By many measures, American women are thriving. Compared to men, they are more likely to graduate high school, finish college, and continue on to graduate school. Women also make up about half or more of the number of students in law, medical, and business administration graduate programs. And women now obtain more PhD degrees than men.
There are fields in which men still outnumber women, but at the same time women have pretty much taken over a number of disciplines such as psychology and veterinary medicine. Women can now freely choose whatever career path they want and are making their choices based on personal preferences and priorities.
This is all great news. However, many feminist scholars and some journalists are not celebrating. Instead, they continue to advance a narrative in which women are perpetually victimized by men. They tend to ignore or dismiss data that challenge their narrative. For instance, despite the fact there is now a considerable amount of evidence contradicting the assertion that women are paid less than men for the same work (i.e., same job duties with the same number of hours), many feminist academics and journalists still claim that there is a large gender wage gap. You can read a more detailed analysis of the wage gap and other problematic positions advanced by academic feminists here.
This poses an interesting question: Is modern feminism potentially harming women? We should all be concerned about sexism and make efforts to combat it where we see it. And there are certainly still plenty of places in the world where women do not have equal rights and opportunities. But does misleading young American women to believe that they will make less money than men for the same work reduce their ability to understand what they truly need to do if they want to reach their highest earning potential? Does treating women like they are not actually making career choices freely but are instead submitting to cultural pressures make them appear and feel less in control of their own destinies? And what are the potential consequences of the safe space, microaggression, and trigger warning campaigns that have grown all too common on college campuses?
To try and make sense of all this I reached out to Dr. Christina Hoff Sommers, a prominent feminist scholar who has voiced many concerns about modern academic feminism. Hoff Sommers was formerly a professor of philosophy and is now a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. She is also the host of the popular Youtube series The Factual Feminist.
Clay: As I am sure you know, psychologists have distinguished two forms of sexism: hostile and benevolent. Hostile is pretty straightforward. These are explicit beliefs such as women are weak, manipulative, less intelligent than men, etc. Benevolent sexism is the idea that women need to be cherished and protected, that they are innocent, precious, and perhaps childlike. Interestingly, it seems like some of the ideas being advanced by modern feminists and perhaps other groups as well ironically promote benevolent sexism. That is, safe spaces, trigger warnings, and the notion that women are overly influenced by cultural pressures and thus are not freely choosing their majors and career fields seems like benevolent sexism, like women are being viewed as fragile and childlike. Do you think modern feminism or at least some aspects of it promote benevolent sexism? If so, why?
Christina: Yes, I call it fainting–couch feminism, a la the delicate Victorian ladies who retreated to an elegant chaise when overcome with emotion. As an equality feminist from the 1970s, I am dismayed by this new craze. Women are not children. We are not fragile little birds who can’t cope with jokes, works of art, or controversial speakers. Trigger warnings and safe spaces are an infantilizing setback for feminism—and for women.
Clay: On a related note, do you think part of what is going on, especially on college campuses, is the promotion of a culture of victimhood? If so, what is to be gained from feeling like a victim who needs protected? That hardly seems like female empowerment.
Christina: There is a theory behind the culture of victimhood: It’s called “intersectionality.” This theory posits that racism, sexism, classism, ableism, etc. are interconnected, overlapping, and mutually reinforcing. Together they form a “matrix of oppression.” This matrix is not visible to all of us because elites disguised it via manufactured concepts. Examples include “reason,” and “evidence,” which are supposedly objective, but are in fact can be masculinist, heterosexist, and colonialist “ways of knowing.” (This is why asking for evidence can be micro-aggressive.) However, the theory, following Foucault, teaches that “marginalized others” have access to other ways of knowing, and therefore to deeper, more authentic truths about human reality. They can share that knowledge by speaking about their lived experience while in a safe space. But to provide this kind of safety, members of privileged groups, i.e. white, able-bodied, cis-gendered middle class men, must keep quiet. It’s no wonder there is a mad scramble for victim status on many campuses today. It confers authority and prestige.
