Anti-Feminist Attack Based on Error-Filled Anecdotes
In her book Who Stole Feminism? How Women Have Betrayed Women, Christina Hoff Sommers sounds the alarm. “American feminism is currently dominated by a group of women who seek to persuade the public that American women are not the free creatures we think we are,” she writes. Such feminists have “alienated and silenced women and men alike.” Where once there were Reds under the bed, now there is the Fem Menace by every blackboard: “These consciousness-raisers are driving out the scholars on many campuses.”
Unlike the “well adjusted” women of the 19th Century “first wave” of feminism, “gender feminists” (as Sommers calls the modern ones she doesn’t like) are manipulating facts, squelching debate and running off with money and influence.
“The gender feminists have proved very adroit in getting financial support from governmental and private sources. They hold the keys to many bureaucratic fiefdoms,” Sommers reports, without citing statistics. “It is now virtually impossible to be appointed to high administrative office in any university system without having passed muster with the gender feminists,” she asserts.
Even as Sommers berates feminists for embracing “victimhood,” she complains that classicists like herself are under personal attack: “To criticize feminist ideology is now hazardous in the extreme.”
Sommers, an associate professor at Clark University, is entitled to her opinions. The problem is that her book, published this year by Simon & Schuster, claims to be about facts. The National Review (6/21/94) excerpted a portion under the headline “Why Feminism’s Vital Statistics Are Always Wrong.” Her book is filled with the same kind of errors, unsubstantiated charges and citations of “advocacy research” that she claims to find in the work of the feminists she takes to task.
Reviewing the book in the Wall Street Journal (7/1/94), Melanie Kirkpatrick enthused: “One of the strengths of Who Stole Feminism is its lack of a political agenda…. Ms. Sommers simply lines up her facts and shoots one bullseye after another.”
In fact, like anti-“p.c.” writers before her, Sommers relies heavily on a handful of oft-repeated anti-feminist anecdotes–or folktales. In Who Stole Feminism, readers find again the tale told by Katie Roiphe (The Morning After) and Sarah Crichton of Newsweek (10/25/93) of the rape-on-campus study that included the question, “Have you had sexual intercourse when you didn’t want to because a man gave you alcohol or drugs?” Like Roiphe and Crichton, Sommers exaggerates the importance of the question– she claims that “once you remove the positive responses to question eight, the finding that one in four college women is a victim of rape or attempted rape drops to one in nine.”
Mary Koss, the study’s author, explicitly writes in Current Controversies in Family Violence (a book Sommers makes reference to) that when answers to that question are removed, the victims of rape or attempted rape fall from one in four to one in five. The one in nine figure related to completed rapes alone, as reported in a newspaper story Sommers apparently misread.
Sommers also retells the story of the English professor at Pennsylvania State University who “took offense” at Goya’s The Naked Maja, a reproduction of which was hanging in her classroom. According to Sommers, who sources only the Pottsville Republican, the professor “filed formal harassment charges” and got the painting removed. The professor, Nancy Stumhofer, says she never objected to the painting but to male students’ comments about it while she tried to teach. “I never claimed I had been sexually harassed by the painting,” Stumhofer pointed out in Democratic Culture (Spring/94). Nor were formal charges were ever filed.
In arguing against feminist claims that wife-beating was tolerated in English common law, Sommers quotes the 18th Century legal historian William Blackstone: “The husband was prohibited from using any violence to his wife….” The ellipsis conceals a Latin phrase that Sommers either didn’t bother to translate or decided to ignore. In English it reads: “other than that which lawfully and reasonably belongs to the husband for the due government and correction of his wife” (Linda Hirshman, L.A. Times op-ed, 7/31/94). In other words, the complete text says the exact opposite of Sommers’ partial quotation.
