Who Stole Feminism? by Christina Hoff Sommers: a book review

My recent futile encounter with the scary ladies on the I Blame the Patriarchy website led me to read this fascinating book.

Christina Hoff Sommers explains here the difference between “equity feminists” and “gender feminists”. The equity feminists are those who campaigned for equal rights for women before the law and in education and work. Gender feminists are women with a permanent grievance who see all women as in thrall to the evil Patriarchy. The book is subtitled “How Women Have Betrayed Women” and it explains how gender feminism has alienated most women and left them eager to deny the “feminist” label.

Gender feminists dismiss the very real gains that women have made in legal rights, and in equality at work and in education as illusory, to them women are still subordinate to an oppressive patriarchal society. Ms Sommers writes:

The loss of faith in classically liberal solutions, coupled with the conviction that women remain beseiged and subject to a relentless and vicious male backlash, has turned the movement inward. We hear very little today about how women can join with men on equal terms to contribute to a universal human culture. Instead, feminist ideology has taken a divisive, gynocentric turn, and the emphasis now is on women as a political class, whose interests are at odds with the interests of men. Women must be loyal to women, united in principled hostility to the males who seek to hold fast to their patriarchal privileges and powers.

Reading this passage, I recognised the philosophy of the I Blame the Patriarchy group, who are one and all firmly convinced that there is a great masculine conspiracy to subordinate women.

Much of the book is about gender feminists attempting to alter school and college curricula to make them less oppressive to women. She can be very funny describing their excesses, as in this passage where she describes how a group of gender feminists were hoist with their own petard:

When McIntosh, Minnich, and their followers demanded that the oppressive European, white, male culture being taught in the schools be radically transformed, they had not imagined that anyone could look upon THEM as oppressors. Most members of the women of colour caucus boycotted the 19992 Austin National Women's Studies Conference I attended for its failure to recognise and respect THEIR political identity. The slighted group sent the conferees an African-American women's quilt made from dashiki fabrics, as both a reprimand and a 'healing gesture'. The assembled white feminists sat before it in resentful but guilty silence. In the game of moral one-upmanship that gender feminists are so good at they had been outquilted, as it were, by a more marginalized constituency.

Much of the book is about gender feminists' activity on university campuses, and although it is interesting in its way I found myself getting slightly bored by it, as I am not very interested in university life, but the book became interesting again when it began to discuss the way statistics are distorted by gender feminists to support theories that turn out to be unsound to say the least.

Domestic violence, for instance, is a serious subject, and gender feminists do not do anything to help this serious problem by making wildly inaccurate claims about the numbers of women who are battered. Inaccurate claims are also made about wife-beating in past times, when it was not in fact as widely tolerated as gender feminists believe. According to Ms Sommers, there were laws against wife-beating in America since before the Revolution, and by 1870 it was illegal in almost every state, but even before then wife-beaters were arrested and punished for assault and battery. She quotes a scholarly article by Elizabeth Peck:

It has often been claimed that wife-beating in nineteenth-century America was legal.... Actually, though, several states passed statutes legally prohibiting wife-beating: and at least one statute even predates the American Revolution. The Massachusetts Bay Colony prohibited wife-beating as early as 1655. The edict states “No man shall strike his wife nor any woman her husband on penalty of such fine not exceeding ten pounds for one offense, or such corporal punishment as the County shall determine.”

The chapter on “Rape Research” likewise shows how figures on the number of women raped have been wildly exaggerated, to figures as high as one in four, with no evidence to support this claim. Ms Sommers points out that the women who get most attention and money directed towards rape prevention are university women, whereas in fact the aid could be more usefully directed towards impoverished areas where rape is much more frequent. The women who get most protection from rape are the women who are least at risk.

The final chapter of the book “The Gender Wardens” was the most interesting to me, because this most directly relates to my experiences on the I Blame the Patriarchy site. There are a lot of women who, apparently, believe that fantasies should be controlled, and women should be educated NOT to have fantasies about being dominated, ravished, etc. Rhett Butler in “Gone With the Wind” comes in for much disapproval.

