The War Against Boys

Published September 1, 2000

Books & Culture

Christina Hoff Sommers was a professor of philosophy at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, when her first book, Who Stole Feminism?, was published. That book, the thesis of which Sommers had laid out in a provocative Atlantic Monthly article, catapulted her to public prominence (and generated a bushel of politically correct hate-mail). Sommers has since forsaken the groves of academe for think tankery; currently she is the W.H. Brady Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.

Her new book, The War Against Boys, has generated even more controversy than its predecessor did. (For an exchange between Sommers and her critics, see the Letters section of the August issue of the Atlantic.) Michael Cromartie met with her in Washington to talk about the book.


What is the war against boys?

Boys are politically incorrect. They like action, competition, rough-housing. They are the one group of Americans who do not spend a lot of time talking about their feelings. This worries many people. A group of psychologists—mainly at Harvard—have convinced themselves that boys need to be “rescued” from their masculinity. At the same time, hard-line feminists are persuaded that unless we intervene at earliest possible age to change boys, women and girls will continue to be “oppressed under patriarchy.” My book shows that these two groups—the gender warriors and the New England psychologists—have been astonishingly successful in promoting their male-averse programs in the schools. In the meantime, boys are not getting the help they really need. All the special help has been allocated to girls.

Many books have come out in the last ten years or so that report a pervasive malaise among young women and adolescent girls. Is your book intended as a corrective to these diagnoses?

Those books have had two bad effects. They overstated how bad things are for girls, and they distracted everyone’s attention from the problems of boys. Contrary to Mary Pipher’s book Reviving Ophelia, American girls are not “crashing and burning.” They are not shortchanged, demoralized, or silenced. We are not a “girl-poisoning” culture.

I do not like to criticize Mary Pipher. She is well-intentioned and I am sure an excellent therapist. But she should not have depicted American girls in tragic terms. Their story is the very opposite of tragedy. They are flourishing in unprecedented ways. They are way ahead of boys academically and socially. They have more freedoms and more opportunities than any young women in history.

There are, of course, plenty of problems. We could do a much better job educating our children and, teaching them about right and wrong. But it is simply wrong to attribute mental pathology to most of them. Are they depressed? Despondent? Wracked by anxiety? No, not most of them.

Where did this myth of the fragile girl originate?

I think it originated with the psychologist Carol Gilligan, Harvard’s first professor of gender studies, whose best-known book, In a Different Voice, was published in 1982. Gilligan argues that in our society, no one is interested in what girls have to say. She says that girls learn, at the age of 13 or 14, that the system is rigged against them. The “patriarchy” is assigning them an inferior place. Girls, according to Gilligan, are silenced when they hit the “wall of Western culture”—whatever that’s supposed to mean.

Well, American girls are not silenced. They are arguably among the most outspoken people in the world. To call this generation of opinionated, ambitious, animated, and delightful girls diminished wallflowers is madness. Nothing could be further from the truth. But that myth was aggressively promoted by several women’s groups and in a growing list of best-selling books. It has become the conventional wisdom.

In particular, Gilligan’s views have been promoted by the Ms. Foundation, the American Association of University Women (AAUW), and the Wellesley Center for Research on Women. These groups are excellent publicists for the cause of America’s “shortchanged” girls. But too often they publicize false information. One example: a favorite AAUW factoid was the “statistic” that boys call out answers in class “eight times more than girls.” Not only that, but when a girl gets up the nerve to call out an answer, teachers ignore her or tell her to be quiet and to raise her hand. What a perfect illustration of how our “gender-biased” schools shortchange girls!

It turns out that this endlessly cited “finding” was simply a myth. There was no research to document it. The person who originally put out the claim admitted, finally, to a journalist at U.S. News and World Report, that he didn’t have the data. But that still didn’t stop it from being promoted by the AAUW. It was cited in nearly every major newspaper in the country. (The New York Times alone cited the “8-1 call-out gap” on three different occasions.) And it was given as a reason for Congress to pass the Gender Equity in Education Act.

How has all this filtered down to the classroom?

The implication for teachers is that they must do all they can to rescue the Ophelias in their classrooms by helping them overcome their depression and low self-esteem. Gilligan describes girls as “drowning and disappearing in a sea of Western culture.” That does not sound good.

But if you ask genuine social scientists and epidemiologists —and others who study levels of distress and mental illness in the population—you’ll find that the vast majority of children are healthy and thriving. What Gilligan and the other crisis-writers seem to do is to take the serious and real problems of the few and project them on to the many.

Many classroom teachers have studied the works of Carol Gilligan. She has convinced them that girls routinely need remedial—even therapeutic—attention. Thousands of schools have cooperated with Take Your Daughter to Work Day—a holiday intended only for girls. And many teachers and school officials are persuaded they need to take especially strong measures to make girls feel valued and worthwhile.

Meanwhile, boys’ needs remain on some back burner—despite the fact that boys in American classrooms are significantly less literate than the girls. They are less committed to school. They are less likely to go to college. Both boys and girls believe teachers prefer girls and think them smarter.

The Department of Education has just released an excellent new study on gender equity. It shows that eleventh-grade boys are a year-and-a-half behind girls in reading, and three years behind in writing. The average eleventh-grade boy writes like an eighth-grade girl. Girls’ deficits in math and science are small by comparison. Yet there are thousands of special programs for girls and almost none for boys. I say keep the girls’ programs—by all means!—but offer boys’ programs too.

Gloria Steinem and others whom you cite agree that we do have a boy problem—they might mention the rash of schoolyard shootings, for instance—but their solution seems to be: “We need to raise boys like we raise girls.” Is that really what they are saying?

