“The difficulty in life is the choice.”
Please excuse the personal anecdotes scattered throughout this essay. As a woman, I found it difficult to write a standard third-person review and instead drew on my own experiences and emotions in responding to this book. Rejecting rationality, logic, and “vertical” thinking, I recognized that my female status alone qualifies me to pontificate on women’s issues. Fortunately, Chilton Williamson was sensitive to this particular tenet of the new feminist epistemology, even if his interest in upholding the male power structure led him to delete all fem-speak from my piece.
While visiting college campuses last spring in an effort to decide on a graduate program in history, I encountered what Christina Hoff Sommers terms “gender feminism.” At New York University, for example, a French social historian asked whether I was interested in gender issues and showed surprise when I replied that I was not. At the University of Chicago, I heard a graduate student berate female classmates who refused to identify themselves as feminists: they were “ungrateful,” she said, to the activists who had paved the way for their accomplishments; she implied that any woman in academia who does not subscribe to Ms. magazine is undeserving of the meager gains her predecessors won for her.
Who Stole Feminism? is the much-talked-about book that explodes a variety of feminist myths. Sommers, an associate professor of philosophy at Clark University, has done extensive fact-checking to disprove a number of “noble lies” told by activists and journalists to advance the feminist cause. This is the book that disproves the statistic that 150,000 girls and women die from anorexia each year; that refutes the myth that domestic violence increases by 40 percent on Super Bowl Sunday; that shows that the March of Dimes never published a study listing battery of pregnant women as the leading cause of birth defects; that proves that the expression “rule of thumb” did not come from a medieval law allowing men to beat their wives with a rod no bigger around than the thumb. Sommers also analyzes inflated rape statistics and the “backlash” myth in her effort to show how gender feminists (anti-Establishment feminists who see the world through a prism of sex and gender and who “seek to persuade the public that American women are not the free creatures that we think we are”) have usurped the women’s movement from the more classically liberal “equity feminists.” While Who Stole Feminism? repeats arguments made by other writers (such as Philip Jenkins, writing in Chronicles), and while it illustrates that both left and right can always find studies to support their points, it does serve as a useful compilation of the horror stories set in circulation by the feminist movement in recent years. Moreover, it discloses how easily mainstream media and politicians accept and repeat these stories, whether because they recognize their sensationalistic effect or because they are too lazy to check their sources. The Super Bowl Sunday story is particularly disheartening in this respect, as an organization formed to promote “fairness and accuracy in reporting” (FAIR) stood silently by at a press conference in January 1993 while a coalition of women’s groups misquoted a study done at Old Dominion University and warned women to protect themselves on game day.
The real merit of Who Stole Feminism?, however, is its expose of the nonsense promulgated by gender feminists in our universities. As a recent graduate of the University of Michigan (home to Catherine MacKinnon), I was surprised by none of this. I was fortunate in my undergraduate career to avoid gender politics and multiculturalism (the sole exception being a French literature class in which Flaubert was replaced on the syllabus by a woman writer whose name I do not even remember and whose novel involved a hero and a heroine who switched sexual roles). But nonacademics (and especially parents of present or future college students) could use a hard look at what passes for education these days.
Sommers unveils what she calls the “transformationist” agenda and shows how in conferences and classrooms everywhere the gender feminists are undermining our traditional knowledge base. Especially insightful is her analysis of how the transformationists have altered the study of history. Not content to add a few neglected women writers to course reading lists or to discuss women’s role in social history (as legitimate historians have been doing since the 1960’s), they want to rewrite—translation: fabricate —political, military, and intellectual history so that women assume a role which in reality they never played. In response to transformationist dolts, like the man in one of her audiences who argued that Martha Washington may very well have provided our first President with every idea he ever had, Sommers writes: “Any history that is faithful to the facts must acknowledge that in the past women were simply not permitted the degree of freedom commensurate with their talents 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.” Sommers’ argument is not new, but it does represent a much-needed dose of common sense.
