AEI Feminist Scholar: Feminism's Goal Today 'Is Not Equality With Men, It's Protection From Them'

Christina Hoff Sommers discusses intersectional feminism, Linda Sarsour, and how feminism has changed

Christina Hoff Sommers / American Enterprise Institute
April 23, 2017

American Enterprise Institute resident scholar Christina Hoff Sommers is a classical equity feminist, meaning she believes the government should not impose an unfair advantage or disadvantage on women or men. But Sommers is concerned that classical equity feminism has been eclipsed by what she calls "fainting-couch feminism," an ideology overplaying victimhood that has leaked from college campuses and celebrity activists into the mainstream.

Sommers has been known to fight virulent feminism with facts in her writing and "Factual Feminist" video blog, where she addresses controversial topics that have risen on the feminist horizon in the past decade, including "the war on boys," gender politics and free speech on campuses, the wage gap, and rape culture. She recently spoke with the Washington Free Beacon to discuss what she has found disturbing about the rising "intersectional" feminist movement under President Donald Trump, and how she believes an inclusive feminist movement would have the biggest impact.

Washington Free Beacon: How has the mission of feminism changed in the past couple of years? Have you seen a significant shift in ideology?

Christina Hoff Sommers: In the past couple of years, the biggest shift has been on college campuses, where classical equity feminism—which most Americans support—has given way to an extremism I call fainting-couch feminism.

The fainting-couch feminists are like those delicate Victorian ladies who retreated to an elegant chaise when overcome by emotion. These fainting-couchers view women as fragile creatures who need safe spaces and trigger warnings to protect them from the big, bad world. Their main goal is not equality with men; it's protection from them.

As an equity feminist from the '70s, I see this new feminism—which is more heavily influenced by Marxism than anything else—as a setback for women. We are not children. We are not fragile little birds.

WFB: Have you read the mission statement of the Women's March? If so, what is your response to it?

Sommers: Yes, I have read it and was amazed by the laundry list of grievances! Sure, there are standard (justifiable) feminist demands like affordable childcare, but the mission statement also calls for ending war, free migration for trans people, and an end to police militarization.

It even protests gender bias in the criminal justice system, which is ironic because there is a clear bias in criminal justice—against men. Ninety-four percent of prisoners are male and, as Michigan Law Professor Sonja Staff found, even when men and women commit the same crime and have similar criminal histories, men usually get longer sentences.

Basically, the mission statement was a grab-bag of random, sometimes dubious causes.

I recognize that millions of women were distressed by Trump's victory—I'm one of them—and came together in D.C. and across the country to express dismay and disappointment. The march itself was a success. But it succeeded despite, not because of, the distracting politics of its organizers.

WFB: How does the Factual Feminist feel about a large movement being led by women such as Rasmea Odeh and Linda Sarsour?

Sommers: The Factual Feminist (me) is not happy. Their rise to prominence is a sign of serious dysfunction in the women's movement. Odeh is an unrepentant, convicted terrorist who killed two young students in a supermarket. Sarsour defends Sharia law and is contemptuous of brave women like Brigitte Gabriel and Ayaan Hirsi Ali who speak out against female oppression by Islamic extremists.

In a now-deleted 2011 tweet, Sarsour wrote: "Brigitte Gabriel= Ayaan Hirsi Ali. She's asking 4 an a$$ whippin'. I wish I could take their vaginas away - they don't deserve to be women [sic]."  What a vicious comment–especially given the fact that Ayaan was a victim of female genital mutilation as a child.

Sadly, there is no evidence that Sarsour has changed since 2011. But feminism has changed. The fashion today is something called "intersectionality," a neo-Marxist theory that views society as a complex system of oppressions—racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, ableism, capitalism, colonialism. The isms keep piling up. Now Zionism has been added to the mix.

In 2015, members of the National Women's Studies Association voted to support the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement (BDS)—a global campaign to pressure and punish Israel. As one member of the National Women's Studies Association said "We're redefining feminism and putting solidarity with Palestine into that definition." I would put it a different way: They are hijacking feminism by putting solidarity with outlandish far-left causes into its definition.

WFB: Linda Sarsour claimed that feminists cannot be Zionists. What do you make of this comment?  

Sommers: Complete rubbish and either breathtakingly ignorant or (more likely) malicious. Israel is a democracy that had a female prime minister before most other nations (including our own). Jewish and Arab women serve in parliament, teach at world-class universities, and have equal protection under the law.

Certainly, things aren't perfect. I'm not naive. But the exclusion of Zionism from feminism really has nothing to do with women; rather, the extreme left has a sorry history of demonizing democracies and glorifying authoritarian states. Sarsour fits right in.

WFB: Should religion be a significant factor of feminism, and how does religion affect feminism?

Sommers: Feminism should be about respecting women's choices. That includes their choice to follow, or not follow, a particular religion.

WFB: How do you think women should resolve the issues that are causing an internal war within the feminist movement, including topics on abortion and whether women voted for Trump?

Sommers: History suggests women fare best when progressives and conservatives work together. Suffrage was achieved by a powerful coalition of liberal activists and traditionalists in the Christian Temperance Union. The great victories of Second Wave Feminism—the Equal Pay Act, Title IX, the Equal Employment Opportunity Act—were the joint efforts of Republican and Democratic women (and men).

What do we have today? The women's movement has devolved into a narrow, left-of-center special interest group. The majority of women have been left behind. That's too bad because urgent problems remain—the feminization of poverty and the plight of women in the developing world, for example. An inclusive women's movement could be a powerful force for change.

WFB: What do you believe is right about the current feminist movement, and what do you believe is wrong? How can it be improved?

Sommers: Feminism is at its best when it remains true to its classical liberal humanistic roots in the European Enlightenment.  It's at its best when it affirms for women what it affirms for everyone: dignity, fairness, and liberty.

When it drifts, and allies itself with Marxism, it goes wrong. The intersectionalists pretend they have something better to offer than classical equality feminism. They don't. To paraphrase an old saying: Equity feminism is the worst form of feminism—except for all the rest.

WFB: The "Day Without a Woman" strike implied that women live in a patriarchal society and are oppressed or unappreciated. Do you believe women are oppressed in America?

Sommers: Oppressed? American women? That is absurd. Taken as a group, we are probably the least oppressed people on earth. America is far from perfect—and there is much room for improvement—but if there is a country out there where women have more freedom and opportunity for advancement, I'd like to know about it.

And don't say Sweden or Norway. Those countries are admirable in many ways, but studies have demonstrated time and again that the U.S. is far ahead of them when it comes to breaking the glass ceiling.

WFB: Who are your personal favorite influential women in history? What do you think they would say about the current feminist movement?

Sommers: There are many to choose from, but I would say Mary Wollstonecraft and Émilie du Châtelet. They led two of the most adventurous and intellectually ambitious lives of the 18th Century. Their accomplishments would be feats for anyone at any time—for women of their day, they're nothing short of miraculous.

Émilie du Châtelet was a mathematical genius whose intellect intimidated even Voltaire. Wollstonecraft came from a humble background but managed to be the first woman to enter the Western canon of political philosophy.  Her brilliance won the respect of Thomas Paine, William Wordsworth, and William Blake, among others.

Neither would relate to today's male-averse feminism. They respected and admired intellectually powerful men, who they sought to emulate and rival. (At the same time, both had a weakness for handsome ne'er-do-wells.) I imagine Émilie laughing at safe-space, trigger-warning feminism. Mary, who devoted her life to defending female strength and rationality, would probably shake her head in disgust.