That’s exactly what they’re saying. Finally the girl partisans have discovered that all is not well with boys. But their “cure” for what is wrong with boys is highly questionable. They speak of boys being bound in a “straitjacket of masculinity.” According to this new “save the males” movement, boys too are victims of patriarchy. They are oppressed by having to be boys. So various women’s groups and their male disciples are now looking for ways to help boys overcome their masculinity. With friends like these, boys don’t need enemies.

Men are too masculine.

Right. And the solution, according to Steinem and her followers, is early intervention to help boys overcome their “boyness”—to reeducate them in the direction of femininity.

And your take on that is what?

My take on that: it is crazy. Being a boy is not a disorder. It is not a condition one needs to recover from. Yes, a small group of boys are pathological and in need of dramatic interventions. But such boys are unusual.

The average American boy is not violent. Take something like Columbine: there were hundreds of boys there that day, and some of them were courageous. Why can’t they be taken as exemplars of American young men? Why take two sociopaths—probably two of the most disturbed boys in the country—and make them the symbols of the American maleness? Yet, journalists as well as some child psychologists, such as Harvard’s William Pollack, took the Columbine killers as emblematic. That is very unfair, very disrespectful—and just ridiculous.

You don’t deny that many boys are aggressive.

I don’t deny that every society faces a challenge of civilizing its young men. Girls have their way of being anti-social and can be extremely unpleasant. But boys are more violent. At the earliest age, parents must begin teaching their sons to control their aggression and anger. They need to help their sons develop a conscience. I believe that parents and educators need to take this task more seriously. All children need to cultivate what Aristotle called the Golden Mean—dispositions toward virtue. It doesn’t happen naturally.

This isn’t distinctively a boy problem. Especially in junior high and high school, there is a lot of sexual acting out, kids taunting one another, saying terrible things. But the best studies I’ve seen show that the girls do it almost as much as the boys. I’m talking about spreading rumors, calling each other names, making suggestive remarks, grabbing each other inappropriately.

Girls as much as boys?

Yes, at least according to a study on harassment carried out by the AAUW. Large numbers of middle school and high school boys and girls admit to making sexual remarks, spreading sexual rumors, grabbing another student in a sexual way.

Occasionally, the sexual taunting is quite cruel. In the book I described some shocking cases in which girls were subject to vicious mistreatment by other girls. My question was, How did this happen? How did it get so out of control?

What I discovered is that the real problem in our school is not sexist oppression of girls by boys (as the girl advocates maintain) but a breakdown of discipline and a lack of civility. There is a serious problem of bullying—some times of a sexual nature, but more often not. Of course, boys and girls have different styles of bullying. For boys it usually takes the form of physical threats. Girls practice “relational bullying”; they hurt by spreading rumors, withdrawing friendship, and enforcing popularity hierarchies. All schools need to have strong anti-bullying policies.

In your book you say: “Despite the difficulty of proving causation in social science the wealth of evidence increasingly supports the conclusion that fatherlessness is the primary generator of violence among young men.” Is it true that educators like Gilligan are silent about the role of fathers and their importance?

In her latest work on boys Gilligan sees a tendency toward “emotional repression,” neurosis, and acting out among boys because they are pushed away from their mothers. She is using a kind of feminist psychoanalysis to say little boys define themselves as different from their caregiver whereas little girls are at one with their mother. And she thinks this sets up the basis for a neurotic male rejection of nurture and emotion. She then ascribes all sorts of problems to boys who suffer from this fundamental alienation. The problem with this theory is that it is the absence of the father that seems to be causing the most emotional problems in boys.

How does the tragedy of absent fathers fit into a movement that wants to dismantle the patriarchy? I mean, fathers are rarely mentioned in their literature. Here’s what I find so interesting: I agree with many feminists that there’s dreadful behavior in many young men, but the reason very often is family destabilization—and the lack of a father.

You say that children need a moral environment more than they need gender politics.

That’s right. The problems that we are facing in our society have little or nothing to do with misogyny or patriarchy and everything to do with a child’s need for developing a conscience, for moral instruction, for parents who love them and who model responsible behavior.

Is anybody going to argue with you on that? That seems like common sense.

A lot of what I say strikes me as being little more than plain common sense. But, in gender equity circles, common sense is hard to come by.

Will there be people who say that Christina Hoff Sommers has forgotten about the oppressiveness of the patriarchy?

I say, What patriarchy? I think it’s very odd that they could call a society in which women are better educated than men, healthier, living longer—that this could be described as a society oppressive to women. The reality is a mix. In some ways men are doing better; in more ways, I think, women are doing better. And I think we have to move beyond gender politics for solutions that will help all of our children.

Not long ago I read a review of Patricia Stevens’ Between Mothers and Sons, a book about a group of feminist writers and their sons. I assumed it was going to tell me yet again how terrible sons can be. Instead, what I found was very strongly feminist women who could not help loving and adoring their sons. One of the writers is a not only a feminist but also a committed pacifist. Her son Tim showed a fascination with the military at an early age. Later he became a soldier. But like any mother, she loved him, respected him— and found that she was actually proud of his chivalrous male nature. Perhaps what these mothers did with their sons, we as a society—and especially some of these women’s groups—should do with boys, which is to discover the goodness and to accept the difference.

So, stop trying to reeducate the sexes, and get back to encouraging moral obligations and virtues in the classroom?

Let’s get the best information we can about children’s academic needs, and address the needs of boys and girls in a fair way. All children need disciple, respect, and moral guidance, They need love and tolerant understanding. They do not need gender politics.

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