Reactionary Feminism


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 complaining.

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?

Sommers 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 Right.

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 child-rearing 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 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.