By most any measure of success, the Eighties were a very good decade for American women. Their earnings relative to men continued to rise; indeed, women made more economic progress during the last decade than during the entire postwar period before that. Women now earn more bachelor’s and master’s degrees than men and continue to increase their share of doctorates. They have broken down virtually all barriers to the professions and business. Far from being a disability, their gender has become an unbeatable qualification. Women are eagerly sought after for membership on corporate boards, for college presidencies, and for political appointments. In Congress, their voice possesses a moral authority that sends terror into the hearts of potential opponents. And regarding marriage, childbirth, and personal morality, American women enjoy a freedom that remains the envy of the world.
This is not, however, the picture that dominates the media. Every few months, a story breaks portraying the harrowing life that is the American woman’s. Dying off in droves through self-inflicted starvation, battered and raped by husbands and boyfriends, oppressed by a crippling burden of self-doubt, silenced by teachers and sexually harassed by colleagues and bosses, women —as the press presents them—struggle constantly against a rising tide of discrimination and violence.
This immense gap between the reality of women’s lives and their image in the media is the triumphant accomplishment of what Christina Hoff Sommers, in her brilliant new book, Who Stole Feminism?, calls “gender feminism.” Gender feminism is dedicated to the proposition that women are the perpetual victims of an oppressive male system—the “patriarchy”—that robs them of their voice, their identity, and their strength. The patriarchy, gender feminists charge, keeps women in thrall through violence and the threat of violence; nowhere, they warn, is this threat greater than in the home.
Gender feminism is a far cry from “equity feminism,” Sommers’s term for the original women’s movement, which sought and won full legal rights for women. Though equity feminism is responsible for women’s present freedoms, gender feminists will have none of it. The entire “system,” they argue, must be overthrown, and with it, “male” concepts of equality, justice, and individual rights.
Sommers, an associate professor of philosophy at Clark University, has been our most indispensable chronicler of the feminist follies. In her dispatches from women’s studies conferences, she has exposed with lacerating wit the maudlin self-pity and crackpot philosophical theories that characterize academic feminism. She continues that role in Who Stole Feminism?, presenting a picture of an educational system gone completely mad, in which students earn college credit by performing “outrageous” and “liberating” feminist acts outside of class and a homegrown Red Guard enforces feminist ideological conformity against professors and fellow students with the blessing of college administrators.
But in Who Stole Feminism? Sommers also proves to be an exemplary sleuth. She tracks down the various sexism scares that have recently dominated the media—the destruction of girls’ self-esteem, their mistreatment by teachers and their silencing by the curriculum, the prevalence of acquaintance rape and battery, the “backlash” against feminism, women’s unyielding earnings gap relative to men, the ubiquity of severe depression among women—and discovers that each at its origin is phony. Either the claim is based on laughably unscientific research methods or it constitutes a misreading of valid data. Yet the press, ever credulous when it comes to charges against the white-male patriarchy, has almost without exception taken the sexism patrols at their word and duly broadcast their “findings” without further investigation. These then become part of the feminist arsenal for future use against the patriarchy.
These media scares are the product of what Sommers calls the “victim/bias industry.” Spanning the universities, schools, think tanks, foundations, polling organizations, and government bureaucracies, the victim/bias industry provides gender feminists with a constant stream of anti-woman horror stories and thus a constant source of employment as bias monitors and gender-equity experts.
It works as follows: First, feminist academics and pollsters crank out advocacy research demonstrating women’s victimization. Then activist organizations like NOW and the Ms. Foundation and formerly nonpartisan academic organizations like the American Association of University Women (AAUW) and the Association of American Colleges (AAC) repackage the findings in attractive and easily digestible brochures and videos, burying the original research beyond all human contact. A publicity blitz follows. Hundreds of news outlets pick up the charge, relying exclusively on the sponsoring organization’s publicity brochures for information about the original research. Conferences, protests, and legislative hearings ensue, resulting in increased funding for gender research and gender bureaucrats.
Two related studies of secondary schools commissioned by the AAUW followed this pattern to bear spectacular legislative fruit: the introduction in Congress in 1993 of a $360 million Gender Equity in Education Act. According to Sommers, the Act would put paid gender monitors in every primary and secondary school in the country, and harassment officers in every secondary school and college. Most of the Act has passed the House; it is still pending in the Senate. The wording of the bill simply parrots the AAUW’s publicity materials on its two studies; Sommers reveals that those materials and the studies behind them are wholly unreliable.
In 1991 the AAUW sprang upon the world the findings of a study it had commissioned on boys’ and girls’ self-esteem. In its widely distributed “Call to Action” brochures and videos, it trumpeted a “dramatic” drop in female self-esteem between the ages of eleven and sixteen, proof that schools were destroying girls’ very identities. The usual public alarum followed, leading to hundreds of self-esteem conferences and community-action projects.
