Women’s and LGBT rights are super hot right now. Whether Prop 8 and DOMA or Leaning In and Not Being Able to Have It All, the mainstream media is all over that shit. And trust that right now you can find a LGBT and women’s rights group on nearly every college campus in America.
In this climate of tolerance and equality, conservatives are finally beginning to sense that they’re on the wrong side of history once again. The vast majority of young people support gay marriage. And while they may or may not call themselves feminists, women now make up the majority of college enrollees.
And so, seeing as they can’t co-opt LGBT rights (it’s harder to attempt to redefine rights for a group you openly discriminate against), we find conservatives attempting to co-opt feminist language for their own purposes.
Enter Christina Hoff Sommers, resident scholar at conservative think tank AEI and author of the soon-to-be published Freedom Feminism—Its Surprising History and Why it Matters Today.
To promote the book, AEI has released a video of Sommers introducing “freedom feminism”:
She alternately calls the idea “maternal feminism” or “conservative feminism” and contrasts it with “egalitarian feminism.”
The idea seems obvious: modern feminism is unpopular, but important, so she wants to see it reformed. The problem is that in her efforts to reform feminism into something palatable to conservatives and, according to her, the majority of women, she creates a straw man out of feminists, denies the problems feminism exists to solve and reinforces the very myths that have thus far inhibited true gender equality. In trying to fit feminism into a conservative, family-friendly mold, she effectively breaks its legs.
The Straw (Wo)Man
While Sommers may have written a book about modern feminism, after reading her in the Spectator, I’m not sure she really understands it.
In Feminism and Freedom she accuses “contemporary feminism” of having a “fixation on intimate anatomy” (I guess vaginas are as scary to conservative women as they are to conservative men) and a “poisonous antipathy to men.”
Fixations on our vaginas aside, the idea that modern feminists hate men is a tired smear tactic. I’m not sure when Sommers last picked up an issue of BUST or read Jezebel, but there’s precious little man-hating to be found, and absolutely no need for it. Modern feminists know that you don’t need to (and shouldn’t try) to put down men to elevate women.
Deny and Dis(Miss)
She then denies the problems feminism exists to solve, waving away feminist concerns: “Contemporary feminism routinely depicts American society as a dangerous patriarchy where women are under siege.” One in four American women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime. Police allow rape kits to expire, untested, by the thousands every year. In Steubenville, Ohio a high school athletic coach actively covered up a high school girl’s rape to protect his players and now the hacker who exposed it (after police refused to investigate) faces more jail time than the rapists. These aren’t isolated incidents.
What percentage of American women would have to be raped before Sommers felt comfortable describing American society as dangerous to women?
In the New York Times, Sommers similarly dismisses any indication that there’s any problem with, or outside cause for, the choices women make which contribute to the gender wage gap:
“Women’s personal choices are… fraught with inequities,” says the AAUW: women are “pigeonholed” into “pink-collar” jobs in health and education. But American women today are as independent-minded and self-determining as any in history. It is condescending to suggest that they have been manipulated when they choose home and family over high-octane careers—or to pursue degrees in education rather than engineering.
I see what you did there. And it’s clever. But no, it’s not condescending to say that culture matters and that it influences individual choices, even those of the most independent-minded and self-determining women.
As Thoughts on Liberty pointed out in Why Are Women Choosing Low-Paying College Majors?:
Scientist and SciAm blogger Kate Clancy has documented the accounts from female STEM grad students about the hostile (and often lecherous) behavior they’ve encountered from male teachers and colleagues. And evidence suggests that academic scientists (male and female) are biased against female applicants in their hiring practices.
Even in my own life, I noticed when I was married to a man that no one ever asked him about cleaning or decorating our house, or about laundry or meal preparation. All these were assumed by others to be my purview, despite the fact that I worked more hours outside the home than he did. These cultural expectations must have an influence on the fact that even when women work outside the home, they still find themselves performing a “second shift” of domestic duties.
To look at all that and declare happily: “Women in this country have their freedom; they have achieved parity with men in most of the ways that count” as Sommers does, sounds a lot like, “Feminists need to stop whining. We’ve come a long way, lets just be thankful for what we’ve got.” There’s nothing aspirational about that message. It sounds like Sommers is more interested in silencing women than inspiring them.
