Back in July, the New York Times published a book review that surely had jaws dropping on both sides of the cultural divide. Written by Richard Bernstein and headlined BOYS, NOT GIRLS, AS SOCIETY'S VICTIMS, it was an extremely sympathetic treatment of Christina Hoff Sommers's The War Against Boys, subtitled, in case anyone might fail to get the message, How Misguided Feminism Is Harming Our Young Men.
What was going on here? In the ideological mosh pit that is today's New York Times, radical feminist thought has long been all but immune from honest scrutiny, let alone criticism. And Sommers, utterly devastating in her critique of the campaign against male nature, has long been at the top of the radical sisterhood's enemies list.
Was this an aberration or the beginnings of a shift in the Times's policy, a faint crack in the bunker of elite opinion?
Well, let's not go overboard. Understanding the way things unfold at the New York Times takes the subtlety of a Kremlinologist, and with heavy-handed sixties-enthusiast Pinch Sulzberger in charge, the paper is unlikely to return to its classical liberal roots anytime soon. But it's a funny thing about intellectual fraud: keeping it up over the long term is exhausting and dispiriting. Once honest discussion breaks loose, it can be hard to hold down.
At the very least, such a piece serves to illustrate, by contrast, how woefully short on common decency and common sense the paper's coverage of feminism has generally been. Indeed, of all the orthodoxies the paper has so aggressively promoted over the years, from its casting of single parenthood as a triumph of diversity to its insistence in the face of ready data and common sense that AIDS is everyone's disease, none has enjoyed quite the degree of special handling as the feminists' drive to remake humanity.
Over the years, Times readers have so come to take this bias for granted that even the most daring leaps in logic and the grossest disregard of fairness tend to pass unnoticed. Underlying it all has been the pretense that radical feminist groups, notably the National Organization for Women (which at its height had fewer members than there are female subscribers to Playboy), actually speak for all women. A quick check of Lexis-Nexis reveals that over the past decade NOW has been cited in 802 articles, while, as a quick contrast, the conservative Independent Women's Forum has been mentioned a mere seven times. (Just as telling is the nature of the IWF references. Three report, falsely, that the IWF spurred Ken Starr to write a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of Paula Jones, and two others are retractions of that story—which Times reporters kept repeating anyway.)
Of course, what matters—at the Times, anyway—is that among the small percentage of women whose views NOW actually represents are the overwhelming majority of those who write and edit at the paper itself: women, that is, who are militantly pro-choice and for whom career is an all-consuming priority. Indeed, in its varied permutations, the worldview they represent can now be found in every corner of the paper, evident not merely in the almost uniformly flattering news stories and photos of Hillary Clinton or the seriousness accorded the likes of a Susan Sarandon, but in a sports department that has made a prominently placed photo of a female Little League player an annual rite of spring.
But as these things go, the quintessential Times world view comes across most undisguisedly in the paper's Book Review sections, for here no one even has to pretend to objectivity.
Hardly surprisingly, the literary efforts of staff feminists tend to receive especially fulsome praise: people like Susan Chira, the Times's deputy foreign editor, who for years covered child-related issues, in which role she systematically promoted day care while failing to cover studies that documented its potentially deleterious effects. When her l998 autobiographical tome, A Mother's Place: Choosing Work and Family Without Guilt or Blame, took the same tack, the Times's critic lauded it as a "splendid book . . . [that] makes an eloquent, well-documented case that motherhood does not require martyrdom."
Then there's Natalie Angier, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Times science writer, whose Woman: An Intimate Geography got special handling even by the Times's version of standards. One of those who sees all existence through the prism of gender, Angier uses her role as science writer to scour nature endlessly for evidence of female superiority and male inferiority. The Book Review editors originally assigned her book to the well-known evolutionary biologist Helen Cronin, but they killed that review after it turned out "too negative"—Cronin later reported she'd found Angier's work "totally idiotic. She uses phrases like 'the vagina as a model for the universe itself.' " No problem. The book was reviewed in the daily Times by Stanford professor Marilyn Yalom, author of A History of the Breast, who pronounced it "dazzling . . . supported by rigorous scientific underpinnings."
