“Who Stole Feminism? How Women Have Betrayed Women.”
By Christina Hoff Sommers
In Revolution from Within, Gloria Steinem informs her readers that “in this country alone … about 150,000 females die of anorexia each year.”(1) That is more than three times the annual number of fatalities from car accidents for the total population. Steinem refers readers to another feminist best-seller, Naomi Wolfs The Beauty Myth. And in Ms. Wolfs book one again finds the statistic, along with the author’s outrage. “How,” she asks, “would America react to the mass self-immolation by hunger of its favorite sons?(2) Although “nothing justifies comparison with the Holocaust,” she cannot refrain from making one anyway. “When confronted with a vast number of emaciated bodies starved not by nature but by men, one must notice a certain resemblance.”(3)
Where did Ms. Wolf get her figures? Her source is Fasting Girls: The Emergence of Anorexia Nervosa as a Modern Disease(4) by Joan Brumberg, a historian and former director of women’s studies at Comell University. Brumberg, too, is fully aware of the political significance of the startling statistic. She points out that the women who study eating problems “seek demonstrate that these disorders are an inevitable consequence of a misogynistic society that demeans women. . . by objectifying their bodies.”(5) Professor Brumberg, in turn, attributes the figure to the American Anorexia and Bulimia Association.
I called the American Anorexia and Bulimia Association and spoke to Dr. Diane Mickley, its president. “We were misquoted,” she said. In a 1985 newsletter the association had referred to 150,000 to 200,000 sufferers (not fatalities) of anorexia nervosa. What is the correct morbidity rate? Most experts are reluctant to give exact figures. One clinician told me that of 1400 patients she had treated in ten years, four had died—all through suicide. The National Center for Health Statistics reported 101 deaths from anorexia nervosa in 1983 and 67 deaths in 1988.(6) Thomas Dunn of the Division of Vital Statistics at the National Center for Health Statistics reports that in 1991 there were 54 deaths from anorexia nervosa and no deaths from bulimia. The deaths of these young women are a tragedy, certainly, but in a country of one hundred million adult females, such numbers are hardly evidence of a “holocaust.”
Yet now the false figure, supporting the view that our “sexist society” demeans women by objectifying their bodies, is widely accepted as true. Ann Landers repeated it in her syndicated column in April 1992: “Every year, 150,000 American women die from complications associated with anorexia and bulimia.”(7)
I sent Naomi Wolf a letter pointing out that Dr. Mickley had said she was mistaken. Wolf sent me word on February 3, 1993, that she intends to revise her figures on anorexia in & later edition of The Beauty Myth.(8) Will she actually state that the correct figure is Less than one hundred per year? And will she correct the implications she drew from the false report? For example, will she revise her thesis that masses of young women are being “starved not by nature but by men” and her declaration that “•women must claim anorexia as political damage done to us by a social order that considers our destruction insignificant . . . as Jews identify the death camps” (9)
Will Ms. Steinem advise her readers of the egregious statistical error? Will Ms. Landers? Will it even matter? By now, the 150,000 figure has made it into college textbooks. A recent women’s studies text, aptly titled The Knowledge Explosion, contains the erroneous figure in its preface.'(10)
The anorexia “crisis” is only one sample of the kind of provocative but Inaccurate information being purveyed by women about “women’s issues” these days. 0n November 4, 1992, Deborah Louis, president of the National Women’s Studies Association, sent a message to the Women’s Studies Electronic Bulletin Board: “According to [the] last March of Dimes report, domestic violence (vs. pregnant women) is now responsible for more birth defects than all other causes combined. Personally [this] strikes me as the most disgusting piece of data I’ve seen in a long while.”(11) This was, indeed, unsettling news. But it seemed implausible. I asked my neighbor, a pediatric neurologist at Boston’s Children’s Hospital, about the report. He told me that although severe battery may occasionally cause miscarriage, he had never heard of battery as a significant cause of birth defects. Yet on February 23, 1993, Patricia Ireland, president of the National Organization of Women, made a similar claim during a PBS interview with Charlie Rose: “Battery of pregnant women is the number one cause of birth defects in this country.”
I called the March of Dimes to get a copy of the report. Maureen Corry, director of the March’s Education and Health Promotion Program, denied any knowledge of it. “We have never seen this research before,” she said.
I did a search and found that—study or no study—journalists around the country were citing it.