After considerable effort, Sommers located the original poll upon which the AAUW’s “Call to Action” brochures were based. Those brochures had claimed that only 29 percent of female high-school students say they are “happy the way [they are],” as compared with 46 percent of the boys—a drop of 31 female self-esteem points from elementary school. Sommers discovered that the figures cited in the brochure represented only the percentage of students answering “always true” to the statement “I am happy the way I am.” If one includes the answers, “sort of true” and “sometimes true/sometimes false,” 88 percent of the girls polled answered positively, as opposed to 92 percent of the boys —hardly an earthshaking gender gap. That leaves at most 12 percent of the girls who answered “sort of false,” or “always false,” the only answers upon which a claim of low self-esteem could plausibly be based.
Equally important, every researcher with whom Sommers spoke challenged both the research methodology and the conclusions. Many question whether “self-esteem” can be measured and whether it even exists at all. People’s expressed opinions of themselves may have little to do with their sense of self-worth, yet the AAUW relied almost exclusively on self-reports. The AAUW’s conclusions from those self-reports contradict the consensus in the field of child psychology that most children come through adolescence with an increase in self-worth.
The most damning finding which Sommers dug up from the original poll, however, is that the group which scores highest on the AAUW’s self-esteem measure is black boys, followed by black girls—the two groups who fare worst in all measures of academic achievement. Internationally, the only area in which American children outscore other countries is self-esteem. Asian students express far less confidence in their math abilities than Americans do, yet they trounce us in math. Sommers concludes quite persuasively that the true relation between reported self-esteem and academic performance may be an inverse one.
Indeed, girls—allegedly the victims of a self-esteem deficit—consistently outperform boys in every aspect of school: grades, attendance, self-discipline, and extracurricular activities. This is the sort of fact which must be suppressed at all costs. So the AAUW, buoyed by the enormous attention its self-esteem brochure garnered, commissioned a follow-up study from the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women on how schools are destroying girls’ self-esteem. This study met with an even more gratifying response in the press—more than fourteen hundred stories—culminating in the introduction of the Gender Equity in Education Act.
The Wellesley report, “How Schools Shortchange Girls,” charged that schools subject girls to incessant gender bias, ranging from lack of attention by teachers to sexual harassment to discrimination in the curriculum. Locating the research on which the first of these claims—unequal teacher attention—was based proved even more difficult than locating the self-esteem poll. Tracking through pseudo-academic journals that had never seen the light of day, Sommers uncovered a web of false leads and non-existent studies that would be the envy of most professional money launderers. As usual, she came up empty-handed. The data allegedly showing unequal teacher attention have never been published in numerical form, and are based on wholly subjective research methods. Most educational psychologists believe that teachers respond to the nature of student behavior, not to the gender of the student. And the very researchers the Wellesley report cited for the proposition that teachers discriminate against girls have themselves admitted that there is no evidence linking teacher behavior and student performance. As for the report’s charge that girls were being continually harassed, Sommers discovered that boys are nearly as likely to report being harassed as girls, suggesting that the incivility and aggression in many schools are gender neutral.
The most worrisome aspect of “How Schools Shortchange Girls,” however, is its advocacy of curricular reform. While the charges of teacher bias and student harassment will result in the hiring of additional gender bureaucrats, such “corrective” measures will not fundamentally change the nature of learning and the definition of knowledge. The report’s curricular recommendations, however, will. Those recommendations grow out of the most dangerous aspect of academic feminism: the curricular transformation movement.
Curricular transformation seeks to recast knowledge itself in a “female-centered” mode. Its main targets are such “masculinist” forms of thinking as logic, mathematical reasoning, and scientific research. These “phallocentric” enterprises are said to embody a win-lose approach to learning characterized by right and wrong answers to problems. The curricular transformationists would replace this zero-sum approach with a win-win philosophy in which presumably all answers are welcomed into the great circle of feminine intuition.
Despite its aversion to analytical thinking, the curricular transformation movement promotes a host of wacky typologies. One of the most popular is the distinction between “vertical” and “lateral” thinking. According to Peggy McIntosh, one of the leading theorists of curricular transformation, “vertical thinkers”—i.e., males—aim at “exact thinking, or decisiveness or mastery of something.” Vertical thinking, says McIntosh, is “triggered by words like excellence, accomplishment, success, and achievement.” In its place, the transformationists would foster the “lateral thinking” practiced by women and minorities. Such thinking is “relational [and] inclusive”; it aims “not to win, but to be in a decent relationship with the invisible elements of the universe.”
The transformationists may not yet have achieved a decent relationship with the universe, but their relationship with major funding sources is enviable. The Ford Foundation recently helped launch a National Clearinghouse for Curriculum Transformation Resources. Federal agencies as well as state governments generously support the cause. The Wellesley College Center for Research on Women has a multimillion-dollar budget; the AAC has $4.5 million for curricular transformation. Not surprisingly, transformation projects are springing up at colleges across the country.
