Letter in defense of Christina Hoff Sommers sent to the Los Angeles Times

This letter was recommended to the Times by Sommers herself, to whom it was also sent, but went unpublished.


Philosophy Department
Los Angeles Valley College
5800 Fulton Ave.
Van Nuys, CA 91401-4096

31 July 1994

The Editors
Los Angeles Times
Times Mirror Square
Los Angeles, CA 90053

Re: Column Left, "Scholars in the Service of Politics," Linda Hirshman, Sunday, July 31, 1994

Dear Sirs:

If Linda Hirshman is going to accuse Christina Hoff Sommers of distortions that can be corrected with "half an hour" of research, she should at least pay attention to what Dr. Sommers says and take some care that she understands what points Sommers is making.

Professor Hirshman actually confuses two entirely different issues. First, whether the phrase "rule of thumb" derives from old laws legalizing wife beating; and second, whether there were laws legalizing wife beating. Professor Hirshman cites Sommers claiming that the English jurist William Blackstone "found that the common law prohibited violence against wives." However, Hirshman's actual quote from Blackstone is to much the same effect as Sommers' own quote from Blackstone: That the "old" common law, as understood by Blackstone, allowed the corporal punishment ("the due government and correction") of wives by their husbands is not disputed by Sommers. The first question was whether Blackstone used the phrase "rule of thumb," and the answer to that was that he did not. Similarly, Sommers' point was that the phrase "rule of thumb" did not occur in the 19th century court cases that feminists have cited. Hirshman does not dispute any of this, because she seems to have missed the point of Sommers' argument.

On the other hand, there is the more serious question of the extent to which wife beating was legal. And here, although Hirshman accuses Sommers of stopping in the middle of a sentence, it is Hirshman who doesn't seem to have read through the entire quote from Blackstone. For Blackstone, having noted that the old common law allowed to husbands the power of "domestic chastisement, in the same moderation that a man is allowed to correct his apprentices or children," goes on to say that, "But with us, in the politer reign of Charles the Second, this power of correction began to be doubted; and a wife may now have the security of the peace against her husband" [note].

Professor Hirshman has clearly chosen to ignore how the "politer reign of Charles the Second" may have reformed the law to an extent unconformable to feminist views about patriarchal misogyny and violence. Sommers' further point that colonial America already had laws against wife beating, let alone whether they referred to any "rule of thumb," is completely ignored by Hirshman.

If this is example of the logic and conscientiousness of feminist legal reasoning, in the hands of a law professor no less, then I would say that the nation is in serious trouble.

Yours truly,
Kelley L. Ross
Instructor of Philosophy

Pages on Feminist Issues
Feminism Against the Theory of "Sexist Language" Defense of Christina Hoff Sommers published in The Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association, 66:7
Abortion Gender Stereotypes and Sexual Archetypes Anaesthetic
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What Blackstone Says About Domestic Punishment, Note


The passage of William Blackstone in question occurs in Volume I, Chapter 15, Section III, page 432-433 of the Commentaries on the Laws of England [A Facsimile of the First Edition of 1765-1769, University of Chicago Press, 1979]. It is given in its entirety here:

The husband also (by the old law) might give his wife moderate correction. For, as he is to answer for her misbehaviour, the law thought it reasonable to intrust him with this power restraining her, by domestic chastisement, in the same moderation that a man is allowed to correct his servants or children; for whom the master or parent is also liable in some cases to answer. But this power of correction was confined within reasonable bounds; and the husband was prohibited to use any violence to his wife, aliter quam ad virum, ex causa regiminis et castigationis uxoris suae, licite et rationabiliter pertinet. The civil law gave the husband the same, or a larger, authority over his wife; allowing him, for some misdemesnors [sic], flagellis et fusitbus acriter verberare uxorem; for others, only modicam castigationem adhibere. But, with us, in the politer reign of Charles the second, this power of correction began to be doubted: and a wife may now have security of the peace against her husband; or, in return, a husband against his wife. Yet the lower rank of people, who were always fond of the old common law, still claim and exert their antient [sic] privilege: and the courts of law will still permit a husband to restrain a wife of her liberty, in case of any gross misbehavior.

That the "lower rank of people" should preserve the old ways is not surprising, but also does contradict the Marxist principle that the oppressed develop a progressive "consciousness." Feminism, however, would probably not regard lower class men as in any position to develop progressive ideas about gender.

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