The War Against Boys,
How Misguided Feminism is
Harming Our Young Men

by Christina Hoff Sommers

Simon & Schuster, 2000

The first provocative book by Christina Hoff Sommers, Who Stole Feminism?, was especially noteworthy for its exposure of the outright lies perpetrated by establishment feminism -- many of which are still simply repeated and perpetuated by the press and politicians, like the Super Bowl domestic violence hoax:  the lie that large numbers of women beaten by drunken male football fans flood into emergency rooms on Super Bowl Sunday.

The War Against Boys continues in the debunking project but goes considerably further. The title itself is a challenging turnabout with feminist rhetoric, reminiscent of the title of Susan Faludi's Backlash: The Undeclared War Against Women. Establishment "gender" feminists love to see men and society as literally attacking and assaulting women and girls, and much in the way of their bogus statistics is supposed to support this view -- like Katherine Hanson, director of the publicly funded "Women's Educational Equity Act Publishing Center," claiming that "every year nearly four million women are beaten to death" (the total female deaths per year are no more than one million, while female homicide deaths are actually about 3,600 -- cf. pp.48-49). The statistical claims that Sommers must centrally address in this book, however, are those about the self-esteem and educational disadvantages of girls, which gave rise to a decade of feminist rhetoric and activism to promote the cause of girls in schools. The federal "Educational Equity Act" itself was a consequence of this, as the "Violence Against Women Act" was the result of the overheated rhetoric and overblown statistics about women's physical safety.

The truth, however, is that boys, not girls, display the signs of educational and social disadvantage, and the cause of this turns out to be a combination of feminist reeducation programs and general "progressive" educational theory. The interaction of these influences is one of the most interesting features of the book. As part of her conclusion, Sommers says:

In our schools, therapeutic practices have effectively supplanted the moral education of yesterday. Ironically, those who pressed for discarding the old directive moral education did so in the name of freedom, for they sincerely believed that moral education "indoctrinated" children and "imposed" a teacher's values on them, something they thought the schools had no right to do. In fact, the "therapism" that took the place of the old morality is far more invasive of the child's privacy and far more insidious in its effects on the child's autonomy than the directive moral education that was once the norm in the every school. [p.212]

As we see from the earlier parts of Sommers' treatment, however, things go considerably beyond this. The feminist educational project is quite openly one of indoctrination and imposition, in which the wishes of the subjects, whether boys or girls, and irrelevant or even dangerous. Privacy is invaded because the radical feminist project, like all totalitarian projects, allows no privacy. The fundamental incongruity between feminism and "progressive" education is the contradiction between the principle of the latter that children should be allowed to grow and develop naturally, determined by their own autonomous impulses, and the principle of the former that nothing about human society or personality is natural at all and that "social conditioning" is responsible for all forms of behavior. The "progressive" valorization of autonomy is flatly contradicted by the extreme heteronomy of the feminist approach. The drawbacks of both these approaches, as they pursue their contradictory purposes, contribute to the problems that boys have today, and they end up unintentionally reinforcing each other.

The purpose of "progressive" education is noble enough, to cultivate and honor personal autonomy. This would seem to be in the best tradition of American society and even of Kantian philosophy. However, the purpose is largely undone by a confusion. Children are not ready for autonomy. They have neither the internal moral nor intellectual resources to think and judge for themselves in important matters. The real key assumption of "progressive" education, therefore, is not so much that individuals should be allowed their autonomy, but that children are naturally ready for it. This, as Sommers notes, is the thesis of Rousseau, though evidently he did not pursue its logic quite so far as his modern disciples. The autonomy of children is only going to make sense when autonomy is naively understood as simply pursuing one's spontaneous preferences. Moral autonomy is nothing of the sort.

A Kantian moral autonomy is a rational autonomy, and consequently, it is not reasonable to expect children to be able to recognize and exercise it until they reach what traditionally was called the "age of reason," i.e. 13 years or so, when Catholics are Confirmed and Jews are bar mitzvahed. Even then, when in Mediaeval society many of the responsibilities of adulthood were rapidly assumed, youths were not expected to be fully competent adults until later -- all the rights and duties of Athenian citizenship did not descend until 21, which has remained a key age ever since. In our peculiar times, the United States now prohibits the consumption of alcohol until 21, but allows voting at 18, as though an 18-year-old is wiser in politics than in sobriety -- a conceit that would astonish the political thinkers and moral authorities of most ages and cultures.

