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"Amoral masculinity": a theory for understanding Trump from feminist contrarian Christina Hoff Sommers

"Trump is a reminder of what masculinity can be like outside of conventions."

Getty Images / Meriel Jane Waissman

Gender is a cardinal issue in this year’s election. On one side is the first woman to have won the presidential nomination of a major party, and on the other is a raging misogynist who has celebrated his apparent sexual predation on tape.

Beyond the election, gender issues are playing out across society. From concern on campuses about rape culture to calls to close the wage gap, gender equity is a pervasive concern.

Christina Hoff Sommers is a writer, former professor, and now a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. The author of Who Stole Feminism and The War Against Boys, she has been openly critical of what she calls “victim feminism” or “gender feminism.”

A polemicist of sorts, Sommers has aggressively challenged academic feminists. In her view, feminist ideology has been subsumed by divisive political grievances that have undercut the movement.

“There is a lot of hostility toward men and toward women who don’t agree with them,” she told me. “There is a willingness, a readiness to censure, to silence people.”

I spoke with Sommers last week about her critiques of campus activism and what she thinks of the image of masculinity projected by Trump in this election.

Our conversation, edited for concision and clarity, follows.

Sean Illing

Maybe the best way to start is to get a handle on what kind of feminism you’re objecting to. You seem opposed not to feminism as such but rather to what you’ve called “campus feminism” or “victim feminism.” Can you explain?

Christina Hoff Sommers

I am a strong supporter of classical equality feminism — the sort of feminism that won women the vote, educational opportunity, and many other freedoms.

Equality feminism wants for women what it wants for everyone — fair treatment, respect, and dignity. But on today’s campus, equality feminism has been eclipsed by fainting couch feminism.

Sean Illing

“Fainting couch feminism”? That’s a little pejorative, no?

Christina Hoff Sommers

I borrowed the name from those delicate Victorian ladies who retreated to an elegant chaise when overcome with emotion. It views women as fragile flowers who require safe spaces, trigger warnings, and special protection from micro-invalidations.

I encountered these hypersensitive fainting couchers at Oberlin College and Georgetown University last year. I visited both campuses to give talks on the need to reform feminism and correct exaggerated victim statistics. In the past, activist students who disagreed with me came to my lectures to spar and debate.

Today they issue trigger warnings and accuse me of giving them PTSD. At both Oberlin and Georgetown, activists organized safe spaces where students could flee if they were panicked by my arguments. At Oberlin, 35 students and a therapy dog sought refuge in a safe room.

The fainting couchers are ubiquitous on today’s campus — and they appear to be getting their way. Armies of gender apparatchiks are monitoring and policing speech, ideas, humor, and sexuality.

Since the time of Socrates, education has been synonymous with debate, inquiry, challenge. If universities replace the ideals of free inquiry and critical thinking with safety, they will have lost their reason for being. Fainting couch feminism, with all its antics and psychodramas, is an embarrassment to women and a setback for feminism.

Sean Illing

I want to drill down a bit on your substantive critique of contemporary feminism. Implicit in a lot of your writing is the claim that feminists have become more anti-man than pro-woman, and that that has derailed feminism as a constructive movement.

Is that right?

Christina Hoff Sommers

There is a lot of hostility toward men and toward women who don’t agree with them. There is a willingness, a readiness to censure, to silence people. It’s ironic because this is what feminists claim is being done to them.

They demean people, they stereotype, they silence dissent. What I’m describing is fairly new. This is not what feminism has always been. On campuses today, though, there’s a focus on grievances that overwhelms everything else. This has been a campus for a long time, of course, but it wasn’t particularly vocal until the past few years.

Sean Illing

My sense is that what you mean by “equality feminism” is what most people mean when they identify with feminism, which is to say they think men and women ought to be treated equally and that women in particular shouldn’t be defined by archaic gender stereotypes.

Is your ire really just aimed at the academy here?

Christina Hoff Sommers

Yes. It’s very frustrating to academic feminists, but a lot of women outside the academy are uncomfortable with grievance feminism but they absolutely believe in equality. They are, practically speaking, equity feminists.

It’s frustrating for me because if you look at the typical gender studies textbook, and I see them all, there is little room for this brand of feminism. For example, they just don’t consider explanations for women’s choices outside of this theory of oppression.

And now the theory called intersectionality has taken over and it’s driving some of these tendencies in feminism, which are focused almost entirely on victim politics and paranoia, on conspiracy theories about how women are held back in the United States.

This is what I'm objecting to.

Sean Illing

As a man, I struggle with “difference feminism,” or the idea that men and women are fundamentally different. I grant that there seem to be obvious differences between men and women — physically, psychologically, emotionally — but it’s hard to say how much of those differences are merely accidents of history or products of human culture and how much stem from biological or genetic differences.

How do you think about this question?

