And in other news, local authorities reported today that “feminism” has been stolen. Anyone who has any tips on the whereabouts of feminism or its thieves, please contact the hotline.
Seriously, how does one “steal” feminism? I know it’s just a title, and it’s probably the publisher’s idea of a grab for readership, but Who Stole Feminism? is not a title that bodes well for a measured, logical analysis of the state of feminism. The subtitle, How Women Have Betrayed Women, is even worse. Christina Hoff Sommers clearly has a bone to pick with feminism, or at least the feminism of 1994. This book is a little dated, which is not to say it’s necessarily obsolete. However, as I noted in my review of The Beauty Myth (which Sommers targets explicitly in this book), my knowledge of the state of the world, much less feminism, in 1994 is somewhat vague at best. So I’m coming to this book with a perspective different from someone who was, say, a university student at the time Sommers wrote this.
A previous reader of this book (I borrowed it from the library) took the time to scratch some pencil notes in the margins. I love notes from the past (almost as much as I love notes from the future)! I don’t mark up library books or books I think I’ll donate to the library, but I enjoy encountering them when I do. The first of several somewhat cryptic notes appears on page 37, next to a paragraph in which Sommers recounts Professor Faye Crosby’s experiences with trying to be inclusive in her classes. The sentence from the book reads, “Like Raphael [Atlas], she was clearly exhilarated by how terrible she felt.” The note says, “In ‘love’ with how good she is—that’s vanity.” Various admonishments such as “look in the mirror!” and “that’s vanity” appear sporadically throughout. Whoever this person was displays an almost religiously vehemently agreement with Sommers’ thesis.
I guess I should mention what the book is about. Sommers essentially advances the argument that a subset of feminists, whom she calls gender feminists, have come to have an undue amount of influence when it comes to public policy, particularly education. Gender feminists see the world through a “sex/gender lens” and generally promulgate radical, even misandrist views. In contrast, Sommers labels herself an equity feminist of the old school, one who believes women merely need to be accorded equal rights and privileges of men. (I suspect this is second wave versus first wave stuff but am not clear enough on the distinctions to say for sure.)
Sommers is reacting against the gender-feminist claim that “mainstream” (whatever that means) society and media are oppressive (towards women) and inherently patriarchal. She asserts there is no evidence for such claims and goes on to show, in painstaking detail, how some groups within this school have used misleading statistics and surveys to advance their agendas. Finally, Sommers turns it around and accuses the gender feminists themselves of being oppressive, of curtailing debate and censoring dissent at any opportunity. Thus the title, the implication that the feminist movement has been hijacked by a select subset of those who claim the label.
Sommers speaks of “transforming the academy” (Chapter 3) and the movement to revise both the humanities and the sciences to be more inclusive of women voices. She laments the vandalism of the Western Canon: “Why can’t we move on to the future and stop wasting energy on resenting (and ‘rewriting’) the past?” This subject is near and dear to my heart because, as a teacher, I’m on the front lines of education. What should I be teaching in an English class? Who should I use to help teach concepts and ideas? These are a big questions, and while I think Sommers raises some good points about the overzealousness of policy-makers in attempting to include more diverse voices, her tone detracts from the effectiveness of her argument. She’s whining: why can’t we move on, why can’t we just let the past be the past?
Such a sentiment is absurd. As much as Sommers is eager to demonstrate that gender feminists and their allies are blinded by their own transformationist agendas, she seems remarkably quick to discount the possibility of extant bias in culture. Her attitude appears to be that it’s either/or, that if we bring more women voices into the conversation we’re obligated to sacrifice the traditional classics on the altar of feminism. I’m sure there are some “radical” feminists out there who would love to do that, and I’m sure this attitude lends itself well to a polemic—but it seems just as radical and wishful as the thinking being done by the people Sommers criticizes. The reality is much more complicated than she portrays here.
This oversimplification pervades Who Stole Feminism? and makes it difficult for me to praise Sommers even when I’m inclined to agree with her. Such is the case when she calls out Sandra Harding for advocating for “feminist science” without really describing what that would look like. I encountered Harding in Feminism: Issues and Arguments and a chapter on “Feminism, Science, and Bias.” Harding’s contention that scientific knowledge is a social construction, as well as similar introductions to the anti-realist position in the following year’s Philosophy of Science & Technology course, triggered a mini-crisis in my personal philosophy of science. It’s something I’m still working through (though I still think I’m a reductionist—or maybe just a physicalist—don’t know!). So when Sommers dredged it up again, I felt that familiar stab of disagreement—but Jennifer Saul provides a far superior analysis in Feminism: Issues and Arguments, in which she points out that even if Harding is off the mark, science has historically had a lot of bias in it. Much of that bias happens to be white and male.