Equally true is her argument that the “safe zone” of the feminist classroom is endangering the education of young women. Allowing these women to abandon philosophy and Great Books, languages and history, math and science for women’s studies courses in which they are required merely to divulge their innermost secrets, discuss their changing emotions, and develop a radical attitude will only widen any remaining gap in achievement between them and their male counterparts. Moreover, Sommers reports, students (and teachers) indoctrinated in the tenets of women’s studies contribute to the intimidating and censorious atmosphere sweeping American campuses. Another example from my campus visits last spring illustrates the point. A statue I stopped to admire on the grounds of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill had been moved from a central location to “an out-of-the-way place where no one would be forced to see it” because feminist students, who organized a Committee Against Offensive Statues, were insulted by it. The statue, entitled The Student Body, depicts a male, who is reading a book, with his arm around a female, who is holding an apple.
Perhaps the most disturbing effect of gender feminism on college students is the condescension, elitism, and self-preoccupation it fosters in them. As evidenced by my “friend” at the University of Chicago, female students converted to the cause are completely disconnected from the feelings and experiences of women outside the Ivory Tower—whether they be single professionals or welfare moms, working mothers or stay-at-home ones. While this may not be the young feminists’ fault (resources and rhetoric are disproportionately directed at privileged, educated women: campus rape crisis centers are overstaffed, while urban battered women’s shelters are hurting for funds), their whining does nothing to help those whom feminism has neglected—or maybe even harmed. Who can possibly argue, for instance, that a woman with a high school diploma who works in an office 40 hours a week; who has two children in daycare to look after in the evenings, on weekends, and when they are sick; and who is responsible for all the cooking and cleaning, because her husband refuses to do women’s work, has been “liberated” by the women’s movement?
Self-preoccupation has led gender feminists to an unhealthy focus on the female psyche. Numerous books and studies in recent years address women’s lack of self-esteem, blaming the problem on our hierarchical, male-dominated society. Two studies on self-esteem in adolescent girls drew considerable attention among journalists and even politicians. The Gender Equity in Education Act was proposed by Patricia Schroeder (and endorsed by Ted Kennedy, of all people!) in response to findings by the Association of American University Women (“Shortchanging Girls, Shortchanging America,” 1991) and the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women (“How Schools Shortchange Girls,” 1992) that girls’ self-esteem drops sharply between the ages of 11 and 16, in part because girls get less attention from teachers than boys. Sommers, after questioning the research on which these findings are based, points out that no one has been able to establish a clear correlation between self-esteem and achievement. (Black girls—and black boys—have the highest self-esteem scores, but they also have the lowest achievement scores.) She argues, moreover, that the small gap in test scores between boys and girls in the United States is nothing compared to the gap between American children and foreign children. (Asian children have the lowest self-esteem scores and the highest test scores, with the average Japanese student equaling or surpassing America’s best and brightest.) America is not just shortchanging its girls; it is shortchanging its children, period. Gloria Steinem, in Revolution from Within, says the solution to low self-esteem among women (as among men) is to unlearn the values and knowledge our patriarchal society has instilled in us and to relearn our true selves through the discovery of an inner child. She is dead wrong. We have already had too much unlearning and relearning, and our civilization is much the worse for it. We need real, hardcore learning, and we need it now.
Similar psychobabble is found in Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth. According to Wolf, the destruction of the “Feminine Mystique” (by Betty Friedan and other 60’s writers and activists) has allowed women to make exterior gains, but the “Beauty Myth” that replaced it keeps women suffering from interior pains. She provides an alarming disclosure of the painful practices women undergo in the name of beauty and a thorough analysis of women’s “raving, itching, parching product lust,” but she fails to see that women’s constant self-surveillance is the result not of some male conspiracy but of the narcissism and superficiality of the commercial culture that reached its apotheosis in the 1980’s. Such vanity is as prevalent—and despicable—in men as it is in women.
In blaming the “male hegemony” for women’s self-esteem problems, the gender feminists miss a couple of critical facts. First, boys’ self-esteem as well as girls’ plummets at adolescence; adolescence is a difficult time for both sexes, and any measurable drop in girls’ self-esteem between the ages of 11 and 16 is a developmental and not necessarily a permanent condition. “It’s only a phase,” mothers are fond of saying, and most often they are right. Second, women and girls are themselves responsible for this drop in self-esteem, through the pressure both older role models and peers exert on teenage girls to conform to their standards. It is our mothers, sisters, aunts, girlfriends, and even female strangers who teach us how to behave as women, who encourage us to dress up, play with our hair and makeup, and pursue boys—often before we are even interested in such activities ourselves.
