About Christina Hoff Sommers
Christina Hoff Sommers is a philosophy professor who taught ethics at Clark University outside Boston for more than 20 years, and then moved to the think tank American Enterprise Institute and became an author. Some of her most famous books are Who Stole Feminism? (1994) and The War Against Boys (2000), and her latest work is Freedom Feminism (2013) in which she seeks to recover the lost history of American feminism by introducing readers to conservative feminism’s forgotten heroines. Hoff Sommers also hosts The Femsplainers Podcast and the popular YouTube channel The Factual Feminist.
How come you started to focus on gender questions and feminism?
– In the spring of 1986, the chair of my department asked me if I wanted to teach a course on feminist philosophy. I said yes. So I spent the summer reading books and articles by several contemporary theorists. I had always considered myself a feminist, but the material I was reading struck me as unhinged. The authors assumed, but never proved, that American society was an oppressive, all-encompassing patriarchy where women lived in a state of siege. They casually dismissed liberal democracy and the free enterprise system as an impediment to women’s progress but never paused to consider the far more serious shortcomings of alternative systems. It bothered me that students were imbibing these radical theories without hearing moderate alternatives. I took on the job.
There seems to be very different definitions of feminism now a days?
– There are different styles of feminism, but in my writings, I have identified two general schools of thought. I remain a strong supporter of classical equity feminism — the school of feminism that won women the vote, educational opportunity, and many other freedoms. Equity feminism developed out of the European Enlightenment and it wants for women what it wants for everyone — opportunity, dignity and liberty.
– But equity feminism is out of favor on the college campus and among feminist theorists. Instead, most theorists endorse some version of what I call gender feminism.
A gender feminist sees women as captives to a treacherous and dehumanizing “sex/gender system.” Therefore, it is not enough to simply change laws or reform customs. The system itself has to be dismantled. But I never bought the idea of the US being a patriarchy or a rigid sex/gender system — not in the 1980s, and certainly not today. To me, gender feminism has always seemed like a conspiracy theory. There is no way to prove it wrong. Anyone who tries can be dismissed as an unwitting tool of the system.
“It is possible that in the pursuit of happiness, men and women take somewhat different paths.”
What do you see as real feminism? What are the important questions that should be focused on?
– I think the classical liberal philosophers such as Mary Wollstonecraft and John Stuart Mill got it right. Women are human beings and deserve to be treated accordingly — equal educational opportunities, equality within a marriage and equality before the law. Yes, there was a time when women were second-class citizens in the US. But that time has passed. Most barriers have come down.
– Just look at women now! Women today are far more likely to go to college than men are. Women are even in the process of taking over various fields like psychology, biology and veterinary medicine. Of course, there are still some fields where women are in the minority—engineering and computer science, for example. Sme say it is because of the lack of female role models. But where were the role models in veterinary medicine or psychology? Equality of opportunity does not mean statistical parity in all fields. It is possible that in the pursuit of happiness, men and women take somewhat different paths. However, where women want to go, we go.
There are parts of the world where the women’s rights movement has not been so successful. It seems like a good idea to focus on the issues in those places?
– Absolutely! The first wave of feminism in the West was about women’s right to vote. We then had the second wave in the 70s and 80s, which was about opening up the world of experience and of opportunity for women. We were successful with that! The third wave should be focused on the emancipation of women across the globe who are struggling for basic rights. I have attended several international women’s rights conferences where I have met leaders of women’s groups from Cambodia, Saudi Arabia, and Somalia. They are asking for our help — but the American women’s movement has mostly looked the other way.
– Feminists in Iran are among the bravest of women in history. American feminists certainly had to struggle, and they faced derision and isolation, but violence was rare. Iranian feminists face lashings, imprisonment and even death. Imagine if activist women in the US and throughout Europe took up their cause and offered support. Sadly, there is no such movement.
On your YouTube channel The Factual Feminist you debunk myths. What would you say are the biggest myths in the third wave feminist movement?
– There are so many myths. Where to begin? Over the years, I and others have looked carefully at standard claims about women and violence, depression, eating disorders, pay equity, and education. What we have found is that most — not all but most — of the victim statistics are misleading, confused, and often exaggerated. Consider the famous wage gap statistic – that for the same work, women earn 77 cents for every dollar a man earns. Think about it. If employers could save 23% by hiring women, they’d fire all the men. The “gap” is just the difference between the average wages of all working men and women. It ignores relevant factors that account for differences in pay. This includes type of job, education, and hours worked per week. When these factors are taken into account, the wage gap narrows to the point of vanishing.