Sommers is eager to reject the idea that our society is patrarichal. She is dismissive of the “sex/gender lens” perspective of gender feminism. I find this tactic peculiar considering her background in philosophy—rather than analyze the philosophical claims of the gender feminists, Sommers chooses to cricitize particular people and organizations within this movement. To be sure, some of the concerns she raises are valid. For example, misuse of statistics or surveys to influence public policy is bad news no matter who is doing it. Furthermore, the problems she notes in academia are real and troubling. But none of these invalidates the sex/gender approach at all, nor does Sommers demonstrate to my satisfaction a causal link between the sex/gender perspective and divisive politics. Conflating radical and misandrist feminism with “gender feminism” is, to borrow a term Sommers hates the gender feminists using, “shortchanging women.”
Speaking as a mathematician, I know the siren call of statistics—and I know they can be misleading. Empirical data is an important, essential part of doing science and of decision-making. But in focusing solely on the statistical side of feminism, Sommers is ignoring the larger philosophical debate. Consider her chapter on “Rape Research”, in which she discounts the notion of rape culture as a byproduct of inflating the percentage of women who are victims of rape. Sure, maybe the numbers are wrong—Sommers’ point that definitions of rape vary greatly is valid—but this does not change the fact that, in our society, victim-blaming remains pervasive. Rape continues to be viewed as a problem women have—as in, “boys will be boys—and rape you—so don’t do anything to attract a rapist’s attention.” This toxic idea is harmful to men as well as women. Even if the prevalence of rape remains statistically ambiguous, the cultural representation of rape as something women must prevent remains a problem. And that is rape culture right there.
When I look at society through a sex/gender lens, I see a lot I consider wrong, a lot I want to change. If some feminists are abusing this perspective, that is deplorable and needs to stop—but that doesn’t invalidate the basic ideas that we can work together to make culture less white, male, and heteronormative. Why is it so wrong to point out the ways in which women are marginalized and objectified? Why is it so wrong to want to have a conversation about it? It might be the case that some gender feminists want to shut down the conversation, if Sommers’ anecdotes about being censored are true. Yet, again, that’s the misconduct of certain voices within the feminist discourse and not a flaw with the sex/gender perspective itself.
The problem with Sommers’ cheerleading of equity feminism is that it’s insufficient in our twenty-first century society. I won’t blame Sommers for not anticipating how the adoption of the Web has created new opportunities for feminist discourse. However, I’m willing to argue that it was insufficient even in the 1990s when she wrote this. Feminism may have begun as a movement for women to have rights equal to those of men, but today it is inextricably linked to larger issues of social justice, including anti-racism, anti-homophobia, anti-colonialism, etc. The struggle for equity requires us to struggle for equity for all; otherwise, it is hollow. Sommers’ perspective is a very limited, very academic and American one, in which there are men and there are women and she wants the two to be equal. It’s a nice sentiment and a good start, but it’s not nearly enough.
Who Stole Feminism?: How Women Have Betrayed Women is everything it promises to be: a polemical, confrontational invective against so-called gender feminism. It’s also just as divisive and exclusionary as the feminists Sommers is criticizing. As far as books go, it is by no means a train wreck: it’s well-written, with thoughtful and organized arguments backed by an almost overwhelming amount of citations and statistics. Sommers identifies issues, predominantly in academic departments, that are probably still relevant now in 2012 (though I’d opine they are part of a larger crisis in higher education that Sommers fails to discuss). As with any mosaic movement, feminism has its own internal struggles of dogma and doctrine it must overcome.
So in that respect, this book offers some interesting perspectives on the nuanced and often conflicting voices within feminist discourse. Yet as much as I can appreciate some of her criticisms, I can’t agree with most of Sommers’ proposed solutions. Her future of feminism seems like it’s moving backwards, folding inwards upon itself, in an attempt to return to roots that are always receding into romanticized histories (“it was better in the good old days, when feminism was … and feminists were …”). Perhaps this is just my bias in favour of the idea that society is still oppressive, but I think feminism, in order to make progress, has to be an agonistic process. Anything less is palliative at best.