Battle of the celebrity gender theorists

by Amy Benfer

Published March 12, 2001 8:05PM (EST)

Read the story.

How goofy are these people? I know that good work goes on in the academy. I know that women's studies is important, but to read this article you'd think that the future survival of boys and girls is to be determined by the outcome of a cat fight between snotty academicians and the monetary gift of a high-strung Hollywood star.

If I ever get any beans, I'm going to spend it on actual kiddos; I'd set up endowments and community block grants. I'd let the people I'm concerned about determine their own path to freedom. I sure as hell wouldn't be hanging out with professors and talking about theory. Why do the middle and upper classes always feel they know what's best for a gender or any other marginalized group? Someone should tell them.

Just because you have money and time to hang out at school for 20 or 30 years doesn't mean you know what everybody else needs. Quit acting like you know everything. If you want to do anybody any good, just give the cash over quietly and fuck off.

All the best,

-- Genevieve Van Cleve
Dublin, Ireland

Hoff Sommers berates the softness of Gilligan's data on gender roles and of women's studies programs in general, yet she is a professor of philosophy, the least data-oriented field in the humanities. Why should the soft, data-less theorizing of Hoff Sommers be any more reliable with respect to the "health" of young boys and girls?

-- Ellen Fulton

Although feminist theory originated in the humanities, there is amazing feminist scholarship happening in psychology, science and the history of technology that Hoff Sommers has ignored. Try reading Donna Harroway's "Simians, Cyborgs and Women," or "Technology of Orgasm" by Rachel Maines.

The idea that feminist studies is not rigorous is absurd -- it is partly because of pseudo-feminists like Sommers that women's studies is so rigorous. My graduate classes in women's studies have been among the most difficult in my academic career. Capitalist patriarchy harms everyone -- and masculinity is held in as low regard as femininity. If Sommers is going to bash feminists, she should at least know what she is talking about!

-- Kristina Goetz

So the last drop of estrogen trickles out of Jane Fonda and now she's got no use for men. Who's the gender stereotype?

-- Mike Fallon

Christina Hoff Sommers drives me crazy. I've read her work and my conclusions are that she occasionally finds real flaws in some research done by feminists. I don't deny that it's there. However, I don't believe that they are intentionally misconstruing their research and data -- she prefers to throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water and paint all feminists with the same broad brush. She's stuck thinking that all feminists are Catherine MacKinnon followers who see male violence against women everywhere they look. Sommers needs to realize that "feminists" are a lot more diverse than that and that many of us do have improving the lives of girls and boys in mind.

Doing "gender studies" does not make a woman a male-hater any more than being a feminist makes a woman a witchcraft-practicing lesbian (not that there's anything wrong with that!). Sommers bashes feminism as if it is a monolithic frame of mind, as a cult of man-hating female chauvinists who want to "feminize" little boys and portray all men as potential rapists. That's no more true than the idea that all conservative women, like Sommers, are male chauvinists in female sheep's clothing.

Sommers does have her own ideological war going on, and anyone who knows her is aware that she is a mouthpiece for anti-feminist conservatives. Sommers has a very hard time identifying anything good that came out of the feminist movement and others in her camp don't want people to say things about boys and girls that are contrary to what they already believe. Sommers believes in intrinsic maleness and femaleness -- and that little boys are being robbed of their intrinsic maleness by the attention that girls get -- therefore leaving very little room for the idea that most people are a mix of masculine and feminine characteristics.

Sommers is an essentialist, which is rather contrary to what a lot of gender studies feminist types believe.

Gender studies does not benefit women more than men. Gender studies is the joining of "women's studies" and "men's studies" and attempts to unravel how cultural stereotypes can be damaging and limiting to both men and women. It looks at how men and women relate to one another and the messages they receive about their behavior, as well as definitions of what it means to be a "real" man or a "real" woman. Sommers is a backlash artist who has built a career on answering "feminism" and attempting to dismiss a whole group of people based on the work of a few. That is the huge flaw in her work, which she should attend to before attacking the work of others.

