Christina Hoff Sommers’ “Maternal Feminism”: Same Old Sexism, New Packaging

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.

Sandra and Gary Johnson

Sandra and Gary Johnson

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.

LP-Prochoice-Rally-DC-11-12-1989

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.

16 Comments

  1. craig schlesinger

    Let’s review the conservative approach to feminism:
    1. Demonstrate one and only one “proper” role for women
    2. Make them think it’s their own “choice”
    3. Feminism?
    Riiiiiight. Great stuff! This might be my favorite one so far!

  2. Andrea Castillo

    Ideological Turing test: Do you really think Sommers is “threatened by the prospect of women competing as individuals in the marketplace, and would rather see them operate in gendered isolation”?

    Why? Which of her statements indicate this to you?

    Imagine you said this statement to her face. How do you think she would respond?

    • I think she advocates for “traditional marriage,” which itself is threatened by women who dare move outside their “spheres.”

      I think she’d agree that her whole premise is that women should operate in “their spheres,” which are necessarily not “men’s spheres.” Which equals gendered isolation when it comes to the marketplace.

      • Andrea Castillo

        I see her as saying that women should *be able to* operate in their spheres. Gendered sorting may, in fact, be a product of that marketplace.

        Do you think she would advocate for mechanisms to prevent women from leaving their sphere? If so, for which ones has she advocated?

        • I love that you keep engaging on this stuff! Very fun. Honestly I think the forces trying to force women out of their spheres is so small and powerless I could hardly believe that’s all she wants to oppose.

          She wants to encourage women to stay in their spheres, and isn’t interested at all in removing the barriers to their escape. Do I think she wants to force them to stay in? Certainly not as presented like that!

          • Andrea Castillo

            I think she would argue that many women don’t want to “escape.” They are happy to take on a traditional gender role and are turned off by some of the rhetoric of feminism. I think she would also argue that the institutional barriers that historically prevented women from leaving these spheres have largely dissolved.

            In short, she is arguing that what some women (maybe ambitious women like you and I) see as a domesticating “barrier” is, to another, a freely made choice and a reflection of her unique femininity. Furthermore, the fact that this choice is shared among the “silent majority” to which she refers could explain many differential gender outcomes. She is not arguing that women *should* stay in the private sphere, but reaffirming that many women do enjoy and find dignity there.

          • There are many barriers remaining to escape, some of which Sandra and I detailed.

            She thinks that women choose to stay in their spheres because biology. And by perpetuating that myth, she becomes part of the problem. And then to call that feminism! Whaa?

          • Andrea Castillo

            Things can always be better, no doubt. But we don’t need to wait for a utopia to get an idea of how people react to marginal changes in incentives. Consider that women with numerous degrees and years of work experience still choose to work less than their male counterparts in order to spend time with their families. Although the barriers that face these educated women have marginally decreased, the behavioral response remains. This suggests that there is something more than external forces shaping women’s decisions.

            Surely you are not suggesting that biology has no role in shaping human decision-making! If considering multiple explanations to understand complex phenomena is “part of the problem,” for you, then I’m not sure that I would want to be a part of your “solution,” either.

          • Andrea Castillo

            I would be surprised if Sommers “chalks it all up” to biology. Do you know of an instance where she claimed that all sex differences were 100% due to biology?

            At any rate, I’m not sure how far a conversation on gender can go without considering what is reflexive vs. what is conditioned. It is certainly far from a “myth” that female and male decision-making are influenced by their biology.

          • Sommers never, to my knowledge, says that social factors are completely nonexistent when it comes to gender. But she DOES straw-woman all of modern feminism by repeatedly writing, in her books AND articles, that all the 2nd and 3rd waves were about was saying that biology doesn’t exist so we should all live in an Orwellian state where no one enjoys sex and we all wear ugly grey smocks or something.

            I remember laughing when I read in “Who Stole Feminism?” that Sommers was shocked and appalled to find that SOME feminists have been promoting the specious idea that Americans today live in a SEX-GENDER SYSTEM. Her whinging about that term was about as hilarious as if someone new to ecology had been offended to learn that scientists were talking about some kind of an ECOSYSTEM or BIOSPHERE, of all things. She’s clearly done very little to understand the intricacies of feminist theory before attacking it. That’s where the damage comes from, not from this idea (which practically nobody is suggesting) that Sommers is a 100% essentialist. But she DOES seem to think that equality has been achieved since Title IX etc., and now women (as well as queers, people of color, the poor, et al) should just shut up when it comes to social inequities, and I have a serious issue with that.

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