Yesterday one of my trusted agents (and I keep telling you, my agents are everywhere) sent me a link to Christina Hoff Sommer’s recent piece in the Chronicle of Higher Ed, “Persistent Myths in Feminist Scholarship.” I thought Sommers was going to really let fly about vaginal orgasm (“what vaginal orgasm????”), or weigh in about whether women were on the cutting edge of medical practice in the nineteenth century until men invented medical school as a canny strategy to take over the birthing room. But I soon realized that the article was just another tired old piece of conservative wheel-spinning crap, the central ideas of which Sommers (who calls herself an “equity feminist”) has published elsewhere.
As I wondered why the Chronicle would publish something intended only to generate more of the drama Sommers is famous for, this exchange from The Wizard of Oz, featuring Judy Garland and the transcendent Billie Burke floated into my head.
Glinda: “Are you a good witch — or a bad witch?”
Dorothy, shocked: “Who, me?! I’m not a witch at all. I’m Dorothy Gale, from Kansas.”
Glinda, gesturing at Toto: “Oh! Well is that the witch?”
Dorothy: “Who, Toto? Toto’s my dog.”
Glinda: “Well, I’m a little muddled. The Munchkins called me because a new witch has just dropped a house on the Wicked Witch of the East. And there’s the house, and here you are, and that’s all that’s left of the Wicked Witch of the East. And so, what the Munchkins want to know is – are you a good witch or a bad witch?”
Dorothy: “But I’ve already told you. I’m not a witch at all.”
This is precisely what it feels like to get into an argument with conservative ideologues who are trying to suppress real debate in the name of (you guessed it) free and open intellectual exchange. Believe me, I’ve been there. Or you can pick up the phone and call some people I know at Duke.
Sommers, a philosopher and ethicist who used to teach at Clark University but now lives high off the conservative foundation tit, is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a founder of the Independent Women’s Forum and a beneficiary of the Clare Booth Luce Policy Institute’s lecture program. The two books she is best known for are Who Stole Feminism?: How Women Have Betrayed Women (1995), and The War Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism Is Harming Our Young Men (2000). When not cashing checks from Enterprise and Luce, she makes a living out of bashing liberal feminists and policies that suppress real gender equality — you know, Title IX, pay equity, and all that jazz that keeps us from being the country we really could be if men were free of government interference. One of Sommers’ arguments is that the American feminist establishment has hoodwinked the public into their man-hating agenda by publishing reams of false scholarship, riddled with factual errors and outright lies.
Worse, these feminists have willfully snookered the government and major foundations so that they can keep a stranglehold on research money that will go to perpetuating their outrageous falsehoods and embedding them in social programs of various kinds. The outcome, Sommers charges, is a feminist policy agenda driven by bad data (unlike, say, federally mandated abstinence programs, which are based on “good” research that “proves” teenagers will give up sex when asked to do so.) Worst of all is the cloud of feminist opprobrium hanging over the male gender. Institutionalized feminist rage has made boys the object of oppressive scrutiny, she argues, suppressing their intellectual and social development. Meanwhile, girls charge ahead, beneficiaries of special attention, special programs, beaming approval and the encouragement of all their teachers.
Sounds like the university you work in, doesn’t it? Men cowering in the halls, women running roughshod over the hiring process and pushing any male student who hasn’t already gone into hiding to the back of the proverbial bus? I’m sure someone at a conservative think tank somewhere is running an experiment in which sad, underachieving little boys, when asked to pick their favorite action figure, choose Malibu Barbie.
In the Chronicle piece Sommers airs her grievances toward Berkeley law prof Nancy Lemon, and a widely used textbook Lemon wrote and edited, Domestic Violence Law (2005). In what seems like a fishing expedition, following a series of public lectures attacking the book and a post on Feminist Law Professors (which she refers to, but I can’t find unless it was in the video link in this post) she wrote Lemon an email pointing out the supposed errors in her work. In a frosty reply that I won’t quote since I haven’t seen the original, Lemon wrote back that she was all for accuracy and scholarly dialogue, but that Sommers might have offered the opportunity for that before she went around the country trashing Lemon’s book for fun and profit. “I confess,” Sommers writes:
I had indeed publicly criticized Lemon’s book, in campus lectures and in a post on FeministLawProfessors.com. I had always thought that that was the usual practice of intellectual argument. Disagreement is aired, error corrected, truth affirmed. Indeed, I was moved to write to her because of the deep consternation of law students who had attended my lectures: If authoritative textbooks contain errors, how are students to know whether they are being educated or indoctrinated? Lemon’s book has been in law-school classrooms for years.
One reason that feminist scholarship contains hard-to-kill falsehoods is that reasonable, evidence-backed criticism is regarded as a personal attack.
