Wednesday, July 01, 2009

"And Your Little Dog Too!!!" Christina Hoff Sommers Still Wants The Ruby Slippers

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 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."

Who cares? Let it go. In fact, if you want to use that word, some of us are homely, some are acceptable to lovely, and I am fabulous.

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."


j said...

yes, you are fabulous.

Emily Rutherford said...

I also wrote a piece taking apart Sommers' Chronicle whine, but I prefer your incorporation of Wizard of Oz dialogue.

Susan said...

For what it's worth (not much) an English judge, Sir Frances Buller,I think, uses the rule of thumb in a ruling in the 1760s. I'd never seen it connected to Romulus, though.

But I think your analysis of the method of argument is brilliant. I will, of course, go read Sommers' piece, but I've seen it before.

JackDanielsBlack said...

I encourage everyone to read this article (thanks for providing a link, TR) and judge for yourselves whether you think TR's critique is fair -- I for one do not.

By the way, TR, what did you think of the critique of Sommers she cites in her article:
According to Susan Friedman, of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, "Sommers' diachronic discourse is easily unveiled as synchronic discourse in drag. ... She practices ... metonymic historiography."

That reads like a lot of the pomo criticism that has been infecting academe for the last 20 years or so. Your Wizard of Oz analogy is a little less opaque but not much more relevant as criticism.

Tenured Radical said...


This is why blogging is so great, in my view -- you can link to the whole article, and people can come to their own conclusions.

As to the Friedman, I guess I have two responses. While I read theory, and am very informed by theory, I've never been a theorist -- my tastes lie toward indirection (hence the Oz analogy -- and of course Oz has made such a terrific analogy over time, for Progressive era politics, for the New Deal, and so on.) But also, given that the quote is excerpted, it sounds sillier than it might if it were in context. Just guessing.

But my other response to that passage is "Hunh???" It strikes me as serious over thinking of Sommers' work, which displays many of the same flaws she finds in others (I think the reviewer of her first book in Publisher's Weekly made the same point.)

Susan: Thanks for the English history reference.

Dr. Virago said...

Just FYI, there's a nice summary of the Buller 'rule of thumb' myth -- also pointing out how fake history can take on real life with real consequences -- on page 12 of Elizabth A. Foyster's _Marital Violence_. I think this link will take you directly to the page. She cites H. A. Kelly, "Rule of thumb and the folklaw of the husband's stick," which I was originally looking for, but it's not available in open access on the web.

At any rate, I like very much your point that critics like Sommers often argue as if one inaccuracy makes an entire argument fall apart or somehow exposes it as ideological indoctrination. It's a maddening assumption -- as maddening as the assumption that only the left has any ideological bias. Alas, many of my students have picked up both assumptions and it's very difficult to "unteach" these tiresome habits of argumentation.

Virginia said...

You did indeed drop a house on her. And you are, indeed, quite fabulous!

I think the key is in the last quote from The Wizard of Oz, but I haven't quite figured out yet what it means, exactly. What is it we have that she wants back?

Lesboprof said...

Thanks for doing this. I had no ability to mess with it, though that CHS does plague me so.

Plain(s)feminist said...

THANK you. Whenever I hear Sommers' name, my eyes start rolling so much that I can't write anything.

Historiann said...

Love all of this, TR--Sommers is a tool.

Virginia, what I think the quotation "their magic must be very powerful or she wouldn't want them so badly" means here is that Sommers, like other academic haterz like David Horowitz, wants very badly to be engaged seriously and to be admitted to the very club she spends all of her time and energy insulting and trashing. Yes, it's perverse, and anyone who thinks that feminist scholars somehow have a stranglehold on power anywhere in academia (let alone in the wider world) is smoking funny cigarettes. But secretly, she envies us, she envies the scholarly respectability that many of us have, and it drives her crazy that she's not invited to our little treehouse.

Sommers and Horowitz are kind of like those bullies in grade school you were urged to be kind too because you were told that they were very damaged, fragile people that you should pity. When of course the only sensible response to a bully is to shun them and stick to your friends who like to play nice together. TR's analysis of Sommers is brilliant meta stuff, exposing her bullying M.O. Thanks, TR: We ain't playin'.

Virginia said...

@Historiann: Yeah, I think you hit the nail on the head.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

I was going to mention the Kelly article, but someone beat me to it. Still, it's probably beside the point. I don't know why these neocon women seem to always want to not only call themselves feminists, but tell us who are feminists that we're not, while simultaneously maintaining the position that feminists are bad. The mind boggles.

JackDanielsBlack said...

Folks, in her article Sommers observes:
"One reason that feminist scholarship contains hard-to-kill falsehoods is that reasonable, evidence-backed criticism is regarded as a personal attack."
Looks like you folks are illustrating her point. Why not address her points instead of calling her names, speculating on her mental state, etc.? As someone once observed, facts are stubborn things -- maybe that's why they are ignored so often in favor of ad-hominem attacks.

