Battle of the celebrity gender theorists

Christina Hoff Sommers skewers Carol Gilligan, Jane Fonda and their "girl crisis" rhetoric.

Published March 9, 2001 8:35PM (EST)

Jane Fonda has been a sci-fi sex kitten, a pretty shrew in combat fatigues and a dominatrix of the aerobics era, exhorting a generation of women to "feel the burn" as they fight to maintain hard bodies. She has binged, purged and implanted in her quest for feminine perfection. Now, at 63, Fonda says she is ready to battle the "male-voiced" culture that provided a punishing context for her effort. She has purchased some serious real estate on the front lines of America's gender war.

Last week, Fonda announced that she would donate $12.5 million to the Harvard Graduate School of Education to support a gender studies center, which, among other things, would look at how boys and girls are trained to accept gender norms, and would develop new curriculums to help combat sexism and encourage children to think outside the gender box.

Fonda's gift was given in honor of Carol Gilligan, the Harvard social psychologist whose 1982 book, "In a Different Voice," Fonda says, made her cry. Gilligan has posited that girls and women have a distinct "moral voice" that is routinely "silenced" in a "male-voiced" culture.

An endowed professorship will be named in Gilligan's honor at the new gender center, though Gilligan herself plans to leave Harvard for New York University in 2002.

Gilligan's work has been influential in the increased focus on the different learning styles of boys and girls, as well as in the creation of educational programs designed to correct the perceived damage done to girls by an educational system that some say favors male learning styles to the detriment of girls, who become second-class citizens.

It would probably not be an overstatement to call Christina Hoff Sommers, author of "Who Stole Feminism?" Gilligan's nemesis. Sommers, also the author of "The War Against Boys," strongly disagrees that girls are treated as the "second sex" in schools. In fact, says Sommers, after 10 years of feminist-influenced curriculum aimed at righting the perceived educational biases against girls, it is boys who have become the second sex in America's schools.

In her book, Sommers seeks to refute that the "girl crisis" ever existed. She challenges the methodology used by researchers such as Gilligan and William Pollack and claims that boys lag far behind girls in reading and writing skills, and are less likely to go to college.

(A month after Sommers' book was excerpted in a May 2000 cover story for the Atlantic Monthly, Gilligan responded to Sommers' attack on the Atlantic's letters page.)

Now, in the wake of Fonda's generosity, Sommers gives her opinion on the planned gender studies center. Not surprisingly, she has very little praise for Gilligan and Fonda and even less for their convictions.

Jane Fonda has donated $12.5 million to Harvard to fund a center on gender and education. Given that she made the donation in honor of Carol Gilligan, a Harvard psychologist whose work you have publicly criticized, what is your reaction to this center?

I think that Jane Fonda was badly advised. Carol Gilligan's research should not be promoted by Harvard University any more than it already has been. She has failed to produce the data on which her celebrated research for "In a Different Voice" was based. She says it's too sensitive to share with others. That is simply unacceptable in empirical research. You have to show others your original data, and she hasn't done this for the three studies on which she based her claims.

She claims that girls suffer a precipitous loss of self-esteem in adolescence, but no one has been able to corroborate this. She's very good at using anecdotes, but that's the problem -- one of the greatest indicators of pseudoscience is a reliance on anecdotes rather than data. When researchers like Susan Harter at the University of Denver tried to test Gilligan's hypotheses, she was unable to find this dramatic loss of voice and self-confidence and self-esteem in girls.

This new boy-centered rhetoric of Gilligan's worries me because it appears to be compassionate: We want to help boys, we want to free them, to liberate them from this toxic masculinity. Well, the boys don't see it that way.

Harvard produces leaders. People with Harvard degrees go on to become administrators in high-level positions in state educational departments and in public schools around the country. It would be really sad if they went to Harvard, to this gender center, and if it became a center for gender propaganda and divisive, anti-male rhetoric.