Domestic violence is the leading cause of birth defects, more than all other medical causes combined, according to a March of Dimes study. (Boston Globe, September 2, 1991)
Especially grotesque is the brutality reserved for pregnant women: the March of Dimes has concluded that the battering of women during pregnancy causes more birth defects than all the diseases put together for which children are usually immunized. (Time magazine, January 18,1993)
The March of Dimes has concluded that the battering of women during pregnancy causes more birth defects than all the diseases put together for which children are usually immunized. (Dallas Morning News, February 7,1993)
The March of Dimes says battering during pregnancy causes more birth defects than all diseases for which children are immunized. (Arizona Republic, March 21, 1993)
The March of Dimes estimates that domestic violence is the largest single cause of birth defects. (Chicago Tribune, April 18, 1993)
I called the March of Dimes again. Andrea Ziltzer of their media relations department told me that the rumor was spinning out of control. Governors’ offtces, state health departments, and Washington politicians had flooded the office with phone calls. Even the office of Senator Edward Kennedy had requested a copy of the “report.” The March of Dimes had asked Time for a retraction. For some reason, Time was stalling.
When I finally reached Jeanne Mcdowell, who had written the Time article, the first thing she said was “That was an error.” She sounded genuinely sorry and embarrassed. She explained that she is always careful about checking sources, but this time, for some reason, she had not. Time was supposed to have printed a retraction in the letters column, but because of a mixup, it had failed to do so. Time has since called the March of Dimes’ media relations department to apologize. An official retraction finally appeared in the magazine on December 6, 1993, under the heading “Inaccurate Information.”(12)
I asked Ms. McDowell about her source. She had relied on information given her by the San Francisco Family Violence Prevention Fund, which in turn had obtained it from Sarah Buel, a founder of the domestic violence advocacy project at Harvard Law School who now heads a domestic abuse project in Massachusetts.(13) Ms. Buel had obtained it from Caroline Whitehead, a maternal nurse and child care specialist in Raleigh, North Carolina. I called Ms. Whitehead.
“It blows my mind. it is not true,” she said. The whole mixup began, she explained, when she introduced Sarah Buel as a speaker at a 1989 conference for nurses and social workers. In presenting her, Ms. Whitehead mentioned that according to some March of Dimes research she had seen, more women are screened for birth defects than are ever screened for domestic battery. “In other words, what I said was, ‘We screen for battery far less than we screen for birth defects.'” Ms. Whitehead had said nothing at all about battery causing birth defects. “Sarah misunderstood me,” she said. Buel went on to put the erroneous information into an unpublished manuscript, which was then circulated among family violence professionals. They saw no reason to doubt its authority and repeated the claim to others. (14)
I called Sarah Buel and told her that it seemed she had misheard Ms. Whitehead. She was surprised. “Oh, I must have misunderstood her. I’ll have to give her a call. She is my source.” She thanked me for having informed her of the error, pointing out that she had been about to repeat it yet again in a new article she was writing.
Why was everybody so credulous? Battery responsible for more birth defects than all other causes combined? More than genetic disorders such as spina bifida, Down syndrome, Tay-Sachs, sickle-cell anemia? More than congenital heart disorders? More than alcohol, crack, or AIDS— more than all these things combined? Where were the-fact-checkers, the editors, the skeptical journalists?
Unfortunately, the anorexia statistic and the March of Dimes “study” are typical of the quality of information we are getting on many women’s issues from feminist researchers, women’s advocates, -and journalists. More often than not, a closer look at the supporting evidence-the-studies and statistics on eating disorders, domestic battery, tape; sexual harassment, bias against girls in school, wage differentials, or the demise of the nuclear family—will raise grave questions about credibility, not to speak of objectivity.
When they engage in exaggeration, oversimplification, and obfuscation, the feminist researchers may be no different from such other advocacy groups as the National Rifle Association or the tobacco industry. But when the NRA does a “study that shows… ,” or the tobacco industry finds “data that suggest . . . ,” journalists are on their guard. They check sources and seek dissenting opinions.
In January 1993 newspapers and television networks reported an alarming finding; incidence of domestic battery tended to rise by 40 percent on Super Bowl Sunday. NBC, which was broadcasting the game that year, made special pleas to men to stay calm. Feminists called for emergency preparations in anticipation of the expected increase in violence on January 31. They also used the occasion to drive home the message that maleness and violence against women are synonymous. Nancy Isaac, a Harvard School of Public Health research associate who specializes in domestic violence, told the Boston Globe: “It’s a day for men to revel in their maleness and unfortunately, for a lot of men that includes being violent toward women if they want to be.”(15)
Journalists across the country accepted the 40 percent figure at face value and duly reported the bleak tidings. The sole exception was Ken Ringle, a reporter at the Washington Post, who decided to check on the sources. As we shall see later in this book, he quickly found that the story had no basis In fact.(16) No study shows that Super Bowl Sunday is in any way different from other days in the amount of domestic violence. Though Ringle exposed the rumor, it had done its work: millions of American women who heard about it are completely unaware that it is not true. What they do “know” is that American males, especially the sports fans among them, are a dangerous and violent species.