By the way, TR, is living high off the conservative foundation tit any more shameful than living high off the Zenith tit? Enquiring minds want to know.

Tenured Radical said...


Umm..I work (as a teacher, administrator and scholar) rather than accepting a salary gleaned from wealthy, agenda-driven conservative donors in exchange for pushing an ideological agenda.

How's that?

The point of my piece is that the woman is an ideologue, and that you *can't* argue reasonably with an ideologue. When you do, what you find is that there are no "facts," and her arguments fall apart, or mirror her criticisms of others.

I don't think these commenters are taking anything personally -- or at least any more personally than Sommers does when she claims that certain women have "hijacked feminism." I do think people like Lemon have a right to take it personally -- as anyone does - when someone insists on attacking them relentlessly no matter how insubstantial the criticisms just to push their own agenda/career.

Tenured Radical said...

Oh yeah -- Sommers is living way higher than me, I promise you.

JackDanielsBlack said...

TR, you work, she works, what's the difference? You don't think writing books and articles is work? Many academics would disagree.

She is an "ideologue", while you are...a disinterested scholar? I don't think so.

Susan said...

I was going to ignore your comments, but I went and read the article. She read a book. She identified two errors in the book. And from that we have the conclusion that all feminists are bad.

Now, this is a book on the law relating to domestic violence. One error is a reference (recycled from earlier flawed scholarship) about Romulus and the Roman origins of the Rule of Thumb. Well, sure, it doesn't go back to Romulus, but it DOES go back to at least the 18th c (as I -- a feminist scholar -- can demonstrate). So what's the problem? Either way, there was a rule of thumb. For lawyers, it actually doesn't matter if it's articulated 2700 years ago or 200 years ago -- it certainly shaped US legal practice.

The reality is that *all of us* -- whether feminist or conservative -- occasionally take broad summaries of material that is tangential to our work and quote it. And in doing so we sometimes make mistakes. But if we had to do deep research on everything, we'd never write a thing.

Just think how differently Sommers' piece would have read if instead of saying, "There is no Romulus" she said, "Of course, we all know that the rule of thumb is articulated in the 18th century, not by the non-existent Romulus." She couldn't then suggest that the rule of thumb was a "persistent myth" in feminist scholarship.

JackDanielsBlack said...

Susan, if someone purports to be doing a historical perspective and starts off by citing a mythological figure as if they were real, don't you think that sort of undermines their credibility? It's sort of like fundamentalists arguing that something is true because it's in the Bible.

And Nancy Lemon's snotty reply to Sommers request that she correct errors in her textbook (presumably so future students wouldn't be mislead by bad statistics) sort of illustrates Sommers' point, doesn't it?

We can all have our own opinions on the facts, but we can't all have our own facts. And I think civil discourse is best served when we all have accurate information to argue over, and I think this is all that Sommers is saying--if your information is incorrect, then you should do your best to correct it.

Anonymous said...

I have long promised that the day I value money over integrity is the day I will bash feminism because it's a sure path to lots of bucks.

Rachel said...

Is myth really fiction? Myth has power because it underlies our very value system. That is the reason that feminist scholarship is important, it helps uncover the myths that our reasoning is based upon so that people can use their minds to determine if their logic is reasonable.

I have not read Sommers so I can not speak to her words, but I find it interesting that her supporter here calls himself by the name of a whiskey that is made in a dry county. I find a great metaphor in that.

JackDanielsBlack said...

Rachel, it ain't where you make the whiskey, it's where you drink it, and how much you drink.

Janice said...

Susan? Exactly! I spent a fair bit of last term deep in Blackstone's commentaries when I was teaching a course on the history of crime and punishment in England, 1700-1900. Some of the tidbits drawn from his own reading in the history of law that get casually tossed around in there are sobering, to wit, his discussion of domestic violence in the Roman law tradition: "The civil law gave the husband the same, or a larger, authority over his wife; allowing him, for some misdemeanours, flagellis et fustibus acriter verbare uxorum [to severely wound his wife with whips and fists]; for others, only modicam castigationem adbibere [to apply modest, corrective punishment]."

Yes, the "rule of thumb" doesn't seem to have a Roman origin or application (I confess, I'd never heard the Romulan origin story) but the rule of thumb was being bruited about in the late eighteenth century (witness Gillray's infamous cartoon "Judge Thumb"). And a husband's right to his wife's body, in the broadest terms, went fairly unchallenged in English law until the last quarter of the 19th century. (Read Mary Lyndon Shanley's "Feminism, Marriage, and the Law in Victorian England" for more on that part.)