Ms Sommers writes of the gender feminists:

They condescend to, patronise and pity the benighted females who, because they have been “socialised” in the sex/gender system, cannot help wanting the wrong things in life. Their disdain for the hapless victims of patriarchy is rarely acknowledged. When feminists talk of a new society and of how people must be changed, they invariably have in mind men who exploit and abuse women. But it is not difficult to see that they regard most women as men's dupes.

One of the things that apparently upsets gender feminists a lot is romantic fiction, and particularly the scene in Gone With the Wind where Rhett ravishes Scarlett. A survey found that most GWTW fans found the scene exciting. One respondent put it:

Scarlett's story is that of a woman who has lousy sex from two incompetent husbands (a “boy” and an “old man” as Rhett reminds her) who knew nothing about women. At last she finds out what good sex feels like, even if (or probably because) her first experience takes place in mutual inebriation and a spirit of vengeful anger.

The idea of “mutually pleasurable rough sex” is not high on the gender feminist list of entertainments. All the same, if the New Feminist philosophers were honest about taking women seriously, they would be paying attention to what, in most women's minds, is a fundamental distinction: Scarlett was ravished, not raped. The next morning finds her relishing the memory. Ms Friedman's insistence that Scarlett was raped was just another example of how gender feminists, estranged from the women they claim to represent, tend to view male/female relations as violent or humiliating to women.

Apparently gender feminists would like to see a new kind of romantic fiction featuring gentle, sensitive men and love affairs of perfect equality, but they have not had much success promoting this idea. Romance fans by the million continue to read their politically incorrect romances.

Ms Sommers goes on to say:

Defending women who enjoy the idea of ravishment is not the same as holding a brief for any specific kind of fantasy or sexual preference. Fantasies of female domination are also popular. women are clearly capable of treating men as "sex objects" with an enthusiasm equal to, and in some cases exceeding, that of men for treating women as such. Male strip-shows seem to be as popular as Tupperware parties.

The belief that women should have only PC fantasies that conform to the gender feminist point of view is one that I encountered on the I Blame the Patriarchy website, so I am grateful to this book, which helped me to have a better understanding of what these very angry women are all about. They really do believe in crushing all freedom of thought.

This is a mostly highly interesting, informative, and frequently amusing book.

Louise C

Take the Taken In Hand tour


Thanks for sticking it out

I can lose interest in a book real fast, so thanks for the summary. Seems to me books that discuss trends in society always go long, with too-subtle differences from one chapter to the next.

It is helpful to think of two basic distinctions within feminism. I guess it's helpful. I wonder if I know any feminists, actually.

Romantic Fiction

Just to pull a small piece out of your post, Louise, actually in recent years there's been a fairly successful transition in the romance novel field, to "gentle, sensitive men" and egalitarian relationships. And the books are still selling.

Now I enjoyed GWTW and "Sweet Savage Love" and all the thinly disguised D/s romance novels of the past (hey! Let's not forget The Sheik!) but the new novels aren't so bad either.

In the new novels, the conflict is not so much between the lovers, with the female being a "brat" who gets tamed by the male. Now, the conflict comes from outside the couple. They may have a dangerous enemy. Or they may be outside the bounds of society, so that they face disapproval.

He is a strong man, and she is a strong woman. She doesn't end up subordinate to him. They end up cooperating. And of course, madly in love. It's really not so dull and PC that the formula can't be enjoyed. It just happens not to ring bells around here.

For another view, I recommend "Public Sex" by Pat Califia. The chapters on BDSM are especially good but Califia takes some unpopular views, to say the least. Califia is not impressed by the picture of PC sex, which is a group of women holding hands and standing together in a circle, bare breasted.

