Has the feminist movement betrayed women? Have feminists
deceived the public by publicizing false statistics about wife
beating, date rape, sexual harassment and gender bias? That's the
thesis of a controversial new book, "Who Stole Feminism? How Women
Have Betrayed Women" by Christina Hoff Sommers, a philosophy
professor at Clark University. In it, Sommers condemns what she
calls gender feminism.
It's easy enough to find a few examples of feminists like Naomi
Wolf, who make remarkably stupid mistakes (such as claiming that
150,000 women die of anorexia every year). But Sommers casts her
attack in broad conspiratorial terms: Feminists intentionally
deceive the public and withhold facts to escape critical attention.
For someone who claims that feminists and journalists use bad
statistics, Sommers proves her argument with a number of factual
errors. She dismisses a survey that found that one in four college
women have experienced rape or attempted rape because she
challenged one question about alcohol and drugs. According to
Sommers, when the responses to this question are removed, "the
finding that one in four college women is a victim of rape or
attempted rape drops to one in nine." But this is false. The one in
nine figure includes only the victims of rape. When the attempted
rapes are added in, the true statistic is one in five - as Sommers
could have easily discovered by reading the scholarly works she
cites in footnotes.
Perhaps the most glaring mistake in Sommers' book is her attack
on the rule of thumb - the old English common law rule that allowed
a husband to beat his wife if he used a stick no wider than his
thumb. According to Sommers, this is an "excellent example" of a
"feminist fiction" spread by feminists who want to win "converts to
their angry creed." Moreover, she writes that "many women's studies
scholars know very well that the `rule of thumb' story is a myth"
and claims they conceal the truth.
The only problem is that abundant evidence exists to show that
the rule of thumb was real. Sommers quotes William Blackstone's
"Commentaries" to show that the rule of thumb never existed in
English common law - but she conveniently omits the phrases where
Blackstone says that older law allowed a husband "to beat his wife
severely with scourges and sticks."
My own research of 19th century American state supreme court
cases found four cases where the rule of thumb was mentioned, along
with a 1917 law review article - making it much more than a
feminist fiction. While the rule of thumb wasn't generally accepted
as the law of the land, there's virtually no evidence that
wife-beating was taken seriously as a crime, since most courts
defended the autonomy of the family and refused to intervene in
trifling domestic violence. …