Hardly incidentally, a couple of years earlier, Angier had reviewed Yalom's breast book for the Book Review, calling it "a fascinating cultural, political and artistic history of our most symbolically freighted body part."
On the other hand, women authors who challenge cherished feminist truths—and, worse, who call women to account for problems ascribed to the bugaboo of patriarchy—almost all meet with sharp contempt. City Journal contributing editor Wendy Shalit, whose A Return to Modesty is a cry for courtship and marriage rather than recreational sex, found herself belittled by the Times's critic as "the self-appointed spokeswoman for the moral minority." Another Times reviewer tells us acidly that Stephanie Gutmann, whose A Kinder, Gentler Military gives chapter and verse on the crumbling of standards in the feminized military, "flies in the face of evidence—read Margaret Mead—that both women and men can be fierce in defending themselves."
Even more despised, if possible, are those who've made the case that Chira and her ilk find so deeply threatening: that children pay a devastating price when their mothers make them a lesser priority than their careers. When Danielle Crittenden passionately argued in What Our Mothers Didn't Tell Us that Ms.-era feminism had badly failed women by seeking to deny their innate desire for children and family, the Times's critic dismissed her out of hand: "First, the good news: [this book] is very short." When the academic Elizabeth Fox Genovese's Feminism Is Not the Story of My Life conducted in-depth interviews with women around the country to make largely the same case and urge a more inclusive "family feminism," the Times called her exhaustively researched book "not really a sustained argument but a series of pronouncements reeled off at a manic pace.") Many other works, such as ex-lawyer Carolyn Graglia's superb defense of traditional womanhood, Domestic Tranquility: A Brief Against Feminism, pass unmentioned in the Times at all and, as a result, tend to attract scant notice elsewhere.
Even on those rare occasions when a Times review takes a stance seemingly at odds with feminist orthodoxy, it can be counted on to rip conservative women who've held the same stance all along—thus, with characteristic audacity, letting those who'd had it wrong for so long off the hook. The publication this fall of psychologist Judith Wallerstein's The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce justly received lengthy and laudatory page-one treatment in the Sunday Book Review. Yet stuck in the piece, almost as a self-protective afterthought, was a single paragraph slamming Linda J. Waite and Maggie Gallagher's The Case for Marriage, which makes many of the same points. (See "Why Marriage Is Good for You," page 76.) While Wallerstein (whose "goal," we are reassured, "is not to condemn divorce" and one of whose collaborators is "a regular contributor to The New York Times") is rightly celebrated for helping bring on the "dawning recognition" that divorce leaves deep and enduring scars on children, Waite and Gallagher, who never bought into the liberal fiction that happy divorced parents make happy kids, are somehow "less subtle and humane." Though they offer a wealth of evidence in support of marriage, "it's hard to know who is supposed to read this book or what purpose it might serve."
But feminists have never been able to shrug off Christina Hoff Sommers with such casual injustice. Because she was a well-regarded academic with a liberal pedigree, and because of the character of her attacks, she has from the start presented feminist stalwarts with a unique set of problems.
Drawn into the fight a decade or so ago, while a philosophy professor at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, Sommers had been startled, then alarmed, by what she was hearing at feminist academic conferences—both the virulence of the anti-male, anti-family rhetoric and the shoddy thinking of those getting by as "feminist scholars." "These women would just toss around these ludicrous facts and figures," she recalls, "and no one ever challenged them—because if you did, you were branded a traitor and a reactionary, and your career was in jeopardy."
Her writings on academic feminism, more like insiders' reports, soon made her a pariah in that community; but it was the l994 publication of her first book, Who Stole Feminism?, that turned the genial Sommers into feminism's Public Enemy Number One. Chronicling the systematic radicalization of a noble concept—the legal and social equality of the sexes—by what she called "gender feminists," the book attacked the very foundations of the shaky feminist edifice, taking dead aim not only at the misbegotten feminist leadership but at an uncritical press that never called them to account. "To rally women to their cause," as she wrote of feminist zealotry, "it is not enough to remind us that many brutal and selfish men hurt women. They must persuade us that the system itself sanctions male brutality. They must convince us that the oppression of women, sustained from generation to generation, is a structural feature of our society."