Personally I don't care for having my thoughts squelched by anyone, but the "gender feminists" didn't start that. I seem to recall a Biblical line about not looking after a woman to lust after her. You could say religion doesn't want us to have any fantasies of our own either.


Romance novels

I don't read them much, so I don't know about the new trends really. The only romance novels I have read in recent years are those by Meg Cabot, where the comedy tends to be stressed over the romance, 'The Guy Next Door' which is told entirely in emails is hilarious. And when I was young I read Georgette Heyer, who also used to be on the light side, strong 'apha' heroes, but just as likely to be tamed by the heroine as the other way around.

I tend to read more murder mysteries, though you can get a lot of romance in those, Agatha Christie especially. Poirot's favourite occupation next to solving murders is matchmaking, he likes to see young people in love. You get a lot of good strong female characters in Christie, but you can also get a tinge of the Taken In Hand approach. At the end of 'Murder in Mesopotamia', for instance, the narrator, Amy Leatheran, comments on the young woman who has been veering between her two suitors during the course of the book:

Sheila Reilly married young Emmott. I think that will be good for her. He's no door-mat—he'll keep her in her place. She'd have ridden roughshod over poor Bill Coleman.

I agree about religion being oppresive about sexual fantasies too, but the whole point of feminism, which is the theme of Christina Hoff Sommers's book, is that it was supposed to be a movement to liberate women and give them more freedom of choice, whereas for gender feminists it seems to be about replacing one set of restrictions with another equally, or even more rigid.

In my little universe

Where do these extreme women on the “I blame men website” live? I haven’t come across one. I live in the U.S. on the West Coast at the moment, but have lived in different areas of the U.S. because of my husband’s job. If anything, when I stopped working to have kids, everyone was happy for me, and the women who worked had to defend themselves (a little) why they weren’t home with their kids. I realize gender feminists must be out there because many women on this site talk about defending themselves from them. I was wondering if it was more prevalent in one area than another or am I just oblivious to them?

In my little universe, my form of feminism is trying to let the men I come across know it isn’t right when they tell me “Hey baby, I could wrap those long legs around me twice” or “Why are woman allowed to drive?” I don’t think men should talk to me that way. Or when I hear women, on this website, refer to it as “whining”, when their friend expresses frustration because their husband is non existent in the relationship and has been for years. I think women should be better to women. I feel that’s a form of feminism because I just don’t think men care much if we women don’t give each other respect, so I feel like it’s up to us to be good to each other in that way.

I love my female friends, complaining and all. We need each other in a healthy rounded life. I love men, sexist remarks and all. There aren’t that many rude men but the loud obnoxious ones force my attention, maybe like the loud obnoxious feminists have forced some of your attention.


I Don't Know Where They Are

I wouldn't know, Kaylee, because I have not really run into a whole lot of "gender feminists" or total man-haters in my lifetime.

When I stopped working to raise our son, I made new friends, and they were Moms who were home with their kids. The only person who seemed to have a problem with my staying home to raise a child was my husband's (ex) friend, a very self-centered man who probably was aghast at the thought of having to live frugally. He was the one person who urged my husband to "make" me go back to work.

My big suspicion is that the great majority of these people are to be found on college campuses, teaching women's studies courses. I seriously don't see them as being all over the horizon.

As for complaining about husbands, well, men go off in huddles to crab about their wives too. My husband has had to listen to it from several male halves of our couple friends. Shall we say these men were flagrantly disrespectful of their wives and therefore didn't deserve them? I have no doubt that some of their complaints weren't all that well founded either.

And I bet they are envious of my husband because he's got me!

I also don't equate having complaints about one's husband with "gender feminism" or what I used to call "radical, separatist feminism." Lots of women need to get with their friends and let off some steam, and they may well go back to their husbands feeling better about the marriage for having vented. None of this means they are "blame the patriarchy" types.

In any case they don't seem to be in NYC either, at least not in the crowds I run with.


Where are they?

