|photo of Christina Hoff Sommers is from here|
I agree with those many intelligent women. Her scholarship is as flawed as her arguments.
Let's take a look at just how wrong she is. Below are two reviews of Sommer's anti-feminist tract, Who Stole Feminism? The answer is that men stole it and while trying to bury it, women like Sommers and Katie Roiphe came along and dumped dirt on it by the shovelful before the men took over, as usual. Please click on each of the titles to link back to the source website.
Anti-Feminist Attack Based on Error-Filled Anecdotes
In her book, Who Stole Feminism? How Women Have Betrayed Women, Christina Hoff Sommers sounds the alarm. "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," she writes. Such feminists have "alienated and silenced women and men alike." Where once there were Reds under the bed, now there is the Fem Menace by every blackboard: "These consciousness-raisers are driving out the scholars on many campuses."
Unlike the "well adjusted" women of the 19th Century "first wave" of feminism, "gender feminists" (as Sommers calls the modern ones she doesn't like) are manipulating facts, squelching debate and running off with money and influence.
"The gender feminists have proved very adroit in getting financial support from governmental and private sources. They hold the keys to many bureaucratic fiefdoms," Sommers reports, without citing statistics. "It is now virtually impossible to be appointed to high administrative office in any university system without having passed muster with the gender feminists," she asserts.
Even as Sommers berates feminists for embracing "victimhood," she complains that classicists like herself are under personal attack: "To criticize feminist ideology is now hazardous in the extreme."
Sommers, an associate professor at Clark University, is entitled to her opinions. The problem is that her book, published this year by Simon & Schuster, claims to be about facts. The National Review (6/21/94) excerpted a portion under the headline "Why Feminism's Vital Statistics Are Always Wrong." Her book is filled with the same kind of errors, unsubstantiated charges and citations of "advocacy research" that she claims to find in the work of the feminists she takes to task.
Reviewing the book in the Wall Street Journal (7/1/94), Melanie Kirkpatrick enthused: "One of the strengths of Who Stole Feminism is its lack of a political agenda.... Ms. Sommers simply lines up her facts and shoots one bullseye after another."
In fact, like anti-"p.c." writers before her, Sommers relies heavily on a handful of oft-repeated anti-feminist anecdotes--or folktales. In Who Stole Feminism, readers find again the tale told by Katie Roiphe (The Morning After) and Sarah Crichton of Newsweek (10/25/93) of the rape-on-campus study that included the question, "Have you had sexual intercourse when you didn't want to because a man gave you alcohol or drugs?" Like Roiphe and Crichton, Sommers exaggerates the importance of the question-- she claims that "once you remove the positive responses to question eight, the finding that one in four college women is a victim of rape or attempted rape drops to one in nine."
Mary Koss, the study's author, explicitly writes in Current Controversies in Family Violence(a book Sommers makes reference to) that when answers to that question are removed, the victims of rape or attempted rape fall from one in four to one in five. The one in nine figure related to completed rapes alone, as reported in a newspaper story Sommers apparently misread.
Sommers also retells the story of the English professor at Pennsylvania State University who "took offense" at Goya's The Naked Maja, a reproduction of which was hanging in her classroom. According to Sommers, who sources only the Pottsville Republican, the professor "filed formal harassment charges" and got the painting removed. The professor, Nancy Stumhofer, says she never objected to the painting but to male students' comments about it while she tried to teach. "I never claimed I had been sexually harassed by the painting," Stumhofer pointed out in Democratic Culture (Spring/94). Nor were formal charges were ever filed.
In arguing against feminist claims that wife-beating was tolerated in English common law, Sommers quotes the 18th Century legal historian William Blackstone: "The husband was prohibited from using any violence to his wife...." The ellipsis conceals a Latin phrase that Sommers either didn't bother to translate or decided to ignore. In English it reads: "other than that which lawfully and reasonably belongs to the husband for the due government and correction of his wife" (Linda Hirshman, L.A. Times op-ed,7/31/94). In other words, the complete text says the exact opposite of Sommers' partial quotation.