– Wage gap activists will say “no, women with identical backgrounds and jobs as men still earn less.” But they always fail to take into account critical variables. Take nurses: male nurses earn more on average – about 18 percent more. Why? Male nurses gravitate to the best-paid nursing specialties, work longer hours, and disproportionately find jobs in the cities with the highest compensation.
– Activist groups have an answer to this sort of objection. They say that women’s education and career choices are not truly free — they are driven by powerful sexist stereotypes. So, in their view, women’s proclivity for fields like early childhood education and psychology, rather than, say, better-paying professions like petroleum engineering, is evidence of continued social coercion. That is worthy of debate. I’m open to evidence proving that it’s true. Here is the problem: American women are among the best informed and most self-determining human beings in the world. To say that they are manipulated into their life choices by forces beyond their control seems divorced from reality and demeaning as well.
– So, am I saying that women’s lower earnings is not a problem? No. It is. But to address an issue such as women’s economic vulnerability, we need an accurate picture about what is really going on. We just don’t have that. We need an evidence-based women’s movement. My Factual Feminist series is my modest contribution to that cause.
“let’s not pretend our society is oppressive because people are pursuing their interest in ways that don’t fit some pre-conceived notion of equality”
So as long as everybody are free to choose to work with what they want, we should all be happy?
– Not quite. There is always room for improvement. But reality matters here. According to multiple studies, men and women, on average, have somewhat different preferences. Far more women than men say that they would prefer to work part-time when they have young children. Women also seem to have a greater interest in jobs that involve working with people rather than machines. There are many exceptions, but I am talking about the norm.
– There’s a lot of cross-over of course, so we need a society where people can do what they want, There are women who want to work with machines and men who prefer early childhood education. Rigid gender roles should be a thing of the past. But let’s not pretend our society is oppressive because people are pursuing their interest in ways that don’t fit some pre-conceived notion of equality. The feminist establishment is captive to the idea that all disparities between the sexes are caused by discrimination. But is that always true? Women who are mathematically gifted tend to be verbally gifted as well. They can excel in multiple fields. This is less true of mathematically gifted men. They have fewer choice. So the gap in engineering and computer science may be a reflection of female, not male, proficiency.
– One final point. Women’s groups focus a lot of attention on people at the pinnacle of achievement: CEOs of Fortune 500 corporations, tenured physics professors at MIT, U.S. Senators, and say that there are too few women. They are right about that. But what happens when you consider the entire workforce? The picture changes. The lethally dangerous professions are largely a male preserve. Oil rig workers, tower climbers, and roofers are examples. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that every year about 5,000 Americans die in workplace accidents: 92% of them men.
– So, I’m not saying that everything is perfect. Even if people are doing what they want and pursuing what most interests them, they may still be disadvantaged in some ways. But a social justice movement grounded in equity should care about the workplace fatality gap as well as the wage gap.
Polls show that in several societies where a majority is in favor of gender equality, only a minority call themselves feminists. Has the word feminism been hijacked by radicals?
– Definitely. The hardliners have run off with the movement. There are serious scholars working in women’s studies, but the ideological gender theorists set the tone. Their work is often seriously compromised by misinformation, victim politics, and spin. They are captive to the “women-are-victims” narrative and they will not give it up. In recent years, gender feminism has melded with “intersectionality.” So now, undergraduate women learn that they are to varying degrees, depending on their identities, captive to an implacable and pervasive system of intersecting oppressions — sexism, racism, classism and other “isms.
“Men aren’t the enemy — they are our brothers, sons, husbands and friends.”
– As a result, on campus and on social media I see a new style of feminism. I call it fainting-couch feminism after the delicate Victorian ladies who retreated to an elegant chaise when overcome with emotion. Fainting- couchers view women as fragile and easily traumatized. They demand trigger warnings, safe spaces and view masculinity as intrinsically toxic. Their primary focus is not to achieve equality with men, but protection from them. As an equity feminist from the 80’s, I see this as a setback for feminism and for women. We are not children or delicate little sparrows.
Are you still optimistic about the future?
– Yes I am. More women and men are starting to speak out against the current madness. Women want their basic rights, but few want a gender war. Men aren’t the enemy — they are our brothers, sons, husbands and friends. We are in this together. I became a feminist in the 1980’s because I did not appreciate male chauvinism. I still don’t. But the proper corrective to chauvinism is not to reverse it and practice it against males — the corrective is basic fairness and mutual respect between men and women. And that is within our reach.