You know, I am glad you brought this up Christina, because I thought the exact same thing about the Bush administration a few years back. Question the evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and boom! your wife gets bounced from the CIA. Point out that the Bush administration lied its way into the Iraq war, lied about torture, lied about the orders that were given to sexually humiliate prisoners at Abu Ghraib, and some ass hat named Cheney or Rumsfeld calls you a traitor. Hell, if you aren’t a citizen, and better yet if you were born in Syria or Egypt, they render your sorry behind into a medieval prison where folks really know how to make you scream like a pig. And it is this issue that has troubled me all along: reasonable, evidence based criticism is too often treated by conservatives as a personal attack.
But let’s get back to feminism
for a moment. What the scope of Sommers’ criticisms are I don’t know, but in this article she cites two supposed inaccuracies in the Lemon text: one is to the legendary Romulan “rule of thumb,” by which women could only be legally beaten with a rod as thick as a man’s thumb. The second is a disagreement about how many women end up in emergency rooms as a result of domestic violence; and whether there is a study by the March of Dimes finding that “women battered during pregnancy have more than twice the rate of miscarriages and give birth to more babies with more defects than women who may suffer from any immunizable illness or disease.” In the latter case, Lemon and the author of the piece claim to have documentation to back of their claims, and Sommers implies that they are lying. In the former, Sommers claims that Romulus never existed, and Lemon says the piece itself can survive that criticism. But no, Sommers says: “Students deserve better. So do women victimized by violence.” What battered women do deserve — well, Sommers never gets to that.
But this is, of course, typical of so-called critique emitting from conservative ideologues bankrolled by activist foundations. What is central is an insistence that if a factual error is found, no matter how small or irrelevant to the argument it is, the entire work is false and a deliberate attempt at ideological indoctrination. (“Somebody is a witch here, Dorothy! If it’s not you, then it’s someone in one of your footnotes!”) Furthermore, research data cited that can be countered by other data, no matter how cooked or ideologically motivated that data is, is pronounced a lie.
In the case of the Romulus problem, one of my colleagues in Classics tells me that Sommers is correct, and that there is nothing that can be said about such a person or his putative legal code with any historical accuracy. A second colleague in History amplifies: no one knows whether there was a Romulus or not, as there is no recovered evidence about anyone who lived in Rome prior to 509 BCE. “Romulus was said to have founded Rome in 753 BCE and been its first king,” she writes, and notes that literary sources written 8 centuries later refer to him. And yet, if lawmakers and jurists subsequently believed that there was such a person as Romulus, and based their judgments on documents that purported to describe ancient law and practice, one might still usefully refer to such a thing as the “Romulan rule of thumb” playing a role in the legal oppression of women. Take a look at Warren Burger’s selective gloss on the history of sex in his concurrence with the majority decision in Bowers v. Hardwick (1986) if you don’t believe that bad history can have a major impact on the law. Or arguments that rely on an entirely invented world history of race in United States v. Thind (1923).
Furthermore, as Sommers hammers at a variety of what she calls factual errors, she conveniently sidesteps an important assumption undergirding her attacks on liberal feminist scholars, which is that they have an agenda and she doesn’t. No one has a hammerlock on objectivity and truth because of their intellectual standpoint. All research is produced through some kind of ideological apparatus, as are all facts and all questions. Sommers’ assertion that “decades of women’s-studies scholarship that presents women as the have-nots of our society” creates misguided and ideologically-driven social policy because “this is largely no longer true.” Have-not is a technical term I am unfamiliar with so I can’t quarrel with her there, but I am much more familiar with this data on the median wage gap between men and women, and as of 2006, women earned .77 for every dollar a man earned. Interestingly, the gap shrinks (although it does not close) as education level drops: at the top of the scale, female Ph.D.’s earn an average .70 for every male dollar.
By picking away at small issues and claiming that they completely undermine larger arguments, Sommers distracts attention from her own distortions by forcing others to defend their own credibility. In this post on Feminist Law Professors she writes: “I will also take this occasion, once again, to correct a false allegation that was made about me. On September 2, 2008 an entry on this blog mentioned that I had once called women’s studies professors “homely.” I never said any such thing.”
My advice to Sommers about making claims that her views ought to define feminism, or anything that has anything to do with policy on the majority of women? Leave the Ruby Slippers alone, girl friend. They don’t fit.
I’ll end with this exchange between Glinda the Good and the Witch of the West:
Wicked Witch (to Dorothy): “Give me back my slippers! I’m the only one that knows how to use them. They’re of no use to you. Give them back to me. Give them back!”
Glinda (to Dorothy): “Keep tight inside them. Their magic must be very powerful or she wouldn’t want them so badly.”
Wicked Witch: “You stay out of this, Glinda, or I’ll fix you as well!”
Glinda: “Oh, rubbish! You have no power here. Be gone before somebody drops a house on you too.”