What drew most attention to the book, and sent her foes into a defensive froth, was its focus on how feminist activists chronically abuse statistics in the propagation of their ideology. Particularly striking was the notice she called to the ludicrous claim—repeated in Gloria Steinem's Revolution from Within and Naomi Wolf's The Beauty Myth and dutifully broadcast by Ann Landers—that 150,000 American women die of anorexia every year. In fact, the actual number turned out to be fewer than 100. Then, too, there was the fantastic charge, made by NOW's Patricia Ireland and picked up by, among many others, the Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune, and Time magazine, that domestic violence against pregnant women was responsible for more birth defects than all other causes combined. Dogged researcher though she is, in such cases Sommers didn't even have to break into a sweat to find the truth: on the phony birth defects story, all it took was a single phone call to the March of Dimes, ostensibly the source of the statistic, to elicit a firm "We have never seen this research before."
In a furious counteroffensive, feminist activists fell back on the tactics that had long proven so effective: they viciously attacked, distorting Sommers's record and views, seeking to portray her as far, far from the mainstream. "[Rush] Limbaugh, a proven font of disinformation, and Sommers—who portrays herself as a stickler for accuracy—have developed a mutual admiration society," sneered one of the several feminist newsletters that at the time devoted entire issues to Sommers. "Pat Buchanan declared that 'Ms. Sommers is right on the mark.' " The American Association of University Women, one of Sommers's principal targets, actually set up a "Christina Hotline," suggesting ways to discredit her. Gabrielle Lange, the AAUW's media relations director, later had the effrontery to compare her to a Holocaust denier.
It was against this backdrop that the Times Book Review weighed in. "On the evidence of this book," began its critique of Who Stole Feminism?, "Christina Hoff Sommers is a wallflower at feminist conferences. In revenge, she attends them obsessively." The book, it declared in conclusion, "is so overwrought and underargued that it is unlikely to amuse or persuade."
But to her foes' horror, this attack soon turned into just more evidence—indeed, the strongest yet—for Sommers's argument about the cozy relationship between the elite media and the over-the-top feminists it refused to monitor responsibly. The Times identified its reviewer, Nina Auerbach, as the John Welsh Centennial Professor of History and Literature at the University of Pennsylvania. What the Book Review neglected to mention is that she also happened to be herself one of those feminist conference speakers Sommers skewered in the book, not by name, but clearly identifiable to anyone familiar with the event.
When this bit of deck stacking came to light, it set off a storm of protest, and not only from conservatives. Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz ran a column on the affair, entitled: AT THE N.Y. TIMES: A REVIEW OR REVENGE? In short order, the Book Review was moved to run a spate of letters from angry readers. "The New York Times should not assign books to partisan reviewers who are too ideologically or emotionally involved with the subject matter to give an objective opinion," noted one. "When I read Ms. Auerbach's hatchet job," said another, "I was appalled by the personal attacks against Ms. Sommers. Instead of reasoned disagreement, Ms. Auerbach delivered a vindictive tantrum."
Auerbach and Rebecca Sinkler, the editor of the Times Book Review, publicly responded that, in essence, the complaints about the review were little more than anti-feminist sour grapes, and Sommers's contention that the reviewer had to have recognized herself in the book was pure fantasy. "Auerbach is a good and lively writer," wrote Sinkler on AOL's New York Times service, "and she can be outspoken in her views. . . . We like that in a reviewer. . . . The Book Review received many letters asking us why we would assign the book to someone named in it. The answer is, we wouldn't."
But from a PR perspective, things didn't get any better for the Times when it got around that Nina Auerbach was not merely "a good and lively writer" but had once been Rebecca Sinkler's teacher at Penn. When Sinkler left the Book Review not long afterward, it was hard to find anyone who'd argue the episode wasn't a factor. If the Times's bias on feminist matters had long been obvious to anyone who cared to see, rarely had it been quite so glaringly overt.