"Progressive" education cannot hope to nurture autonomy where it is not naturally ready to grow. Instead, children require the kind of morally heteronomous upbringing, in discipline and restraint, just as described by Aristotle and Sommers. Where children are not raised in a morally appropriate fashion, they will behave impolitely, imprudently, or illegally -- more like all three. The insolence and rudeness of many of the recent young is now evident to many. The imprudence of the young, from teenage pregnancy to the kind of drunk driving incidents that returned the drinking age to 21 from 18, is a matter of large public concern. The criminality of the young, especially the sociopathic and even psychopathic behavior evident in recent school shootings and massacres, let alone the criminal slaughter found in inner cities for some decades now, is a matter of frequent sensational headlines. That the public debate over such incidents is typically diverted into controversy over firearms is one of the most disturbing and damaging misdirections in all of recent politics. Indeed, it is most instructive:  The outrageous crimes of virtually feral children are adopted as a pretext to restrict the autonomy of adults by limiting general access to arms. This connection is not accidental, since the political projects related to feminism, as we shall see, typically desire a disarmed population unable to resist the government.

Since "progressive" education does not have a true capacity for autonomy to work with in children, what does it do instead? Indeed, we have already seen described what happens in Thomas Sowell's fine Inside American Education, The Decline, The Deception, The Dogmas [Free Press, 1993]. Sowell discovered that educational techniques like "values clarification," which are supposed to promote the autonomy of children, instead are subtle forms of social control and indoctrination. Indeed, Sowell classifies "values clarification" as a form of "Classroom Brainwashing" (the title of his Chapter 3, pp.34-69 -- especially cf. "Brainwashing Agendas," pp.47-56). "Autonomy" in that practical context ends up meaning the repudiation of parental authority and values ("Parents as Pariahs") and the adoption of what are said to be the values of a child's own peers ("Peers as Guides"). Pretty much any sort of social agenda can then be presented as favored by peers.

While Sommers focuses on the moral anarchy that results from lack of traditional directed moral education (Chapter Eight, "The Moral Life of Boys," pp. 179-206), her emphasis and that of Sowell are complementary. Moral anarchy results, despite the heteronomous agenda that creeps into "progressive" education, because the agenda is not a moral one, but a political one. "Progressive" education's idea of moral truth is actually moral relativism, which it is willing to advocate quite freely, though this is only the crudest possible version of a theory of moral autonomy. But the political content of the "progressive" message is anything but relativistic:  It is absolutist, doctrinaire, and dogmatic with a vengeance. "Progressive" education thus shades over into "progressive" politics, both in the early century version of the Progressivism of Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson and the version of the later century when "progressive" became a codeword for leftist totalitarian, i.e. communist, regimes, from the Soviet Union, to Maoist China, to Cuba and Nicaragua.

A doctrine that begins with moral autonomy and even relativism and then incoherently shades over into harsh heteronomy and even totalitarianism bears all the stigmata of moralistic relativism, by which moralism (everything is a moral issue) and moral aestheticism (nothing is a moral issue) are illogically combined. Feminism, a paradigmatic torchbearer for political moralism, thus finds the way open for it to hijack "progressive" education for purposes that have nothing to do with autonomy or natural development.

Thus, very confused theories about education have two important results:  (1) the means are provided for illiberal political control and indoctrination, and (2) the absence of real moral upbringing produces a drop in achievement for all, but especially for boys (which can be ignored, or acknowledged as part of the demands for more money by the rent-seeking educational establishment and teachers' unions), and, more importantly, the wild, destructive, amoral, anti-social, and even violent and murderous behavior of many boys and young men. The latter makes "progressive" education an unwitting ally of feminism's totalitarian project, for the worse the behavior, the more that feminism can offer its own ready-made explanation:  patriarchy. Patriarchy, to feminism, is the result of sexist social indoctrination by a reactionary society. That this is ahistorically and absurdly seen as a recent and Western phenomenon, for which the West is uniquely culpable, never occurs to any of these people. They want the blame squarely on their own villains. The only way to fight "patriarchy," in turn, is with feminist indoctrination and reeducation, with all the necessary vigor that has long been explored by the "progressive" (in the later century sense) regimes. As we see from the title of Sommers' Chapter Two, "Reeducating the Nation's Boys," she has grasped the origin and technique of this approach.