To the question “Why is everyone so credulous?” we must add another “Why are certain feminists so eager to put men in a bad light?” I shall try to answer both these questions and to show how the implications affect us all.
American feminism is currently dominated by a group of women who seek to persuade the public that American women are not the free creatures we think are. The leaders and theorists of the women’s movement believe that our society is best described as a patriarchy, a “male hegemony,” a “sex/gender system” in which the dominant gender works to keep women cowering and submissive. The feminists who hold this divisive view of our social and political reality believe we are in a gender war, and they are eager to disseminate stories of atrocity that are designed to alert women to their plight. The “gender feminists” (as I shall call them) believe that all our institutions, from the state to the family to the grade schools, perpetuate male dominance. Believing that women are virtually under siege, gender feminists naturally seek recruits to their side of the gender war. They seek support. They seek vindication. They seek ammunition.
Not everyone, including many women who consider themselves feminists, is convinced that contemporary American women live in an oppressive “male hegemony.” To confound the skeptics and persuade the undecided, the gender feminists are constantly on the lockout for proof, for the smoking gun, the telling fact that will drive home co the public how profoundly the system is rigged against women. To rally women to their cause, it is not enough to remind us that many brutal and selfish men harm women. They must persuade us that the system itself sanctions mate brutality. They must convince us that the oppression of women, sustained from generation to generation, is a structural feature of our society.
Well-funded, prestigious organizations as well as individuals are engaged in this enterprise. In 1992, for example, the American Association of University Women and the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women announced findings that our schools systematically favor boys and are contributing to a dramatic drop in girls’ self-esteem. In another study, the Commonwealth Fund, relying on polls taken by Louis Hams and Associates, spread the news that 37 percent of American women are psychologically abused by their husbands or partners every year and that “40 percent of women… experience severe depression in a given week.”(17) As we shall see, these alarming reports have little more basis in fact than did the Super Bowl hoax.
I recently told a friend that I was coming across a lot of mistakes and misleading data in feminist studies. “It’s a mess,” I said. “Are you sure you want to write about it?” she asked. “The far right will use what you find to attack all women. It will harm the women who are working in such problem areas as battery and wage discrimination. “Why do anything to endanger our fragile gains?” My friend’s questions were sobering, and I want to underscore at the outset that I do not mean to confuse the women who work in the trenches to help the victims true abuse and discrimination with the gender feminists whose falsehoods and exaggerations are muddying the waters of American feminism. These feminist ideologues are helping no one; on the contrary, their divisive and resentful philosophy adds to the woes of our society and hurts legitimate feminism. Not only are women who suffer real abuse not helped by untruths, they are in fact harmed by inaccuracies and exaggerations.
For example, as Ms. Whitehead noted, more women are screened for birth defects than for battery. She was touching on a terribly important problem. Battery is still not taken seriously enough as a medical problem Most hospitals have procedures to avoid discharging patients at high risk of suffering a relapse of the condition for which they are being treated. Yet few hospitals have procedures that would put women likely to suffer further abuse in touch with the professional services that could help them avoid it, a real and shocking problem. That battery is the chief cause of birth defects is perhaps more shocking, but it is untrue. The March of Dimes has developed an excellent hospital “Protocol of Care for the Battered Woman.” Wouldn’t it have been more effective to publicize the problem that Ms. Whitehead had actually talked about and promoted the March of Dimes’ solution? True, the alleged findings had great value as gender feminist propaganda. But, being incorrect, they could lead to nothing constructive in the way of alleviating the actual suffering of women.
American women owe an incalculable debt to the classically liberal feminists who came before us and fought long and hard, and ultimately with spectacular success, to gain for women the rights that the men of this country had tahen for granted for over two hundred years. Exposing the hypocrisy of the gender feminists will not jeopardize those achievements. Battered women don’t need untruths to make their case before a fair-minded public that hates and despises bullies; there is enough tragic truth to go around.