As these things go, the controversy only helped Who Stole Feminism?'s sales. In fact, for all the savagery of the attacks Sommers endured, the book has achieved what most of her adversaries, and most conservative writers, for that matter, can only dream of: it has "made a difference." Under increased scrutiny, in recent years feminist leaders have had to be far more careful about throwing around inflammatory and gaseous statistics.
Not, God knows, that they've lost any of their twisted ardor—we're not talking miracles. Indeed, a compelling case can be made that for all the damage they've done to the culture over the past several decades, their most recent fixation—on boys—has been the most insidious yet.
For in the feminist worldview, notwithstanding their remarkable success in mainstreaming their ideology in offices and the military, at colleges and in TV sitcoms, things are not yet nearly as they should be. Males are still too traditionally . . . male. They're still too aggressive; they still like to play rough and lack sensitivity and "objectify" females. The solution? Since, according to doctrine, all such behavior is learned, a product of our sick culture, it must be attacked at its very root.
In brief, boys, too, are victims of patriarchy. We must systematically reprogram them—to be more like girls.
This is the doctrine that Sommers exposes and eviscerates in The War Against Boys—which, given its potential to engage otherwise apolitical mothers and fathers, arguably makes the new book even more dangerous to the zealots than was her first. Herself the mother of sons, Sommers appeals both to the head and the gut. "It is," as she writes, "a story of how we are turning against boys and forgetting a simple truth: that the energy, competitiveness, and corporal daring of normal, decent males are responsible for much of what is right in the world."
Obviously, ordinary people never stopped knowing that; as Chico Marx might've said of the feminists' relentless effort to have parents force dolls on indifferent little boys, "You gonna believe me or your own eyes?" And yet the book makes clear just how deeply, in the name of "gender equity," the anti-boy campaign has taken hold and how horrifying are its consequences in the real world.
Launched in earnest in the early nineties, the "gender equity" crusade came about largely in reaction to the work of one woman, feminist superstar Carol Gilligan of Harvard's Graduate School of Education. It was Gilligan who, as Sommers observes, via "groundbreaking studies" and best-selling books, "initiated the thinking about American girls as victimized, silenced Ophelias" and gave "intellectual respectability to reformers' efforts to reconstruct children's gender identities."
The essence of the Gilligan message on what the culture allegedly does to girls is summed up by the title of a characteristically laudatory New York Times Magazine profile that appeared in l990: CONFIDENT AT 11, CONFUSED AT 16. Why, in early adolescence, do girls typically (in Gilligan's classic formulation) "lose their voice" and "go underground"? Basically, because they learn that to get by in a patriarchal world, it is best to be passive and submissive. Because, in fact, even within the confines of their own narrow world, they routinely find themselves shouted down in class by overly aggressive boys and ignored by boy-friendly teachers. A much-quoted report by the American Association of University Women entitled "How Schools Shortchange Girls" soon lent even greater authority to this idea, as did feminist academics like Myra and David Sadker, who wrote ominously of the schools' "secret sexist lessons and the quiet losses they engender."
As we know, in short order, network magazine shows and alarmist newspaper headlines were proclaiming the "crisis." True to form, the Times helped lead the way, proving particularly cooperative in promoting the holiday created by the Ms. Foundation to combat the collapse of female adolescent self-esteem. To date, Take Our Daughters to Work Day has garnered—count 'em—61 breathless mentions in the paper's pages.
But for those pushing the gender equity line, the key goal was legislative action, and that drive proved successful even beyond their most fevered dreams. By early l994 Congress had passed, and Bill Clinton had signed, the Equity in Education Act, mandating gender-neutral textbooks and an end to sexual harassment at all school levels, and providing federal funds for the creation of an office of women's equity in the Department of Education to ensure that the feminist slant on things got a full hearing in texts and curricula.
