Sex and the Ivy

Christina Hoff Sommers & “The Failures of Modern Feminism”

Filed under: Feminism, Harvard — Elle November 20, 2009 @ 5:08 pm

As The Crimson reported today, “conservative feminist” Christina Hoff Sommers gave a talk on the failures of modern feminism last night. I found the discussion extremely disappointing, in part because it became abundantly clear early on that Sommers has a very limited understanding of feminist history and theory. I meant to live-blog the event, but didn’t. Now, as I go through my notes, the sheer number of inaccuracies and misconceptions astound me.

Some of Sommers’ points (everything in quotations are direct quotes transcribed during the talk):

  • “I can’t take [Judith Butler] seriously … the obscurity with what she writes … gender as performance and so forth. I wish gender studies were carried out by psychologists, not English professors. She just doesn’t seem to engage with that literature.” Butler, like Sommers, is a philosophy professor. Butler may not be a psychologist by training, but she does in fact discuss Freudian thought and psychoanalysis in her work. I was floored by Sommers’ ignorance. There’s no shame in just admitting that you aren’t familiar with a particular theorist.
  • Feminism is “victimology” and “male-bashing”. Like most of her other statements, there is nothing to back up this claim. She’s arguing against a strawman here. If you characterize feminism as victimology and male-bashing, then naturally, one would be against it. But you have to first prove that it is, in fact, a man-hating, self-victimizing movement.
  • “Fierce” women have written feminist theory. Men have always written history, so radical feminists think that now it is not women’s turn to write history but “their turn” (referring to the radical feminists). I don’t know if “fierce” was supposed to be a funny Tyra reference or if she literally meant fierce. She might as well have said feminazi, because that’s what it comes off as.
  • “I’ve never seen a women’s studies textbook treat conventional motherhood in a positive way.” To which I responded, I took an entire class on motherhood (”Myths of Motherhood” in the Studies of Women, Gender, & Sexuality department). Two other audience members mentioned the unit they were doing on pregnancy and childbirth as part of the methods course in WGS. These classes tend to treat motherhood and mothers in a VERY positive way, while recognizing that parenting is unfortunately not valued in our society in the same way as professional labor. I wonder when was the last time Sommers sat in on a WGS class.
  • Men and conservative feminists are not welcome in women’s studies classes. Hardly true, as one male-identified audience member pointed out. And if men weren’t welcome, I wouldn’t have brought my male thesis adviser nor would I encourage Patrick to take the WGS Graduate Proseminar.
  • “You hear so much in feminism that’s about achieving this parity, this statistical equality.” Pick up any classic feminist text and you will see that feminism does not come down to numbers, so I don’t even know what she’s referring to here.
  • “I can’t find anyone who will take seriously the view that biology plays a serious role. Most agree it’s a social construction, and if you disagree, they call you essentialist.” Perhaps that’s because there is disagreement even within evolutionary biology and psychology about the validity of the studies being conducted. It’s not like science is infallible; these are inherently imprecise sciences, a fact admitted by scientists themselves. Do I even need to go into the folly of accepting one, single discipline as complete truth?
  • “The women’s movement has been carried away a very strange agenda.” She also talks about a “feminist establishment”. A common theme in the discussion was that radical feminists have somehow hijacked the movement, but who is behind this “strange agenda” and what is the “establishment” she speaks of? NOW? The Feminist Majority? Because even I, as a feminist, cannot offer a universally agreed upon definition of feminism or its goals.
  • Sommers said she is supportive of feminists “when they turn [their efforts] against true patriarchal societies in developing world, not toward us [the U.S.].” This statement smacks of cultural superiority, as if the West is light years ahead of the Orient, into which we must channel our efforts into saving. Ethnocentrism bothers me a lot, even more so than homophobia and sexism. Has she read Said? Spivak? Probably not, given her implicit assumption that women abroad will be better off if their societies are simply Westernized.

One audience member, a Ph.D student who teaches and takes women’s studies courses, pointed out that it seems like Sommers is still stuck in 1994 when her book, Who Stole Feminism?, first came out. Her conception of feminism does not take into account third wave feminism’s emphasis on intersectionality and on the acceptance of motherhood as a valid lifestyle choice. When Sommers claims that feminists emphasize the “drudgery” of domestic work, it became clear to me that in her mind, feminism hasn’t moved beyond¬† Betty Friedan. Third-wavers have long since pointed out that the choice to stay at home is itself a privileged one which only middle class women get to make. Poor or single mothers don’t get the same luxury, a problem that some third-wave feminists seek to address. If anything, feminists are the biggest supporter of making it possible for women to be mothers without sacrificing social status.

Sommers made a particularly questionable series of claims about how capitalist structures have made women better off: “I think that the free market has served women well. It’s no coincidence that feminism developed in England and America at the same time as the rise of capitalism. I think the more prosperous/free we are, the more men and women will be different. This is all part of the story of freedom. Capitalism has freed women. This is the golden age of female entrepreneurship in the U.S.”

I was genuinely curious as to how it’s possible to reconcile feminism and capitalism, so when Sommers said women — if given the choice — would rather “opt in” and be stay-at-home mothers or work part-time, I told her that women within a capitalist society are in the unfortunate position of not having their domestic labor compensated. I told her that there’s a difference between equality of opportunity and equality of outcomes and asked her how she expects for those women to exercise the same economic power as their male counterparts. I also said that no one has a true choice in a society in which working is a prerequisite for social and political engagement. According to Sommers, men report that they’d rather be breadwinners, but would they necessarily need or want to work full-time if it weren’t for the fact that money wields influence? I mentioned that this line of thought has a long history within feminism and was an extremely contentious point of debate between the radical and Marxist feminists (I personally subscribe to both schools of thought). My point devolved the second she asked me if I thought Marxist Feminism made sense and I answered in the affirmative. Given that Marxism, feminism, and Marxist Feminism all sound extremely radical and scary, I can understand if audience members weren’t familiar with the ideas I espoused — but Sommers is a philosophy professor and sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute. Shouldn’t she have some basic understanding of the economic structures under which we all live?

When my thesis adviser brought up the fact that women in Nordic countries score higher than American women on a range of quality of life measures (presumably because their countries — which are still capitalist economies –¬† all have social policies that extend beyond food stamps), Sommers replied that because those countries probably have social services and high taxes, “There’s less opportunity for individual self assertion, so it’s an open question who’s better off. In the end, it’s probably a mix.”

Which is just false. It’s patently false, according to the Human Development Report from the United Nations, which is not exactly a secret study. Overall, everyone is better off (in terms of education, health, basic needs being met) but there’s also the highest gender equality and there’s more equality between the classes, which I think is a crucial and oft-forgotten component of feminism.

In conclusion, it’s possible to have reasonable discussions with people who disagree with your beliefs. But they have to be willing to educate themselves about what it is they’re arguing about. Sommers has an outdated view of feminism and a pitiful understanding of capitalism. That’s no starting point for a conversation.