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The Freedom Feminist

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The Freedom Feminist

Talking with Christina Hoff Sommers May 30, 2020
The Social Order

Christina Hoff Sommers tells me that she used to hold irrational beliefs. I ask her to give some examples. “Well,” she says, “I had been a Marxist.”

Certain experiences in college pushed Sommers away from Marxism. As a freshman at New York University, for example, she participated in a large demonstration against the Vietnam War. At one point, the protesters decided to break into an office building. Once inside a professor’s office, they started stealing items and, seeing a few slides of the professor’s children, began poking them out. This horrified Sommers. “I just went back to my dorm room and could not reconcile having done that and been part of that,” she says. “It was a human being. It was slides of his kids!”

Sommers began to doubt her radical commitments. The protesters’ tactics disgusted her; their philosophy started making less sense. Though she still believed that the war was a terrible blunder, she felt incapable of sanctioning the virulent anti-Americanism of the campus Left. The radicals, she says, “weren’t able to say the United States had made a mistake. They had to say the United States was the enemy.” “And at that point, I was able to distinguish between a country that had a lot of flaws, and a country that was fundamentally, innately, evil,” she continued. “They seemed to believe that it was evil. And I started to question that. I started to drift away from radicalism.”

While pursuing a doctorate in philosophy at Brandeis University, she read Hume, Locke, Burke, and Mill—and the influence shows. Indeed, Sommers today calls herself a “Burkean liberal.” Much of her work combines a Millian concern for liberty with a Burkean caution about the destabilizing effects of rapid social change: “The careful and socially responsible philosopher,” she wrote in a 1990 essay, “wants reform, but treads carefully in her dealings with such fundamental institutions as the family or the rearing of children.”

Sommers’s dissertation at Brandeis focused on the limits of the moral community—who is in it, and who falls outside it. In 1980, she began teaching philosophy, focusing on ethics, at Clark University, where she remained until 1997, when she joined the American Enterprise Institute. She has been there since.

As it happens, Sommers has devoted her professional life to writing about gender instead of moral philosophy. This journey began in the 1980s, when the chair of Clark’s philosophy department asked Sommers to teach a course on feminist theory. Sommers accepted, but she could scarcely believe what she discovered after spending a summer reading the latest feminist literature. She felt that academic feminists saw an America that bore little relation to reality: America as white supremacist, a violent patriarchy, and so forth. She was especially appalled by the work of Alison Jaggar, then a professor at the University of Cincinnati. “Her feminism,” recalls Sommers, “was to take radical feminism, which she thought was too conservative because it didn’t allow for violent uprising, and to marry it to Marxism, which she thought was too conservative because it didn’t account for sexism. She called it socialist feminism.” Sommers continues: “Somewhere in her book, Jaggar said she was confident there could be an uprising against the capitalist patriarchy, that the majority of people would join in and we would be successful. And I just thought, ‘what the hell?’”

Nor was Jaggar’s work the most “deranged” thing Sommers encountered: “There was no limiting principle to how off the wall it all was,” she insists. In response, she prepared a paper for the American Philosophical Association addressing academic feminism’s shortcomings. Sommers argued that feminist theorists played fast and loose with statistics on women, painting an inaccurate picture of the social world; their calls for violent revolution and the abolition of gender roles were foolish at best, irresponsible at worst. Feminist analysis, Sommers says, “wasn’t an improvement over Mill, over moderate, liberal feminism.” Her approach is gradualist: “change laws, change attitudes, do it slowly.” Realize Millian liberty by Burkean means, one might say. This, for Sommers, is the “tried and true path to women’s emancipation.”

Sommers’s talk at the APA was poorly received, with attendees hissing and stomping their feet as she spoke. She was stunned by the reaction. “I didn’t know people would take it that way,” she says. “People were angry at me. I lost a friend. I was excommunicated from a church I didn’t know existed.”

Sommers has written three books exploring the political and philosophical issues surrounding gender: Who Stole Feminism? How Women Have Betrayed Women; The War Against Boys: How Misguided Policies Are Harming Our Young Men; and Freedom Feminism: Its Surprising History and Why It Matters Today. She has also compiled an anthology of essays, The Science on Women in Science.

Who Stole Feminism?, published in 1995, is an extended appraisal of feminism, particularly in the university system, where it is most entrenched. Sommers challenges feminist authors’ inaccurate application of statistics on the prevalence of rape and domestic violence, the gender wage gap, and women’s success in education. She spent an extraordinary amount of time engaging feminists’ empirical arguments, and it’s easy to understand why. Behind the statistical debates was the question of whether American society could be characterized as a violent patriarchy. If America systematically battered women and denied them equal pay for equal work, then the feminists were right; if the evidence didn’t support those charges, then Sommers was right. As Sommers now remarks, “a lot of these radical-feminist views depend on depicting our society as just disastrous for women.”

