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REASON OCTOBER 1994
By Tama Starr
Who Stole Feminism?:
How Women Have Betrayed Women, by Christina Hoff Sommers, New York:
Simon & Schuster, 320 pages, $23.00
TEN YEARS LATE, BUT WE'RE NEARLY there. War
is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. "Objective reality" is an invidious myth
employed by evil oppressors (men) to maintain their phallohegemonic
dominance. Big Sister Is Watching for instances of heteropatriarchal
discourse, and punishment is swift and severe. A futuristic nightmare?
No, the all-too-real world of your high school, university, newsroom, and
administrative agency-and coming soon to a workplace near you.
In Who Stole Feminism?: How Women
Have Betrayed Women, Christina Hoff Sommers, associate professor of
philosophy at Clark University, describes the appropriation of the
movement once known as feminism by a cadre of party-line bureaucrats
promoting an agenda of victimism and victimology-based revolution, with
serious implications for the wider world.
Sommers draws a clear distinction between
"equity feminism," the classical liberal position characterized by the
unobjectionable slogan, "Equal pay for equal work," and "gender feminism,"
the aggressive self-pitying whine of an army of professional victims that
has come to dominate discussions of women's issues. Ideological
correctness, the suppression of dissent, and salvation through thought
control and governmental fiat are the new orders of the day.
Sommers traces classical-liberal equity
feminism to the Seneca Falls convention of 1848. The organizers of Seneca
Falls recognized their privileged position as educated members of a
middle-class elite, and they placed their prestige and experience in the
abolitionist movement at the service of the genuinely disadvantaged. It may
be hard to remember today that throughout most of history women were
essentially the property of their fathers and husbands, and in many places
in the world today, still are. Too many of the world's women remain
oppressed--except in the places where feminists are doing the most
American women outlive their male
counterparts by nearly 10 years, control more than half the national wealth,
and make up the majority of undergraduate students, law students, and
voters. Skeptics are starting to question whether this is a group
genuinely entitled to victim status. Never has such a privileged circle
been represented by such an array of pedants claiming that a war is being
waged against them, or has so cowed the media and the government into
abandoning all standards of objectivity. It is an irony almost too
delicious to contemplate: How did one of the most privileged sets of people
in the history of the world, in terms of wealth, education, and political
power, come to be represented by its self-appointed spokespersons and their
media minions as a passel of cringing victims in need of special protection
by an all-wise government?
ANALYZES THE PHILOSOPHICAL underpinnings
of the victimology-feminist movement, first visiting the universities,
where lockstep conformity is enforced in the name of "diversity" and
"inclusiveness." She discusses the ideological litmus tests that
determine career advancement, chronicles the "redefinition of
knowledge" that aims to eliminate such male biases as the illusion of
excellence, and describes the way in which education has been placed in
the service of politics and politically biased group therapy. She shows
how, with the backing of government agencies, history texts are being
rewritten to accommodate feminist sensitivities, and science and
mathematics redefined, with "logic and rationality [derided as]
'phallocentric."' This is not a small revolution. The curriculum
transformation movement, she points out, "has quietly become a potent
force affecting the American classroom at every level, from the primary
grades to graduate school."
This is the kind of book that entertains
while it horrifies. Sommers is at her most devastating when she attacks
the pseudo-statistics victimology feminists employ to buttress their
claims. She exposes a number of influential hoaxes, meticulously
tracking the way they have been mindlessly repeated by the media until
they have come to seem part of received wisdom. These include the
Super Bowl canard holding that wife beating increases 40 percent during
the game (utterly baseless, but TV stations ran ads urging men to
remain calm); the fantastic statistic that 150,000 American women die
each year from anorexia (more than three times the annual number of
automobile fatalities for the entire population?); and a supposed March
of Dimes study proving that wife abuse is responsible for more birth
defects than all other causes combined (there was no such study). She
also discusses the inflated statistics and flawed or imaginary data
employed by rape-crisis advocates, self-esteem promoters, and
gender-equity bureaucrats to advance their self-perpetuating agenda.
No reader of this book will ever again consume a scare statistic on any
subject without a large dose of salt.
The solution to all the phallogeneric
terror, of course, is increased governmental regulation; and it is
worth noting, as Sommers does, that the studies on which the new spate
of regulations is based are done by the same advocacy groups and
individuals whose fanciful statistics feed the alarmist news stories.
Is this the result of a conscious conspiracy? Probably not. Gender
feminism, as Sommers points out, is now an industry, with generous
research funding, grant money, and careers available to those who
propose to root out ever more arcane instances of oppression. There is
only one pool of approved "experts" in the field, since any questioning
of the approved orthodoxy is labeled sexism, "backlash," or delusion.
It isn't strange that the "experts" should seek to protect their turf.
Sommers's meticulous research and
judicious tone should protect her from accusations of sensationalism.
But they do not. As a consequence of her sanity, Sommers has been
subject to the worst sort of ad feminam attacks, both in the
media (most notoriously, in the relentlessly politically correct New
York Times, whose Book Review editors assigned her book to one of
the doctrinairians whose antics she exposes) and at what pass for
academic feminist conferences. But Sommers is not alone in her critique
of gynocentric feminism. She quotes such skeptics as Iris Murdoch,
Doris Lessing, Cynthia Ozick, and Camille Paglia, and accurately points
out that most people are on the side of common sense.
