic tenet of logic, reason and fairness to at least hear what someone has to say before concluding that she is unsound?
    However, in a later post, Professor Bartow says she found a video of my debate at Penn State for the Federalist Society:and watched it all the way through. She urges readers to view it to see for themselves my”ridiculous”claims and”nasty attacks against feminism.”No specifics are offered. She also implies that I was wrong to have described the Penn debate as”civil.”I went back to view the tape myself and found it to be altogether polite. It occurs to me that Professor Bartow may simply be unaccustomed to having her opinions challenged: dissenting claims strike her as out of order and unworthy of any response beyond pejorative adjectives. If there is a Federalist Chapter at her school or a women’s legal caucus, perhaps they can sponsor a debate between Bartow and me. I am sure it will be civil, productive, and fair – though undoubtedly intense.

    “Historiann”asks me what I think is the”unfinished business of equity feminism.”My answer is that women in American society, far more than men, struggle with the challenge of combining family life with work life. That problem requires continuing efforts at solution or at least amelioration. There is still a lot of misogyny in the popular culture where:in music videos, for example:women are routinely referred to as”bitches”and”hos.”All the same, I believe that the major challenge for contemporary feminism is to find ways to help women in the developing world in their struggle for basic rights. Women are being lashed , stoned and hanged in Iran. They are facing a genocidal rape campaign in the Congo. Saudi Arabia is a full-scale gender apartheid. These grave injustices must now be the primary concerns of Western feminists.

    Barbara Burke invites me to look at a documentary called”Black Women Walking”that shows women of color being harassed, hooted at and commented upon by men as they walk down the street. She adds that she teaches young women in the inner city and that she”witnesses first hand the oppression and exploitation that young women experience. “I assume Ms. Burke is aware that the life prospects for many of the young men in schools where she teaches are as bad, or worse than those of the young women:especially when it comes to their educational opportunities. (Suggested reading:”The Trouble with Black Boys,”by Pedro Noguera, Harvard Graduate School of Education http://www.inmotionmagazine.com/er/pntroub1.html.) But let me address the specific issue raised in the film. I greatly sympathize with the women in the video who had to put up with obscene commentary as they walk through their neighborhoods. But, with the exception of one or two scenes that show serious criminal violence, much of what those women are confronting is not so much”oppression and exploitation”as horrendous incivility. Young men:from all backgrounds:need to be taught to be civil. Our popular culture and our schools are failing in this respect. The problem is akin to the misogyny in popular culture I mentioned earlier.

    Finally, to my suggestion that contemporary feminist organizations and programs become more inclusive, Fannie says,”I disagree that the onus is only on liberal feminists to make room for ‘moderate and conservative’ feminists in this collaboration. I think it has to work both ways.”
    I agree. Over the years that I have been debating academic feminists, I have sometimes been too harsh and censorious. Feminists such as Eve Ensler and Catharine MacKinnon can be exasperating when they label the United States as a repressive patriarchy, but when I read about what these same feminists are doing in places like the Congo and Bosnia my impulse is not to criticize but to cheer. I am now working with my brilliant and brave colleague Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born Dutch dissident feminist and author of Infidel. She is organizing a group that will defend the rights of women in the West who are threatened by Sharia law. My hope is that some of the feminist law professors who read this blog will find ways to help her.
    So, Fannie’s call for comity and mutual co-operation is well taken. Again, I think I speak for a great number of women who feel estranged from establishment feminism:but committed to the cause of women. It’s time to mend some fences.
    Christina Hoff Sommers
    Resident Scholar
    American Enterprise Institute

    P.S. I will be speaking at Florida Coastal School of Law on February 17th, and University of Florida Law School on the 18th. Both lectures are sponsored by the Federalist Society and take place at noon. Faculty from those schools are more than welcome to attend.

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