I know that Fonda insisted that the center have the word "Harvard" in its title, so it's going to carry the prestige of Harvard. People are going to assume that it meets the high standards that Harvard usually insists upon. But they should look more closely at Gilligan's work, and ask themselves what standards were applied to her work. She seems to be in much better standing with journalists than with research psychologists.

What is the main problem, in your view, with Gilligan's conclusions?

I think it's ill-advised to attribute pathologies to healthy people. It doesn't help normal, healthy, thriving children to be viewed as pitiable and fragile. She presented the nation with a distorted view of our children. She presented a picture of girls as diminished and voiceless, and fostered this myth of the incredible shrinking girl.

In reality, American girls are among the most outspoken, ambitious, successful girls in the history of the human race. As a philosophy professor, I observe the women in my classes. We're seeing more and more women because our colleges nationwide are approaching 57 percent female, even more in liberal arts colleges. There are far more girls in my classes. As I was reading Gilligan's grim prognoses, they certainly didn't seem to be true of the young women I was encountering. I looked more generally at the research and found that it was basically an invention.

Of course, Gilligan's first book deals mostly with young adolescent girls.

But again, what we would need to know is, first of all, is this really true? Are girls between 11 and 12 years old really losing their voices? Susan Harder at the University of Denver has not found that to be the case, at least not so far.

We would also need to know whether or not boys suffer from this alleged problem, because Gilligan didn't study boys in that age group. This may be just a normal part of growing up -- to realize that you may not know what you thought you knew. It may be part of maturing during adolescence, during which time children are a little less outspoken.

Having said that, where do you find good research that shows girls become diffident and reticent? I couldn't find it. But I could find much research to the contrary.

It does ring true to some parents. The problem is that when you make generalizations about people, some of them seem to apply. That's how astrology works.

What do you believe is the effect on young girls of being treated by adults as though they are "at risk" of losing their voice and self-esteem?

I think they spend a lot of time with adults who are nagging and cajoling them, which must be annoying for them. Any child may go through periods during which they become less outspoken with their parents or teachers. But girls, like boys, live in many different worlds -- they have their friends and their classroom and their parents -- and within these different domains, they may have different levels of expressiveness.

The best research that I've seen shows that children go through different stages; they are quiet in some domains and outspoken in others and it changes over time. But you can't generalize and say this is what happens to the majority of 11-year-old girls. Because it doesn't.

You've written quite a bit about what you perceive as the negative effects on boys who watch girls being singled out for special attention based on gender. What do you think will be the impact of the proposed Harvard gender center on boys?

With friends like Carol Gilligan and Jane Fonda, boys need no enemies. These two women are convinced that in order to help boys, we have to rescue them from their masculinity, which they view as dangerous and toxic. According to them, we have to get boys in touch with their inner nurturer so they can share their emotions and so forth. Again, I simply see no evidence that the average Little Leaguer or Boy Scout, the average boy, is pathological or disturbed in the ways that Gilligan or and Fonda are suggesting.

There is a small subset of boys who are certainly in serious trouble, who do need radical intervention. But it's not because of the patriarchy. Gilligan claims that boys are the victims of patriarchy, just as girls are. So she's identified a new victim class of the capitalist hetero-patriarchy: little boys. And now that Fonda is the enabler, Gilligan and her acolytes can set about the task of liberating boys from their maleness.

What are the issues that you believe college-age boys face?

An epidemic of male-bashing, coming from humanities classes and women's studies departments and women's centers. On every college campus, there is always a small group of angry women who have taken one too many women's studies courses and are willing to believe the worst about boys and men.

Most girls do not accept this gender warrior ideology, but a few do. Many young men will sooner or later encounter young women who view them as proto-harassers or rapists or batterers. And it's ridiculous to have young men face that in college. There are already too few young men in college, compared to young women, and the ones who are there face this censorious attitude from young women.

Can you elaborate on why you believe that men have become a statistical minority on college campuses?

Some college admissions officers are already calling it "the problem that has no name." This is the era of the disappearing male on the college campus. Now, overall, colleges are 56 to 57 percent female. There are many schools that are already 60 to 62 percent female -- University of Georgia, Boston University, American University.

