Books in review
‘Feminism has been hijacked’
The myth-busting feminist on why she’s mortified by contemporary feminism.
Christina Hoff Sommers
Merriam-Webster’s word of the year in 2017 is ‘feminism’. ‘When a single word is looked up in great volume, and also stands out as one associated with several different important stories, we can learn something about ourselves through the prism of vocabulary’, a statement from the US dictionary said.
Feminism certainly has dominated the press over the last year. With the election of Donald Trump in late 2016 came a flurry of women’s marches. From that, campaigns around sexual harassment grew, addressing Trump’s alleged misconduct and the now infamous Access Hollywood tape. Then, following the New York Times exposé on Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, the #MeToo movement began claiming the jobs – and lives – of men accused of sexual harassment.
There have been the usual slut walks, pay-gap protests and proclamations that Something Must Be Done about the oppression of women. But what has made 2017 stand out as a defining year for feminism? And is what it is offering a help or a hindrance to women? To find out, the spiked review decided to speak to author and host of The Factual Feminist, Christina Hoff Sommers, who specialises in busting the myths surrounding much of contemporary feminism…
spiked review: Why do you think feminism has dominated the news in 2017?
Christina Hoff Sommers: Well I think the election of Donald Trump had a lot to do with it. He’s a problematic individual no matter what your politics are. But this election has created havoc among feminists – moderates and hard-liners. Even before he became president, many thought of the US as an oppressive patriarchy, but after his election many believe they’re living out Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale. So they’ve gone into full resistance mode.
For many people, including myself, Trump’s election was mortifying. He lacks a moral compass and the requisite knowledge to be a world leader. But for feminist hard-liners, Trump is the realisation of their worst nightmare. Everything they’ve read in their gender-studies textbook about toxic masculinity and an oppressive patriarchy has all come true around them. But this is a distorted view. He’s problematic, but not for the reasons these feminists think.
review: In the panic over Trump, has feminism become representative of a certain class of women – journalists and media personalities?
Hoff Sommers: Yes, very much so. The polls show that feminism has always struggled to win the hearts and minds of the majority of people. Most women don’t identify as feminists. It’s become kind of fashionable, but I’m not sure what the consequences will be. I think feminism might alienate as many as it attracts. I think it’ll certainly scare away most men, because it seems, in its current form, very male averse.
review: Perhaps this has something to do with the focus on women’s bodies. This year, feminists have protested with pussy hats, signs of uteruses, blood-stained jeans, tampons, leg hair, body shaming – what do you think of this so-called ‘gross-out’ feminism?
Hoff Sommers: Eurgh. It’s all quite absurd. This is not how men came to power. These are antics that reinforce some of the worst stereotypes about women. And it’s just going to isolate the movement and not make it more attractive.
People say there is s generational tension. They say: ‘Well, the world is changing and this is how young people are thinking.’ But as someone who has studied the contents of gender studies for many years, I can tell you that this is what many young people have been taught. These oppression theories, and eccentric ideas that focus on the idea that we’re oppressed by being women and our bodies – this comes out of gender studies. So I don’t think this was a spontaneous movement among young women.
Gender studies is dominated by various forms of critical theory. Notions like Safe Spaces and microaggression monitoring come out of critical theory, which is a paranoid worldview about how oppressed we all are. Intersectional theory, for example, views contemporary American or British society as a matrix of oppression – these interlocking, mutually reinforcing oppression categories. So students are immersed in what I see as a kind of conspiracy theory. They don’t hear any objections to it, because objections are, by definition, backlash.
So I just don’t think this is a legitimate uprising. People think, oh well, if you oppose intersectionality that’s like opposing gay rights or civil rights or women’s rights. No, those were authentic liberation movements. Intersectionality is not. Those movements were reality-based – they had tangible goals, consistent with classical liberal principles.
review: So is this internalised oppression been coming for a long time – it’s not just crazy young women as some anti-feminists might like to make out?
Hoff Sommers: It’s been there for a very long time. I’ve been reading these things since the early 1980s. It’s just that it’s gone more mainstream. A certain number of gender-studies majors graduated and went into journalism, or activism, and this is the style of feminism they’re promoting.
review: Speaking of reality-based politics, what do you make of the sexual-harassment epidemic that has become pronounced in the #MeToo phenomenon towards the end of this year. Are women really in constant danger of being harassed in the workplace?
Hoff Sommers: There’s no evidence of that. Cases like Harvey Weinstein or Charlie Rose involve these very high-profile men in unusual environments where there was no accountability. So they’re atypical. If you’re in an office, or a typical workplace, with a personnel director or a boss who has some standards for civility and respect, serious problems are far less likely to arise.
