Reflections on Christina Hoff Sommers

The Buckley Program’s recent guest speaker, Christina Hoff Sommers, gave a lecture on her vision for “freedom” feminism, and sparked an important conversation around campus about feminism and women’s rights. In the hopes of providing a small snapshot of this reaction, The Beacon features both an opinion piece of a current Buckley fellow, Karina Kovalcik, and an official statement issued by the Yale Women’s Center. It is our hope that these two responses foster additional discussion and reflection.

Opinion Piece by Karina Kovalcik

On Thursday night, Christina Hoff Sommers came to Yale’s campus and gave a talk on modern-day feminism. Since Yale is a breeding ground for motivated, driven, and strong, independent women, a feminist coming to give a talk doesn’t seem that out of place. However, this event was not a typical talk on feminism, and Christina Hoff Sommers is not your typical feminist (on the surface anyway).

Before continuing, I would like to qualify the following remarks with the disclaimer that I am not familiar with any of Christina Hoff Sommers’s works. Rather this is just my own reflection of her talk at Yale.

Ms. Sommers is atypical to what I imagine a feminist is like, in that she has observed current instantiations of feminism and believes that feminism should resemble something entirely different. For example, one of her points that struck me most was the belief that modern day feminism does not correctly account for preference. Modern day feminism believes something along the lines of “societal impressions of the roles of males and females constricts the types of occupations females go into, and that is why women do not constitute close to half the labor force in all industries.” According to this line of thought, women predominantly choose the occupations they currently hold because society has ingrained in them the belief that those occupations are what they want, and women will only be considered equal to men when there is no wage gap and equal representation in every industry. Ms. Sommers stated in the talk that women will never hold half of all jobs in an industry because that does not account for the divergent preferences. She believes that the majority of females do not have the exact same interests as the majority of males, and the deviations from the norm are not parallel on both sides, which she attributes predominantly to biology, not society (as modern feminists do). Ms. Sommers acknowledges that females are different from males in that they get greater satisfaction from different sources than males do. That is not to say that they don’t also get satisfaction from the same sources, but predominantly, they get high utilities from tasks from which men do not derive as much utility.

While I do agree with some of Ms. Sommers’s beliefs, I do not think that the situation is only biology (as Ms. Sommers puts it) or only society (as modern day feminists put it). In addition, much of the supporting evidence that Sommers cited was shaky and weak. Ms. Sommers is more feminist than many think because although she implies that females are inherently different from males, she also implies that females should be able to choose whatever course of action they please, regardless of what it is. If a belief that women deserve the freedom to choose whatever occupation they please does not epitomize feminism, I don’t think I will ever understand feminism.

Official Statement from the Yale Women’s Center

“The Women’s Center values the Buckley program’s efforts in increasing intellectual diversity, including on issues of contemporary feminism. However, as an organization we took issue with several of Dr. Sommers’ key tenets. Sommers describes gender roles as biologically innate, rather than also constructed through culture and socialization. As an organization, we hold that such assertions are not only problematically uncritical of convention but also potentially dangerous tools for justifying gender inequities. Her criticism of contemporary feminism as hysterical paranoia (according to Sommers, “it’s not the patriarchy, it’s us [women]!”) and references to on-campus campaigns against sexual misconduct as “sexual McCarthyism” stand deeply in contrast to our efforts in creating a safe campus environment and combating gender-related inequality. Likewise, Sommers’ references to women’s liberation as a Western invention and her repeated separation of “traditional societies” (i.e., non-Western) made up of “villages” versus those representing “highest human development” represent an ethnocentric as well as potentially xenophobic stance. They run contrary to her call for a more inclusive feminism. That last desire – for a feminism inclusive across gender, racial, political, regional, and religious lines – is one we share strongly with Sommers. Her depiction of her feminism as “[standing] for the moral, social, and legal equality of the sexes” describes our own aspirations at the Center. However, it’s clear that our means for achieving it significantly differ.”