With that in mind, I shall evaluate here the views of such feminists as Gloria Steinem, Patricia Ireland, Susan Faludi, Marilyn French, Naomi Wolf, and Catharine MacKinnon and the findings that inform them. I shall take a look at the feminist institutions that now control large areas of information about women. I shall take note of overly trusting journalists and the many politicians who are eager to show that they “get it.”
Above all, I shall examine the philosophy, the beliefs, and the passions of the feminist theorists and researchers—the ones who do the “studies that show. . .” and who provide the movement its intellectual leadership. These articulate, energetic, and determined women are training a generation of young activists. All indications are that the new crop of young feminist ideologues coming out of our nation’s colleges are even angrier, more resentful, and more indifferent to the truth than their mentors.
The large majority of women, including the majority of college women, are distancing themselves from this anger and resentfulness. Unfortunately, they associate these altitudes with feminism, and so they conclude that they are not really feminists. According to a 1992 Time/CNN poll, although 57 percent of the women responding said they believed there was a need for a strong women’s movement, 63 percent said they do not consider themselves feminists.(18) Another poll conducted by R. H. Brushkin reported that only 16 percent of college women “definitely” considered themselves to be feminists.'(19)
In effect, the gender feminists lack a grass roots constituency. They blame a media “backlash” for the defection of the majority of women. But what happened is clear enough; the gender feminists have stolen “feminism” from a mainstream that had never acknowledged their leadership.
The women currently manning—womanning—the feminist ramparts do not take well to criticism. How could they? As they see it, they are dealing with a massive epidemic of male atrocity and a constituency of benighted women who have yet to comprehend the seriousness of their predicament. Hence, male critics must be “sexist” and “reactionary,” and female critics “traitors,” “collaborators,” or “backlashers.” This kind of reaction has had a powerful inhibiting effect. It has alienated and silenced women and men alike.
I have been moved to write this book because I am a feminist who does not like what feminism has become. The new gender feminism is badly in need of scrutiny. Only forthright appraisals can diminish its inordinate and divisive influence. If others join in a frank and honest citique, before long a more representative and less doctrinaire feminism will again pick up the reins. But that is not likely to happen without a fight.
1. Gloria Steinem, Revolution From Within: A Book of Self-Esteem (Boston: Little
1992). D. 222.
2. Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Vied Against Women
(New York: Doubleday, 1992), pp. 180-82.
3. lbid., p.207.
4. Joan Jacobs Bnumberg, Fasting Girls: The Emergence of Anorexia Nervosa as a
Modern Disease (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988), pp. 19-20.
6. FDA Consumer, May 1986 and March 1992. The report is based on figures provided
by the National Center of Health Statistics (NCHS).
7. Ann Landers, “Women and Distorted Body Images,” Boston Globe, April 29,1992.
8. Wolf sent me a copy of a letter that she had written to her editors, which said, “I
have . . . learned that the statistic, taken from Brumberg’s Fasting Girls and provided to her by the American Anorexia and Bulimia Association, is not accurate. Please let me know how to correct this error in future editions.”
9. Wolf, The Beauty Myth. p. 208.
10. Cheris Kramarae and Dale Spender, eds., The Knowledge Explosion; Generations of Feminist Scholarship (New York: Teachers College Press, Columbia Univeisity, 1992), p. 15.
11. Women’s Studies Network (Internet: USTSERV@UMDD.UMD.EDU), November 4, 1992.
12. Tme. December 6, 1993, p. 10.
13. Ms. Buel has taken a. leave from the Suffolk County office to return to Harvard. She is now 3 fellow at the Bunting Institute, a feminist research center at Radcliffe College.
14. Tracing it furher, I found that Esta Soler, the executive director of the Family Violence Prevention Foundation, repeated Buel’s claim in a 1990 grant application. She had given that giant application to Time writer McDowell, who relied on it in making the claim about the March of Dimes. That was it: it had gone Whitehead’s intioductory remark, to Sarah Buel’s unpublished manuscript, to the domestic violence people, to the Globe and Time, then to all the rest of the newspapers.
15. Boston Globe, January 29, 1993, p. 16.
16. Ken Ringle, Washington Post, January 31, 1993. p. Al.
17. Louis Hams and Associates, “Commonwealth Fund Survey on Women’s Health” (New York: Commonwealth Fund, 1993), p. 8.
18. Reported in Time, March 9, 1992, p. 54.
19. Los Angeles Times Magazine, Februaryr, 1992. See also In View: Issues and Insults for College Women I, no. 3 (September-October 1989).
© 1994, Simon and Schuster, NY, NY, pp. 11-18