May 1 1994

Letters to the Editor May/June 1995

Extra! September/October 1994Extra! carried a cover story by Laura Flanders (“The ‘Stolen Feminism’ Hoax,” 9-10/94), purporting to be an expose of “error-filled” anecdotes in my book, Who Stole Feminism?. My comments follow:

In Revolution from Within, Gloria Steinem reported that 150,000 young women die each year of anorexia nervosa. Naomi Wolf gave the same figure in The Beauty Myth, where she speaks of a “holocaust.”

According to the Center for Disease Control, there were 101 deaths from anorexia in 1983, 67 in 1988 and 54 in 1991.

Flanders does concede that the 150,000 figure is wrong. But she says the figures I cite from the CDC are “highly dubious.” Well, how dubious? Without giving her source, she states: “Anorexia deaths are usually listed as heart failure or suicide.”

Flanders should have called the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) to learn just how many women between 15 and 24 (the prime anorexia years) are dying of heart failure. For 1991, the figure is 19. As for suicide, the 1991 figure is 649. Of these young women, how many are likely to have been dangerously emaciated and have had doctors who mistakenly reported the cause of death as suicide rather than anorexia?

In an effort to present me as an anti-feminist, Flanders repeats the falsehood that I told an Esquire reporter that “there are a lot of homely women in Women’s Studies.” I said nothing of the kind. I have publicly disavowed this in several newspapers. When a reporter for the Washington Post (7/7/94) questioned the Esquire reporter about this quotation, he stuck to his recollection, hut when she asked for his notes, he said he had lost them.

As an example of the censorious power wielded by many feminist academics, I cited the story of Penn State professor Nancy Stumhofer, who had demanded that Goya’s Naked Maja be removed from her classroom. I reported that Stumhofer and the campus harassment officer at Penn State argued that the painting “created a chilling environment,” that they formally complained to the administration and to faculty committees, and that they succeeded in having the Goya removed from their classroom.

Not true, says Flanders: “The professor says she never objected to the painting, but to male student comments about it while she tried to teach.’’ Flanders’ source is an article by the professor herself in a journal called Democratic Culture (Spring/94). But it may be that Flanders did not read the article.

Never objected to the painting? Here is what Stumhofer says:

I felt as though I were standing there naked, exposed and vulnerable…. After my initial embarrassment passed, I became angry because I knew none of my male colleagues would ever find themselves in a similar situation, nor would the male students in the class.

Feeling as she did, Stumhofer was not content to have her room changed. Why? Because “every female student in every class scheduled in that room would have to be subjected to that chill.”

FAIR has continued to be active in warning the public that our country is teeming with violently misogynist males. In a February ’93 Extra! article, they inform their readers that the surgeon general reports that domestic battery is “the leading health hazard for women between ages of 15 and 44.”

As a self-proclaimed sentinel of accuracy, FAIR should have checked the source. Former surgeon general Dr. Antonia Novello does often refer readers to an article by Dr. Jeanne Ann Grisso (University of Pennsylvania), which does contain the 15-to-44 age range. But according to Grisso, her research focused exclusively on poor inner city women in Philadelphia and had included injuries caused by street crime: “Our results cannot be projected onto the larger society.”

Linda Saltzman from the Centers for Disease Control complained to reporter Joe Hallinan (San Francisco Examiner, 7/7/94) about how difficult it was to quash the 15-to-44 factoid: “I spend my life trying to get it unattributed to us.’’

Christina Hoff Sommers
Associate Professor of Philosophy
Clark University

What Christina Hoff Sommers does with anorexia is similar to examining death certificates to see how many say that people died from “smoking,” and concluding from the absence of such death certificates that smoking kills hardly anyone. This is junk science. Sommers should be looking to researchers who have done serious studies on this issue, following anorexia patients over an extended period and comparing their survival rates to others in their demographic groups.

Several studies in The Course of Eating Disorders (Herzog et al., editors), cited in Extra!, found mortality rates of 15 percent or even higher; other researchers suggest that the current mortality rate may be 5 percent. Sommers, by contrast, suggests a mortality rate of 0.06 percent.

Professor Nancy Stumhofer stated clearly in her Democratic Culture article (Spring/94): “It is not the painting which is offensive: What is offensive is the lack of respect many men have for women in art and in life.” Later she reiterated: “I don’t find this painting offensive. I do believe that there is a proper place to put artwork on display.” The reproduction of Goya’s Naked Maja was not removed from view, but moved from a classroom to a student lounge, as Stumhofer herself suggested.

Sommers is correct that we should not have cited the surgeon general statistic on domestic violence; it is based on a misinterpretation of the study. FAIR regrets the error.