Civil Liberties

Can Christina Hoff Sommers Save Feminism?

A conservative writer's "freedom feminism" agenda is short on both freedom and feminism.


Freedom Feminism: Its Surprising History and Why It Matters Today, by Christina Hoff Sommers, AEI Press, 127 pages, $3.95.

Some libertarians look askance at feminism, seeing it only as a leftist push to use the state to benefit women. Many conservatives see it something as far worse. But Christina Hoff Sommers of the American Enterprise Institute wants to change all that. In Freedom Feminism, Sommers sets out to provide a manifesto for moderate and conservative women (and, some say, for libertarians) because they "must be at the helm" if they are to raise broad support for the kind of feminism that she thinks is worthwhile. Sommers asserts that her "freedom feminism" is a synthesis of 19th century "radical egalitarianism" and a conservative "maternal school," and that the results avoid the problems of leftist feminism.

This raises two questions for libertarians: Is feminism salvageable? And if so, is Sommers' new blend the right mix?

In addressing the first question, it is useful to recognize that leftists didn't invent feminism. Mary Wollstonecraft, the leading influence on First Wave feminism, was an individualist. So were such 19th-century American feminists as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who believed that "nothing adds such dignity to character as the recognition of one's self-sovereignty; the right to an equal place, everywhere conceded—a place earned by personal merit." In addition to working for the vote, 19th-century feminists struggled to undo unjust and unfair laws that made women the property of their husbands. They sought equal rights, not governmental privilege.

The American individualist anarchists of the 19th century were on the cutting edge of this movement. Ezra and Angela Heywood braved prison to bring birth control information to the public through their journal The Word. Angela Heywood was one of the very few feminists in the 19th century to call for legalized abortion. Moses Harman, publisher of the anarchist/feminist publication Lucifer the Lightbearer, may have been the first person in the 19th century to publicly attack marital rape in print. His daughter Lillian refused to change her name when she married Edwin Walker in a non-state wedding. Many of the themes that concerned these anarchist feminists are still being discussed by libertarian feminists today.

In spite of skepticism in some quarters of the libertarian movement, modern libertarian feminism is thriving. Buoyed by that 19th-century heritage, such writers as Joan Kennedy Taylor, Charles W. Johnson, Roderick Long, Lynn Kinsky, and I have argued that libertarianism offers a less paternalistic and thus less patriarchal approach to solving the issues that concern women today. The left-wing feminist theoretician bell hooks defines feminism as a movement to end patriarchy, all forms of patriarchal oppression, and all forms of oppression as a whole. Libertarian feminists would agree with that agenda in a general way. But they see a problem. If feminists want to reject "all forms of oppression as a whole," then from a libertarian perspective, coercive government is inconsistent with that goal. Instead, we argue that feminism should dispense with government favoritism and privilege, focusing instead on mutual aid and private alternatives.

But does Sommers have something worthwhile to contribute to the mix? Is a synthesis based on 19th-century "radical egalitarianism" and a conservative "maternal school" workable? Maybe to conservatives, but not to libertarians.

For one thing, 19th-century individualist feminists were not "radical egalitarians," as Sommers claims. Nor did they believe that "men and women are essentially identical," as one of her tables claims. Not one of these feminists ever said that.

But the bigger problem is "maternal feminism," by which she means a belief that women and men are "different but equal." This is essentially a code for claiming that various stereotypes about women are true: that we are more caring and more nurturing, that most of us would stay at home and be moms if we could, that many of us don't really care much about careers, that we would be happier accepting our "differences." Sommers writes, for example, that "the paradox of egalitarian feminism" is that "when women are liberated from the domestic sphere…and no longer sequestered in the role of nurturer, many, perhaps most, persist in giving priority to the domestic sphere." What kind of "paradox" is this? Of course most women (and men) want families, but that doesn't mean they can't want careers too. 

Sommers does not provide evidence that "many, perhaps most" women feel this way. A 2012 Gallup poll showed that 63 percent of women, including those with children at home, work outside the home. And while some of those might prefer to stay at home were it not for economic necessity, work outside the home is more common among women with college or graduate degrees and women with higher incomes. Seventy-five percent of women with a college degree have jobs. For women with postgraduate education, the number is 84 percent. Low-income mothers are far less likely to be employed than are upper-income mothers (45 percent vs. 77 percent). Does she seriously think it possible that "most" women do not want careers? That most prefer "domestic life" to careers, as if they were either/or? She even suggests that most women prefer what she calls "pink collar" jobs, such as fashion design and nursing, even though women are now around 47.3 percent of students in medical schools, 47.2 percent in law schools, and the majority (58 percent) in college.

Nor does she back up her claims about the "differences" between women and men. In fact, the consensus among most serious scientists who do gender research—neuroscientist Lise Eliot, psychologist Janet Hyde, neuropsychologist Melissa Hines, and biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling, for example—is that the behavioral and cognitive differences between women and men are not nearly as great as the average person (or Sommers) imagines. There is almost certainly a small genetic component, but it is less overall than the contributions of multitudes of cultural, family, and individual environmental influences. Anthropological research on gender bears this out; scholars such as Peggy Reeves Sanday have shown there is more variation in gender roles than Sommers apparently assumes. From a feminist point of view—and from an individualist one—Sommers' stereotyping is unacceptable. We should be looking at the merits and choices of each person as an individual, not as a member of a particular biological group.

All people of every gender should be able to make their own decisions about how they want to live their lives. Nothing else is libertarian. If a woman wants to be a homemaker, that is her choice. If a man wants to stay at home with his children, that too is his choice. If a woman wants a career, and doesn't want children or marriage, she doesn't need to be told that she is aberrant because she doesn't "give priority to the domestic sphere." Nor do women who disagree with Sommers' analysis of "women's issues" need her to tell them that they sound "brainwashed." Sommers' interpretations are geared toward her ideological beliefs rather than what either history or social science actually suggest. Her "freedom feminism" has nothing to offer to feminism, let alone libertarian feminism.