Interview with Christina Hoff Sommers

Christina Hoff Summers speaks at a "What I Would Have Said" public lecture via Zoom on April 27, 2020.

On April 27, 2020, the Buckley Program hosted a public lecture with Christina Hoff Sommers on the topic “What’s Right (and Badly Wrong) with Feminism” in the debut of the Buckley Program’s new “What I Would Have Said” lecture series. Dr. Sommers is the author of many books, some of her most well-known include Who Stole Feminism? and The War Against Boys. Dr. Sommers is also a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, where she focuses on gender, feminism, and free expression. The transcript of this interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Rachel Bitutsky: Thank you so much for making the time for this interview. I’m so happy you’re here! My first question is: how did your interest in feminism stem from your work as an ethical philosopher? I usually think of feminism and ethics as two separate disciplines; I’ll think of feminism as falling under the branch of political philosophy rather than ethics.

Christina Hoff Sommers: Many years ago, the chair of my department asked me if I wanted to teach feminist theory. I thought, well, why not? I’m a feminist, I’m a theorist. There was a lot of new material coming from my colleagues in feminist philosophy. I set away for the various texts, read many of the articles, and I couldn’t find a feminism that I identified with. At the time, it was extremely hardline and Marxist. And I thought, well, this doesn’t really relate to most women; we want our rights, not a Marxist revolution. So I went to the American Philosophical Association and read a paper pointing out some of the excesses of what I call “gender feminism”. I defended “equity feminism”, and I remain an equity feminist. Anyway, I thought that there were would be great [discussion]. I made some great points, they made some great points, and what usually happens in the American Philosophical Association is you argue and then you go out for drinks. We did not go out for drinks. Instead, I was excommunicated from a religion I had no idea existed. And I even lost friends! So that was the beginning. I tried to do other things, but this hardline “take-no-prisoners” feminism just never goes away! It just seems to get stronger. It’s stronger now than ever. It used to be that I was there arguing with a few scholars in the women’s studies department and now fairly radical versions of feminism are finding their way into journalism, certainly social media, Twitter feminism– oh my goodness! So anyway, I’m happy to be addressing students today because I would like to pass along this challenge to younger women–and men, because they can do it as well. There’s a huge amount of work to be done. There’s a record of I think what is problematic scholarship, 30-40 years [of work] that needs to be reviewed and corrected. I think we need better theories.

RB: Absolutely. Gender feminists obviously believe that there is still a lot of work to be done in terms of reaching equity, but as an equity feminist, do you think that discrimination against women still exists? Do you think there is still work that needs to be done specifically in the West? I understand you’re a large proponent of redirecting feminist efforts abroad, but do you think that there’s something that needs to be done policy-wise or otherwise in the West?

CHS: I think there’s a lot to be done, and in a way, I think that the gender-driven scholarship may have gotten in the way. It may have held us back maybe two decades from addressing the real problem. [Problems would include] combining work and home life. We haven’t solved this. Women need help. The reason that I say that we wasted a lot of time is because the primary focus has been on systemic injustice in the sense of employers discriminating. If you look at the Paycheck Fairness Act that Congress keeps trying to pass, it’s really focused primarily on policing employers for shoddy sexist practices. But there’s just no evidence that employers are cheating their female employees. There’s a lot of evidence that women have a harder time once they have children. Before women have children, the [wage] gap is relatively small and in many cases non-existent, so there’s a real problem. It may turn out that we should be open-minded. I see a lot of data that shows [women’s preferences in regards to work in children]. 20% of women want to work full-time; they’re high-powered careerists. About 60% would like to work part-time when they have children. 20% would like to not work at all. I think these preferences have to factor into policy decisions. It’s not obvious to me that the best policy for women is to push us into the work-place full time– maybe it’s more time at home with our kids. We need to have a more open discussion about preferences and those should drive our policies. 

RB: You would advocate for policies like paid maternity leave then, and other methods of support for women who are both working and mothers? 

CHS: Well, those are all important. But those are not going to close the pay gap. There’s been fairly good research at Cornell, for example. Two economists refer to a phenomenon called the Nordic Paradox, which means that American women are actually doing better overall in terms of ascending the corporate hierarchy into manager positions. They have a lot of protections in Scandinavian countries. But the paradox is that the more protections you give, the more women want to stay home and have a harder time getting back into the workplace. But I would just like to have a honest conversation about it, and not always fall back into a position of resentment against unscrupulous males who are cheating us out of 23% percent of our salary!