-- Hedda Kniess

Why can't Jane get a case of that terminal lockjaw everyone's talking about? There are diseases like AIDS, breast cancer and diabetes that are killing thousands and this silver-spooned yuppie (who encouraged low self-esteem and eating disorders with her meshugeneh exercise tapes) gives $12.5 million to a gender studies program at Harvard.

-- Dan Avery

The female students in Sommers' classes are hardly indicative of the young female population as a whole. These female students are members of an upper educated class. Perhaps Fonda and Gilligan are concerned about the majority of young women who don't make it to college because they cannot imagine themselves in that setting. Therefore, Sommers should not base her observation that young girls are outspoken, etc., on that evidence. If she criticizes Gilligan for relying on anecdotal evidence then she should not use it as supporting evidence herself. She comes across as elitist -- almost as if calling for all women to have a room of one's own and a certain level of annual income.

-- Dorinda Fox

Way to go Salon! I just loved this article.

For years I have battled in the gender culture war against the onslaught of feminist gender deconstructionism, as their agenda has slowly eclipsed the intersex and transgender rights movements by exploiting the angst of victims of gender dysphoria, both transsexual and intersex victims of incorrect surgical sex assignment, in their misguided zeal to achieve their utopia of a world without gender.

I deeply respect and admire Christina Hoff Sommers for her courage and her commitment to social justice. I am with her all the way. Woo hoo!

-- Natasha Thompson

Well, well, what have we here? Salon participating in the media phenomenon of giving prominence to the female anti-feminist who labels gender-based academic pursuits as "frivolous" and lacking in scientific rigor. How about equal space for a reply?

-- Susan Saylor

Christina Hoff Sommers is an idiot.

-- Name withheld

Christina Hoff Sommers blew any illusions of objectivity when she brought up the Boy Scouts. The Boy Scouts are not synonymous with the Little League. The Boy Scouts teach homophobia along with a weird brand of religiosity that even excludes little boys from atheist families -- and all girls, of course. Their anti-feminine, retrograde views are one of the big problems with how gender is taught to kids in society today. I can't believe she's so obtuse that she doesn't know that.

-- Kathleen McConn

Increasingly, young men are subject to the feminist rhetoric that posits all of the negativity in society on its "patriarchal" construction.

Simplified, this idea blames men for the ills of society. Young men make a logical jump and construe this as a personal attack, creating a contentious relationship between the young men and the academic structure that relates this idea to them.

The results of this situation are twofold: First, men buck the academic authority that implicated them in the negatives of a system that they could not possibly have any control over. Second, in creating an other to direct their objections toward, young men band together by closely adhering to a common conception of masculinity. Unfortunately for them, the prevailing conception of masculinity is the very conception that Ms. Fonda has ascribed to it -- a culture of aggression, rape and repression.

-- Chris Erb

This article appears to be the newest installment of anti-feminist propaganda that your Web site is now promoting! Is this the beginning of another "backlash" against women who are still struggling to make their opinions heard and be counted? Another radical-right Reaganesque era?

As a 24-year-old girl, I strongly disagree with Christina Hoff Summers. For one thing, I do not like how Christina Hoff Summers -- or Ms. Gilligan -- define the word "masculinity." It is not "masculinity" that is the problem, but rather a culture and media that encourages young men to be aggressive, while girls are still taught to do what they are told, hold their tongues and be nice.

If girls are doing better in school it is due to the fact that they are still taught and expected to obey authority and follow the rules, while young men are not facing the same kind of pressure. And maybe they should be.

Are feminist teachers taking over? They weren't at my high school. Women's opinions were not tolerated, much less encouraged, and boys dominated conversations. Gangs of young feminazis taking over college campuses, tormenting poor innocent college boys? No way! Actually, date-raping frat boys still dominate my campus, and football players still get girls to write their papers. The one gang of feminazis is not something the boys fear, but ridicule.

I am in law school, and a boy I know who can barely read and write (compared to me anyway) just got a summer job offer with a large corporation, for a lot of money, while THREE girls who are ahead of him in the class were passed over for the same job. Why is that? Obviously, sometimes boys don't need to read or write as well as girls to still get a good job in a top law firm.

