This interview originally appeared in the July 18 edition of Ravishly.
Christina Sommers isn't what most of us would call a "typical" feminist; in fact, she shudders at the very notion. Rather than focus on the perceived "oppression" of American women, she instead champions the notion that in fact, we're among the most privileged people on earth. She has written seven books including her most recent work, Freedom Feminism—Its Surprising History and Why it Matters Today and is currently a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute where she vlogs every week on the intersection of ethics, American culture, adolescence and of course, feminism.
When an Economist/YouGov poll revealed that 72% of American women do not identify as a feminist, the world began to wonder if the movement was dead altogether, or if we just needed a new moniker for the continued struggle for gender equality. More complicated still, even self-identified feminists can't agree on what equal even means. While Sommers insists that the feminist movement is far from "marginal" or "irrelevant" to contemporary culture, she believes that reforming much of the current rhetoric is vital to actual progress and that the genders are "inextricably tied." The sexes can't be warring tribes; we've got to help one another maintain equal footing across the socio-economic-cultural board. (Say that three times fast.)
Ravishly got the chance to ask Sommers a few, "am-I-a-feminist?" questions of our own.
Ravishly: Tell me a little bit about your background. Where did you grow up? What was your childhood like? When did you decide to dedicate yourself to the ethics and philosophy surrounding gender—was there a pivotal catalyst that spurred your studies?
Dr. Sommers: I grew up in Southern California with bookish, liberal parents. The primary religion in our house was the Democratic Party. Other parents take five-year-olds to meet Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny; mine took me to shake hands with Adlai Stevenson, the candidate who opposed Eisenhower in the 1956 election. (Looking back, Stevenson was a fine man and I am glad to have met him.) Anyway, my parents’ love of politics, ideas and debate stuck with me—though I have strayed somewhat from the family religion. In my senior year of high school, I picked up a copy of Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy that had found its way into the house. I fell in love with both Russell and the great philosophers. A philosophy major was born!
Ravishly: You wrote your first book on ethics in 1986, but Who Stole Feminism? seems to have really put you on the national radar for feminist discourse. The book—as far as I understand—seemed to set the foundation for your career in terms of "equity" feminism, was greeted with equal praise and criticism. People even went as far as to call you an "anti-feminist in disguise." Did you have any idea of the kind of rippling impact this book would have?
Dr. Sommers: When Who Stole Feminism? came out in 1994, I knew hard-line academic feminists would not like it. Though my book was strongly feminist, I rejected the idea that American women were oppressed, and I poked fun at fads like “gynocriticism” and “herstory.” But I expected mainstream women—including sensible feminists—would like it. And many did. I received fan mail from women like Nadine Strossen, then President of the American Civil Liberties Union, and from the feminist novelist Erica Jong. And I will always treasure an encouraging note from the late novelist Iris Murdoch. But the academic feminists reacted ferociously. They did not appreciate my plea for moderation and good will toward men. "Thug," "parasite," "dangerous," a "female impersonator" —those are some of the labels applied to me. 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." I never saw that one coming!
Ravishly: It seems that one of the conflicts surrounding modern-day feminism—which Forbes writer Bill Frizza touched upon in his recent interview with you on RealClearRadioHour—is that feminists' efforts are diluted and fractioned because there are so many different camps of women fighting (some only conceptually) for different things. Do you agree? Is there a way for women focused respectively on the wage gap, reproductive rights, religious oppression, #freethenipple and/or the kind of humanist feminism you're striving for, to align forces and actualize more change/awareness?
Dr. Sommers: That depends. I do not see women united around closing the wage gap—because the wage gap is largely the result of women pursing their interests. We tend to enter fields like teaching and psychology rather than higher-paying fields like petroleum engineering. And we are more distracted by children. Reproductive rights?
Women are unlikely to unite around that cause. There is too much legitimate disagreement. I happen to be pro-choice, but I respect and understand the views of pro-life women and men. Free the nipple? That is not a cause I know much about, nor wish to. But there are many issues that could galvanize and unite American women. We might be able to find sensible, liberty-respecting ways to curb some of the misogyny in popular culture. Helping women in the developing world with their struggle for liberation is another unifying cause.
Ravishly: In the new video series that you've created with American Enterprise—"Factual Feminist"—you recently answered the question, "Why Call Yourself a Feminist?" A reader wrote in and asked you to drop the moniker because it's been so "sullied" with man-hating rhetoric. You basically responded that you simply want women to be "free, responsible, self-determining beings." That your concept of feminism has nothing to do with "denigrating men or fixating on victimhood." How do your studies and writings help forge a much-needed, "healthy, evidence-based women's movement." What does evidence-based mean exactly?
Dr. Sommers: Classical equality of opportunity feminism (I call it “freedom feminism”) is a legitimate human rights movement. There were arbitrary laws holding women back. Women organized and set things right. But, as I try to show in my writings, reality-based movement has been hijacked by male-averse, conspiracy-minded activists. (I call them “gender feminists"). American women happen to be among the freest, most self-determining people in the world, but the gender feminists seek to liberate them from an all-encompassing “patriarchal rape culture.” What is their evidence that such a culture exits? They point to their own research as proof. But most of that research, including their famous statistics on women’s victimization, is spurious. Gender feminism is the opposite of an evidence-based movement—it’s propaganda based. Social movements fueled by paranoia and fantasy tend to be toxic.
Ravishly: What's your take-away from the #YesAllWomen phenomenon? Is it more gasoline on the gender-dividing fire, a societal zeitgeist or something in the middle?
Dr. Sommers: Hashtag feminism (e.g. #YesAllWomen) is a scourge. It brings out the worst in contemporary feminism: injustice-collecting, trauma-valorizing, male-bashing. It also encourages group think and vigilanteeism. Other than that, it’s fine.
Ravishly: What's the most interesting thing you've learned recently?
Dr. Sommers: I only recently came to appreciate the limited power of logic, reason and evidence to change minds. Most of us, whether we know it or not, are driven by emotion and group loyalty. Cognitive scientists have long known about a phenomenon called “motivated reasoning”—we tend to use logic and reason, not to discover what we believe, but to confirm what we already think we know. Instead of changing our minds in the face of contradictory evidence, we are more likely to seize on rationalizations for what we already believe. I see this tendency in myself once in a while and try mightily to resist it.
Ravishly: If you weren't a feminist author/philosopher, what would you be doing?
Dr. Sommers: I think the luckiest people in the world are musicians and singers. I studied violin, piano and voice when I was younger. I am not sure I had the talent, but I would have loved to have been a classical musician or singer.
Ravishly: What's next on the horizon?
Dr. Sommers: The Millennials have been cheated out of a serious education by their Baby Boomer teachers. Call it a generational swindle. Even the best and brightest among the 20-somethings have been shortchanged. Instead of great books, they wasted a lot of time with third-rate political tracts and courses with titles like "Women Writers of the Oklahoma Panhandle." Instead of spending their college years debating and challenging received ideas, they had to cope with speech codes and identity politics. College educated young women in the U.S. are arguably the most fortunate people in history; yet many of them have drunk deeply from the gender feminist Kool-Aid. Girls at Yale, Haverford and Swarthmore see themselves as oppressed. That is madness. And madness can only last so long. So, I plan to continue writing books and articles, making my Factual Feminist videos and lecturing at as many campuses and laws schools as I can. American colleges have been described as islands of repression in a sea of freedom. I want to encourage rebellion among the islanders.
Follow Christina Sommers @Chsommers and check out her Factual Feminist Video Blog.