Christina Hoff Sommers Transcript
Taped June 28, 2015
Table of Contents
I: “Safe Spaces” on Campus 00:15 – 06:16
II: How Feminism Went Awry 06:16 – 32:27
III: The Factual Feminist 32:27 – 42:29
IV: The War against Boys 42:29 – 49:09
V: A War on Women? 49:09 – 52:09
VI: “GamerGate” 52:09 – 1:03:49
KRISTOL: Hi, I’m Bill Kristol. Welcome back to CONVERSATIONS. I’m very pleased to be joined today by Christina Sommers, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, former philosophy professor. Once a philosophy professor, always a philosophy professor, right? Author of many important works, including most recently, Freedom Feminism, and, of course, star of the wonderful series of YouTube videos, “The Factual Feminist”.
So we’ll talk about feminism in a minute, but I thought maybe we’d begin by – I was minding my own business a couple months ago, I guess, and suddenly, I’m looking online, and you’re the subject of a huge controversy. You’re speaking at Oberlin, and people are outraged. What was that all about?
SOMMERS: I am still trying to figure it out. I have been lecturing on college campuses for years, more years than I care to remember. It’s often controversial. Young women come to spar and debate because I’m a moderate feminist and I take exception to some of the eccentricities on the campus. And that, that has created controversy.
Well, at Oberlin, they didn’t come to debate. First of all, they said that I was going to give them PTSD, and they organized a safe space, a safe room where young women could flee if what my arguments created, you know, led to panic attacks.
KRISTOL: What was the terrifying topic you were discussing?
SOMMERS: I had been invited by a small group of the Libertarians and Republicans of Oberlin, and I was just going to talk about the need for reforming feminism. However, the very idea that I was questioning sacred tenants of the religion of feminism was apparently triggering. Thirty young women fled to a safe room. Thirty young women and a dog. I triggered a dog; I feel bad about that.
KRISTOL: That’s terrible. They literally – they showed up. How does it work? So you’re giving a talk, and they show up and they throw their hands up in horror?
SOMMERS: Well, they did a number of things. First of all, there were some ferocious Facebook debates about my coming to campus. And it was interesting because – and this happened at Georgetown as well – the administration became so concerned about these young women and what they were saying on Facebook about their safety, they became worried about my safety, and for the first time I had armed guards. On campus. For being a moderate feminist and recommending some reforms and questioning statistics. They didn’t like, that I questioned the statistics on women’s victimization.
So now that was just one thing to have the safe spaces. They had two young women that gave a little talk. I wasn’t even allowed in the room, and the room was, of course, very large because they had been so much controversy, it attracted interest. They would have been better off ignoring me, but they created all this interest so it was a huge room, and I entered after they’d been given a kind of talk by these two sort of therapeutic activists to help, told them, you know, told them not to be upset.
And then the first three rows were young women with red duck tape on their mouths, and I don’t know why. And they stayed that way throughout the lecture with these – and then everybody with protest signs, and I was heckled and jeered. It was funny.
However, there was one moment where a very lovely philosophy professor just sort of stood up and urged the crowed to be civil, and he was told to be quiet and sit down. It was a mob. So here we are at Oberlin College with these students who were supposed – among the most privileged, who were supposed to be getting a good education, and this is how they acted out and then to behave that way – to me, alright, a controversial speaker – but their own professor. It was sad, a sad spectacle.
KRISTOL: How bad or, I mean, I myself had a slightly “I don’t know, can’t take it seriously” attitude towards this. I’ve spoken on many campuses and been heckled a few times and been attacked once by a banana cream pie. Well, that’s not so fun. That’s funny, also but in a certain way you think what if it were something more serious that could hurt you?
Nothing happened, of course, but what about the campuses? I mean, you’ve talked at and in colleges and universities, and as you say, spoken at a million of them as a prominent public intellectual on many topics, really, boys, feminism.
How bad is it? What do you think? And how much effect is it having on young people? And how much is it stifling speech and thought? What’s your take on it?