Sommers’ intervention in the statistical debates functioned as a philosophical argument, too. She hoped to convince readers that, as she put it, “mainstream feminism has gained women near-equality in American society.” She set forth an interpretation of the statistics on gender that vindicated moderate, rather than radical, approaches to equality. Though filled with statistics, her book is also peppered with philosophical observations about the role of women in society. One finds, for example, a sustained reflection on how we should reckon with the exclusion of women throughout history.

Sommers begins Who Stole Feminism? by offering a sympathetic account of feminist anger over historical sexism. “High culture,” she concedes, “is largely a male achievement.” But she finds two potential ways to interpret men’s domination of past societies. One way—radical feminism—is to reject our cultural inheritance as irredeemably patriarchal, and then to seek to revolutionize and destroy it. A second way—Sommers’s moderate-feminist approach—is to recognize the reasons why women in the past were unable to contribute to certain high endeavors, and then to use that knowledge to “join men on equal terms in the making of a new and richer culture.”

Sommers adds that the exclusion of women from high culture must be placed into context. “The vast majority of people,” she writes, “including most men and almost all women, have had a disproportionately small share in the history-making decisions about war, politics, and culture that historians count as momentous.” It would be disingenuous for historians to falsify past evidence and assign to ordinary people a greater influence over the course of events than they exerted. In the end, there is little historians can do about the historical role of “the ‘common people’ whom God made so numerous.”

Sommers also criticizes feminists’ theories of false consciousness—their attempts to account for why many American women hold views at odds with the feminist movement. They may be pro-life, for example, or they may deny the existence of the patriarchy or the severity of its consequences. In response to such beliefs, some feminist thinkers maintain that women may develop mistaken assessments of their own interests and preferences due to sexist social conditioning. They may be “systematically self-deceived” by pernicious social systems, Alison Jaggar suggested.

“I find that a chilling doctrine,” rejoins Sommers. “When the people are systematically self-deceived, the ultimate authority is presumed to be vested in a vanguard that unmasks their self-deception.” Such a doctrine is fundamentally anti-democratic, as “respect for people’s preferences is . . . fundamental for democracy.” To deny this basic principle is to open the door to the authoritarian dismissal of popular preferences. “No intelligent and liberal person,” Sommers concludes, “can accept the idea of a social agenda to ‘overhaul’ the desires of large numbers of people.”

Sommers interprets radical feminism as a serious challenge to the liberal-democratic ideal. This conviction explains the intensity with which she sometimes criticizes her feminist interlocutors. Commenting on the zeal of one feminist philosopher of education, she notes, “criticism may cause her to modify her tactics; it can never cause her to doubt her cause.” And for some thinkers, she avers, radical feminism “is a closed system. It chews up and digests all counterevidence, transmuting it into confirming evidence.”

Sommers’s fury, however, doesn’t prevent her from acknowledging legitimate feminist concerns. “A lot still needs to be done to make the life of science more hospitable to women,” she writes. She also regrets the scathing tone of Who Stole Feminism?, though she believes that a different approach wouldn’t have changed the content. Sommers thinks that it’s time for a similar book about the gender issues of the late 2010s. Someone from a younger generation needs to take the baton, she suggests—but she doesn’t venture a candidate.

In Freedom Feminism, Sommers attempts to recover a lost tradition in the women’s movement. From its earliest origins in the eighteenth century, Sommers claims, feminism contained a right wing and a left wing. The left-feminists were led by political philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797), a prominent figure in feminist intellectual history. The right-feminists were led by Hannah More (1745–1833), a figure less known but highly successful in her time.

They were political opposites. Wollstonecraft championed the French Revolution; More joined her friend Edmund Burke in condemning it. Yet Sommers argues that both shared a deep concern for advancing the cause of women, even if they promoted it through different means. Wollstonecraft was the progenitor of today’s radical feminists: she denied meaningful biological differences between the sexes and demanded that women be given total equality. More believed that men and women were different, but equal. More advocated what Sommers calls “a society in which women’s characteristic virtues and graces could be developed, refined, and freely expressed.” She hoped to encourage women to apply their natural gifts—nurturing, organizing, and educating—to improve society. She envisioned “armies of intelligent, informed, and well-trained ‘domestic heroines’ working in hospitals, orphanages, and schools.”