Through it all, for all the attention they got, critics of the movement appeared not to exist. Only now did scattered reports appear, questioning if all this was really fair to boys. Most of these reports questioned whether the Take Our Daughters holiday ought to be expanded to include all children, an idea fiercely opposed by the Ms. Foundation. After all, by most key indicators—dropout rates and numbers of remedial students, suicide rates and percentages going on to college— wasn't it young males who were really in greatest jeopardy? Such a turn finally forced the feminists to address the boy issue directly: and this they have done with chilling resolve. Yes, they observed, boys are not healthy for girls and other living things, but ultimately it is not their fault, for society pressures them to conform to a soul-deadening, emotion-suppressing, female-subordinating definition of masculinity. And this, too, is a "crisis," calling for emergency measures.
In coming up with a solution, the feminists (as Lionel Trilling might have put it) seem to have taken as their manual Ferdinand the Bull, the children's tale that drives home its anti-macho message with sledgehammer delicacy. Just as Ferdinand accepts that he is a superior being for choosing to smell flowers instead of fight, so, in essence, the feminists declare boys' deranged "bull" nature to be merely a social construct, ugly but changeable.
Thus have they confidently moved to remake the educational system—indeed, the entire culture—to that end. From the earliest age, boys are to be subjected to a program aimed at stripping them of aggression, boisterousness, and irreverence.
In her book, Sommers relates in harrowing detail the extent to which this program is already in place. The key feminist hysteric she describes is someone almost no one has heard of: Katherine Hanson, who runs the Women's Educational Equity Act Publishing Center, and whose beliefs about the malevolence of the patriarchy are truly stunning. Among other things, Hanson has publicly charged that nearly 4 million women are beaten to death by men annually, which, if you're counting, makes 11,000 a day, 40 million a decade—basically, before long, every female in America. (The actual total of women murdered in the U.S. in 1996 was 3,631—most by complete strangers, some even by other women.)
It is to Hanson whom the Department of Education, under the Equity in Education Act, has given responsibility for providing "gender-fair" study materials to the nation's schools. Believing as she does that "our educational system is a primary carrier of the dominant culture's assumptions," she has inundated teachers and schoolchildren with literature portraying normal boys as would-be batterers, harassers, and rapists. Her anti-harassment teacher manuals bear such titles as Quit It!, aimed at grades K-3 and, for slightly older children, Girls and Boys Getting Along: Teaching Sexual Harassment Prevention in the Elementary Classroom.
A friend of mine who's getting a teaching credential in Connecticut tells of finding himself, the very first week of that state's accreditation program, having to endure a lecture from one of the legions of "gender equity specialists" who now pervade the educational scene. "She went on for nearly an hour about anti-girl bias by teachers, how they start off so well, then fall behind in high school when teachers show favoritism to boys. So at the end I raised my hand and, politely as I could, asked why girls did so much better than boys in the earlier grades: could it be that elementary school teachers, who are overwhelmingly female, are biased in their favor? Or might there simply be differences in the ways boys and girls develop? She got furious, started going on how we men always got defensive, basically refusing to answer what she took to be a sexist question." My friend shook his head. "Afterward, four or five people very quietly thanked me—they agreed it was flat-out propaganda, incredibly unfair to boys. But of course, not one of them had spoken up. That's what they've done, spread this fear by defining honest conversation about this as evidence of bigotry."
But what's even more jarring is seeing how the spreading anti-boy ethic gets played out in the lives of ordinary people. Indeed, after years of alarmist reports, the presumption that schools chronically shortchange girls has taken hold for millions of well-meaning souls who have never heard of Carol Gilligan. Just recently, I met a woman, a nurse at a local hospital, who waxed passionate on the subject. With a daughter about to turn 13, she was desperate to get her into an all-girl private school and thus rescue her from the dire consequences of being a female in a mixed-sex environment. "This is when they start to lose their self-esteem," she explained soberly. "There are all these studies."
Almost as much as the feminist furies themselves, the Times and other voices of elite culture are responsible for the spread of this pernicious nonsense—now promoting the phony self-esteem crisis, now pathologizing boyhood. Indeed, for book reviewers at the paper of record, sympathy for boys is now okay—more than okay—as long as the target is nurture and not nature.
