Christina Hoff Sommers has done something lethally deflating to the pretensions of the shriller sort of feminists: She looked at their evidence and found it lacking.
For her new book "Who Stole Feminism?" Sommers has painstakingly tracked down the sources of many often-quoted (but untrue) stories used in feminist scriptures to prove to the naive and credulous that American women as a class are oppressed and miserable. You've probably read some of them.Gloria Steinem laments that "about 150,000 females die of anorexia each year," (in "Revolution from Within") and refers to Naomi Wolf as her source.
Wolf, who likened the death toll to the Holocaust, in turn got her figures from a book about anorexia by Joan Brumberg ("Fasting Girls") and Brumberg cites as her source the American Anorexia and Bulimia Association.
Authoritative, right? Not at all. The president of the association told Sommers that Brumberg had misquoted a 1985 newsletter which discussed the number of cases, not the number of deaths.
Anorexics don't do their health any good, but they rarely die. The National Center for Health Statistics reported 54 deaths from anorexia in 1991, and that was down from 101 in 1983 when the problem was less well recognized.
You might well wonder how the 150,000 figure, so implausible on its face - it's not merely wrong, but wrong by a factor of a thousand - would survive through so many repetitions without anyone noticing. Even Ann Landers used it in a column.
The answer has to be that the authors, and their editors, yearn for the worst to be true, because the truth does not suit their agenda. It may also be that fields like women's studies are particularly appealing to women for whom arithmetic is a masculine mystery and logic an oppressive instrument of the patriarchy.
Sommers, an associate professor at Clark University in Massachusetts, is a philosopher by trade and a feminist by inclination, in the tradition that began with 19th century reformers such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
"We ask no better laws than those you have made for yourselves," Stanton told the New York Legislature in 1854. "We need no other protection than that which your present laws secure to you."
Sommers gives the name "equity feminism" to that tradition, which she believes is supported by most Americans, women and men alike. "A First Wave, `mainstream,' or `equity' feminist wants for women what she wants for everyone: fair treatment, without discrimination," Sommers writes.
But a newer and more radical sort of feminism, which she calls "gender feminism," has become dominant in higher education and is beginning to exert a baleful influence in the lower grades as well. This doctrine holds that the whole of society is organized by men in order to keep women subordinated and submissive.
As one feminist theorist described it, the sex/gender system is "that complex process whereby bisexual infants are transformed into male and female gender personalities, the one destined to command, the other to obey."
Even more interesting is the complex process by which such silly theorizing is translated into popular wisdom and expensive federal programs. When Rep. Pat Schroeder, D-Colo., introduced the $360 million Gender Equity in Education Act, she justified it by reference to a report by the American Association of University Women, "Shortchanging Girls, Shortchanging America."
This report is the source of a frequently cited statistic, that girls' self-esteem drops sharply from elementary to high school, from 60 percent saying they are "happy the way I am" to 29 percent, while the drop for boys is (only) from 69 percent to 46 percent.
The report was based on a poll commissioned by the AAUW, which makes it about as reliable as a study on smoking commissioned by the tobacco industry. But getting a look at the original study, Sommers discovered, was even harder than finding the source of the anorexia exaggeration.
The study wasn't available in libraries, and the AAUW's toll-free order number didn't offer it. Eventually, Sommers was able to order it, for a pricey $85, but the AAUW first demanded a statement "outlining how you plan to use the survey instrument and results" and warning that any use of the data "must receive advance written approval from AAUW."
No reputable scientists would have published under those conditions, but the numerous educators who quote the AAUW's summaries of its results as if they were gospel seem quite unaware of the fact.
In reality, the percentages quoted are those of respondents who answered "always true" to the happiness question. Girls who checked "sort of true" or "sometimes true/sometimes false" totaled 88 percent, compared with 92 percent for boys.
But no one would be interested in such an innocuous result, even though it generally agrees with other research in adolescent psychology. So it was kept quiet, and normally skeptical journalists happily refrained from asking inconvenient questions.
Something even more awkward is buried in the detailed poll responses. When the "always" answers to the "happy the way I am" question for high school students are broken out by race, they are: white girls, 22 percent, white boys 36 percent, African-American girls 58 percent and African-American boys 74 percent.
If those numbers prove anything, it is that this peculiar measure of self-esteem is inversely correlated with future achievement, exactly the opposite of what the AAUW claims. Congress might do more good if it appropriated money to reduce self-esteem instead of increasing it.
The AAUW followed up this report with another titled, "How Schools Shortchange Girls." Actually, by almost every measure girls do better in school than boys; on the tests given to 17-year-olds by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, they are slightly behind in math and science but far ahead in reading and writing.
Of course you won't read that in this second AAUW report, which is just as misleading as the first, and even more widely quoted. It cites research by Myra and David Sadker that girls get less constructive attention from teachers. But some of the Sadkers' research is missing in action, and what of it Sommers could locate says the opposite of what the AAUW claims. Boys are reprimanded far more often and more harshly, the Sadkers wrote in a 1981 paper, but later misquoted themselves to say it was the girls.
If you believe that Super Bowl Sunday is the most dangerous day of the year for women, or that one woman in four will be raped during her lifetime, or that more than a third of married women will be battered by their spouses every year, or that battery of pregnant women is the No. 1 cause of birth defects, Sommers has news for you.