Well, judging by Christina Hoff Sommers, they are mostly in the academic world, at least that seems to be where she has encountered them, and where there seem to be a lot of them. Whether they exist much in the non-academic world I don't know, I've never encountered any here in the UK, though some of the women who post on IBTP site are British (the one who told me I ought to control my fantasies was I think).

I certainly don't equate complaining about your husband with gender feminism, what woman doesn't complain about her husband to her friends now and again? "Husbands are bound to irritate you no matter what they do" as Shirley Jackson wrote in 'Raising Demons'. Neither does Ms Sommers categorise complaining about husbands as 'gender feminism', she is writing about an extremeist tendency to categorise all men as engaged in an evil plot to suppress women, and a tendency to see everything as hopeless, and to dismiss the real advances that women have made in acheiving equality as illusory. This is the philosophy of the IBTP site.

"Why do they let women drive?" is a remark my husband frequently makes. He thinks all women are hopeless drivers. His remarks don't bother me as I don't drive, and as far as I know he has never actually told a woman driver to her face that he thinks she should'nt be driving, though he keeps up a constant commentary on this theme whenever we are out in the car. All his worst fears were confirmed last week when the paper carried a front-page picture of a woman who had been doing her makeup in the mirror as she was driving along. "What did I tell you?" he said triumphantly "I've always said women only use the mirror to do their makeup!"

Where they are

Yes, I think most radical feminists are found on university campuses much as other far leftists are often found. When I went to college there were also a lot of Communist professors and my college was referred to as "the little Red schoolhouse." Still, this didn't interfere with my education, so I could not care less what their opinions were.

The author of this book doesn't equate complaining about husbands with "gender feminism" but the person who posted "I blame the knee jerkers" apparently does since she said that the women on IBTP are "some of her best friends."

While I don't say women have made no strides in the past 30-40 years, I do see a strong right-wing trend today that is bent on taking those "equity feminism" gains away from us. It's also bent on taking gains away from other groups that have suffered similar discrimination. So while I don't buy into the "it's all a conspiracy by everyman against everywoman" idea, on the other hand I do see a reactionary trend out to take rights and civil liberties away from all of us who do not think as they do, women included. That's why I do agree with SOME of the positions stated in IBTP, though I don't use their same crude language in describing the issues.


Some work with me

There are a number of gender feminists at my school. They exist, you just have to be in the "right" place. They might not call themselves "gender feminists," but they definitely believe that the ills of the world are all the fault of the "patriarchy." Oh, what do they call themselves? "Ardent feminists."

Ardent feminists

I am reading 'Blue Shoes and Happiness' by Alexander McCall Smith at the moment. It's the latest in his series about the No.1 Ladies Detective Agency in Botswana. This conversation takes place between the detective Mma Ramotswe and her assistant Mma Makutsi, who has been asked by her fiancee if she is a feminist, and has said yes.

Mma Ramotswe sighed, "Oh dear" she said "I'm not sure that's the best answer to give in such circumstances. Men are very frightened of feminists."
"But I cannot lie" protested Mma Makutsi "Surely men don't expect us to lie? And anyway, Phuti is a kind man. He is not one of those men who is hostile to feminists because they are insecure underneath."
She's right about that, thought Mma Ramotswe. Men who put women down usually did so because they were afraid of women and wanted to build themselves up. But one had to be circumspect about these things. The term feminist could upset men needlessly because some feminists were so unpleasant to men. Neither she nor Mma Makutsi was that sort of person. They liked men, even if they knew that there were some types of men who bullied women. They would never stand for that of course, but at the same time they would not wish to be seen as hostile to men like Mr J.L.B. Matekoni or Phuti Radiphuti, or Mr Polopetsi, for that matter: Mr Polopetsi, who was so mild and considerate and badly-done-by.
"Im not saying that you should lie" said Mma Ramotswe quietly. "All I'm saying is that it's unwise to talk to men about feminism. It makes them run away. I have seen it many times before."
.......Beside her, in her own silence, Mma Makutsi was mulling over the brief exchange that she had had with Mma Ramotswe on the subject of feminism. Mma Ramotswe had been right—she was sure of that—and she had inadvertently frightened Phuti Radiphuti. It had been so foolish of her. Of course she believed in those things wich the feminists stood up for—the right of women to have a good job and be paid the same amount as men doing the same work; the right of women to be free of bullying by their husbands. But that was all just good common sense, fairness really, and the fact that you supported these goals did not make you one of those feminists who said that men were finished. How could they say such a thing? We were all people—men and women—and you could never say that one group of people was less important than another.