Even when Sommers spots an authentic feminist foul-up, she makes errors of her own. Naomi Wolf, in her book The Beauty Myth, claims that there are 150,000 deaths from anorexia a year. Sommers points out that this is actually an estimate of the number of cases of anorexia per year. Then she states that the actual number of deaths from anorexia is "less than 100 [deaths] per year." This number is highly dubious, since it is based on a count of death certificates, which rarely list anorexia as a cause of death; anorexia-related deaths are usually listed as heart failure or suicide. Studies of anorexia suggest that the long-term fatality rate maybe 15 percent or higher (The Course of Eating Disorders, Herzog et al, eds.).
As Sommers writes: "Where were the fact checkers, the editors, the skeptical journalists?" Naomi Wolf has long since admitted her error, as has Gloria Steinem who repeated it. Sommers herself seems to have a harder time facing facts and correcting her errors.
'Sea of Credulity'
In her account of a campaign sparked by FAIR to get NBC to play a 30-second public service announcement about domestic violence before its broadcast of the 1993 Super Bowl game, Sommers repeats uncritically one reporter's version of the incident, and adds fresh errors of her own.
Sommers writes that there wasn't "any basis for saying that there was a significant rise in domestic violence on Super Bowl Sunday." Her book suggests that she never read FAIR's January 18, 1993 news release, which spelled out the grounds for addressing domestic violence on Super Bowl Sunday. That release stated: "The Super Bowl is one of the most widely viewed television events every year. Unfortunately, women's shelters report that Super Bowl Sunday is also one of the worst days of the year for violence against women in the home." The release cited press reports (New York Times, 1/5/92, 1/22/92; Chicago Tribune, 1/27/91) based on the accounts of those who work with battered women.
In contrast to a "roiling sea of media credulity"-- including at least one journalist who had been writing about the Super Bowl-related violence for years before FAIR's campaign--Sommers praises "a lone island of professional integrity": Ken Ringle, a Washington Post staffwriter. Ringle is hardly to be held up as an ethical model: The American Journalism Review (5/93) found that, in his Super Bowl article, he appeared "to have twisted and used quotes selectively to support his thesis," and noted that the Post's ombudsman had acknowledged "inaccuracies and flaws" in his reporting. Sommers cites the AJR article in a footnote, but declines to quote it.
Sommers claims to be a skeptic who believes in going to the original source, but neither she nor Ringle ever called the national FAIR office in New York to check their stories or get copies of the materials that FAIR distributed. Nor did Sommers consult a calender: Her "chronology" put the Super Bowl on January 30, which was actually a Saturday.
Sommers also claims that around the Super Bowl, "a very large mailing was sent by Dobisky Associates, FAIR's publicists, warning at risk women: Don't remain at home with him during the game." Had Sommers (or Ringle) called FAIR, s/he would have discovered that FAIR has never worked with Dobisky Associates--and had never heard of the firm before Ringle's piece.
In her account, Sommers uses quotes from a psychotherapist named Michael Lindsey that appeared in Ringle's piece. One of his comments she quotes twice, for emphasis. She doesn't mention that the Post's ombudsman had acknowledged that Lindsey's remarks had been taken out of context by Ringle.
Nor does Sommers mention that the views attributed to Lindsey by Ringle--critical of FAIR's Super Bowl efforts and of a link between football and domestic violence--were directly contradicted by accurate quotes from Lindsey in the same day's New York Times (1/31/93): "That PSA will save lives," said Lindsey. "It will give people the permission to call for help. The same way so much violence in football gives people permission to batter."
Sommers claims that she's a feminist, and journalists have largely taken her at her word. She has been identified as such on television, and many of the reviews of Who Stole Feminism? ran under headlines such as "Rebel in the Sisterhood" (Boston Globe, 6/16/94) or "A Feminist on the Outs" (Time, 8/1/94).