So college admissions officers are grappling with the problem of how to attract young men. At Oberlin, for example, one of the college admissions officers suggested ways to make its Web site a little more male-friendly. His colleagues said, "Men are part of the oppressor culture. Why should we do that?" That mentality, I think, is very harsh. I believe that Carol Gilligan created this by drawing attention to this faux girl crisis.

Given that Gilligan is moving to NYU, who would you anticipate teaching in the gender center? Do you believe that Gilligan's ideas will still hold sway in her absence?

The problem with gender studies is that, of all the fields, it has the lowest research and scholarship standards, because a lot of the experts come from education and from the humanities. What they need are people from neuroscience and from behavioral psychology and endocrinology and evolutionary psychology. That would be good. It would be interesting to study sex differences with respect for the idea that some of the differences may be hard-wired, and that there are positive as well as negative qualities to both masculinity and femininity.

But I don't expect to see that. I expect to see more divisive gender propaganda.

Do you consider yourself to be a gender theorist?

Well, certainly I have taught philosophy of feminism.

Do you see a positive place for gender centers in universities? Do you believe that they should exist at all?

There already exist -- within neuroscience and psychology -- studies about sex differences. And that's fine. That's an important part of social science and biological science. Gender scholarship has tended to be based more in propaganda: Gender scholars tend to believe that gender exists as a social construction; they tend to take a negative view toward masculinity, as though it's some sort of disorder that men need to recover from. We don't need more of that. We've had enough; it hasn't gone anywhere. And I'm very worried that this center will give it new life.

Fonda seems to have a need for self-expression that exceeds her grasp of social reality. A few weeks go, she was giving $1 million to Eve Ensler, the author of "The Vagina Monologues." That's a poisonously anti-male tirade. So Fonda seems to have moved over to this more hard-line feminism, which is unfortunate, because she can fund her anger. And little boys are going to bear the brunt of it.

What kind of research is left to be done on men and masculinity? And should men be attracted to doing work in the field of gender studies?

You're going to find very few men who want to go into a gender studies program. It's just not going to happen. It's going to attract people who are carried away by gender ideology. I'm not saying we shouldn't study gender. I think we do study it well -- in biology departments, neuroscience departments and some psychology departments.

But this proposed center is really in the tradition of women's studies, which tends to be more ideological than scholarly. The problem with women's studies is that it tends to draw on women from the cultural left. There was a litmus test: If you are politically moderate or libertarian or, heaven forbid, conservative or religious, you don't have a right to interpret the lives of women. They're not interested in you in women's studies. So the system of quality control called "criticism" has broken down in gender studies and women's studies.

This is why the gender studies research has not been taken too seriously -- except in schools. And that is why I'm concerned. Carol Gilligan may not be held in high regard by most research psychologists, but her work is taken very seriously in schools of education.

What do you see as the vanguard problems or crises that are worthy of study in the context of a gender studies center?

First of all, there is no crisis in masculinity. There have always been men. Men aren't going away, and men and boys are not going to change that much. There are enough cross-cultural studies to show that there are certain characteristics common to men: They are greater risk takers; they are a little more competitive, especially little boys -- the one group of Americans who aren't talking about their feelings all the time.

Yes, there is something called hypermasculinity that is dangerous. Sociologists have identified a kind of masculinity in which young men prove their manhood by being violent and destructive. This is a pathology, not healthy masculinity. With healthy masculinity, young men prove their manhood by growing into responsible human beings, by striving for excellence and, yes, by being competitive and assertive and taking risks. There is so much good that comes out of those qualities. I would like to see some of these gender scholars concede that the vast majority of men are healthy, as are most little boys. They do not need to be refashioned according to strict feminist specifications.

I'm sorry to report the good news that little boys are healthy. They are neglected academically. Boys could be doing a lot better, especially in reading and writing and simply caring about educational achievement. But they are not pathological. Being a boy is not a disorder; it's not something you need to recover from.

By Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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