Christina Hoff Sommers

I think everyone has to be careful because we don’t understand exactly what’s going on. It’s clearly the combination of nature and nurture. There are many people who defy stereotypes. However, there are many people who embody them. There is conventional femininity and conventional masculinity, and it’s difficult to capture.

But overall I think we have enough studies to show that men tend to be, on average, more risk-taking and rule-breaking, and women, on average, tend to be more nurturing — and this manifests across cultures.

Therefore, I don’t automatically think it’s sexism if you find more women going into education and psychology and social work than computer programming. I don’t think we're ever going to have a 50/50 split in the workplace because people have different dispositions and interests.

So I think you have to be on the lookout for discrimination and stereotypes holding people back, but you also have to be willing to be open to the possibility that there are innocent explanations for disparate outcomes.

Christina Hoff Sommers.

Sean Illing

So what is it that you think feminists ought to be paying more attention to? I understand your call for a brand of feminism that doesn’t overstate the problem, but are you sympathetic to those who say that until total equality is achieved, there’s an important role for agitators to play?

Christina Hoff Sommers

There’s always a role for activism, provided you have a good grasp of reality. An activist with good information can lead to reform and progress, but activism with false information leads to fanaticism and to zealotry, and I think that’s what’s happening.

Now, do I think there are worthy causes that feminists can pursue? Of course. As I said, things are not perfect in the United States — there’s always room for improvement. But I think the real challenge for the women’s movement is to reach out to women across the globe who are fighting for basic rights.

I've been to some international women’s conferences and human rights conferences, and you meet women from Cambodia and Egypt and Saudi Arabia and Somalia. These women are asking for help. And I look at these eloquent students at Oberlin and Swarthmore and Wesleyan and Berkeley, and these are feminist activists that seem to have little or no awareness of the struggles of women in other parts of the world.

Sean Illing

I agree that, comparatively speaking, American women are not oppressed. But discrimination is real, and women aren’t paid equally and they are underrepresented in corporate boardrooms and in Silicon Valley and in various other sectors.

That may not be oppression, but it isn’t equality, right?

Christina Hoff Sommers

Women are assumed to be the have-nots because a massive lobby devotes itself to proving Venus is worse off than Mars. Mars’s afflictions go unnoticed. In fact, modern life is a complicated mix of burdens and advantages — for each sex.

When it comes to being crushed, mutilated, electrocuted, or mangled at work, men are at a distinct disadvantage. Most backbreaking, lethally dangerous jobs — roofer, logger, roustabout, and coal miner, to name a few — are done by men. We are often reminded that only 24 women are CEOs of the Fortune 500. But what about the Unfortunate 5,000 — that is approximately the number of men killed on the job annually.

Education beyond high school has been called the passport to the American dream. Increasingly, women have it and men don’t. From the earliest grades, our schools do a better job educating girls. Women now earn a majority of associate, bachelor, master’s, and doctoral degrees, and their share of college degrees increases almost every year.

Today, the women’s lobby deploys a faulty logic: In cases where men are better off than women, that’s injustice. Where women are doing better — that’s life.

Why play this game? Men and women are not two opposing teams competing for some trophy. We are in this together; our fates are connected. As one wit has observed: “Nobody will ever win the battle of the sexes. Too much fraternizing with the enemy.”

My best advice: Let’s dispense with the divisive gender politics and get on with the fraternizing — or sororitizing, as I prefer to say.

Sean Illing

And the wage gap? Is that a non-problem for you?

Christina Hoff Sommers

For me, the rhetoric around the wage gap is evidence that the women’s movement is failing to change with the times. As many economists have noted, the 23-cent gender pay gap is simply the difference between the average earnings of all men and women working full time. It does not account for differences in occupations, positions, education, job tenure, or hours worked per week. When such relevant points are considered, the wage gap narrows to the point of vanishing.

Wage gap activists will reject this analysis, of course. They reply that women with identical backgrounds and jobs as men still earn less. But they always fail to take into account critical variables.

Activist groups like the National Organization for Women have another fallback position: They say that women’s education and career choices are not truly free — they are driven by powerful sexist stereotypes.

So, on their view, women’s tendencies to retreat from the workplace to raise children or to enter fields like early childhood education and psychology, rather than better-paying professions like petroleum engineering, is evidence of continued social coercion. Here is the problem: It is 2016. American women are among the best-informed and most self-determining human beings in the world. To say that they are manipulated into their life choices by forces beyond their control is divorced from reality and demeaning.

American women want their freedoms, but it is not clear they want to be just like men. I remain fascinated by the implications of a 2008 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. A group of international researchers compared data on gender and personality across 55 nations. In all the countries studied, women tended to be more nurturing, risk-averse, and emotionally expressive. Men were more competitive, reckless, and emotionally flat.