IN LATE 1993, Ms. MAGAZINE DEVOTED
nearly an entire issue to a hand-wringing debate over why so many women
refuse to identify themselves as "feminists" despite the fact that paleofeminist issues such as equal pay and respect both at home and in
the workplace are part of the fabric of their daily lives. The answers
delivered by the panel of pundits ranged from the "backlash" bugaboo to
lesbiphobia to the alleged takeover of the media by the Christian Far
The real answer, however, is that most
people shun the ideology of oppression, viewing it as a philosophy for
losers. A frequently heard criticism of party-line feminism from its
inception was that it failed to address mainstream women's needs,
patronizing those who made childrearing a career and ignoring, if not
denigrating, those who chose traditionally female professions such as
nursing, school teaching, and secretarial work. As for those who
Sommers is at her most
devastating when she
claims. She exposes a
number of influential
tracking the way they have
by the media until they have
to seem part of
went so far as to trade on their femininity, such as cocktail
waitresses, exotic dancers, and prostitutes: Off to the reeducation
camp! But unfortunately we can't all be aircraft mechanics.
Sommers's subtitle embodies a neat argument. Misandry invariably leads
to misogyny, since women who fail to adhere to the party line must be
collaborationists. In the fashionable Foucaultian model, they have
internalized the oppressor. So women who belong to Weight Watchers or
the Catholic church or the Republican Party or any other identified
institution of male oppression do not know their own minds: They have
been colonized by the patriarchy and must be helped, by their
self-identified liberators, to exorcise the demons within.
For all their progressivist cant, gynocentric feminists are profoundly
"regressive" (Cynthia Ozick's word). Like some 19th-century romantics,
they embrace a vision of womanhood as the embodiment of finer sensibilities,
closer to the state of angels than to men. Sexuality itself is a
male-constructed force utilized to terrorize women, as is being carefully
taught today to children as young as kindergartners by professional "gender
monitors." Sommers's examples of feminist testimonies of personal outrage
in the face of male "discourse" (catcalls, jokes, and even classical and
abstract art) tend inevitably-and hilariously-toward a description of the
attack of paralysis once known as "the vapors." Demands for special
protections for women in excess of those afforded the coarse creatures
known as men follow logically-if logic is still an acceptable invocation.
Completing the circle, the gender feminist redefinition of knowledge to
eliminate phallohegemonic verticalism and embrace "female ways of knowing"
confirms the male chauvinist suspicion that women think with their chests,
not their heads.
IF GENDER FEMINISTS ARE REACTIONARIES, where does that place equity
feminists such as pioneers Elizabeth Cady Stanton ("We ask no better laws
than those you have made for yourselves"), Mary Wollstonecraft ("I wish to
persuade women to endeavor to acquire strength, both of mind and body"),
Maria Edgeworth ("Power is the law of man; make it yours"), and Sommers
herself ("I have been moved to write this book because I am a feminist who
does not like what feminism has become")? Is the debate between
conservatives ("First Wave" feminists, in Sommers's phrase) and exponents
of the Dark Ages, with their authoritarianism, separatism, and witch
hunts? Oddly, both sides claim, with some justification, the rubric "New":
equity feminists seeking to reclaim the movement from the radical fringe,
as in a recent Boston Globe story ("New Breed of Feminist Challenges
Old Guard," May 29, 1994); and radicals, who see the Enlightenment
principles that informed the original struggle as just more old-hat patriarchalism, the dangerous doctrine of individuality.
Perhaps the confusion of language reflects confusion of object. Democratic
liberalism-real tolerance for differing views-can survive only in an
atmosphere of civility and responsibility. The feel-good notion that all
opinions are equally valid, the liberal bias against "making judgments,"
invites totalitarian takeover. It is not clear that this direction can be
reversed, as Sommers wishes. One is hard-pressed to think of many
historical examples of successful, liberal-based revolutionary movements
that, once taken over by radicals, have been recaptured by the tolerant.
The latter generally lack the rage, the "fighting madness" (as Eleanor Smeal, the former president of NOW, puts it), that infuses ideological
warriors. Liberal feminism was taken over by radicals because of its
failure to condemn illiberals, the moderates not realizing that, as in most
revolutions, they would be the first to be shot. It isn't news that all
revolutions devour their own.
So the answer to the question in the book's title is, nobody stole
feminism. The liberals gave it away. Their abdication of principles and
cowardly fear of reprisals so ably chronicled by Sommers sealed the deal.
What one wonders is, Why does she want it back?
While her arguments are engaging and her focus admirable, the implications
of the Kafkaesque reality she delineates are even larger than she
acknowledges. It is more important to save civilization as a whole from the
predations of enforced political correctness than to save only feminism.
The threat to freedom is larger than the threat to a movement that affects
all of the people only some of the time. The goals of Seneca Falls have
largely been accomplished, at least here, and additional progress is being
made daily. The low level of acceptance of victimology feminism means that
like other pointless intellectual fads, it too will pass.
But the effects of this brand of poison are long lasting. "For some time to
come," writes Sommers, "the gender monitors will still be there-in the
schools, in the feminist centers, in the workplace-but, increasingly, their
intrusions will not be welcome." Unwelcome, perhaps, but the laws and their
bureaucratic enforcers, the redefinition of knowledge in favor of political
interests, and the precedents they set will remain. And everybody, from
taxi dancers to aircraft mechanics, will have to pay for it.
Tama Starr is president of the Artkraft Strauss Sign Corp. in New
York City and the author of Eve's Revenge, a satire of
feminist excesses to be published in October by Harcourt Brace.