Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 965:
WHO STOLE FEMINISM?

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 965.

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 system.

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 truth-seeking.

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 1500.

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 free.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


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 sources.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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