If boys are lagging behind in school it is because we as a culture are expecting less of them and allowing them to get away with not doing things for themselves. Not because young girls and their opinions are taking over culture and the education system.

-- Name withheld

While many of Sommers' methodological concerns about Gilligan's work may be valid, her assertion that gender studies should be the exclusive bailiwick of neuroscience and psychology is ludicrous. There is overwhelming ethnographic evidence to support a cultural analysis of gender. Sommers accuses women's studies of being driven by "propaganda" -- as if neuroscience and evolutionary psychology were ideologically empty? Please.

-- Philip Kim

Christina Hoff Sommers' predictable attack on the proposed Harvard center on gender and education is typical of her poor scholarship and ridiculous attacks on gender studies.

Sommers claims that gender studies "has the lowest research and scholarship standards, because a lot of the experts come from education and from the humanities." The sweeping assumption that anyone in the humanities suffers from low standards is not a rational conclusion; it is, like virtually all of Sommers' propaganda, an unsupportable insult.

Sommers' delusion of "an epidemic of male-bashing" on college campuses (which are almost always run, it should be noted, by male administrators and overwhelmingly male faculty) has no evidence to back it up. Sommers imagines men to be the oppressed class facing a "censorious attitude from young women."

Perhaps Sommers said it best: "The problem is that when you make generalizations about people, some of them seem to apply. That's how astrology works." But when Sommers consults the heavens to derive her opinions about feminism, the rest of us should be wary of her Psychic Anti-Feminist Network.

-- John K. Wilson

Thank you to Amy Benfer for her excellent interview with Christina Hoff Sommers. As the mother of two delightful young men, I am always heartened to read intelligent articles about the negative impact faulty feminist anti-male rhetoric has had on our children. Insisting on the notion that girls are "victims," and that boys (and later men) are somehow responsible because of their "maleness," is truly sick. As a result of the pervasive nature of these ideas in our culture and in school curriculums, in particular, I fear that irreparable damage has already been done to the psychological and educational development of an entire generation of children. Shame on Harvard University for collaborating with and perpetuating the truly unhealthy ideas of the likes of Jane Fonda and Carol Gilligan!

-- Judy Woodard

I am from India. I have two sons of my own plus a niece whom I am raising. I also have about a dozen more nephews and nieces whom I have observed very closely (we are a very close extended family).

Based on my observation of about 15 children I can say that Carol Gilligan is correct so far as she says that girls and boys have different styles of learning. In my experience boys are more inclined toward analytical learning while girls are markedly less so, displaying a proclivity to storing up vast amounts of data.

Both approaches are useful. But in different situations. For example, boys' style of learning is great for engineering. That of girls in general medicine. And in India I can see this. Medical colleges are dominated by girls. Engineering colleges by boys. It is not surprising to me that despite efforts to bring girls into computing, it is still absolutely male dominated.

Thus, the moot question is: Do we really want boys to change their style of learning? Apart from the fact that if we do so we will be short-changing the boys, we would suddenly find ourselves saddled with a serious shortage of engineers. America already has a serious shortage of skilled programmers, so male engineers from India are filling the gap.

A simple solution would be to have different schools, colleges and universities for boys and girls. But this solution is by far the worst.

I wonder if anyone can think up better solutions than the above or those proposed by Gilligan.

-- Ratnakar Tiwari

Christina Hoff Sommers sounds like she is pissed off about something but it can't be that women are getting so much attention and the poor little boys are suffering. Please, I am so tired of this pseudo-intellectual blather from this woman. She has the nerve to criticize when she is doing exactly what she criticizes in other people: She draws conclusions from anecdotes and makes assumptions about women and men on her observations. That's ludicrous.

I contend that we do live in a patriarchy and I also contend that men/boys are not going to give up total power and control willingly. If you were in control of the whole world and everything benefited you the most, would you want to give that up?

So I'm not shedding any tears for the little boys that she so much wants to help. Women have been the "mule of the world" for as long as we know life exists, so -- yeah! -- I'm not sorry to see the poor little tykes suffer. If they are as strong as women are, well by gosh they will survive.

-- Chynna Paloma

By Salon Staff

MORE FROM Salon Staff

Related Topics ------------------------------------------