Of course, intersectionality theory is a confused muddle. It fights racism and sexism by classifying everyone according to race and sex. It views race and gender privilege as the root of all evil, while ignoring the role played by dogmatic ideologies held by all genders. And it is unfalsifiable -- to its adherents, criticism and rejection of the theory actually demonstrate its truth, by showing how deeply we all have internalized our oppression
Clay: Watching Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention it was noteworthy to me that she made a point of discussing how her mother forced her to be tough, to not hide from bullies or the difficulties of life. Some psychologists have argued that we are coddling our children too much and thus not giving them the skills they need to navigate the challenges of life and manage failures. Do you think this is particularly the case with girls and young women?
Christina: Young women at our elite colleges are among the safest, most privileged and most empowered of any group on the planet. Yet, from the moment they get to campus – and now, even earlier – an endless stream of propaganda tells them otherwise. They are offered safe spaces and healing circles to help them cope with the ravages of a phantom patriarchy. Even the most independent and spirited young women can become humorless, self-absorbed, and fearful. It’s a terrible preparation for life. Hillary appears to believe in a form of stoicism—which is a tried and true life philosophy. What’s happening on campus is the extreme opposite—it’s induced neurasthenia.
Clay: In some of your articles and videos you talk about feminist misinformation, like how the gender wage gap doesn’t really exist anymore but is still being treated as if it does. Do you think some feminists are having a hard time accepting that they have won this and other battles, that women are actually doing quite well in the Western world? What do you think motivates people to ignore data that challenges their view of gender bias?
Christina: Many feminists in the academy and in the major women’s groups are knocking down open doors. It’s 2016, not 1950. But you wouldn’t know that if you looked through a typical women’s studies textbook or website. The gender scholars in the nation’s leading women’s studies departments, law schools, and research institutes are captive to the “women-are-victims” narrative and they will not give it up. I don’t know what motivates them. Years ago, when a few colleagues and I took on the task of correcting the excesses of academic feminism, we thought it would take a few years to get the movement back on track. We are still waiting.
Clay: A number of social scientists have expressed concern about the lack of ideological diversity in the social sciences. Heterodox Academy, which I am a member of, seeks to offer a platform to discuss these concerns and promote the diversity of ideas and viewpoints in the academy. Do you think this is a big issue in fields such as gender studies?
Christina: There is too much ideological conformity in gender studies. The true-believers fashion the theories, write the textbooks and teach the students. When journalists, policymakers, and legislators address topics such as the wage gap, gender and education, or women’s health, they turn to these experts for enlightenment. For the most part, they peddle misinformation, victim politics, and sophistry. They claim that their teachings represent the academic consensus, but that is only because they have excluded all dissenters
Clay: Even in more quantitative fields such as social psychology this is an issue because the researchers decide what questions to ask, how to ask them, and how to measure variables of interest such as prejudice. The concern is that since most social psychologists are liberals, when they study topics such as prejudice or intolerance they tend to focus on domains most likely to capture bias and discrimination among conservatives. If this can be a problem even in empirical fields, should we be especially concerned about this in more qualitative fields such as gender studies? Is there any debate going on in fields like gender studies about a lack of viewpoint diversity and liberal bias and how to combat these issues?
Christina: So far there has been little discussion among gender scholars about the need to engage with skeptics. They tend to view skeptics and dissenters as cranks. If pressed, a gender scholar might say something like “We don’t expect biologists to engage with creationists, so why should we have to include gender essentialists, or privilege-deniers?” There is a difference. We reject creationism because there is no evidence to support it. By contrast, the notion that biology is at least partially the basis of gender is an empirically supportable, and even well-supported, proposition. The gender scholars reject it on ideological, not evidentiary, grounds.
Clay: We have come a long way in terms of gender equality. Women are generally paid the same for the same work, are able to pursue pretty much any career, and are actually getting undergraduate and graduate degrees in greater numbers than men. What do you think the most pressing problems are for women now? What areas in gender equality still need work?
Christina: The serious work for feminism in the 21st century is across the globe. Instead of retreating into “safe spaces” and focusing on their own imagined oppression, today’s feminists should be reaching out to women’s groups in the developing world. Fortunately, there are some women’s activists, such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who recognize that as the moral challenge. She has urged the privileged women of the West to support women who are struggling with genuine oppression.
Clay’s Final Thoughts
It was great to chat with Christina Hoff Sommers and I would encourage anyone reading this to check out her Factual Feminist Youtube series and to follow her on Twitter. Even if you do not agree with everything she says you will certainly come away better informed about issues affecting both women and men. And I suspect you will be exposed to ideas and critiques that you are not going to hear in most college classes.