SOMMERS: I would say that right now on many campuses, probably not all, but many and especially small liberal arts colleges – the more elite university the more likely this is happening. I think it’s a contagion of hysteria. And I don’t use those words lightly. Because in the past I always thought it was eccentric, it was strange, these young women were a little carried away. This is more than carried away.
And, it’s not all the students, of course, but a sort of critical mass of young women and some young men believe that students, at places like Swarthmore or Wesleyan, Bard College, Columbia University, that they are – women are captive to the tyrannical, patriarchal, oppressive, violent culture, and they aren’t going to take it. But on the other hand, they’ve been so injured and traumatized that a lot of effort goes into ministering to their, their various afflictions and so in the –
This was described in the New York Times, at Brown University they organized a debate, and I think a libertarian feminist who questioned some of the victim statistics was going to debate a feminist who believes in them. Which is the idea of having a debate was too much for the Brown students, and with the full approval of the president they organized a safe room that came equipped with, they played tapes of frolicking puppy dogs and they had bubbles and games. It was so infantilizing. This is what feminism has come to? It’s madness.
KRISTOL: How did feminism – since you’ve written about this for a long time. How did this happen? It really is shocking, actually.
SOMMERS: I tired to warn people that something was amiss many years ago. It was in the late 80s. I was teaching philosophy, and the chair of my department said, “Why don’t you teach feminist theory?”
KRISTOL: Where was this?
SOMMERS: At Clark University. I sent away for the textbooks and I thought, “Ok I’m a feminist and philosopher.” I assumed when I sent away for the texts that it would be like other philosophy textbooks, that this feminist theory text would be the best that was thought and said about issues that concern women. So really good arguments for and against affirmative action or surrogate motherhood or abortion.
Because I just thought it was a sacred commandment of college teaching, “Thou shalt teach both sides of the argument,” and that’s what I had always done. I never saw the classroom as a place for me to pass along my particular beliefs to students but to give them the tools to make decisions themselves.
These textbooks shocked me. They were, first of all, they were putting forward something that looked to me as a philosopher, it looked to me as a conspiracy theory about the patriarchy, and most of the, the selections were mutually reinforcing, rather than real debate. You just had – it seemed like propaganda. And naively I thought, “Well, this is a mistake.”
And I sent away for more, and I became concerned, and I went to the American Philosophical Association and gave a paper on, you know, what’s gone wrong with feminist theory. Now, typically when you go to the APA, it’s contentious and the, you know, everyone in the audience tries to find fault with what you say. I was prepared for that. But then you go out for drinks.
We did not go out for drinks, and I was not prepared for people hissing, and booing, and stamping their feet. It was – and that evening I was excommunicated from a religion I didn’t even know existed. And I’ll tell you what before that as a woman teaching philosophy, my articles were sometimes included in women’s anthologies, and I was invited to review papers for feminist journals. After that, it all stopped. I became an enemy. It was very alarming to me.
KRISTOL: This is because of your thought and argument, not because you discriminated against female students or something ridiculous like that?
SOMMERS: This was shocking, and I wrote about it, and I wrote about some other things. And then The Atlantic Monthly commissioned me to write a paper about feminist theory and women’s studies. I was not an authority on this except that I had encountered something troubling.
A lot of things about it were troubling. Not just the conspiracy theories. The denigration of men, it was almost as if women are from Venus and men are from hell. This seemed to be running through the books, and then there were statistics to prop up this very grim worldview, and they were ludicrous. At first, when I was writing The Atlantic piece I thought, “Well, maybe I’ll hire a statistician to look at these.” I didn’t need a statistician; these studies were preposterous. Claiming the AAUW had a study that girls have a massive loss of self-esteem, and this was supposed to be an American tragedy, they called it. And I called up some psychologists who had not come upon any such affliction and all kids sort of go up and down in adolescence, there was nothing remarkable going on with girls, and yet they had done this ridiculous specious study.