But the personality differences between men and women were largest in the wealthier, egalitarian countries. Why should this be the case? The authors hypothesize that in prosperous, egalitarian nations, there are more opportunities for self-actualization. Wealth, freedom, and education empower men and women to be who they are. What if gender disparities are sometimes evidence not of discrimination or hidden bias but of happiness and social well-being. I wish we had gender scholars open-minded enough to consider that possibility.

We don’t, alas. But that could change.

Sean Illing

Do you think the women (and men, for that matter) who protest patriarchy and gender discrimination are protesting an imagined oppression?

Christina Hoff Sommers

Yes, I think they’re captive to a distorted view.

Sean Illing

Is it distorted or entirely wrong? In other words, are people overstating a very serious problem, or is the problem itself one big liberal phantasm in your view?

Christina Hoff Sommers

American women are not oppressed. American society is not a patriarchy. Many believe otherwise because they have placed their faith in activist scholars. The gender scholars in the nation’s leading women’s studies departments, law schools, and research institutes enjoy a near monopoly on “women’s issues.” They write the textbooks, fashion the theories, and teach the classes.

When journalists, policymakers, and legislators address topics such as the wage gap, gender and education, or women’s health, they turn to these experts for enlightenment. This is an unhappy state of affairs because the literature of gender studies is unreliable. Though there are serious scholars working in the field, it is the ideological gender theorists who set the tone. Their work is often seriously compromised by misinformation, victim politics, and spin. They are captive to the “women are victims” narrative, and they will not give it up.

A patriarchy is a system of society where men hold the power and women do not. Women do hold power in the United States — they lead major universities and giant corporations. A woman is poised to win the presidency. American women, especially college women, are the freest and most self-determining in human history.

Young women with the talent, drive, and desire for big careers in business, politics, science have never had a better chance of succeeding. Women are the better-educated, longer-living sex — and men still do most of the gritty, dangerous jobs.

Are things perfect for women? No. But to refer to the US as a patriarchy is absurd.

Sean Illing

Let’s talk about the election.

You’ve complained about the repression of healthy masculinity in this country, but I wonder if you’re troubled by Trumpian masculinity (or whatever the hell you want to call it), which is buffoonish and shallow but nevertheless conforms to a conventional understanding of masculinity.

Even Trump’s running mate, Mike Pence, has repeatedly used the phrase “broad-shouldered” to describe Trump. This does strike me as a veiled reference to Trump’s masculinity.

Christina Hoff Sommers

I am troubled by Mr. Trump. But I am worried about him precisely because I disagree with your premise — I don’t think he conforms to conventional masculinity. Trump is a reminder of what masculinity can be like outside of conventions. He exhibits what might be called amoral masculinity.

He lacks a moral compass. He ridicules, bullies, and threatens anyone who crosses him. He insults war heroes and disparages entire ethnic groups. He preys on women. All of this without any apparent remorse.

This is very different from the honorable style of manliness shown by say, Teddy Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, or Barack Obama. These were and are highly assertive men, and aggressive when circumstances warranted, but who were also decorous and honorable; in a word, gentlemen. History teaches us that masculinity constrained by morality is powerful and constructive, and that masculinity without ethics is dangerous.

Some of Trump's supporters, including many women, seem to admire his vulgarity and ruthlessness. Let’s hope they are the exception. My guess is that most who support him either don’t trust the media accounts of his malevolence or care so much about certain policy issues they are giving him a pass on personal character. Or they might think Hillary is on the whole worse.

Sean Illing

I think you might be understating how many people think Trump’s machismo is precisely what masculinity looks like, or ought to look like.

In any case, you mentioned Obama, and I think he offers a useful contrast to Trump. I consider Trump a swaggering, overcompensating dolt who is nonetheless seen as tough and strong and masculine by millions of Americans.

On the other hand, we have President Obama, who is a smart and decent family man, a man who respects and honors his wife, who is thoughtful and deferential, and yet he’s seen as effete and weak by 30 or 40 percent of the country.

What’s wrong with that picture?

Christina Hoff Sommers

I think people make these kinds of judgments based on their politics. Your politics can change your interpretation, so someone who doesn’t like Obama’s politics will find things not to like about him, or will regard him as weak or feckless or whatever.

I know I don’t see him as effeminate, and I don’t know anyone who sees him that way, but I’m sure there are many who do.

Sean Illing

Did you see Tim Kaine’s quote the other day about being the first male vice president to a female president?

Christina Hoff Sommers


Sean Illing

He said: “I'm going to be a strong man supporting the first strong woman to be president of the United States. And as important as it is to normalize that a woman can be president, it’s also important to normalize that strong men can support a woman as president.”

As Ezra Klein wrote, this is such an important model of masculinity to project right now.

Christina Hoff Sommers

I think there are a lot more men that are like Kaine than like Trump.

Sean Illing

I’ve no idea if that’s true, but I hope it is.

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