"Who Stole Feminism? How Women Have Betrayed Women," by Christina Hoff Sommers (Simon and Schuster, 320 pp.; $23, hardcover). Reviewed by Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen, professor of psychology and resident scholar at the Center for Christian Women in Leadership, Eastern College, Saint Davids, Pennsylvania.
Philosopher and feminist scholar Christina Hoff Sommers, who teaches ethics at Clark University, is no stranger to the pages of CT. In her article "How to Teach Right and Wrong: A Blueprint for Moral Education in a Pluralistic Age" (CT, Dec. 13, 1993, pp. 33-37), Sommers made a timely plea to resurrect the teaching of personal or "virtue" ethics alongside the more standard curriculum of "applied" ethics. While the latter focuses heavily on moral dilemmas concerning issues such as euthanasia, capital punishment, DNA research, business practices, and gender relations, virtue ethics draws on classical, medieval, and other traditions that analyze the character traits-courage, temperance, humility, compassion, honesty, and so on-deemed essential to a mature, moral person. Sommers's point was that only if personal character development is given its due can we hope to produce the kind of people who are capable of recognizing, let alone creating, a truly just society.
SCHISMS IN FEMINIST IDEOLOGY
In "Who Stole Feminism?" Sommers engages in a detailed critique of certain feminists whose behavior she considers decidedly unvirtuous. She is, she tells us, "a feminist who does not like what feminism has become." In order to appreciate her exegesis of this statement we first need to be reminded that feminism, like Christianity, is a multidenominational movement. Moreover, just as various expressions of Christianity wax and wane in their strength and societal influence, so do the various forms of feminism. We do not, for example, hear nearly as much these days from Marxist feminists as we did in the decades before the collapse of the Berlin Wall.
Sommers locates herself in the tradition of liberal feminism, which she also calls "mainstream feminism," "humanist feminism," "equity feminism," "traditional feminism," and "legitimate feminism." This proliferation of labels may confuse the uninitiated, and Sommers's assumption that liberal feminism represents the "true purpose" of the women's movement should certainly raise the suspicions of any Christian reader who recognizes the mixed character, theologically speaking, of Enlightenment-based liberal political theory—about which I will say more later.
In Sommers's words, liberal feminism asks for "a fair field and no favors"—that is, for equality of opportunity but not necessarily equality of outcomes, let alone any preferential treatment for women. Additionally, liberal feminism downplays behavioral differences between the sexes (whether rooted in nature, nurture, or both) in order to emphasize their common humanness, especially their common possession of rationality and autonomy. Indeed, it was the argument that women are no less rational and autonomous than men that undergirded early feminist campaigns for women's equality under the law, in education, and in voting and office-holding rights.
The basic tenets of liberal feminism are now so taken for granted in North America that when people (including many Christians) say, "I'm not a feminist, but … " they usually go on to endorse some version of the liberal feminist agenda outlined above. All well and good, writes Sommers: this is exactly what "legitimate" feminists of both sexes should be endorsing. The reason so many people do not want to call themselves feminists is that the term has been co-opted by an increasingly powerful and vocal minority of women academics, activists, and bureaucrats who represent an unhealthy blend of radical and postmodern feminism. Variously referred to by Sommers as "new feminists," "gynocentric feminists," "resentment feminists," and (most often) "gender feminists," these women embrace the assumption that women's oppression is the most basic form of oppression-that is, that women were historically the first oppressed group, and that theirs is the most universally found form of oppression, as well as the hardest to eradicate.
Sommers readily concedes that there is plenty of oppression against women worldwide still needing attention, but it annoys her to see white professional women claiming the high moral ground of victimhood. Instead of using their improved status to help women far less fortunate than themselves, Sommers charges, gender feminists focus most of their energies on decrying the evils perpetuated by men. They practice a hermeneutics of suspicion toward all heterosexual relations—for example, by making the definitions of date rape and sexual harassment so broad that even well-intentioned men are afraid to make the most innocent of friendly overtures.
At the same time, gender feminists deny that they have any responsibility for their own problems, affirming instead the superiority of women's "relational" morality over men's morality of competitiveness, power, and abstract individual justice. In their eyes, male sexism is the original sin, and women are the new creation. For Sommers, this not only paints gender relations in overly black-and-white terms, it also (ironically) plays right into the hands of gender traditionalists who want to reassign women to an economically dependent, domestic role on the grounds that they do not have the cognitive and ethical sensibilities men have for dealing with public life.
