Saturday, January 10, 2009

Parental Pride

Feminist Law Profs has put up a guest-lecture by conservative feminist Christina Hoff Sommers. This is, on its own, notable, as I'm pretty confident the FLPers agree with Sommers about virtually nothing and find her brand of feminism quite pernicious. Still, I think it's a good thing, because it's a tribute to open debate and a desire to hear a wide stretch of voices. And for Sommers' part, I think her critiques of feminism carry a lot more weight when they're addressed to fellow feminists, rather than serving as tools for conservative men who aren't interested in feminism of any sort (conservative or otherwise).

But anyway. Before Sommers gets to the main of her argument, she relates the following story which I find quite amusing:
Just as an aside, I should tell you that all of this notoriety has not been easy for my parents — who are very liberal and dismayed to find their daughter reviled by people they admire — like the feminist leader Gloria Steinem–or, much worse, admired by people they regard as diabolical. (My father was driving along a country road in Vermont when he heard conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh praise something I had written. He almost smashed into a snow bank.) But of course, whatever their reservations, my parents remain loyal fans. When a columnist from Playboy magazine interviewed me, my father was eager to get hold of that issue. The problem was how do you buy a copy of Playboy when you are an old-fashioned gentleman, living in a small Vermont town where everyone knows you.

He solved the problem by quietly crossing the border into Keene, New Hampshire where no one knew him. He was still more than a little embarrassed: feeling the need to explain himself to the sales clerk he told her, “It’s OK, I’m only buying this because my daughter’s in it.”



Jillian said...

I don't think that's fair. Sommers has a huge following among young women who are dissatisfied with traditional feminism, myself among them. Her fans are not just men who don't give a damn.

PG said...

A few critiques of Sommers:

1) Perhaps due to her being an academic herself -- a philosophy prof, no less -- and spending so much time lecturing and debating on college campuses, she overestimates the influence of women's studies academia on modern feminism. I've never subscribed to Ms., taken a women's studies class, or read a feminist writer who wasn't also a legal scholar, but I certainly consider myself a liberal feminist (in the Ruth Bader Ginsburg tradition, in which the demands of freeing women from a lower social status do not have a higher priority than basic liberal freedoms, and treating men and women equally generally is going to require treating them the same instead of creating a separate but "equal" regime).

2) Sommers doesn't seem to recognize how feminism is not just about women; it is about freeing men from their oppression by gender stereotypes that demand they be the higher earner in a hetero couple; be presumed against in determining which parent will be the primary care-taker; etc. She says, "women are still
struggling with how to balance family and work" -- women AND MEN are struggling with this. Someone who sees work-family balance as just a women's issue is not my kind of feminist, and she is participating in the oppression of men.

3) The Vagina Monologues is about women's relationship with their vaginas. I honestly do not know how a man can be presented sympathetically in the play except as someone who helps a woman have a better relationship with her vagina (the men presented non-sympathetically all make the relationship worse in some way). Sommers seems to think the play is about male-female relations, which indicates just how bad she is at understanding the more navel-gazing (so to speak) aspects of feminism that focus on raising women's self-esteem and so forth. Some women who think fantastically well of themselves just seem to find it incomprehensible that other women don't.

4) For someone who bases her credentials on being more fact-oriented than her ideological opponents, she's hardly the world's greatest stickler for perfect accuracy. For example, she declares, "Romulus of Rome never existed. He is a figure in Roman mythology--the son of Mars, nursed by a wolf." While the son-of-Mars, nursed-by-wolf part presumably is myth, Romulus appears in the works of historians like Plutarch and Livy and is believed by some archaeologists specializing in ancient Rome to have existed (that is, there was a rule of Rome named Romulus). To the extent that we know about ancient Rome, we do rely to some extent on historians like Plutarch and Livy who mixed fact, myth and tradition.

5) Lack of support for her claims that American feminists are unsupportive of the oppression faced by non-American women. She says, "But groups of American women, captive to the illusion that they themselves are still being oppressed, are not going to be helpful in building that
movement. If you believe that your own house is on fire,
you're not likely to help your neighbor put out a real fire
in her house."

She provides absolutely no factual basis for this claim. She does not, for example, point to greater activism to ban the most severe forms of FGM, or to support micro-finance loans to women, or to educate girls, among conservative feminists like herself. Indeed, she undercuts her own claim by graciously admitting that Eve Ensler and Catharine MacKinnon have done a great deal for oppressed women overseas. What has Sommers done for women outside the U.S.?

6) "Males, on average, have
better spatial and mechanical skills, females better verbal

This could account for men's being overrepresented in fields that use those skills, but doesn't explain why women make partner at law firms (to take just one example of an almost completely verbal skill based field) at a rate not even equal to, much less greater than, the rate of partnership for supposedly verbally inferior men.

This is related to critique #1: Sommers measures equality of results entirely by educational accomplishment instead of by how far those degrees get women. This of course ignores the possibility that colleges and universities have worked hard to purge themselves of gender bias in admitting, grading and graduating women, while the workplace has not so much.