The Future of Feminism:
An Interview with Christina Hoff Sommers
By Scott London
Christina Hoff Sommers
Over the last decade or two, many women in the United States have distanced themselves from the feminist movement. It appears that a growing number of them associate feminism with anger and hostile rhetoric and have therefore concluded that they are not really feminists. This was reflected in a recent Time/CNN poll which showed that although 57 percent of the women responding felt there was a need for a strong women's movement, a full 63 percent said they didn't consider themselves feminists.
This fact is not surprising to Christina Hoff Sommers, author of the controversial polemic Who Stole Feminism: How Women Have Betrayed Women. Sommers contends that feminism has taken a wrong turn in recent years. It has become too self-absorbed, too unrepresentative, and too punitive to dissenters, she says. The conviction that women remain besieged and subject to a relentless male backlash has turned the movement inward. "We hear very little today about how women can join with men on equal terms to contribute to universal human culture," she writes. "Instead, feminist ideology has taken a divisive gynocentric turn, and the emphasis now is on women as a political class whose interests are at odds with the interests of men."
Christina Hoff Sommers is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and former professor of philosophy at Clark University in Massachusetts. I met with her in Los Angeles shortly after the publication of Who Stole Feminism?
Scott London: What inspired you to write this book?
Christina Hoff Sommers: In the late 1980s, I began to have disagreements with some of my colleagues in philosophy. In 1988, I actually went to the American Philosophical Association and read a paper critical of key points in academic feminism. I thought it would be a lively debate and that people would be angry. That often happens in the American Philosophical Association. But you always part as friends and go out for drinks and so on. But we did not part as friends at that event. People were furious. They were hissing. One woman almost fainted. I had never experienced anything like it. That evening I was excommunicated from a religion I didn't even know existed.
London: Did you consider yourself a feminist at that point?
Sommers. Yes. As a philosopher, you have to want dissent. That keeps you honest and keeps the research credible. But they didn't appreciate any kind of dissent in the movement and that spelled trouble. There is a system of quality control in scholarship, it is called criticism. But they were disallowing it.
London: The tone of feminism has become angrier and more resentful, and the explanation is often that there has been a "backlash" in the culture. Isn't there some truth to that?
Sommers: It's a myth. The eighties, which Susan Faludi called the "backlash decade," was a period when women made more progress than they did during most of the postwar period combined in terms of improved earnings. Women are now approaching parity with men in law school, medical school, business school. There are more women than men in college. A lot of this happened in the so-called backlash decade. So that, in itself, is a myth. What historians and economists will have to explain was how there was so much progress in so short a time. That's the big story of the eighties, not the backlash. They got it backwards. Now, why they got it backwards is interesting: because the leadership and some of the more extreme feminists are addicted to a language and a rhetoric of oppression. They want to view American women as a subordinate class. They say we are oppressed by the "patriarchy." All of that is very silly. And it's also very inaccurate. Women today have so many advantages today they didn't have in previous times and in many places around the world — most places around the world. So not to pass along the good news to young women seems to me to be wrong. That is part of the reason why I wrote the book — to give young women a different perspective. The perspective now, from my point of view, is that the better things get for women, the angrier the women's studies professors seem to be, the more depressed Gloria Steinem seems to get. So there is something askew here, something amiss.
London: Is your primary purpose to debunk myths or to offer women an alternative vision?
Sommers: Well, I don't really think we need an alternative vision. I think we have a very fine vision already — it's called "equity feminism." It's the classical feminism that got us the suffrage, that got us equity in education, that continues to get us equality of opportunity. That is the feminism I believe in. That didn't need to be given a philosophical expression because it had already been done quite beautifully by Mary Wollstonecraft and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. This is our heritage as women in this country. So I didn't need to write a new philosophy of feminism. We have very fine philosophies. What I needed to do was debunk this particular school of feminism I call gender feminism.
London: Gender feminism?
Sommers: That's right. These are women who believe in what they call the sex-gender system, that women are trapped in a sex-gender system, that gender roles are arbitrarily defined, and the purpose is to convince women that they are victims, that they are put upon by men in every aspect, that language has to be liberated, and textbooks and great works of art are all compromised by sexism. You have feminists — Susan McClary, for example — who teach students to identify rape themes in Beethoven symphonies. You know, when I see things like that I think it's gotten so ridiculous that you can't tell the difference between a parody and the real thing. There are feminists out there who are trying to get scientists to change the name of the Big Bang Theory because, they say, that is sexist and frightening to young women. Well, what kind of woman with a serious interest in astronomy would be put off by a graphic image of a cosmic event?
London: I've spoken to a number of my women friends about their views on feminism. By and large, they tell me they want to distance themselves from it. This surprised me a bit because they are all very thoughtful, well-read, independent-minded, and so on. They tell me feminism has become too ideological, too divisive, and they simply can't identify with it.