There were other statistics I questioned so it just seemed to me at the heart of the feminist theory was a body of egregiously false information and then the twisted theories. It was almost as if they took Karl Marx and crossed out class and put gender. It was tedious. And people were taking it seriously. Well, as you know, we kind of had a culture war in the 90s, which many of us felt we won because –
KRISTOL: So this article appeared in The Atlantic? I’m trying to remember.
SOMMERS: Actually, interestingly enough a version of it ended up in The New Republic because the feminist philosophers found out that I was writing it and they organized a campaign to persuade The Atlantic not to publish it and frightened them, and The Chronicle of Higher Education came to do a piece about this dangerous women and it turned out to be very sympathetic and the women philosophers were furious because they looked like censors and just trying to silence a woman who had some disagreements with them. They came off badly. So this started a long time ago and –
KRISTOL: This is the early 90s? Or late 80s?
SOMMERS: Early 90s. So that’s – and then after when I was researching the paper for The Atlantic, which ended up in The New Republic and it ended up being Who Stole Feminism – I mean, it was the research that led to the book Who Stole Feminism – so then I learned more and more and I went to the National Women’s Studies Association in 1992, and I took my sister with me who’s a psychologist and she found it clinically interesting because even then you saw the identity politics spinning out of control.
This was an academic conference but it was all about our grievances and our healing needs, and we were supposed to break down in groups based on our oppression identity. So there was a group for Jewish women, Asian women, Black women, overweight women. None of the groups proved stable; everybody was fighting because the gay black women wanted to separate and the gay Jewish women wanted to separate. And then there was an eruption from a group of women who were furious at all of us because they had been marginalized. Women with allergies, they had a list of demands that next year no one would bring clothes that were dry-cleaned, wear perfume, and so forth.
And then the eco-feminists were furious because they were serving cream with the coffee. It was – my sister said, “It’s a conference of borderline personalities.” And I said, “No, it’s just nervous, overwrought feminists.” Because by then I was sort of used to it, but through my sister’s eyes, I could see the madness. So it was there but it’s almost as if today when I go to Oberlin or Georgetown or same things, similar thing happened at UCLA, what I think these are like the daughters of those women who were at that Austin conference. So they passed that along through their classrooms, these gender scholars.
KRISTOL: And so, and you are a feminist. Not that one has to be and it would be legitimate to criticize that, I suppose, sort of in toto, but that’s not your position, as I understand it, right?
SOMMERS: I’ve always defended equity feminism. Basic enlightenment, classical feminism, that women are the equal to men, and we deserve the same rights and opportunities and dignity and freedom. Everything Mary Wollstonecraft wanted and then John Stuart Mill and Susan B. Anthony, down to the second wave of feminism.
The early days, there were actual conservatives and liberals that worked together. If you look at the Equal Pay Act and many of the Supreme Court rulings, it was with conservative courts where women won some of the greatest victories. The basic rights – you know, had been problematic for women where you were, could be arbitrarily fired because you got pregnant or if you were married – that sort of thing.
Those were pushed out. So, of course, I believe in that. I think it’s a great American success story, something to be proud of. But today and I’ve been arguing since I went to that feminist conference or read those textbooks, this is not what feminism should be, it’s not what it’s about. And for that I am considered dangerous.
KRISTOL: Is there a moment, just looking at the history of feminism, is there a moment where you think it decisively goes off – is a kind of key juncture where equity feminism is replaced by –
SOMMERS: Yes, I would think it was probably the battle over the ERA. I think it was the battle over the ERA. Because in many ways, but again everyone wanted – there was no way the ERA wasn’t going to pass. It had gone through states and conservatives and liberals, several Republican presidents supported it.
Phyllis Schlafly was – someone, I think, called her from a bookstore and said, “Come and debate the ERA,” and she didn’t know much about it, and she said, “Well, I don’t know what I think of it, let me debate –” She was more interested in arms control and so forth.
She read about it, and she had this idea that these women were not simply, it wasn’t simply about equality they wanted to erase the sex difference so things like girls’ schools and boys’ schools wouldn’t be allowed or you’d have women in combat with – she thought they were going to do that so she started debating them.
KRISTOL: This is the mid-70s, I guess?