Yet Sommers was quoted in Esquire earlier this year (2/94): "There are a lot of homely women in women's studies. Preaching these anti-male, anti-sex sermons is a way for them to compensate for various heartaches--they're just mad at the beautiful girls."
* * *
By Christina Hoff Sommers
Simon & Schuster. 251 pp. $25
Reviewed by E. Anthony Rotundo, who is the author of "American Manhood: Transformations in Masculinity from the Revolution to the Modern Era." He also teaches at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass.
Sunday, July 2, 2000
The era from the 1870s to the 1970s could well be called "The Century of the Boy." Building on the tradition of male dominance far older than their nation, Americans conceived a cultural romance with boyhood that penetrated every facet of American life. Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn became iconic figures, boys' games such as baseball and football emerged as men's preoccupations and ultimately as metaphors for work, statecraft and life itself, and figures like the cowboy and the playboy modeled American manhood for the nation and the world. Theodore Roosevelt, whose enduring popularity is rooted in his "boyishness," declared that a man "won't be much of a man unless he is a good deal of a boy." Cultural image influenced daily behavior. Our common patterns of schoolroom practice and our dominant psychologies of childhood were boy-centered.
And so, when modern feminism emerged in the 1960s and '70s, the infatuation with boyhood made a natural target. Feminist critics have brought girls' needs and problems the public attention they were long denied. Now, as the conversation on gender continues, a growing body of commentators – teachers, psychologists, conservative critics and feminists themselves – are calling attention to troubling patterns in the performance of boys.
As parents and professionals struggle for a sense of focus on these issues, Christina Hoff Sommers, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a longtime critic of feminism, has published a new book on the subject. The War Against Boys accuses feminists and their fellow travellers in education and government of waging war against American boys. The media have already provided a forum for her charges, with the Atlantic Monthly running excerpts from the book as a cover story. Such widely heralded claims require careful scrutiny.
Sommers's specific accusations fall into two broad categories. One is education. She charges that feminists invented a crisis in girls' education while ignoring major problems in boys' academic performance. She directs her animus especially at How Schools Shortchange Girls, a study funded by the American Association of University Women. The study found a pattern of male-dominated, male-oriented classrooms and linked it to patterns of academic underperformance and low self-esteem in girls. Sommers cites other studies that dispute the AAUW findings and describes an AAUW lobbying campaign to hoodwink the media into accepting those findings. She also details patterns of male underachievement in reading, writing and extracurricular activity, saying that girls are thriving while boys are failing.
Sommers's second area of concern in the purported war against boys is the way in which adults socialize boys, both in and out of school. She objects to the feminist idea that violence perpetrated by boys is a product of male culture or masculine ideals. She also rejects the notions common among feminist scholars that boys need to have better access to their gentler emotions and that they shouldn't be pressured to push away from their mothers at an early age. Sommers charges that these notions lack supporting data and points with scorn at certain attempts (non-competitive games; doll play for boys) to apply these notions to the raising of boys. She says that such ideas about socializing boys differently are harmful because they disregard boys' true nature – and she says that we need to respect that nature because masculinity is responsible for the great achievements of human culture.
Sommers proposes several measures to improve boys' academic achievement, including all-boy schools, lecture-and-drill teaching methods, phonics instruction and more frequent testing. To curb violence among boys, she advocates emphasizing "directive" moral instruction instead of dismantling traditional codes of manhood.
Examined carefully, Sommers's case does not hold up well. She persistently misrepresents scholarly debate, ignores evidence that contradicts her assertions, and directs intense scrutiny at studies she opposes while giving a free critical ride to research she supports. A few examples of her style of argument will have to stand for a much larger pattern.