It’s hard to find good research on sexual harassment – it’s hard to define it and the numbers are all over the board. But the most reputable study I saw was carried out by the General Social Survey, at the University of Chicago. (This is probably the most trusted source of data in social science.) And in 2014, they asked a random sample of American women: ‘In the last 12 months, were you sexually harassed by anyone while you were working?’ And 3.6 per cent said yes. That was down from 6 per cent in 2002. Now, these results suggest it is a problem, but not a massive war on women in the workplace. So that’s what we know.
Books in review
review: If that is the case, why is there this accepted wisdom that sexual harassment is at epidemic levels?
Hoff Sommers: People get carried away with stories. And it’s a principle of intersectional theory that in order to discern what’s truly going on in the oppressive, capitalist patriarchy, you can’t rely on statistics. ‘Those are shaped by masculine ways of thinking, listen to women’s stories’, they say. So they’re listening to women’s stories and crediting them, because it’s also a principle that you should believe women and not be sceptical. But you have to know if these stories are true, and whether or not they represent the experience of most women. The best research we have suggests that they do not.
Feminism has to be aware of the importance of due process. And not presuming guilt – guilty because accused is not only morally wrong, it’s socially corrosive. Men and women do work together, we are working together. And, for the most part, it’s good.
I was thinking last night, what is going to be the outcome of all of this #MeToo panic? And, I just think it’s going to be a lot of isolation and loneliness. It’s going to be frightening for many people, for a while, to interact in the workplace – certainly if you’re not supervised. Because any woman now has the power to destroy a man with one accusation, even a false one.
review: What about the other feminist obsession – the pay gap. Is there still a glass ceiling for American women today?
Hoff Sommers: There may be enclaves, it’s possible that Hollywood is one. But overall, I’m not aware of any responsible economist (including feminist economists) who will claim that there is systemic discrimination against women across the board. Most economists will tell you that this claim that women earn 77 cents for every dollar a man earns is bogus. Or, it’s misleading – let me put it that way. It doesn’t take into account different occupations, positions, hours worked per week – those relevant factors have to be considered, and when they are considered the wage gap narrows. And in some studies, it vanishes. So, wage-gap activists have to do the proper controls. They always fail to take into account critical variables.
review: Is there anything positive in young women getting involved in feminism today, or are you worried about its current trajectory?
Hoff Sommers: Sometimes I think, well, maybe there’s something admirable in these younger women just not putting up with things that we put up with in the past. Maybe there will be some progress. And, I actually think that some good could come out of awareness about harassment and maybe men and women will work together and bring the workplace up to 21st-century standards.
But my concern is that instead of telling young women that they’re strong and resilient and the equals of men, we’re instructing them to fear men. The language of trauma and vulnerability is not liberating, it’s incapacitating. So I’m hopeful that this surge of interest and activism will moderate and become more just and fair and nuanced. But I haven’t seen signs of that yet.
I’ve always been a supporter of classical, equity feminism. Which looks at women as individuals. Equity feminism wants for women what it wants for everyone: fair treatment, respect and dignity. But, in recent years, it’s been fully eclipsed by what I call fainting-couch feminism. I borrow the term from those 19th-century women who would faint or fall back into an elegant chaise in the presence of male vulgarity. (Which actually was probably because of their tight corsets, but that’s another issue.)
These fainting couchers view women as fragile and trauma-prone. And they want trigger warnings and safe spaces and microaggression monitoring. So their focus is not equality with men, but protection from men. As an equity feminist from the 1970s, I see this as a setback for feminism and for women. We’re not fragile little birds.
review: Why do you still call yourself a feminist, when so much of feminism today is at odds with what you believe in?
Hoff Sommers: I became a feminist in high school, way back in the last millennium. But the feminism I grew up with doesn’t have that much in common with what passes for feminism today. It wasn’t about denigrating men or fixating on victimhood. It was about being free, being a self-determining being. So sometimes I ask myself, well maybe I should just label what I am now as a humanitarian or an equalist. And I’m tempted, but I still think the world needs a strong, reality-based women’s movement.
Most of the battles for equality and opportunity in the US and the UK have been fought, and largely won. But across the globe there are fledgling groups struggling to survive in the face of sometimes violent oppression. And I attend international women’s conferences and meet young women from Cambodia, Saudi Arabia and women from all over the world. And they come and want inspiration from American feminists, and I think we should offer it to them.
I’m aware that, in the minds of many, feminism connotes male-blaming and a paranoid worldview. I am mortified by all the fuss about trigger warnings and telling people to check their privilege and words like mansplaining. I think feminism has been hijacked by extremists. And I’m just not ready to cede it to the trigger-warner or the safe spacers.
Christina Hoff Sommers is an author, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and host of The Factual Feminist.
Picture by: Getty Images.