SOMMERS: Yeah and they said, “Yes, that’s what we want to do.” It had widespread support because I think a lot of people were equity feminists, and it was almost a gesture of respect and regard for women and acknowledgement of women’s equality, but there were hardline feminist who really were much more ambitious, and I think that’s what Phyllis Schlafly showed.
And then as she would go and tell women, and she launched one of the greatest sort of grassroots campaigns in American history because she would get groups of women to look at what it would mean and women who thought maybe they were in favor of it, then they would see what it would mean to American society.
And they started to turn against it and then it went backwards. And, I mean, the votes. People started rescinding their votes, and they just started to lose. So what happened is the feminists who pushed it and who had a very ambitious agenda were so bitter and so angry and they felt they’d been let down. But you know, if you go back you’ll see that they could have passed it.
There was once a debate on Firing Line between, I guess it was Phyllis Schlafly and someone from NOW. And you could tell that Bill Buckley was kind of in favor of the ERA because he, like everyone else, just thought it was reasonable and fair, you had to be a curmudgeon to be against it.
And during the debate Phyllis Schlafly said, “Well, if they would just have a provision that they weren’t going to require that we eliminate every manifestation of difference. If they wouldn’t put women in combat and they wouldn’t ban single-sex schools.” And then Mr. Buckley, “Well, surely.” He said this to the women, “Well, now you’re not going to do that.” She said, “Yes, we are”. And you could see he was very surprised. So this was going to be a program for radical social engineering, and this was back in the 70s. Women in combat, that’s controversial right now, that’s controversial in the military, even among women in the military. Most of them don’t want to be in combat.
It was really the women in combat issue that was pretty powerful, to persuade women, what is this all about? Well, anyway, those women who lost ERA, a lot of them retreated into their enclaves and into the universities and they learned a lot about organization from this campaign. They had lost but they had not lost their resolve and they have been working ever since. And everyone else thought, “Ok, let’s move on,” they never moved on and that kind of hardline feminism, it had this center of – in the universities where it has tenure.
KRISTOL: And how – feminism was about strengthening women or women being strong, let’s say, and being treated equally, obviously, now it’s not about women or –
SOMMERS: I call it fainting-couch feminism. It’s Victorian. It’s a worldview now has become, you know, a kind of a battle between fragile fair maidens, injured little birds, and then these male predators. It’s absurd what’s going on.
KRISTOL: Do you think people believe it? I’ve always wondered this. Most girls, if I can use that term, most women or girls on campus really feel that way, or are they just sort of taken advantage of by a few ideologues and a few of them are persuaded to come demonstrate when you speak?
SOMMERS: Right. Do they really believe it? I don’t think so. I think the majority of people are resilient and sensible, and professors can say a lot of things and you don’t really take it seriously. However, there’s, in almost every college, there’s a small group around the women’s center and they believe it. They believe in these theories about the patriarchy and male toxicity and so forth. And they have been empowered. I think the reason that we’re seeing so much acting out now and what I encountered at Oberlin, at Georgetown, at UCLA, this is happening because of a specific event, which is in October of, when I was, in 2011.
I think it was April 24th, 2011. The Assistant Secretary of Civil Rights sent out a “Dear Colleague” letter reading colleges the riot act about the rape culture and saying you have to take draconian measures or these young women can sue. And so these young women were suddenly, they could be litigious – so you add the bitterness, the false statistics, this paranoid view about the world, and you can sue anyone who questions you.
We just had a professor at Northwestern, a liberal feminist, who posted an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education making fun of this whole, all of silliness about trigger warnings and safe spaces and microagression. She made fun of it.
Well, two young women at Northwestern brought a Title IX lawsuit, and her university investigated the professor for the contents of her article. And people say, “Oh well, the system worked because she was found not guilty”. No, you should not be investigated for an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education. I’m sure now I would be constantly investigated.
