Freedom Feminism: Its Surprising History and Why It Matters Today

>by Christina Hoff Sommers, AEI Press, 2013
Reviewed by Sharon Presley

Make no mistake about it. This book is a polemic, not a work of scholarship. Sommers may be a “resident scholar” at the conservative American Enterprise Institute but perhaps it should be noted that her academic discipline is philosophy, not any of the social sciences and it shows. In fact the “history” is “surprising,” all right. It doesn’t correspond to the history I know. The book is full of misinterpretations, highly selective data, studies used inappropriately, and outright misstatement of fact along with changing implied definitions without saying so. Too many, in fact, to detail all of them in this short review.

What Sommers sets out to do is provide a manifesto for moderate and conservative women (and some say, libertarians) because they “must be at the helm” if they are to raise broad support for feminism. She asserts that “freedom feminism” is a synthesis based on 19 th century “radical egalitarianism” (which is not what the feminists of that era called themselves) and a conservative “maternal school.”

To support her blend of the two philosophies, Sommers then gives a brief history of individualist feminism that includes Mary Wollstonecraft, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony. Frankly, in my educated opinion, while she gets the facts right, her summary of their views is far from accurate. First of all to call the individualists “equalitarian” without explaining what she means is both problematic and inaccurate. These women (and men) were in favor of equal rights for all; this is not generally what “equalitarian” means in today’s parlance. To bolster the use of the term “egalitarian” to describe the individualists, she claims that they believed that “men and women are essentially equal.” This is in contradistinction to the “maternal” feminists whom she asserts believe that “men are women are different but equal.” This implies that the individualists believed that women and men are identical (though she keeps changing the implied definition of “egalitarianism” throughout). But the individualists believed nothing of the sort. They certainly thought women were more capable than they had been given credit for but few of them besides abolitionist feminist Sarah Grimke and anarchist feminist Voltairine de Cleyre ever discussed the origins of sex roles, let alone asserted that men and women were identical. Not one of them ever implied, let alone claimed, that women and men were “identical.” Sommers provides no proof of her claim because of course there isn’t any.

Then Sommers goes on to describe Hannah More, who she holds up as an exponent of what she calls “maternal feminism.” Sommers complains that More’s role has been deliberately “airbrushed” out of the history of feminism. Since many 19 th century feminists, for example, the sex radicals and the anarchists, have also been left out of the history books, this claim has some plausibility, though how much was through ignorance or simply overlooking smaller movements and how much deliberate is open to question. Unlike Wollstonecraft, says Sommers, More believed that men and women were different in “propensities, aptitudes and preferences.” Believing that women were more “tender-minded,” More called on women to engage in volunteer charity work while still giving priority to their roles as wives and mothers. Interestingly enough, More never married, while Stanton, on the other hand, was a wife and mother of six. Wollstonecraft, who was married to philosopher and anarchist William Godwin, died in childbirth with her second child. H-m-m.

There are other troublesome distortions in Sommers’s historical account. She backhands the drive for woman suffrage by citing the results of one poll and then commenting: “Why, when given the opportunity, didn’t women flock to the polls in support of their right to vote.” The answer to this question is far more complex than her simplistic implication that women didn’t want the right to vote because they were too busy being wives and mothers. Many wives and mothers vote today so are they not concerned with their children? I found Sommers’s question to be a frankly embarrassing distortion of history.

Sommers also distorts by omission. She criticizes feminist historians for their denigration of the 19 th century“cult of domesticity,” claiming that it improved the lives of many women. However she never defines it so many readers will have no idea that this movement also emphasized that women should stay in the home, and that the virtues of piety, purity, domesticity and submission were desirable. A precursor to Victorianism, many historians believe it not only set back the feminist cause but was retrogressive, constricting women’s roles far more than they had been in 18 th century America. Nowhere does Sommers mention this.

When Sommers writes of modern times, she continues to interpret what she reports in questionable ways or omits important information. She claims that the often-used statistic that 22-35% of women who visit hospital emergency rooms have been the subjects of domestic violence is false, putting the “actual figure” at less than 2%. That the first statistic is false may be true but Sommers fails to report a 2011 study from Penn State that 3 in 4 domestic violence victims go unidentified in emergency rooms. Not so simple, is it?