Sommers: That's right. As I'll often do, I'll ask my students, "How many of you are feminists?" Very few will raise their hands, usually none. That's astonishing. If I ask my students, "How many of you are environmentalists?" they would probably all raise their hands — even though they know that there are some offbeat groups that go too far. Overall, environmentalism is a good thing and they are quite proud to be identified with it. But feminism, no.
What happened? How did it alienate its natural constituency, young women? I think it did it with the male-bashing. Young women are not naturally antagonistic toward men, in fact they are quite fond of them, so that kind of antagonism is not going to work — thinking of men as proto-batterers, proto-rapists, and so on. And that is the message in many women's studies classes. Fortunately, many young women aren't buying it.
London: You use the phrase "equity feminism." Some women feel that feminism largely misses the point by defining liberation as the freedom to act as a man. They feel that this idea overlooks many of the unique qualities that women have that are not necessarily tied to equality. For example, they believe feminism has contributed to the dishonoring of the American mother. So perhaps the new feminism isn't about "equity" so much as equality of respect, honor, and compensation?
Sommers: Yes, that is how I would view it. I would view it also as about choice. If a woman chooses to be a conventional wife and mother, then, fine, that is the triumph of feminism — that we can have choices as men have. But the thing is, I would go even further. I think that many women choose to continue to be very feminine. They enjoy feminine artifice — doing their nails, their hair, wearing high heels, and fishnet stockings.
London: Several books have appeared over the last year that take up the same theme. I'm thinking of The New Victorians, for instance, which is subtitled A Young Woman's Challenge to the Old Feminist Order. There is also a book called Professing Feminism: Cautionary Tales from Inside the Strange World of Women's Studies. This leads me to wonder if there is a splintering going on within feminism. Are we past the point where we can speak of a cohesive movement?
Sommers: I think the great achievement of feminism was to assert the truth that women are individuals. So it's going to be hard to have any group that represents the "women's point of view." We are not locked into a single point of view. There are women conservatives. There are radicals. There are anarchists. There are the traditionalists, and so forth. We are diverse, we are individuals. So it's going to be hard to have a movement that represents all of us. And that's one of the things I object to. When the media wants a women's point of view, they will often go to Gloria Steinem or Patricia Ireland. They don't represent the majority of American women! I think that the young women you just mentioned — Rene Denfield and the book Cautionary Tales from Inside the Strange World of Women's Studies — are objecting to the fact that just one group seems to be able to give the official position of women. It's nice to have them coming along.
Whether or not it represents a split, I don't know for sure, because I think it may be that what we are moving toward is what a friend of mine calls "people-ism," since people have overused the term "humanism." What's wrong with just treating human beings with respect. There may be certain areas where women are still behind and we have to be careful of discrimination and unfairness. But, on the other hand, I think we need a certain amount of grace in victory. If we are now 55 percent of college enrollments, do we really need to have all these advocates to improve women's educational opportunities? What about boys' education? Many of us have sons and brothers; boys' education is a women's issue.
This is another problem with feminism. Women think they form a discrete tribe. But we are intimately connected with "the enemy" — with men. They are our brothers, our fathers, our sons, and their fate is our fate. So I think the movement has a problem from the very beginning. Women will always be found sleeping with the enemy and making alliances with the so-called enemy. So there are fallacies there too that we will unite in sisterhood.
London: There was some controversy when your book first appeared. The New York Times Book Review, one of the most prestigious book magazines in the country, asked Nina Auerbach to review it. Why did this cause such an uproar?
Sommers: Nina Auerbach was closely connected with the editor of the New York Times Book Review, Rebecca Sinclair. They both live in Philadelphia and Nina Auerbach had been Rebecca Sinclair's professor at the University of Pennsylvania. So there was a student-mentor relationship there. Auerbach was known to be a radical feminist at UPenn. So to choose her to review my book was a little like choosing H.R. Haldeman to review All the President's Men. The book was basically about her and her sisters. She was even a key figure. The book opens with a parody of a feminist conference in which she was a presenter. She couldn't possibly be objective. I think she didn't read it or read a few pages and hated it. She went on the talk circuit and did radio shows about how she despised the book.
If you hate a book so much, why even review it? Why even give it any attention? And you'll notice that the New York Times rarely trashes a book. In fact, Sinclair was known to urge authors to find something good in a book or just leave it alone and let it die, unless it would become super-important and then she would review it. But it didn't happen with my book. It was reviewed by the New York Times within days of its publication date — which is again unusual, they are often late and authors don't like that. But they were right on target. I think they wanted to kill this book.