Peggy McIntosh also happens to head the Wellesley Center. Small wonder, then, that the Center’s “How Schools Shortchange Girls” study embraced McIntosh’s own influential five-phase theory of curricular development.
That theory presents a teleological analysis of curricula from masculinist damnation to feminist beatitude. At the lowest stage of development, instructors focus on “mountain” or “pinnacle people”—leaders who make the laws, fight the wars, and occupy, in McIntosh’s words, the “tops of the ladders of so-called success … and excellence.”
Phase II begins when instructors notice the absence of women and minorities in their teaching materials. But their initial response is sadly inadequate: they merely add a few “exceptional” women and minorities to the males milling around on top of the mountain without challenging the concept of “so-called excellence.”
By Phase III, however, things start to heat up. “Phase III curriculum work involves getting angry,” says McIntosh. The focus is on victimized groups. Instead of presenting America as a meritocracy in which individuals can achieve success, the instructor shows how “patterns of colonialism, imperialism and genocide outside the U.S. match patterns of domination, militarism and genocide at home.”
Phase IV becomes mystical: “It produces courses in which we are all seen to be in it together, … all with some power to say no, and yes, and ‘This I create.’ … Phase IV classes can be wondrous in their healing power,” intones McIntosh.
But Phase V transcends the verbal power of even the most vociferous feminist. According to McIntosh, it is “as yet unthinkable”; she breathlessly calls it “Reconstructed Global and Biological History to Survive By.”
As Sommers’s review of developments in academia makes disturbingly clear, McIntosh’s schema is no mere speculative fancy. It accurately describes changes that have already taken place. Many colleges have long since instituted Phase III “anger” courses and are now experimenting with Phase IV “healing” classes. From its inception, women’s studies embraced an anger agenda. Other disciplines soon followed suit: literature, history, sociology, art history, and anthropology among others are often now taught toward the end of raising consciousness of oppression. Increasingly, academic activism is no longer an option. According to Sommers, many college administrations have adopted phase theories of curricula to evaluate faculty: Professors still stuck in Phase I are finding promotion and tenure even more elusive than usual. The Gender Equity in Education Act may make progress on curricular transformation a national mandate.
But curricular transformation contains its own internal contradictions. Though McIntosh envisions moving beyond Phase III anger, this may prove difficult. Anger is for the gender feminist a sign of election; it must be as carefully tended as a vestal fire. A woman who is not angry, according to gender feminists, is a woman brainwashed. Women’s studies courses have mechanisms structured into them to ensure that resentment against men remains high. Part of the coursework consists of personal testimonials to one’s humiliation at the hands of the patriarchy. In a widely adopted women’s studies curriculum, students sign a set of ground-rules agreeing that “oppression (i.e., racism, sexism, classism) exists” and that we are all systematically taught misinformation about it. Given the centrality of anger to the gender feminist’s definition of an enlightened woman, it is likely that Phase III will remain a vital part of the college experience for some time to come. The “healing” aspects of Phase IV will be largely confined to the licking of feminist wounds.
At last check, America’s schools were not doing a notable job at Phase I: teaching and promoting excellence and achievement. Curricular transformation now proclaims that those were the wrong goals anyway. If ever there was an educational movement to gladden the hearts of our country’s foreign competitors, curricular transformation is it. The nascent push for “national standards” of high-school achievement doesn’t stand a chance against the gender-feminist celebration of the lowest common denominator. Any advocate of a strict and demanding curriculum will be outgunned by an army of feminist professors and administrators and their allies in the legislative arena.
But if gender feminism is antithetical to academic excellence, it is a disaster for women. Sommers drily observes that gender feminism is rushing to institutionalize the very stereotypes of feminine irrationality and vulnerability that women once fought to dispel. Sommers finds in the gender feminists’ revulsion at male “patriarchal” behavior an echo of an outdated sensibility:
Earlier in this century, many households still had smelling salts on hand in the event that “delicate” women reacted to displays of male vulgarity by fainting. Today, women of delicacy … demonstrate their exquisitely fragile sensibilities by explaining to anyone who will listen how they have been blighted and violated by some male’s offensive coarseness. If nothing of a telling nature has recently happened to us, we can tell how we felt on hearing what happened to others. We faint, “discursively” and publicly, at our humiliations at the hands of men.
Sommers calls on women to reaffirm the vision of equity feminism. It is up to women, she says, to reassert their individuality against gender-feminist propaganda, for few men will be willing to brave the charge of “sexist” to counter that propaganda. With a book as lucidly written and compellingly argued as Who Stole Feminism?, Sommers should win many allies to her cause.
Heather Mac Donald is a Fellow at the Manhattan Institute
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