Thanks, Louise

Louise, that's a very good comment. I feel the term "feminist" has become an epithet just as the word "liberal" has become an epithet. I was born during the McCarthy era and it seems to me that there's almost as much hatred around directed at feminists as there once was against Communists. And I don't agree with that.

I consider myself not a feminist per se but feminist influenced, in that I do see problems in society that have resulted from the inequity between men and women. And I do not feel these problems have gone away. People who claim they have and that all the goals of feminism have been won are ignoring a lot of facts about women and poverty and so on.

Again, this doesn't make me angry at all men, just the ones who act like they have some God-given right to rule the world and shunt anyone who isn't like them, gender-wise, racially, ethnically, etc., aside.

I suppose if I were dating today the issue of whether to call myself a feminist wouldn't even come up. People are known by their actions and not what they call themselves. Any man I was dating would soon learn where I stood. I accept chivalrous gestures, but I don't accept assumptions that I am less than a man. I'll sit back and let a man order for me in a restaurant, but he better not order me around.

It's so silly to me that "feminist" has become a club with which to beat women who don't put on their June Cleaver aprons and look down at the floor when a man is addressing them. On the other hand I think it's awful if there are women who will bully another woman in public about putting cream and sugar in her husband's coffee.

Probably what angers these other women, though it isn't their business, is the attitude of the man...sitting back expectantly waiting for his wife to do his bidding. Honestly, I wouldn't enjoy seeing that either. It gives the impression that he is either lazy or controlling, and she is way too meek. So I think these things shouldn't be done out in public..because they are part of a very intimate relationship. When you bring intimate things to public notice, you don't have much right to complain if you are criticized.

And then, too, some men are frightened (or angered) by the word "feminist." Others, however, will smile and say, "I'm a feminist, too." My husband is one of those men. He's not perfect and I know I've said things here that make it clear he's not perfect. But he's the best for me.



Perhaps this is another term for 'gender feminism'.
Florence King, in her 'Misanthrope's Corner' in the National Review 3rd April 1995, wrote this on the subject:

I have no quarrel with feminism as long as it's real feminism, but what we have endured this past quarter-century is pseudofeminism.
Pseudofeminists talk aggressiveness but practice timidity. Take sexual harassment. Every time I turn on the news some woman is describing, with murky insouciance, that terrible day ten years ago when her self-esteem was shattered because her male boss kept looking at her 'body parts' instead of her face. A real feminist would say "I'm up here, Mr. Crabtree," and that would be the end of it. If you say it right, you only have to say it once.

Florence King Must Never Have Needed the Job

I disagree. What if the woman is really young and inexperienced and she is being harassed on her first job. Or maybe she needs that job badly. Then she's not going to make a pert remark and shut the boss up. Florence King sounds like a pampered woman speaking from her ivory tower.