The maestro of this genre has been Gilligan acolyte William Pollack, author of the best-seller Real Boys. Pollack got particular attention in the wake of the Columbine tragedy, appearing incessantly on the tube (he was a regular on Oprah), arguing that the lunatic killers were not, in fact, grotesque aberrations, but products of the same system that afflicts millions of young men who pass as normal. "If we don't allow boys to cry tears," as he put it to one sympathetic reporter at the time, "they're going to cry bullets."
Unsurprisingly, when Sommers's book appeared this past spring, defending traditional boyhood and deriding the weeny masculinity the feminists hold up as an ideal, the press largely cold-shouldered it. It went unreviewed in the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Boston Globe, and many other papers.
But, true to form, the Times took on The War Against Boys the last Sunday in June.
The big news was not the review's content—dismissive, it all but ignored the book's central argument—but the identity of its author, child psychiatrist Robert Coles. For, incredibly enough, history seemed to be repeating itself, since Coles is a Harvard Ed School colleague of Sommers's adversary Gilligan, among the book's primary targets. Moreover, Coles's piece simultaneously reviewed, far more favorably, the new book co-authored by Sommers's other foe Pollack—who's also affiliated with Harvard. Sommers "speaks of our children," observed Coles testily, "yet she hasn't sought them out; instead she attends [to] those who have, in fact, worked with boys and girls—and in so doing is quick to look askance at Carol Gilligan's ideas about girls and William Pollack's about boys. Much of The War Against Boys comes across as Sommers's strongly felt war against these two prominent psychologists, who have spent years trying to learn how young men and women grow to adulthood in the United States."
Again, it was left to readers of the Book Review to call its editors to account. "Dare we hope that a book like Christina Hoff Sommers's War Against Boys might be given full and fair treatment?" demanded historian Stanley Kurtz, in a published letter. "Apparently not. Not only is the review of Sommers bundled with a review of William S. Pollack, one of her adversaries, but the reviewer himself, Robert Coles, is a Harvard colleague of both Pollack and Sommers's other chief antagonist, Carol Gilligan."
This is how matters stood when, a few weeks later, Richard Bernstein's review of The War Against Boys turned up in the daily Times. Appearing to have read an entirely different book from what Coles read, Bernstein wrote that Sommers makes her arguments "persuasively and unflinchingly, and with plenty of data to support them," and adding, in a keenly heartfelt conclusion, that her work is less polemic than entreaty. "There is a crying in the wilderness quality to her book, a sense that certain simple truths have been lost sight of in the smoky quarrelsomeness of American life."
One need hardly be a conspiracy theorist to conjure up a link between Bernstein's piece and Coles's embarrassing earlier one—or, for that matter, with the even more shockingly unfair one of several years earlier. Even the most arrogant pooh-bahs at the Times must be at least dimly aware by now that, in its boundless enthusiasm for the multiculturalist agenda, the paper has squandered much of its treasured credibility. "When people around here see something on feminism in the Times," as my friend Dennis Boyles, who once worked as an editor at the Sunday Times Magazine, puts it, "their first impulse is to say, 'Wait, is this really true?' "
But just as likely, the review was a lonely act of personal valor. Bernstein has for some time been a rare beacon of standards and common sense at the paper—someone, indeed, who himself has written at book length about the ills of multiculturalism (and in the process learned how it feels to be reviewed unfairly in his own paper).
In the ongoing fight against the culture's entrenched ideologues, progress comes about incrementally: as individuals, often at real personal cost, continue to tell the truth, it begins to be heard.
The tenor of the national conversation might begin to alter subtly merely because the Times has alerted its broad and overwhelmingly liberal readership to the possibility that what they've been told for years on the subject is false. In fact, most adolescent girls are not hurting and vulnerable; but rather, it is their male counterparts who are truly under siege. This insight might give at least momentary pause in a government office or corporate boardroom the next time a project aimed at fiddling with the lives of young men and women rears its malformed head, and even more to the point, it might change the thinking in innumerable private homes.
I got just a hint of this myself a few days after the piece appeared, when I ran again into the nurse with the 13-year-old daughter. Having read the review, she was confused—already a step in the right direction—and planning to buy Sommers's book. "You really just don't know who to believe anymore," she said. "I'm just going to have to look into this for myself."