Editor’s Note: Christina Hoff Sommers is a well-known former philosophy professor and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. She is the author of several books including Who Stole Feminism? and The War Against Boys. She also hosts a video blog entitled The Factual Feminist. The Review sat down with Ms. Sommers to gain some insight on her perspective on modern-day gender movements and feminist controversy.
The Dartmouth Review (TDR): Much of your writing has to do with the warped state of modern feminism. Can you explain how it came to this? Where does the modern movement have its origins, and why is it the way it is today?
Christina Hoff Sommers (CHS): I am a strong supporter of classical equity feminism — the sort of feminism that won women the vote, educational opportunities, and many other freedoms. But on today’s campus, equity feminism has been eclipsed by fainting-couch feminism. Fainting-couchers view women as psychically fragile and prone to trauma. They demand trigger warnings, safe spaces, and micro-aggression monitoring. Their primary focus is not equality with men—but rather protection from them. As an equity feminist from the 70s, I see this as a setback for feminism—and for women. There was a battle for the soul of feminism in the 80s and 90s. The wrong side won. Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin (precursors to today’s fainting-couchers) sought to protect women from the ravages of an implacable, all-encompassing patriarchy. Never mind that no such patriarchy existed. Another group, known as sex-positive or libertarian feminists, focused on female freedom, personal responsibility, and pleasure. They saw MacDworkinism (as it came to be called) as a reactionary social purity movement. The libertarians had better arguments, but the MacDworkinites won most of the assistant professorships. Over the years, MacDworkinism has melded with “intersectionality.” Today, undergraduate women are told (depending on their identities) that they are oppressed not only by sexism, but by racism, classism, ableism, etc. Conceptually, the theory is muddled. For one thing it fights sexism and racism by classifying everyone according to sex and race. But at the highly privileged intersections of American higher education, the theory is all the rage. For an equality feminist like myself, this is a sorry development. Our feminist foremothers viewed women as just as competent and mentally strong as men, so they fought and won a battle for equality. Trigger warnings, safe spaces and identity theatrics betray that tradition, and treat women like fragile little birds in need of protection. I see too many talented, idealistic young women turning inward—away from a world that needs them.
TDR: In addition to the movement itself, many words have lost their original meanings. Terms like “racism,” “sexism,” “violence,” “unconstitutional,” “fascism,” and various other -isms and -phobias do not mean the same thing that they did even three years ago. How has this happened?
CHS: For activists committed to the doctrine of intersectionality, universities have to be seen as racist, sexist, violent institutions. The theory demands it. In fact, our institutions of higher learning are among the least bigoted or violent places on earth. To maintain the theory, activists stretch the meanings of words beyond comprehension. When I politely challenged fainting-couch feminism at Oberlin and Georgetown—protestors accused me of “violence.” Instead of challenging what I said, they have re-labeled it as violence and ruled it out of bounds. That’s not only absurd, it contradicts to principles foundational to our Constitutional democracy. The American legal tradition makes a clear distinction between words and deeds. According to diversity officials at Berkeley and UCLA, anyone who suggests that “Men and women have equal opportunities for achievement” or refers to the US as “a land of opportunity” is creating a “hostile” environment and “targeting” marginalized people. They have good intentions, but they twist words in ways prevent rational debate.
TDR: In wake of the Berkeley riots this past week, it’s become more clear than ever that freedom of speech is, in fact, a dangerous thing. Interestingly, it has not come under threat from the government – which is what the constitution explicitly protects against – but rather from private citizens. What is the danger of this? How can we overcome this conflict over freedom of ideas?
CHS: On some campuses, activists have assumed the role of thought police. When they heckle speakers or shut down events, they set themselves up as arbiters of what others can hear and say. Who put them in charge? They are free to not attend events they don’t like or to protest peacefully. What they can’t do is to shut down discussion. Legally, the First Amendment applies only to the government, but the moral principles on which it is based ought to apply to private universities as well. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, a legendary champion of liberal causes, called restrictions on free speech “dangerous subversions” and “the one un-American act that could most easily defeat us.” Why un-American? Because in our free and open democracy—there is no Ministry of Truth.
TDR: Where does free speech stop and hate speech start?
CHS: The First Amendment does not recognize the distinction. Hateful and benign words are equally protected. You can say vicious things about all groups—Jews, Muslims, Christians, Whites, Blacks, women or men—even babies. You can burn a flag, insult Catholics or celebrate Hitler. I find such speech reprehensible and there is far too much of it in the blogosphere as well as on campus. But in America we deal with it by social scorn, not censorship. We don’t have blasphemy laws. That is not our tradition. We err on the side of freedom. Any public university that imposes a speech code is violating the US Constitution. Private universities like Dartmouth have more leeway. But even private schools may have contractual obligations to protect academic freedom if that was promised in their mission statement.
I understand that many schools want to encourage civility and respect. So do I. But civility is best taught through example—not censorship regimes. Enforced “Civility” can also serve as a pretense for banning tough criticism, humor, satire—or unpopular ideas. The truth is not always polite.