Sommers' "find" isn't that surprising for historians who have worked in topics relating to law in the early modern period. Lemon isn't a historian, though, and lacked the training or background to question this assertion.

From this report, it seems as if she was open to having the error pointed out for correction but wasn't too keen on Sommers having flogged this story up and down as an example of everything that Sommers feels is wrong with feminism.

Historiann said...

Susan and Janice--Sommers is just a sad, pathetic person who desperately craves our attention and (in her dreams!) our approval.

The older I get, the less cautious I am in judging some things. False consciousness, false consciousness, toolarama, toolereemio, and false consciousness. How sad for her that her big buck$ don't satisfy the gaping hole in her soul. How pathetic that the best she can do is as good as a bright undergraduate in Classics.


Anonymous said...

The discussion here, sadly, seems to reinforce Sommers' point. Lemon's book not only contained substantive factual errors, but when they were pointed out, she was utterly unconcerned with correcting them. Unfortunately, this post, and many of the comments here, seem equally unconcerned.

The general point Lemon was trying to make is correct. But how can anyone who doesn't already know that be convinced if she doesn't care whether her evidence is made up or not?

And (filtering out the ideological drivel), that seems to be the substantive accusation in Sommers' piece: that feminists aren't interested in factual accuracy.

Anonymous said...

Sommers is a crook. Years ago I had a piece in the APA Feminism & Philosophy Newsletter critical of some feminists in the profession for gassing on about feminist film aesthetics and such (instead of dealing with discrimination and wage gaps!). Sommers called me at home, when I was in the middle of cooking dinner, dealing with kids and had some wine to, um, chat and commiserate with me about the folly of these feminists in our profession. After about 10 minutes I realized she was trying to get material for her book and asked her whether she was interviewing me--which she admitted she was doing. I had to threaten to sue her if she used any of my comments with or without attribution. She's done this to others too.

Tavia said...

I haven't read either Sommers' writings or Friedman's full critique of them, but the quote from the latter doesn't seem inscrutable to me. Friedman appears to be saying that Sommers' historical scholarship is just contemporary commentary in disguise: that her historical examples are brought in only insofar as they "stand in" for present-day ones. Basically, the quote is accusing Sommers of presentism. I have no idea if this is a just accusation, by the way, I'm just saying that it's not an inscrutable one.

Abagale said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


Mary Ann said...

I've only read Who Killed Feminism, but I thought it was an excellent critique and it made me a fan of Chritina Sommers.

There are ideologues on both sides of the political aisle. The gender feminists are among the most dishonest. Their support for abortion is based on slogans (pro-choice, women's reproductive rights, keep your rosaries off my ovaries, etc.). Any attempt to get them to address the rights of little unborn women is an exercise in futility. I've debated them and they do everything to keep women ignorant of the facts of fetal development. That is an ideologue at her worst. Ultrasound, however, is the house falling on their sacred sacrament of death.

David said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David said...

I am surprised that a historian should find factual accuracy so unimportant, but that aside I think you miss the point.
Domestic Violence Law claims "A" (in this case that a mans right to beat his wife with a stick was enshrined in law) is a fact, and that "B" (the origin of the phrase rule of thumb) is evidence to support that claim.
Sommers' point is that "B" is wrong, and therefore "A" must be called in to question.
Her real complaint is that a textbook teaches students that English common law allowed a man to beat his wife, when in fact this has never been the case. This I think you will agree is a pretty fundamental flaw in the text, much as a history textbook that taught students that the Norman invasion of England took place in 1065 might be considered flawed.
Do you not agree that academic textbook authors have a duty to accuracy?

:Edited to remove typo

David said...

By the way - English common law had no impact in Europe - they had their own common law

Anonymous said...

I see a whole lot of condescension towards Sommers but not a lot of actual refutation of what Sommers said.

Merely sneering about someone's claims doesn't prove them false.

Near as I can see, all this article does is support Sommers' contentions to begin with -- that her detractors' objections are purely ideological and factually baseless.

Anonymous said...

Though your cheerleaders congratulate you for dropping a house on CHS and others claim they have no response to her because she "plagues" them so (pitiful), I don't exactly see what you've disproved. I think many of us know that feminists have a simmering hate for anybody or anything that interrupts or challenges the 24/7 media glow they have basked in for decades, but you have realize that there are more of us accessing information these days. It's hilarious that you would cry about Ms. Sommers making a good living from her writings while women's groups in academic settings benefit from uncontested buckets of money from a federal government that have no interest in TRUE gender equity.

Anonymous said...

I can't wait to read Sommers book. As a high school teacher in Australia, I see, every day, boys lagging behind girls at reading, writing, enthusiasm for school, at academic awards ceremonies,.... It bothers me. I have a son. He hates school. He's very bright, and early on, he figured it out, that school is for GIRLS.