Freedom Feminism Still Isn't Either

Any so-called "freedom feminism" that includes Phyllis Schlafly and the anti-choice wing of the conservative movement is not libertarian, says Sharon Presley.


Christina Hoff Sommers says that I misrepresent her in my review of her book, Freedom Feminism. I say that she misrepresents me. Par for the course.

In her response, Sommers writes: "Presley seems to be captive to a 1970s–style of 'free to be you and me' feminism that sought to free human beings from the constraints of gender." This is not only insufferably condescending but is an ad hominem attack that ill behooves a woman of her stature (I criticized only her ideas and her research, not her personally). Then she says, "Presley's instinct is to ignore or dismiss research that challenges her worldview." Unlike her? I don't think so and neither do others. In fact this "captive" of "instinct" is a retired psychology professor who has been reading academic gender research articles and books for over 30 years, Apparently my real sin, therefore, is not coming to the same conclusions as Sommers.

So let's talk about gender. I agree with individualist feminist Mary Wollstonecraft that we don't know what women are capable of until there are no restrictions on what they may do or be. Sommers appears to believe that there are no longer cultural restrictions or pressures on women (see p. 78 of her book). She may be the only feminist philosopher who thinks so. Most psychologists and sociologists would certainly question that conclusion. Though there have been huge strides in the last 50 years, the idea that we are now free from pressure to conform to gender role stereotypes is neither warranted nor consistent with research. All you have to do is go into Toys "R" Us with its pink and blue aisles to see that the pressure begins when the kids are very young: little homemakers or little warriors by the age of six. I have never seen a gender textbook (and they are all peer-reviewed and based on research, not polemics) in my many years of teaching Psychology of Women that concludes that there is longer socialization pressures to conform to gender stereotypical behavior. By way of example, here's a link to a typical gender textbook chapter focusing on the role of socialization.

?Sommers cites research to show that women and men have differences, a point I never denied. By emphasizing, however, that men and women are "different," she makes it sound as if men and women are like apples and oranges, Mars and Venus. In fact, serious psychologists, not just my "favorite feminist authors," agree that the differences that do exist are mostly small, greatly overlapping and that "Differences within sexes are far greater than differences between sexes." So how much "difference" are we really talking about? 75 percent? 50 percent? No, the amount of variance accounted for by gender alone for most behaviors is very small, no more than three percent. For example, studies by Robert Plomin, a professor at the Institute of Psychiatry in London, found a mere three percent of the variation in young children's verbal development is due to their gender. Another study of other behavior found a one percent to two percent variance. This means that only knowing the gender of a person will not allow anyone to predict with any accuracy how individuals will score on most measures of behavior. A summary of a recent article titled "Men and Women Are From Earth: Examining the Latent Structure of Gender," published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, one of the more prestigious journals of the American Psychological Association (APA), said: "Average differences between men and women are not under dispute, but the dimensionality of gender indicates that these differences are inappropriate for diagnosing gender-typical psychological variables on the basis of sex. " Oops.

Furthermore, in some areas once thought to have gender differences, the picture is not so clear anymore as a series of meta-analyses done by prominent research psychologist (and former president of the APA) Janet Hyde shows. "In the case of most traits, such as self-esteem and mathematical ability, Hyde found that men and women live on the same page—and not in different books altogether…In 78 percent of cases, Hyde found little or no difference between the sexes…"

By emphasizing that men and women are "different," Sommers continues to perpetuate the same old tired cliches about gender stereotypes that caused libertarian feminist Cathy Reisenwitz to write that what Sommers offers is just old (gender stereotypes) wine in a new (conservative) bottle. I agree with Cathy.

Sommers also makes a big point that most women prefer part-time work in order to discredit what she thinks I said. To the extent this is true, it might be instructive to ask why many women do. Sommers simply assumes that they just want to spend more time with their kids because, presumably, it's in their genes. But there is a great deal of evidence that supports the phenomenon of the "second shift"–that women, even when they work full-time outside the home, are responsible for and do more of the domestic work than men. No wonder they want to work "part-time;" they have another job at home.

From a summary of a book on just this issue:

Determining who cooks and who cleans in a household may feel like a personal decision arrived at by individual couples, but UCI sociologist Judith Treas says culture and societal characteristics have a major influence on how domestic duties get divvied up in homes around the globe. In Dividing the Domestic: Men, Women, and Household Work in Cross-National Perspective, Treas, coeditor Sonja Drobnic, and international collaborators combine international survey data with sociological analysis to explain why the lion's share of domestic responsibilities still rests with women, even as more women are working outside the home. The coeditors find that while certain countries, such as Sweden, are closing this gender chore gap, other countries may be reinforcing traditional roles through policies that allow women time off for housekeeping and caring for children.

My question: does Sommers think women have a housecleaning gene and actually want to do most of the housework or have they just been taught that it's their role? Furthermore, though men are helping more than they used to, when they do help, they do more of the fun things with the kids (e.g., taking them to the zoo) and less of the not fun things like diaper-changing. What woman wouldn't want a rest with a job like that waiting for her at home?

Sommers says that freedom feminism "stands for the moral, social, and legal equality of the sexes—and the freedom of women (and men) to employ their equal status to pursue happiness as they choose," as if this were different from all other kinds of feminism. Please reread the last paragraph in my original essay. You know, the part about how only choice is libertarian. Sommers sets up a false dichotomy, wherein most other feminists are anti-male and irrational and only her own "humble" self and a few liked-minded women are not. That's just not true.

Both liberal and libertarian feminists define feminism in similar terms and include men in their groups. One liberal feminist organization that's been around since 1995 writes, for example, that "In the most basic sense, feminism is exactly what the dictionary says it is: the movement for social, political, and economic equality of men and women." In regard to males, they write "After all, equality is a balance between the male and female with the intention of liberating the individual."

Some myths about feminists, including that they are anti-male, are humorously debunked by a male feminist here.

The majority of women who vote now define themselves as "feminist." According to my calculations based on several census reports from 2010, that's over 32 million women. Isn't it really a bit much to believe that all those women (except the conservatives) are man-hating and irrational?

Sommers doesn't get to define the feminism she disagrees with by the extreme outliers—the small number of radical man-hating feminists who get most of the media attention while the average feminists don't. Otherwise, we might as well say that the racist, homophobic quasi-libertarian hangers-on get to define libertarianism. I don't think so. Furthermore, nowhere in Sommers' book did she provide evidence that the majority of feminists hate men and that they are "irrational." Is it a case of everyone is irrational except me and thee and I'm not so sure about thee? And insinuating that most feminists (except her type) are irrational is hardly a way to start a coalition.

Sommers claims that her freedom feminism is "libertarian." That's odd. Nowhere in her book does she say that. When did this happen? All she talks about are conservatives, including, in very approving terms, Phyllis Schlafly, who is about as anti-feminist as you can get and still be female. I'm not buying it and I don't think too many libertarian feminists are buying it, either. Sommers wants libertarians to align with conservative "feminists," including the ones that are busy trying to destroy our reproductive freedom. Any so-called "freedom feminism" that includes Schlafly and the anti-choice wing of the conservative movement is not any "feminism" I want to be part of. There's nothing even remotely appealing or smart about that coalition.