RB: Speaking of the 23%, when all variables are accounted for, don’t women actually make about 98-99 cents for every dollar men make, not the widely known 77 cents?

CHS: It depends on the study. There are multiple factors that determine wages. When you control for these many factors, the results change. What did you study? If you went to college, what did you study in high school? What field are you in? How many hours a week do you work? How long is your commute? It turns out men commute further. They work more hours, and they tend to be overwhelmingly over-represented in very high paying majors like petroleum engineering or nuclear engineering. Women are found in the fields that pay less. You find far more women majoring in early childhood education or sociology. Those fields pay less. Now, if I debate the wage gap, the person I’m debating will often say “But wait a minute! Why are women making those choices?” You know, that’s an interesting question, but we’ve been trying to work this out for 30 years and it hasn’t gotten anywhere. It made sense to me when I became a feminist way back in the last century to talk about women being coerced by stereotypes and the expectations of their gender into low-paying fields. But, you know, it’s the new millennium. It’s 2020. There seems to be something patronizing–or matronizing, I should say–about suggesting that women are coerced into their choices. I don’t rule it out, but then maybe we’re all coerced in some way. If we’re going to be debating free will and determinism, maybe feminists are coerced into their choices. [The preferences debate] is not going to be resolved anytime soon, and I think we should just air on the side of crediting women with agency.

RB: Speaking of agency, let’s talk about abortion. How did it become a feminist issue? It seems like such a fundamentally moral topic. Do you think it should be a feminist issue?

CHS: Oh, yes, yes, yes. I think [the abortion issue] led many women into feminism for centuries. I know terrible stories of what can happen to young women with an unwanted pregnancy. But I agree. It is a fundamental moral dilemma. I don’t fault anyone for supporting it; I support abortion. I am pro-choice. I do fault feminists–not all of them, but many–who just don’t even want to acknowledge that it is a moral dilemma. We have hashtags like #I’mProudOfMyAbortion! That is outrageous. I was listening the other day to William F. Buckley (his old debates) and he had Naomi Wolf on. She wrote a really superb essay in The New Republic where she was still pro-choice but said that we have to acknowledge that abortion is a moral tragedy, and that we must look for ways to make it as rare as possible. She was calling for a transformation of the feminist mindset on abortion but she was just vilified. That’s what happens! But William F. Buckley was very respectful of her.

RB: Have you seen the trailers for the new Hulu show, Mrs. America? I thought I should ask since it has been advertised everywhere.

CHS: Oh, I’ve seen the whole show! I’m reviewing it. 

RB: What do you think of it? What do you think of Phyllis Schlafly? I find that she’s such an interesting person.  

CHS: You know, she probably comes out as the most fascinating person on the entire show. Cate Blanchett is just such a good actress. She couldn’t help but give her depth, complexity, and humanity. The production values are first-rate. I also think that, having lived through that era, they did a better job than even Mad Men at capturing the looks, sounds, and textures of the 1970s. The acting is brilliant. The women who play Bella Abzug and Betty Friedan are all brilliant. So it’s fun. However, as a history lesson, I have some problems with the show. It kind of makes it look like the [Equal Rights Amendment] was unproblematic and a force for progress, and that this villain, Phyllis, stopped it. Phyllis Schlafly was able to stop it because the women who were promoting the ERA were going to use it to smug all sorts of policies nobody wanted. And nobody knew it! What bothers me in this series is that they keep hinting that Phyllis was just lying by saying that [the ERA advocates] were going to use the ERA to force women into the draft and then into combat. Actually, William F. Buckley had a debate between a lawyer and Phyllis Schlafly: you can see in the beginning that Bill Buckley thinks Phyllis is misrepresenting the ERA. He says, “Come on, what’s wrong? It’s just about equality, not women in the draft”. Then you see the now-lawyer saying “Yes, it is about the draft!” She (the lawyer) denies the relative differences between men and women with respect to body strength. [Bill Buckley] said that you have to carry 40-50 pounds on your back, and she says, “There’s some men who can’t do that and there are women who can,” and he responds, “Well, there’s some chimpanzees who are more intelligent than humans.” The Mrs. America show doesn’t admit that [the ERA was going to be used to draft women]. The amendment initially had the support of Republicans, of Nixon and Eisenhower. It’s been around for a long time. But when it was pushed in the 1970s, it was going to be used to get rid of same-sex schools. No Wellesley college, no single-sex classes or Catholic schools. They would all be vulnerable to suit. And the women in the military thing. The series would have been more honest if they have not made it seem like Phyllis was lying about that– she wasn’t!

