Today, a modern parable about war and honesty. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
A columnist in the
Houston Post talks about the collapse
of girls' self-esteem during adolescence. A whole
shelf full of new books tells how the self-image of
girls dies in junior high. All this rings loud and
true in my ears. I still wear the psychic scars of
adolescence. The trouble is, I'm male, not female.
The source behind those books is a 1991 study by
the American Association of University Women. The
AAUW shocked America by showing that girls'
self-esteem went to pieces in junior high while
boys' self-esteem was protected by a male-dominated
Enter now Christina Hoff Sommers, author of
Who Stole Feminism. She identifies a
small group whom she describes as "intelligent
women who sincerely believe that American women are
in a gender war." Sommers argues that this
extremely influential cadre has moved away from the
ideals of feminists like Betty Friedan and Germaine
Greer -- ideals of rational reform and equity. They
see themselves no longer as theorists, but as
soldiers. And war tactics are not the tactics of
Sommers asked AAUW for a copy of the report -- with
its survey questions and tabulations. AAUW
stonewalled her. She finally had to sign a form
promising not to quote the report without prior
AAUW approval. With her hands thus tied, she paid
$85 for a copy. Then AAUW's reticence became clear.
While she couldn't quote the report, she could
quote psychological experts who read the report for
her. They told her the survey questions were
inadequate. The conclusions, built on sand.
No one has figured out how to measure self-esteem
or even how to define it. Adolescent boys may just
be better trained to hide their terror behind
bluster. I know I was. The AAUW report wasn't valid
scholarship at all. It was only a weapon of war.
Sommers finds other distortions. Gloria Steinem
announces 150,000 anorexia deaths each year. That
number triggers outrage. The male ideal for female
bodies is genocidal. Books appear on the subject.
Then we find that Steinem erred. 150,000 women
suffer from anorexia. The National Center for
Health Statistics reports fewer than 100 deaths per
year. That's still enough tragedy to upset me.
Human life isn't so cheap you have to multiply by
One unfounded, and widely quoted, claim says
wife-beating rises 40 percent on Super Bowl
Sundays. Human tragedies like rape and battering
are too terrible to be exaggerated that way -- by a
few people trying to win battles. "I am a
feminist," Sommers reminds us. She wants to repair
gender inequities. War won't do that. It can only
create bad science. Good science is truth-seeking.
And, in the end, it takes the truth to make people
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Sommers, C.H., Who Stole Feminism, New
York: Simon & Schuster, 1994.
Ganglehoff, B., Authors target girls' self-esteem.
The Houston Post ("Style" section),
Wednesday, Sept. 7, 1994, p. D-1.
I am especially grateful to William and Jeanna
Howell, who have been studying this issue and who
drew my attention to Sommers' book and other
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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