Let's look first at education. Sommers says that feminists have ignored the educational problems of boys, starting with How Schools Shortchange Girls. This argument runs into the inconvenient fact that the first and best-known study documenting patterns of male underachievement in school was sponsored by none other than the AAUW, in a follow-up to their study of girls' performance. It's an inconvenient fact that a women's organization led the way in studying the problems of boys, so Sommers attacks the AAUW for underpublicizing the study (she cites no data to support this charge). As for Sommers's claim that "girls and young women are thriving" academically, there have been many studies since Shortchange that contradict her, but she does not examine them. She describes studies that support her position but does not subject them to the same critical scrutiny to which she subjects Shortchange. Indeed, the AAUW follow-up study that included boys (and which Sommers strongly approves) reached the following conclusion, as quoted by Sommers: "Inequity can (and does) work in both directions." Sommers's own Table 2 shows that girls lag behind boys in percentages taking calculus, physics, AP/honors chemistry, engineering and astronomy at the high school level. Sommers applies a zero-sum model to gender concerns in education. It doesn't seem to occur to her that each sex faces significant problems that need redress.
Sommers's complaints about feminist proposals to socialize boys differently also rest on weak support. To advance her claim that boys have a true nature rooted in biology, she disregards the inconvenient evidence. When discussing the nature-nurture controversy in matters of gender, Sommers presents only the evidence for biological determinism, as if this were a settled issue among scholars in the field. In fact, the debate on this topic is lively and far from conclusive. Most studies of sex difference in various forms of behavior show no statistically significant difference. 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. In other words, we're far more commonly human than we are male or female. Sommers, however, adheres to a literal-minded interpretation of genetic influence. As she sees it, men have one genetic makeup and women have another. This causes prenatal hormonal differences and contrasts in anatomies, which in turn create sharp differences that endure over the life cycle. Sommers believes in unchangeable, "hard-wired" male and female natures.
She contrasts her position with the constructionist view that attributes sex difference solely to culture. Her thinking allows no middle ground, even though that ground is well-occupied in debates on the subject. In the moderate position, heredity sets a range of possibilities for each individual and then environment determines the variation within that range. Male and female behavior patterns, then, are not set in granite – they vary. This model is consistent not only with the results of sex-difference studies but also with new knowledge about the brain which shows that brain structure and function change in response to experience.
In the context of Sommers's book, the issue of nature and nurture is much more than a matter of idle speculation. Her position that male nature is set in genetic stone is crucial to her argument. She sees the changes in educational method, child-rearing and moral education advanced by feminists and other liberals as violations of true male nature and therefore as a war against boys. But if maleness and femaleness can vary in response to life experience, then a host of feminist concerns must be taken seriously. For example, if boys' behavior can change in response to cultural messages, then the glorification of male violence in entertainment media is indeed a serious problem. Her proposals for improving boys' education and reducing anti-social behavior have limited or questionable research support. The value of phonics instruction, lecture-and-drill teaching methods and frequent testing is hotly debated among education scholars (a debate Sommers does not examine). Her enthusiasm for all-boy schools is based on experiments in Britain that are too recent to be usefully evaluated and on a few glowing anecdotes of questionable generality from the United States. Her advocacy of directive moral education rests on no hard evidence at all. Apparently, ideological enthusiasm is sufficient reason to suspend critical thinking as long as the ideology is the right one.
In the end, Sommers fails to prove either claim in the title of her book. She does not show that there is a "war against boys." All she can show is that feminists are attacking her "boys-will-be-boys" concept of boyhood, just as she attacks their more flexible notion. The difference between attacking a concept and attacking millions of real children is both enormous and patently obvious. Sommers's title, then, is not just wrong but inexcusably misleading. For the claim in her subtitle that "misguided feminism is harming our young men," she does not present a shred of credible supporting evidence but rather advances her position by assertion and abstract argumentation.
Had Sommers written a calm, factual presentation of boys' academic and social problems, this could have been a valuable book. 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 often than girls are. But Sommers's book is a work of neither dispassionate social science nor reflective scholarship; it is a conservative polemic. Sommers focuses less on boys than on the feminists and cultural liberals against whom she has a long-standing animus. As a society, we sorely need a discussion of boyhood that is thoughtful and searching. This intemperate book is a hindrance to such conversation.
© 2000 The Washington Post Company