RB: She was definitely vilified. 

CHS: She was vilified! And then they made up a background. They gave her a background as if she was a battered woman, well, not a battered woman, but they made her husband look like a troglodyte. Completely unfair, from what I know of her. [Her husband] was proud of her. She was amazing! They do a good job conveying how effective she was, especially in debate! I think it’s great that they have this series, but I think it would have been a lot better if they had been more honest about it. I don’t think they were deliberately dishonest; I just don’t think the story is out there. But I’m writing about it, and I hope to bring more information to it. I’ve read a lot of books about the ERA and some of the best scholarship is by feminist scholarships who said that Phyllis was a very powerful and effective woman. The ERA would have won if the radical feminists would be willing to compromise. All they had to do was to put in a little provision that said “This will not be used to draft women into combat.” Even in the debate with Bill Buckley, he asked, “Can’t we just add a provision that [drafted women required to go into combat] don’t have to?” And the now-lawyer says, “No. We want men and women to be treated the same.” *chuckle* So, even today, it’s controversial to have women in combat. In the last survey I saw, only about 7% of the women who are in the armed forces are even interested in combat. There’s an example where the ERA proponents were pushing for something that women don’t appear to want.

RB: I think it’s so interesting that in the 1970s the draft was discussed so much. It’s probably because in the 20th century, the US was having a war every decade. We don’t really think about that now when considering an ERA-type policy; I would never think to consider the draft in debates about equal rights policies.

CHS: Well, it was a big deal because of the Vietnam War. It was frightening for boys, too. But people weren’t ready to send their daughters to war. A lot of people were terrified about their sons, but it was a bit much with their daughters. It was more than a bit much. It showed that the activists had a strange agenda. And they were very aggressive! Phyllis would come dressed to the nines with her ladies and they would bring muffins and fresh bread and be decorous. Then the activists would get angrier and angrier, throw pig’s blood and chain themselves. They were ridiculous. The average legislator just thought “I don’t want any part in this.” [The legislators] just looked for where they could hide. *laughs*

RB: Do you think that on a cultural level, there should be some aspects of traditional gender roles still preserved in America? What kind of culture do you want to see with regard to how men are treated, how women are treated, and how they treat each other?

CHS: It’s interesting because I really think that men and women are diverse with respect to their attitudes. I know a lot of women who are girly-girls– hyper-feminine women who want to be all the things associated with hyper-femininity: the idea of having a house, taking care of it, and taking care of kids. It’s so appealing to me and it’s appealing to a lot of young women, but it’s denigrated and thought to be suicidal. It might be worth if there was a women’s movement who represented them. Like I said, there’s about 60% of women who want children who want to work part-time and 20% that don’t want to work at all. It would be nice if we had a women’s movement that represented their interests so we could talk about it. We might need to have multiple policies, depending on what women want. I do think there are traditional women who want traditional gender roles, and there are men like that too– who would love to take care of a family and be the breadwinner but have someone to take care of the home. It’s pretty nice! *laughs* Having said that, there are people who hate that and go nuts. Right now with the pandemic, and with people stuck inside, especially mothers with little kids, people are going nuts. There’s no break and the husbands aren’t as helpful as they should be. I would be one of those adaptives who wants to work part time and not be home all the time. I sort of did that, even though I was a college professor. I was home all the time. My husband was a college professor too, so my youngest son never had a babysitter. He probably would have liked one, but it was sort of like the pandemic. We were social distancing; a lot of professors just stay home. But anyways, my point is that when you ask about gender roles, I think [traditional gender roles] should be acceptable. I think in a way it is acceptable, because in my life, I meet all kinds of women. Some are hyper-feminine and traditional, and some are tough and competitive in a more masculine way. They are wonderful in different ways. But we need to be clearer about that and not act like we all want the same thing, which is high-powered careers. 

RB: Absolutely. We’re out of time, but thank you so much for the work that you’re doing. It’s more important now more than ever for young women to hear your opinions. It’s definitely hard for a college student to come out and advocate for your thoughts in a university setting, though.

CHS: I know, isn’t that ridiculous? I’d like to find out what it’s like to be a student now. I worry about the transition from the older generations to the younger. I think of that last scene from Dirty Dancing and think, “Aaaah! I’m the old!” Except, I’m worried that the wrong group of young people are leading this dance and will take the world into repressive measures and anger instead of liberation. 

RB: Maybe!