Sommers’s discussion of the gender wage gap is also problematic, though she shares that problem with many economists. She claims that the gap can be entirely explained by individual choices and preferences. Even libertarian economist Steve Horwitz, who also believes that most of the gap is based on preferences, allows for 5% discrimination. One of the sources she cites is a book by psychologists Stephen Ceci and Wendy Williams but she fails to point out that their book asserts that the problem is not explained simply by preferences. The fact that academia is very rigid and limited in its tenure timelines, based on what Ceci and Williams consider outmoded ideas based on male only standards, is a part of the problem creating wage gaps in academia. More flexibility in timelines would, in their opinion, substantially increase the number of women getting tenure and thus making more money. Once again, Sommers is highly selective about what she reports.

Sommers, and indeed most economists, appears not to be familiar with the psychological studies that show the basis for intra-company discrimination. Study after study in the social sciences show that women are not perceived as leaders by the men in managerial positions even though independent studies show that women are in fact good leaders and sometimes better than men. This implies that many women fail to get promoted to higher paying managerial jobs because they are incorrectly perceived as not up to the task. This factor is rarely if ever taken into account when discussing pay differences.

There is much more that I could criticize as inaccurate or distorted, for example, her peculiar defense of conservative Phyllis Schlafly who believes women belong in the home (though she herself is a lawyer). However I want to now turn my attention now to the thrust of Sommers’s concept of freedom feminism. The freedom feminism’s agenda, she writes, includes 1) take back reason; 2) be pro-women but not male-averse; 3) pursue happiness; 4) respect female diversity; and 5) no political litmus test. Am I alone in considering this list highly condescending? I doubt it. What I see here first of all is an incredible dogmatic arrogance that insinuates that she and her minions alone are rational. She can only make this claim by using highly selective data and leaving out a multitude of information about the feminist movement.

Next is the implied idea that other feminists are anti-male, which is simply not true; only a small fringe is avowedly anti-male. The National Organization for Women (NOW), for example, has male members. Do you suppose they feel that feminists are anti-male? Unlikely. Of the dozens of feminist books that I have read, the ones that diss men can be counted on one finger.

Then I ask the reader: Is pursuing happiness only the purview of Sommers and her followers? Oh, please.

The fourth item, respect diversity, is also insulting to feminists. Doesn’t respecting ethnic, race and sexual preference diversity count? Most feminists get high marks on that. I’m not so sure that conservative women would get such high marks. But what Sommers really means is that women should not be looked down at because many prefer pink collar jobs. OK, who could argue with that? But she is far from proving that most feminists do tht.

The last point, no political litmus test, is one I have more sympathy for. I do think that happens. But then, show me any political ideology that acts differently. Is she saying that conservatives have no litmus test? Get real.

Sommers’s contention that women and men are “different but equal” is a code for believing that all the convenient stereotypes about women are true: they are more caring, more nurturing, they mostly want to stay at home and be moms; they don’t really care much about careers, etc, etc and wouldn’t they just be happier accepting their “differences.” The problem with this is she is basically making it up. The consensus among serious social scientists who do gender research (the ones Sommers clearly didn’t consult) is that the differences between women and men are not nearly as great as the average person imagines. There is almost certainly a small genetic component but it is less than the contributions of multitudes of cultural, family, and individual environmental influences. If Sommers bothered to look at anthropological gender research, she would also find much more variation than she seems to think there is.

What Sommers is really doing is, as Cathy Reisenwitz pointed out in the in her review of this book on Facebook and in our Fall, 2013 Newsletter, pouring new wine (her “freedom feminism”) into old bottles (women are significantly different than men and they shouldn’t complain and try to be more than they are). Her book is highly selective in its data; her interpretations are geared toward her ideological beliefs rather than what either history or social science actually says. Rather than being a step forward, this book is in fact two steps back. It has very little to offer to libertarian feminists, let alone other feminists.

Copyright 2013 by Sharon Presley