Even when Sommers spots an authentic feminist foul-up, she makes errors of her own. Naomi Wolf, in her book The Beauty Myth, claims that there are 150,000 deaths from anorexia a year. Sommers points out that this is actually an estimate of the number of cases of anorexia per year. Then she states that the actual number of deaths from anorexia is “less than 100 [deaths] per year.” This number is highly dubious, since it is based on a count of death certificates, which rarely list anorexia as a cause of death; anorexia-related deaths are usually listed as heart failure or suicide. Studies of anorexia suggest that the long-term fatality rate maybe 15 percent or higher (The Course of Eating Disorders, Herzog et al, eds.).
As Sommers writes: “Where were the fact checkers, the editors, the skeptical journalists?” Naomi Wolf has long since admitted her error, as has Gloria Steinem who repeated it. Sommers herself seems to have a harder time facing facts and correcting her errors.
‘Sea of Credulity’
In her account of a campaign sparked by FAIR to get NBC to play a 30-second public service announcement about domestic violence before its broadcast of the 1993 Super Bowl game, Sommers repeats uncritically one reporter’s version of the incident, and adds fresh errors of her own.
Sommers writes that there wasn’t “any basis for saying that there was a significant rise in domestic violence on Super Bowl Sunday.” Her book suggests that she never read FAIR’s January 18, 1993 news release, which spelled out the grounds for addressing domestic violence on Super Bowl Sunday. That release stated: “The Super Bowl is one of the most widely viewed television events every year. Unfortunately, women’s shelters report that Super Bowl Sunday is also one of the worst days of the year for violence against women in the home.” The release cited press reports (New York Times, 1/5/92, 1/22/92; Chicago Tribune, 1/27/91) based on the accounts of those who work with battered women.
In contrast to a “roiling sea of media credulity”– including at least one journalist who had been writing about the Super Bowl-related violence for years before FAIR’s campaign–Sommers praises “a lone island of professional integrity”: Ken Ringle, a Washington Post staffwriter. Ringle is hardly to be held up as an ethical model: The American Journalism Review (5/93) found that, in his Super Bowl article, he appeared “to have twisted and used quotes selectively to support his thesis,” and noted that the Post‘s ombudsman had acknowledged “inaccuracies and flaws” in his reporting. Sommers cites the AJR article in a footnote, but declines to quote it.
Sommers claims to be a skeptic who believes in going to the original source, but neither she nor Ringle ever called the national FAIR office in New York to check their stories or get copies of the materials that FAIR distributed. Nor did Sommers consult a calendar: Her “chronology” put the Super Bowl on January 30, which was actually a Saturday.
Sommers also claims that around the Super Bowl, “a very large mailing was sent by Dobisky Associates, FAIR’s publicists, warning at risk women: Don’t remain at home with him during the game.” Had Sommers (or Ringle) called FAIR, s/he would have discovered that FAIR has never worked with Dobisky Associates–and had never heard of the firm before Ringle’s piece.
In her account, Sommers uses quotes from a psychotherapist named Michael Lindsey that appeared in Ringle’s piece. One of his comments she quotes twice, for emphasis. She doesn’t mention that the Post‘s ombudsman had acknowledged that Lindsey’s remarks had been taken out of context by Ringle.
Nor does Sommers mention that the views attributed to Lindsey by Ringle–critical of FAIR’s Super Bowl efforts and of a link between football and domestic violence–were directly contradicted by accurate quotes from Lindsey in the same day’s New York Times (1/31/93): “That PSA will save lives,” said Lindsey. “It will give people the permission to call for help. The same way so much violence in football gives people permission to batter.”
Sommers claims that she’s a feminist, and journalists have largely taken her at her word. She has been identified as such on television, and many of the reviews of Who Stole Feminism? ran under headlines such as “Rebel in the Sisterhood” (Boston Globe, 6/16/94) or “A Feminist on the Outs” (Time, 8/1/94).
Yet Sommers was quoted in Esquire earlier this year (2/94):
There are a lot of homely women in women’s studies. Preaching these anti-male, anti-sex sermons is a way for them to compensate for various heartaches–they’re just mad at the beautiful girls.
See an exchange between Christina Hoff Sommers and FAIR on the letters page of the May/June 1995 Extra!.