The techniques and purposes of feminist reeducation, well exposed by Sommers, are appalling and terrifying. The title of the book is fully motivated by this chapter alone. It truly is a "War on Boys." The kinds of feminists whom everyone always assumed simply hated men have now turned on a more vulnerable target, entrusted to them by their parents:  boys. The catechism is more or less simple:  "Girls, good; boys, bad." Even the propensity of boys to run and jump, let alone engage in rough-and-tumble play, is now suppressed in many schools, to the point of it becoming a movement to abolish recess -- this at a time when health activists continue to lament the overweight and inactive lifestyles of American children. If sedentary and junk-food nourished children are to be denied free outdoor exercise, there must be some powerful reason for doing so.

The reason, indeed, is that the boys behave differently from the girls. This cannot be allowed. We find establishment feminists forthrightly stating that boys should be raised like, and should be like, girls. Any other kind of behavior or interest must be the result of "patriarchy" and must be combated as an ideological deviation that will lead directly to rape, mass murder, and capitalism (yes, that's in there too). In ordinary language there is a blunt term, unused by Sommers, for this kind of feminist "education":  Castrating. One wonders if, in their heart of hearts, this is not what some of the feminists would really like to do. Ritalin may do for the time being, while it is constantly drummed in that the boys are class enemies, responsible for all the evils of the world -- for the feminist world, like that of the familiar totalitarian regimes, is one of collective and inherited guilt. That the enemies of feminism are "gender" (i.e. sex) enemies gives the doctrine more of a racial edge (such as pursued by Hitler) than the original theory had in pure Marxism.

Of course, the doped-up and denigrated boys then hit adolescence, the hormonal rockets are lit off, and we find resentful, angry, and unsocialized youth bouncing around the landscape. This, then, can again be taken in turn as evidence that more vigorous non-sexist reeducation must be instituted. However, since feminist educational ideas have been the vogue for a quarter of a century now, with whole generations raised under their influence, one begins to wonder why the futility and nastiness of the whole project is not generally recognized. Perhaps it is -- though the educational and academic establishment, and the "progressive" intelligentsia, are too ideologically committed to ever revise their ideas in the face of mere evidence and results. We can count on them never to do so.

The feminist educators who exult in the formlessness and malleability of children (in contradistinction, note, to the "progressivist" comparison of children to small plants that must be nurtured into their own growth), then must face what to do when the brainwashing doesn't take and the little boys turn out to be not quite so malleable after all. Well, that's easy, what you do is call the police. All the permissiveness of "progressive" education is completely forgotten the minute that a child can be credibly accused of a gender/sex crime. Sommers relates the case of a nine-year-old boy who drew a picture of a naked woman in art class, after a visit to the National Gallery of Art (there are nude pictures there, you know), and then rubbed up against a girl in the cafeteria line. The boy was literally arrested, handcuffed, fingerprinted, and charged with "aggravated sexual battery" (p.54). Charges were eventually dropped, but it is not hard to tell what was going on. The loving, nurturing feminist touch is the iron hand in the velvet glove. To feminism, there is no difference between a little boy pulling a girl's braid and a teenage youth raping her.

The typical incoherence of moralistic relativism is evident in some of these examples. Children are exposed to very explicit sex education, a cause célèbre of "progressives" for many years, often with overt advice for "safe sex" techniques. They are taken to see adult art, with nudes, if not with the sado-masochistic themes made so sensationally famous by Robert Mapplethorpe. Yet the minute the slightest bit of sexual expression or play, or even of something that can simply be interpreted as something of the sort, is manifest, the feminist fist comes down like a (mixed metaphorical) ton of bricks. Thus, Sommers cites the case of a three-year-old boy who had been reprimanded and punished for "having hugged another child." His mother was told, "He's a toucher...We are not going to put up with it" (p.54). This harsh anhedonia, of course, is another characteristic of political moralism, and in contrast, again, to the infamous "touchy-feely" approach of "progressive" education -- where children affectionately touching each other is seen as a success rather than as criminal. A similar case, where a young boy was penalized for kissing a girl, made national news not long ago.