So after straw-manning and then dismissing “modern” or “egalitarian” feminism, Sommers introduces “maternal” feminism. The meaning of maternal feminism can be summarized by a quote from Sommers as a “recognition that the sexes are equal but different.”
The (Re)Making of a Myth
What equal but different means in practice is that Sommers wants to see women stay true to their femininity by embracing the distinct roles in which they are biologically programmed to excel: at home, in charity and oddly, (perhaps because this is her purview?) working in politics. A press release for her book describes the “maternal school,” of feminism as “family-centered and argu[ing] that educated, responsible women can be a force of good beyond the family through enlightened social policies and charitable work.” Elsewhere she speaks lovingly of “a special women’s sphere,” separate from the remunerative work of men.
She claims to speak for the “silent majority of American women, who really don’t want to be liberated from their womanhood.” Sommers wants to liberate women from the idea that they need liberating.
But if the idea that women have and want separate “roles” or “spheres” from men sounds familiar, that’s because it is. It’s long been the contention of those who would see women excluded from certain spheres that women don’t really want the opportunity anyway. They’re not very well suited to it after all.
Sommers reveals her true intentions when she decries “egalitarian” feminism. She’s not looking for equality, but to help women feel good about staying in their traditional roles by calling their choice to do so feminism. Sommers, along with many conservatives, are incredibly threatened by the prospect of a generation of truly liberated women. They see their version of the “traditional family” as being under attack by women who choose more and more to delay marriage and, among the most educated, delay childbirth to pursue further education and lucrative careers.
The one area of agreement I have with Sommers is that too much of modern feminism is bogged down with collectivist tendencies. This is where individualist feminism comes in. Individualist feminism recognizes impediments to equality such as sexism and the systematic perpetration and toleration of violence against women. But instead of waving them away, like maternal feminism, or recommending coercive, freedom-limiting “solutions” (always chock full of unintended consequences) like collectivist feminism, it proposes and examines cooperative, market-oriented solutions.
As Sandra Sanchez, who runs The Individualist Feminist, recently explained for Thoughts on Liberty in Calling Out Sexism Does Not Mean I Want Government Interference:
Many people want to dismiss the fact that women and men act differently in the marketplace and want to attribute it merely to choice. Studies show that women are less likely to negotiate for a higher salary and are less aggressive. We can maybe look at the socialization of boys and girls and how that affects their perceived interests in the job market, or how they go about pursuing their careers.
Another example is female sexuality and rape culture. It seems as if some people easily dismiss rape culture and myths about female sexuality because, for some reason, they believe that calling out sexism is a statist view. But there’s nothing wrong with pointing out rape apologists, rape myths, and just overall rape culture. Especially when it can create a dialogue and education to eradicate such culture.
Ultimately, it’s fine for Sommers, and the women she claims to represent, to choose to stay within their “special women’s spheres.” In fact I laud her for respecting those choices where some feminists would decry them as “not feminist.”
But to ignore the hurdles faced by women who wish to escape those spheres while simultaneously reinforcing the very myths about gender differences that that have been used to trap women in those spheres isn’t feminism, no matter what modifier you put in front of it.
What underpins individualism is the ability of each of us to enter into and compete in an open marketplace. Ironically, by telling women what their spheres are and encouraging them to remain within them, conservatives enforce a very collectivist mentality. While “maternal” feminism seeks to maintain a certain proscribed sphere for women, what I love about individualist feminism is that it seeks to liberate those who would be free from the limits of predetermined roles. Individualist feminism seeks to break down the barriers preventing women from entering into the marketplace so each woman can find her own place in society, whether it be in the home, in the boardroom or in the Oval Office.
Sommers is threatened by the prospect of women competing as individuals in the marketplace, and would rather see them operate in gendered isolation. I want to see every woman given every opportunity to succeed in whatever way constitutes success to her. As much as she may think it benefits conservatism to try to jump on the feminism bandwagon by rebranding it with antiquated, myth-based ideology, ultimately this will fail.
This new generation of women, who are earning more degrees and succeeding more in the workplace than ever before, will not be told to stay in their “sphere.” They will fight all gender-based barriers to entry so they can Lean In and compete in the market as individuals. And they will see their true allies in individualist feminists. It’s just the market at work, and it’s a beautiful thing to behold.