Women’s culture, mainly in the form of magazines aimed at the female population from 13 years to 60-plus, is a major source of this pressure. Women’s magazines exert a huge influence on girls and women, whether educated or functionally illiterate, professional or working class, in their articles (both serious and frivolous) and in their air-brushed pictures. Steinem (in a new collection of essays entitled Moving Beyond Words) and Wolf both show how pernicious an effect such magazines can have on women’s self-esteem, as readers inevitably compare themselves to the “perfect” women they see on newsstands everywhere. While they neglect to mention that the staffs of these magazines are dominated by women, they do an admirable job of exposing the role corporate culture, through advertising dollars, plays in making these images such a central part of women’s culture. This economic (not patriarchal) pressure forces the editors of women’s magazines to present their audience with an inconsistent and confusing product. Advice on how to make a female voice heard in the workplace is followed by tips on how to attract and please a man; articles on pursuing a higher education are followed by suggestions on how to apply eye shadow for an evening out; or, in one of the most preposterous examples I have seen, a magazine which consistently argues that males and females should equally divide household responsibilities complained that a new advertising campaign for the old-fashioned manual lawn mower was a ploy to get women to take over what traditionally was a man’s job.
Such inconsistencies arise because the equity feminism of the I960’s and 70’s was merely grafted onto the old domesticity and beauty themes of women’s magazines; advertisers still demand articles featuring their products. The result has been a legitimate and dangerous myth that Sommers neglects to explore: the Superwoman Myth. Because Sommers does not discuss the influence of women’s magazines (except to say that they repeat the statistics and stories generated by gender feminist scholars and activists), she does not encounter the one threat to contemporary women that gender feminists like Steinem and Wolf are not lying about. The antifeminist (and anti-woman) stereotype of Superwoman as depicted in contemporary women’s magazines is a “male-imitative, dress-for-success woman carrying a briefcase —as well as raising perfect children, cooking gourmet meals, having multiple orgasms, and entertaining beautifully” (in the words of Steinem); she “took on all at once the roles of professional housewife, professional careerist, and professional beauty” (according to Wolf).
Sommers is right that women (and especially white, middle- and upper-class women) need to stop complaining about the past and get on with creating their future, and she is right that this will require more learning and hard work; she neglects to tell us, however, that equity feminism, while it has opened up our options, does not let us have it all. After all, even men have to make sacrifices. My father certainly moved more slowly up the career ladder than he could have if he hadn’t made spending time with his family a priority, and although my brothers and I respect him all the more for his choice, women cannot expect to be exempt from such difficult decisions. In The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf asserts that the “pernicious fib” of “postfeminism” is “making young women, who face many of the same old problems, once again blame themselves—since it’s all been fixed, right?” Wrong. Of course it hasn’t “all been fixed”; “it” never has, and “it” never will. Pre-feminism or postfeminism, life is hard for women, just as it is for men.
Even Betty Friedan, mother of the women’s movement of the 1960’s and 70’s, recognizes this reality. When I saw her speak at the University of Michigan several years ago, Friedan admitted that her wave of feminism had in some ways made life more difficult for women by giving them more choice. Choice, as Tocqueville recognized in analyzing our society 150 years ago, can result in uncertainty and envy. Whereas in an aristocracy everyone knows his place, in a democracy each person is supposed to define his position for himself. Wolf ranks self-esteem alongside “money, jobs, child care, safety” as “a vital resource for women that is deliberately kept in inadequate supply” and that is presumably an entitlement to be demanded, like health care, from the government. While Sommers’ book demonstrates how susceptible the media and politicians are to such demands (witness the California Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem praised by Steinem in Revolution from Within), women would do themselves a disservice by joining the loud, but far from melodious, chorus of the gender feminists. Instead, they (with men) need to get beyond New Age nonsense, stop blaming the system, make their own choices, and learn to live with them.
[Who Stole Feminism? How Women Have Betrayed Women, by Christina Hoff Sommers (New York: Simon & Schuster) 320 pp., $23.00]