TDR: Moving on towards the topic of gender equity. You are also published on the issues facing young boys in society (The War Against Boys), when much focus is placed on young girls. What happened to “male privilege?”
CHS: Girls and women are the privileged sex in education. From preschool to graduate school, and across ethnic and class lines, women get better grades, they win most of the honors and prizes, and they’re far more likely to go to college. Today women earn a majority of bachelor’s degrees and advanced degrees. Latino girls are now slightly more likely to attend college than white boys. When an education policy analyst looked at current trends in higher education he quipped, only half in jest, “The last male will graduate from college in 2068.” Our schools have offered untold number of admirable and effective programs to strengthen girls in areas where they languished—in sports, math, and science. Where are the programs to help boys in areas where they falter: reading, writing, grades, school engagement and college matriculation? So far Congress, schools of education, school boards and the Department of Education have looked the other way.
TDR: In what ways are women and girls actually worse off than men and boys? How can this be helped, and what role is modern feminism playing in actually addressing these issues?
CHS: Women, far more than men, struggle with the challenge of combining work and family. They still earn less. Although violence against women is on the decline, it continues to exact a terrible toll. In the past, feminists played a decisive (even heroic) role in improving the status and safety of women. But, today the movement is carried away with a “war-on-women” narrative. Advocates never tire of telling us that women are cheated out of nearly a quarter of their salary; that one in four college women is sexually assaulted, or that women are facing an epidemic of online abuse and violence. Such claims are hugely distorted, but they have been repeated so often they are have taken on the aura of truth. Workplace discrimination, sexual assault and on-line threats are genuine problems, but to solve them women need sober analysis, not hype and spin. Exaggerated claims and crying wolf discredit good causes and send scarce resources in the wrong direction.
TDR: What effect does gender-neutral child-rearing actually have on kids growing up today? What are the consequences going to be down the line?
CHS: With few exceptions, children are powerfully drawn to sex-stereotyped play. Parents who imbibed too much Judith Butler in college and view gender as fluid and malleable may be startled by the counterevidence provided by their toddlers. A 2012 cross-cultural study on sex differences confirmed what most of us already knew to be true: Throughout the world, women tend to be more nurturing, risk averse and emotionally expressive, while men are usually more competitive, risk taking, and emotionally flat. (Of course there are exceptions, but these researchers were looking at the norms.) As for play preferences, the female penchant for nurturing play and the male propensity for rough-and-tumble play hold cross-culturally and even cross-species. Among our close relatives such as rhesus and vervet monkeys, researchers have found that females play with dolls far more than their brothers, who prefer balls and toy cars. It seems unlikely that the monkeys are acting out a culturally manufactured gender binary. The best evidence we have suggests that some not-yet entirely understood combination of biology and culture is behind typical male/female differences. Of course parents and teachers should expose kids to a wide range of toys and play activities. But they must also be careful not to shame their children for their preferences. That sort of shaming can do harm. To give one example, little boys tend to favor superhero play where they vanquish bad guys. Two researchers noticed that many teachers don’t like that sort of play and often don’t allow it. They asked an important question: “If boys, due to their choices of dramatic play themes, are discouraged from dramatic play, how will this affect their early language and literacy development and their engagement in school?” Ignoring genuine differences between boys and girls can be just as misguided as creating differences where none exist.
TDR: What effect is Donald Trump’s presidency going to have on this movement? Are things going to get better, or worse?
CHS: I have given up making predictions about Mr. Trump.
TDR: Can higher education be saved? What’s it going to take?
CHS: To save themselves universities must overcome their obsession with identity politics. There are too many classes focused on narrow topics: too few on transcendent works of genius. Students complain, “I don’t see myself in the curriculum.” You are not supposed to. The purpose of education is to take you outside yourself into a larger world. Conservative scholars can’t do much to turn things around. They have all but disappeared from campus. So it’s up to liberal academics to restore sanity. Will they do it? I’m not so sure. Anyone who challenges the identitarians will face a lot of hostility and be told the check their privilege. Who wants that? But there is one hopeful development. The University of Chicago has indicated that it will not be going the way of safe-space, trigger warnings and censorship. Some have suggested that universities need to be clear about their primary mission: They can pursue truth, at the expense of identity validation and emotional comfort–or they can choose comfort, and admit that they sometimes do so at the expense of truth. Either is fine, but at least students will have a choice.
TDR: What is the best advice you can offer to conservative students, closeted or otherwise, struggling against the oppressive weight of radical liberalism plaguing campuses nationwide?
CHS: Conservative students are the group I worry about the least. Few people at your college are worried about your feelings. That is a good thing. Your views are tested and challenged every day. That’s what education is all about, and it’s something many liberal students are missing. Unfortunately, there is a noisy coterie of students, and a few professors, who see you as the embodiment of evil. But don’t be intimidated, because there are others—many others—who will appreciate your independent mind. But do check out student programs at think tanks like AEI, Cato, Hertog, and FIRE. These summer institutes are some of the safest spaces for reason, logic, and debate.