An ivory tower

A pampered woman? Well, I don't know. She went to college in her home town, Washington D.C. She wasn't very happy there, finding most of the girls not interested in getting an education but only in getting a man, her interest in having a career made her an oddity. She began her writing careeer by writing 'True Confession' stories for women's magazines. She worked as a journalist in the 'women's Department' on a newspaper where the women were kept isolated from the rest of the newspaper staff and were the subject of much derision. She writes about it in 'He: An Irreverent Look at the American Male':

In an office full of male chauvinists, the Hen's Pen, as the Woman's Department was called, was literally a pen. There was a wall around us to seperate us from the rest of the newsroom. The copy boys were not permitted to work for us. We had to walk all the way around the wall to the pneu tubes and send our own copy. The only thing our office was convenient to was the men's room. The reporters used to cut through the Hen's Pen to save time. On their way back to their desks, they were often still zipping up their flies or rearranging their equipment inside their pants. We used to mutter, "Dress left, dress!" as they passed by.

Later she took to writing porn and regency romances among other things, before her first real book, 'Southern Ladies and Gentlemen' was published in 1975. She's always lived on her own in a rented apartment and never had any interest in marrying or having a family, she expressed her satisfaction in losing interest sex when she reached the menopause, because that meant she didn't need men any more even for that "I never wanted to stand by anyone except myself"

She believes that the purpose of feminism should be to make women stronger, rather than encourage them to see themselves as put-upon victims of male beastliness. In the National Review December 13, 1993, she quotes Mary Wollstonecraft, who wrote:

"I wish to persaude women to endeavour to acquire strength, both of mind and body, and to convince them that the soft phrases, susceptibility of heart, delicacy of sentiment, and refinement of taste, are almost synonymous with epithets of weakness."

I admire her vision of how women should be, even though I am not on the whole like that myself, at any rate I think she is probably right that it's better not to let yourself be traumatised if some man looks at your tits.

To Pat and Louise

When I was 21, my boss cornered me and gave me a big wet, gross kiss. He had me pinned against the wall. This could be fun, except I didn’t like him, at all. Because of a past really bad experience, I was still a little fragile about being pinned and my reaction within seconds was to cry. He was so mad. He started referring to me as a lesbian.

I had to work, I was alone and supporting myself. I immediately looked for new work, but in the meantime, I stayed at that job and I was very timid and tried to stay out of his way. I wasn’t going to be some big strong feminist who fought for her job. I wanted out. Why would I fight for a job I didn’t want anymore? I won’t say I was traumatized, but it has a place in my memories. I didn't stay and fight. Does that make me a pseudo feminist?

Ironically, at my next job, my new boss kissed me after about a year on the job (I liked him). Then 23 years ago I married him.


Exactly, Kaylee

That's exactly why I do not buy Florence King's attitude about this. I had a man who was my temporary boss come up behind me and grab my breasts when I was 19. I was scared stiff. I quit the job right away because, fortunately, I didn't have to work at that time. But what if I had?

She appears to forget that sometimes people really do get victimized and haven't much recourse. That's why there had to be a movement!

Being groped at work

I don't know how I would have felt about that. Nobody ever did that to me at work, though that sort of thing used to happen all the time in the re-enactment society I belonged to. I just accepted it as normal male behaviour, I mean when I was young I just assumed all men were sex maniacs, and expected them to act like that.

I don't know if I would have felt differently if anyone at work had ever done that to me. The only person who ever hit on me at work was a girl, and although I didn't fancy her I was quite flattered because she was very attractive (she looked rather like Demi Moore, only with natural pale gold hair). It really annoyed the men in the office that she fancied me and not them, so I quite enjoyed it if she fondled me or something in front of them, it used to cause an audible grinding of teeth.

How lovely for you all to liv

How lovely for you all to live in a world where only women are leered at and groped, and where only women need be concerned about losing a job if they don't dole out sexual favors. I have to worry about that happening to my son. This is *not* a gendered issue. Gender feminism is destructive in so many ways, but one that I find the most appalling and personally upsetting is the way in which it has made sexual violence entirely a woman's issue in the mind of the public. If anything like this happens to a woman, there are resources available. That doesn't make it any less traumatic, but the trauma is equal if it happens to a young man at the hands of a boss or teacher and if he is not a minor, there is NOTHING for him.