Sommers argues that, in addition to denying their own autonomy in favor of radical feminist notions of eternal victimhood, gender feminists have joined postmodern epistemologists in taking a low view of rationality and traditional scientific rigor. These they see as patriarchal, oppressive, and naively permeated by the myth of objectivity. Sommers admits that it is impossible to be totally impartial in one's teaching and scholarship, but claims that gender feminists have obliterated "the vital difference between courses taught in a disinterested manner and those taught to promote an ideology."
A CHRISTIAN FEMINIST CRITIQUE
What are we to make of Sommers's wholesale condemnation of gender feminism and her idealization of liberal feminism? The astute reader will already have noted that she is painting the same kind of simplistic, black-and-white contrast that she criticizes in the writings of gender feminists. In both cases, the truth, from a Christian feminist perspective, lies somewhere in between. On the one hand, it is wrong to treat male sexism as the original sin instead of pride and idolatry, which are common to all humans. On the other hand, distortions in gender relations are part of the ongoing "fallout" of the Fall, and those distortions reach well beyond the legal and educational reforms emphasized by liberal feminists. For example, I believe that without the prodding of radical feminists in the 1970s and '80s-with their insistence that "the personal is political"-both the church and society at large would have taken a lot longer than they did to acknowledge the existence and extent of (mostly male-initiated) physical, emotional, and sexual abuse.
I have already noted that, like liberal political theory in general, liberal feminism stresses the rights, rationality, and autonomy of individuals. The very notion of individual personhood and dignity is rooted in the early church's struggle to understand the freedom and unconstrained love of God, in whose image human beings are made. Thus, in many respects, liberal feminism is a secular continuation of the historic Christian affirmation (often, we should admit, honored more in the breach than in the observance) that all human beings are equally bearers of God's image, equally called to exercise their vocations within God's kingdom community. But the very secularization of this doctrine by liberals and liberal feminists alike should trouble the Christian reader. For one thing, it treats atomized individuals, rather than families and communities, as the only relevant unit of analysis—a mistake that radical feminists, for all their attempts to redefine the shape of family and community—do not make.
In addition, liberal feminists, Sommers included, tend to talk as if the problem of distorted gender relationship can be solved simply by moving women into the public sphere—the so-called sphere of rationality and impartial justice—on the same terms as men. She shows no recognition of the parallel need for men to assume more responsibility on the home front if women are not to burn out from a double burden of public and domestic tasks. Largely absent from her analysis is any critique of the classic liberal dichotomy between public and private, which removes not only matters of sexuality and childrearing from public discourse, but also everything rooted in religion-which, being "subjective" and "irrational," is relegated to the realm of private pastime by liberal political theorists.
Although Sommers has Orthodox Jewish in-laws, and sends her son to a Jewish school, there is no evidence that she recognizes the validity—let alone the inevitability—of doing scholarship within the bounds of a religious world-view. She is quite right to be concerned about lack of rigor and blanket disdain for traditional science among some gender feminists. Christians and other theists must indeed struggle with the relationship between natural and special revelation, between reason and religion as sources for scholarly reflection. But Sommers's liberal faith in the autonomy of reason leads her to dismiss too easily the postmodern feminist acknowledgment that all scholarship begins in and is sustained by a prescientific, "world-viewish" vision of actual and/or ideal reality. It is precisely because many religious people refuse to relegate their faith to a private corner of their lives that they invest so much money and effort in their own schools, hospitals, and other institutions where they can practice what they believe-namely, that all of life is religious.
As I finished reading "Who Stole Feminism?" I had a visit to my office from a senior student who had taken my psychology of gender course and was about to graduate. She was holding a copy of World Vision Canada's video describing their recently launched "Girl Child" project. This is an international effort to reduce the gap that, according to UN studies, separates women from men-beginning in childhood-in terms of health, literacy, and economic prosperity in all nations of the world, but especially in the Two-Thirds world. As a result of having watched the video and taken gender-studies courses in a Christian college context, this student had decided to spend her first postgraduate year as an intern in an international agency concerned with women in developing countries. Would I be willing to write a recommendation letter for her? Indeed I would. Not only was she a competent student and thoughtful feminist, but as a result of her strongly developed Christian world-view, she felt a calling to tithe her talents for the sake of women and girls who struggle with much greater burdens than women in the Western world. Although neither liberal, radical, nor postmodern feminists have an adequate understanding of a fully orbed biblical feminism, I think that both Christina Hoff Sommers and her gender feminist adversaries would be proud of this student's vision for gender justice. I know I was.
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