The review was so vituperative. People were shocked. So there were op-ed pieces in major newspapers by liberal journalists (not just conservatives) attacking the New York Times. This got Rebecca Sinclair and Nina Auerbach in trouble because the New York Times Book Review really tries to push the notion that it's very objective. And I think readers sense that they don't have an agenda. They don't even list the names of the editors and the staff because they want to cultivate this idea that they are objective. So they didn't appreciate this kind of furor. Then Rebecca Sinclair eventually left as editor. I think this was part of a series of things she had done that worried the powers that be at the New York Times. But that was how my book was reviewed.
London: Aside from the Times, how has the book been received?
Sommers: Overall, the reviews have been very positive. Dierdre English reviewed it for the Washington Post and she had very good things to say. She had criticisms, of course, but as a philosopher I don't mind reasoned, balanced criticism.
Jean Bethke Elshtain is a feminist and she reviewed it in the New Republic. That review was fair, mostly positive. I got wonderful mail from Erica Jong, and Nadine Strossen of the ACLU. So a lot of women appreciated it.
The feminists that really had a lot to lose are the groups that promote phony statistics — the National Association for Women, the American Association of University Women (AAUW). I think their power depends on sustaining a crisis environment. They have gone after me. The AAUW, a group that did what I think was a very inadequate study of girls and self-esteem, did not reply to my criticism or correct the many mistakes I identified but chose instead to fax me pages and pages of denunciations and attacks. That was disappointing because that is not the way you expect a once very well-regarded organization to behave.
London: You have said some fine things about Camille Paglia. Besides being ostracized by the establishment, as it were, do you feel that the two of you have a lot in common?
Sommers: Yes. I have learned so much from her and she is such an exciting thinker. I love to hear her lecture on college campuses because you see the students in the audience — the press always miss this — the students who listen to her at MIT and Harvard, she makes them want to be intellectuals, because she makes the life of the mind so exciting. She is so erudite. She has a command of history and philosophy and art, as well as of popular culture. At the drop of a hat she can make wonderful connections between what is going on in a soap opera and something that happened in Babylon. It is just exciting and thrilling. So I find her wonderful and I'm very grateful that she's there.
But it's sad because when you're in her presence, you're in the presence of a truly original thinker, an iconoclast, and you realize how few of those there are around. We're in a time of such crushing intellectual conformity that when a Camille Paglia comes along... You don't have to agree with everything she says but it's worth the ride. I've often found that she says things that I think are so wrong... When she first came out against the Take Back the Night marches, she spoke somewhat disparagingly of the great movement. I thought she was a little insensitive. I was somewhat critical of her about that in the review I did in the Times Literary Supplement, only to discover that she was absolutely right. There isn't this date-rate epidemic that has been described on campuses. It's wildly exaggerated. There are problems but it's mainly problems with drinking and then ridiculous and sometimes dangerous behavior with binge drinking and so forth. I just have learned from her and find her enlightening. And funny.
London: Is it true that you started off as a fairly mainstream and politically correct academic?
Sommers: Oh, yes. Until a few years ago, my only foray into politics was to try to work for Michael Dukakis. And before that I had published politically correct pieces. I published a piece in the New England Journal of Medicine on animal rights that got me in trouble with some scientists who wanted to do research on some animals. So I was always PC; it wasn't deliberate, it was just in my nature. I wasn't really questioning of these things.
When I originally started questioning feminism, I did it mainly because no one else was doing it. I would read these outrageous attacks on capitalism... I mean, I'm not a rabid market capitalist, but, my goodness, what else do they have to suggest that works better. Yet I found that a lot of the Women's Studies texts were Marxist. That seemed to me so insensitive and intellectually sloppy to be teaching students Marxism or radical feminism and not tell them the other side, the dark side, which is so obvious. They were not doing that. So that was really what motivated me too in the beginning. To say, they are being careless here and let's look at the arguments. That made me very unpopular.
London: Does the feminist movement still show strength and promise, or do you see it becoming more contentious and divided in coming years?
Sommers: Well, I do worry about a new generation of feminists who have been given a lot of misinformation. They are on every college campus and are now out in the community. Maybe ten percent of 18-24 year old women are very angry people, intoxicated with hatred, believing that maleness is synonymous with violence. Now, this is not true, but they have been fed these statistics. The statistics that I debunk in the book — it's not a mistake that appears in one book. They are repeated and reinforced from textbooks, popular texts, newspapers. Students would have no reason to doubt them. So they believe that one in four women are victims of rape or attempted rape, or that they are still earning 59 cents on the dollar, that they are dying by the scores of thousands of anorexia nervosa. Untrue, yet they believe it. So that is going to be a problem. You are going to have these angry young women out there who believe a lot of false things. It's always dangerous to combine ignorance and moral fervor. So we are going to have some feminist fanatics to contend with, along with all the other fanatics that are in our society. So as a philosopher I'm appealing to the women's studies professors to calm down, take it easy, bring in competing points of view. You should not aim to turn your students into angry, disaffected people. What we need is a calmer and more user-friendly feminism.
This interview was adapted from the public radio series "Insight & Outlook."