Sommers calls the left-feminists “egalitarian feminists” and the right-feminists “maternal feminists,” and she holds that both exerted a positive force on the women’s movement. The two wings, for example, worked together to promote women’s suffrage. Left-feminists, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, demanded the vote by using the language of universal rights and appealing to thinkers such as Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson. Right-feminists, such as Frances Willard, were proud of women’s role as caretakers of the home; they argued for suffrage on the grounds that granting women the vote would extend their benign moral influence over the rest of society.

Both varieties of feminism were necessary, Sommers argues, but she observes that the conservative feminists were more successful at convincing people to join the cause, and hence far more effective at promoting women’s suffrage. “In 1890,” Sommers writes, “the two leading egalitarian suffragist groups merged because they were worried that the cause was dying.” Their combined forces numbered no more than 13,000 members. “By comparison,” Sommers continues, “Willard had built an organization with 150,000 dues-paying members, along with an additional 50,000 branches for young women.”

Willard’s organizing efforts brought electoral victories to the suffragists, such as the 1893 Colorado referendum that gave women the vote. The conservative feminists succeeded where their radical sisters had failed. Thus, though the two wings of feminism sometimes considered themselves rivals, their engagement and cooperation often yielded positive results. “The uneasy alliances between radical and conservative feminists in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries,” Sommers writes, “led to momentous improvements in the social status and everyday lives of women.”

Sommers argues that the women’s movement retained a conservative and a radical wing until the 1970s, when Phyllis Schlafly took leadership of the maternal-feminist tradition. But after the 1980s, the women’s movement shed its moderate wing in favor of radicals. “Feminism,” Sommers notes, “has devolved into a one-party system.” Until recently, she writes, “moderate and conservative women have corrected the excesses of their more radical sisters and kept the movement anchored in practical reality and mainstream sensibilities.”

Sommers therefore concludes her book with a call for a revitalized right-feminism, which she calls “freedom feminism.” This type of feminism

stands for the moral, social, and legal equality of the sexes—and the freedom of women to employ their equal status to pursue happiness in their own distinctive ways. Freedom feminism is not at war with femininity or masculinity, it does not seek to bring down capitalism, and it does not view men and women as warring tribes. Conspiracy theories about universal patriarchal oppression are nowhere in its founding documents. . . . Put simply, freedom feminism affirms for women what it affirms for everyone: dignity, fairness, and liberty.

When I interviewed Sommers at her home just outside Washington, D.C.—last July, long before the coronavirus lockdowns—I couldn’t help but notice some correspondence between her writing style and her personality. As we discussed contemporary politics and the role feminism plays in it, Sommers showed a sarcasm as scathing as that found in her books. At one point, reflecting on her experience conducting research on feminist scholarship in the 1990s, she complained about the feminists’ “completely reckless methodology,” their “vague definitions,” and their indifference to finding their truth. All they “cared about was finding the smoking gun in the patriarchy that they all knew was there.”

Sommers also has a lighter—and unabashedly feminine—side. She co-hosts a podcast with Danielle Crittenden called The Femsplainers. Its website is adorned with lipstick and red roses, and its description encourages listeners to “Join our weekly girl’s night out with some of the most fascinating and fabulous women on the planet.” When I asked to take a photo of her for the profile, she insisted that her dog, Izzy, be included.

But Sommers is worried. The trends in feminism that she diagnosed in the 1990s haven’t abated. Illiberal strains of feminism have expanded their influence over the American Left. Sommers still considers some of radical feminism’s tenets to be incompatible with liberal democracy. She also worries about the effect that feminism could have on women. What good can come of telling women that they are horribly oppressed by a patriarchal society that seeks to degrade them, that they are helpless victims? Sommers sees the spread of radical feminism among college-educated women as particularly lamentable:

By any reasonable measure, American college women are among the safest, freest, healthiest, most opportunity-rich human beings on Earth. They are not just doing as well as men, they are surpassing them. But everywhere, they learn that they are vulnerable and in imminent danger. A new trauma-centered feminism has taken hold. Its primary focus is not equality with men—but rather protection from them. This new ethic of fear and fragility is poisonous and debilitating—it can rob young women of their capacity to reason. It narrows their worldview and turns them inward—away from a world that needs them. There are exceptions, but so many smart, talented young women writing for places like Slate, the New Yorker, the Atlantic, Salon, the Nation, and New York magazine —are captive to this ethic of grievance.

“Where are the free thinkers?” Sommers wonders. “Who will be the next Pauline Kael, Susan Sontag, or Joan Didion?”

Photo: Christian Alejandro Gonzalez

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