KRISTOL: That’s what’s so striking about it. It’s so contrary, it seems, to me, in just this sort of obvious way – there are two things, there’s the feminist side of it and the academic side of it. The academy, it’s one thing if she were consistently giving male students A’s and female students B’s, then someone could legitimately complain, and that’s in the university’s provenance, of grades. There’s no such claim, never such a claim. She writes an article? And you can investigate people? Isn’t that sort of contrary to the whole principle of the university? I mean –
SOMMERS: Absolutely, and if the universities are going to become – instead of pursuing these ideals of, of free expression and the pursuit of truth and they replace it with the pursuit of safety and creating comfort zones and safety zones. Those universities will lose their reason for being.
Since the time of Socrates, the academy, education has been associated with debate and discussion, and contentiousness, and without that, what do you have? Well, what you have is, I don’t know, these little islands of repression, as they call it. Universities are now islands of repression in a sea of freedom. I think it’s time to liberate these islands but I don’t know who’s going to do that right now. Who has the power to challenge? Because to challenge the sort of feminist juggernaut that exists on campus can be career annihilating.
Even if you’re Larry Summers, President of Harvard University, then who could be more entitled and more empowered? And he was driven out, largely, because he dared to entertain the possibility that there might be some differences between men and women that could explain the – there’s so many more men than women in higher education, I mean in the sciences.
KRISTOL: I guess what strikes me as someone who doesn’t follow this as closely as you – feminism, I think I once sort of understood what it was and get to debate various aspects of it, and I mean now has come so complicated and confusing. Is feminism about strengthening women or about women being weak? Is it about gender really matters and we need to be serious about that, or gender is a total invention and the difference is arbitrary? How did that happen?
SOMMERS: If you’re asking, is it a consistent body of beliefs? No. It is full of contradictions and confusion. And you know, in principle, gender studies could have been an interesting new discipline, but a new discipline, to have a new discipline suggests that there is a methodology that would be mastered. Where is that in gender studies? It doesn’t exist. It’s just, as I said, kind of a combination of twisted theories, derivative theory, and propaganda, in my opinion. Not that there isn’t some value here and there but overall it has not had the benefit of criticism.
You suddenly have a group of scholars but lots of types of criticism are out of order, not permitted. There’s a system of quality of control in the academy, which is not just – it is, “You will be criticized and you will have to give an accounting.” Well, they just haven’t had to do that and so for years they can go on, “Oh, gender is a social construction,” Well, who thinks that? You have to have years of gender studies to believe that. Not that’s is purely biological, it’s obviously a complicated mix of biology and culture, but, you know, there’s no society in the entire anthropological record where you find the men are the nurturers and the women are the, you know, soldiers. They don’t exist.
Again and again, we see that it’s real. There’s something, femininity and masculinity are real and most people, not all, but most people, many of the stereotypes are true. That women do tend to be more nurturing and risk-adverse and have usually a richer emotional vocabulary, and men tend to be a little less explicit about their emotions, emotionally flattened – we’ll say, stoical to be nice. More stoical, more competitive and they do engage in a lot of risky behavior, for better or worse. Men tend to show up at the extremes of success and failure more than women because they are sometimes more – single-minded in the pursuit of, more obsessive pursuits – more likely to do that than women.
But you take gender studies and they say, “Oh, it’s all a social construction”. Unless you’re gay, then they say, “Okay, that’s just the way they are,” and then if you’re trans, I don’t know how they’re going it account for that. And what I say, I do believe that these are legitimate human rights movements – the gay rights movement, the trans movement – but I don’t think, whatever we’re in, third wave, forth wave feminism is a legitimate human rights movement. I think it’s just a group of people who have gone off in an extreme and they’re pretending to be part of these other efforts but they’re not. And they’re also at war with – they say, “Oh, we’re for sexual liberation”. But they’re not really because if you’re conventionally feminine, which many women are, or conventionally masculine, then they problematize that or they feel sorry for you or they think you don’t have free will.