Any sensible person would regard these antics as insane. As Thomas Sowell already discovered about educational abuses, this is all, however, concealed from the public as much as possible. But the public has by now become aware of the bizarre fanaticism that would extend "sexual harassment" principles, originally formulated on the principle that adult male bosses could extort sex from exploited female workers, to the naive behavior of pre-teen children with their peers. What to do about it is something else, since the process is in the hands of legal and academic ideologues, whom the public never gets to vote in or out of their power. The brainwashing, with its socially destructive and politically frightening results, will thus continue for the foreseeable future.

Between the first and last chapters of The War on Boys, which detail the assault on boys and the consequences of lack of moral education, respectively, we find Sommers in some of her classic debunking of feminist junk science, in this case the work of Carol Gilligan, who became famous for her theory that women's moral reasoning is different from that of men. Women are supposed to be more concerned with compassion than with the application of abstract moral rules. Gilligan cannot be unaware this is a very old stereotype about women. We find Schopenhauer saying,

...women are decidedly more matter-of-fact than men and thus do not see in things more than actually exists, whereas when the passions of men are aroused, they easily magnify what is present or add something imaginary.

From the same source may be traced the fact that women show more compassion and thus more loving kindness and sympathy for the unfortunate than do men; on the other hand, they are inferior to men in the matter of justice, honesty, and conscientiousness. For in consequence of their weak faculty of reason, that which is present, intuitively perceptual, immediately real, exercises over them a power against which abstract ideas, established maxims, fixed resolves, and generally a consideration for the past and future, the absent and distant, are seldom able to do very much... In accordance with the foregoing, we find that injustice is the fundamental failing of the female character. ["On Women," Parerge and Paralipomena, Volume 2, §366, Oxford, Calarendon Press, 1974, p.616-617, boldface added]

Nevertheless, on the principle, "girls, good; boys, bad," this stereotype resulted in the educational promotion of a "non-judgmental" ethics where only feelings count but that, of course, those feelings better be politically correct. Gilligan then went on to make sensational claims about the lack of self-esteem and of ambition in teen-age girls, whose spirit is broken by the Patriarchy as they reach adolescence. This created a whole girl-advocacy movement in the early 90's. Gilligan then moved on to characterize ("somewhat ominously," as Sommers says) boys as similarly broken in spirit. Since boys generally act like boys since infancy, then the Patriarchy must have already broken them that early. In three chapters, "Carol Gilligan and the Incredible Shrinking Girl," "Gilligan's Island," and "Save the Males," Sommers tears this all to shreds. Such a direct attack on Gilligan may attract more notice than anything else in the book, and feminists are sure to characterize the whole tome as "The War on Carol Gilligan." But it is a defining case, both for the fractured, irresponsible, and imaginary scholarship of establishment feminism and for just how establishment that feminism is, with Gilligan at a federally funded institution at Harvard University.

Much bears greater attention in this timely book. For the moment, however, I wish to leave the emphasis on the characteristic incoherence of a modern education, supposedly based on the autonomy and natural growth of children, but which nevertheless has wholeheartedly adopted an ideology that flatly denies that there is anything natural or autonomous about children at all, using this theory as the basis of a bogus kind of "socialization" that is really an abusive and intrusive political indoctrination of children. This results in nothing but a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy of the violence and social pathology of young men. Verily, they have their reward.

Pages on Feminist Issues
Confucius on WomenIrene of AthensAnna ComnenaLe déjeuner sur l'herbe, 1862-1863, Édouard Manet
Gender Stereotypes and Sexual Archetypes Abortion Defense of Christina Hoff Sommers published in The Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association, 66:7
Against the Theory of "Sexist Language" Feminism Pornography Women in the Apology Letter in defense of Christina Hoff Sommers sent to the Los Angeles Times

Ethics, Critique of Feminism



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