KRISTOL: What’s sad about gender studies, I always thought this when I was briefly in the academy, is it’s a very interesting topic. I mean, it wouldn’t be foolish to organize a course, and people have, for decades and centuries, on men and women and literature and history and women who were – if you want to use this term – atypical. And how did Queen Elizabeth and Margret Thatcher succeed in societies that weren’t friendly to them? There are all kinds of lessons to be learned but actually there’s no actual study of gender and gender studies because if you actually studied them you would say all the things you just said eloquently, but all of which were politically incorrect, and you couldn’t say, I suppose. Or could you say it in a class that’s –
SOMMERS: There are too many forbidden topics, too many forbidden topics and too many sort of ideological purity tests. And so you get a group of like-minded people marching in mostly sisterly solidarity and it’s – and as I said, these people have tenure. And we were talking before about the culture war in the 90s, well, I felt like my side won the argument, and even among feminists there were a group of us who were against Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin and at the time they wanted to censor, you know, the Playboy magazine and we were against it and almost everybody agreed with us.
Even at that time, my defense of moderate feminists and questioning – they were talking about the rape culture even then and there just wasn’t an evidence of such a thing. And New York Magazine and the New York Times and the Washington Post were mostly on my side, our side, of the debate.
But, at the same time, while we were winning these arguments and then the media kind of got bored with the whole thing, these women were quietly, were assuming assistant professorships. So they had been training with the same textbooks that I had found. The textbooks even became more unhinged, and irresponsible, one-sided, and so you have, by now, the graduates of these programs and they’re coming out and starting their blogs, their podcasts, and they’re journalists and they’re busy and they’re very impatient to change the society, and I don’t know if people realized what they learned and how little they understand about gender because they were raised on dogma and ideology, not any encounter with knowledge or with science of sex differences.
The science on sex difference is an interesting debate – and a very volatile and constantly changing. That’s not what you typically get in gender studies.
KRISTOL: People like me, I’ve always had a tendency – well, there’s a lot of silliness in the academy but who cares? I think there are two ways, and you’ve written on both, in which it has an effect. One is sort of freedom of speech and even of thought in the academy, especially when those same people you’re describing become administrators and then when the Obama Administration hands down an edict that makes it so much easier to sue, and suddenly you have a pretty big complex, don’t you, of administrators and lawyers and assistant deans and feminist professors and a few students who really are curtailing freedom of inquiry on campus, aren’t they?
SOMMERS: And now you have the lawyers who, oh you know, always want to err on the side of, “everybody just keep quiet and be as, say things that are just within the range of approved views,” and then you have these busybodies, these apparatchiks who get a salary for being busybodies and making rules and commissioning studies. There’s now a proliferation of phony studies on abuse and how – and actually there is a binge drinking culture on campus and there are sexual assaults. It is a serious problem, but it is not an epidemic comparable to the war-torn Congo but the statistics that are routinely used –
KRISTOL: Yeah, what about this 1-in-5 female college students have been the victims of sexual assault?
SOMMERS: It’s the result of advocacy research. It’s a result of, you can get that, you can get very alarming findings if you’re willing to interview a non-representative sample of people and if you’re willing to have definitions that are very broad, that include a lot of behavior most of us don’t think of as assault or certainly not criminally prosecutable assault. If you just play with those, you can get an epidemic.
And that’s what they do over and over again. Now the Bureau of Justice statistics does their annual crime survey, and they find one, that rape, like all crimes, is way down. It’s, I think, a 41-year low or something extraordinary, and they also find that it’s not 1 in 4, or 1 in 5, that they looked specifically at the campus and found a figure something like, I don’t know, 1 in 50. Still too much but it is not the same.
The difference between the war-torn Congo and, you know, the United States, it’s a huge difference. And, they have the best-trained criminologists and statisticians and they do all the proper controls. But their data is not taken seriously. People go for the advocacy research and again I saw that happening. Mary Koss, she was handpicked by Gloria Steinem, she was a researcher, I think she was at Kent State, and she did a rape study and found an epidemic, and then that was, you know, that was her ticket. She was then at the University of Arizona and called in as an expert, and cited as 1 in 4, 1 in 4, but it wasn’t until the Assistant Secretary of Education sort of gave the 1-in-4 activist – now they say 1 in 5 – gave them this tool. Really, she weaponized their paranoia.
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