Class War

The Sommers-Gilligan Cat Fight

In the right corner, wearing the Cheshire grin, there's American Enterprise Institute fellow Christina Hoff Sommers. In the left corner, wearing what looks like egg on her face, there's professor of gender studies at Harvard Carol Gilligan. Ladies and gents, I give you the main event. These two feminist heavyweights, neo- and paleo- respectively, haven't shaken hands, but they've come out swinging.

Not surprising. Since the publication in 1982 of her study of women's psychology, In a Different Voice, Gilligan has bestridden the feminist world like a colossus. Arguably, on questions of gender equity, few contemporary scholars have influenced educational policy more than she. Sommers, meanwhile, became famous for eviscerating the feminist establishment in her 1994 bombshell Who Stole Feminism? Now, in her new book, The War Against Boys, she's gunning for Gilligan.

In an excerpt from the book that ran on the cover of May's Atlantic Monthly, Sommers debunked the prevailing wisdom that girls are being shortchanged in school, claiming instead that boys are the second sex in the classroom: "The typical boy is a year and a half behind the typical girl in reading and writing; he is less committed to school and less likely to go to college." For Sommers, dispelling the pernicious myth that girls are in peril (as well as its bedfellow, pedagogical misandry) means tearing it out by the roots. Hence her deracination of Gilligan, whom she deems the bad seed.

Sommers's charges? (1) The conclusions Gilligan reaches in In a Different Voice are based on Gilligan's idiosyncratic interpretations of a few interviews, not on statistical or solid empirical evidence; (2) Whatever data Gilligan collected, if any, has never been published or peer-reviewed; (3) In fact, this data remains "tantalizingly inaccessible" to scholars.

Gilligan's replies have been Clintonian in their evasiveness. At first, for example, Gilligan accepts Sommers's claim that IDV is not supported by quantifiable data: "I was doing an interpretive, not a statistical study." But later she backtracks, insisting: "We had moral development scores. In the girls study we used Jane Levenger's scale of ego development. It wasn't just interpretive."

If there is data, where was it published? Was it peer-reviewed? In a letter to the Atlantic, Gilligan cited seven published articles that she says contain the missing data. But Sommers and The Harvard Crimson, which has published an investigative story on the controversy, have dismissed six of them, saying that either they were not peer-reviewed, they presented no data that supports IDV, or both. The Crimson reported, however, that the last article was both peer-reviewed and supportive of IDV. Still, Sommers says she's read all of Gilligan's published papers, including this one, and hasn't found all the missing data. To this, Gilligan says, "Then she should call me up."

But Sommers reported in the Atlantic that her research assistants did call Gilligan, several times, but Gilligan's assistant told them the studies were unavailable. Now Gilligan says she didn't know that those students were working for Sommers on a book. She also says she is bound by confidentiality agreements to protect her subjects. I suggested to Gilligan that she could let Sommers's assistants see the archive by doing what other scholars do with "sensitive" data: disguise the names. Names aside, though, Gilligan says that just collating the data "is like a year's work." Maybe. But, to quote Boston Globecolumnist Alex Beam—so what? Besides, what a strange thing to say about 18-year-old data. Apparently, sifting through it will be the job of Radcliffe's Murray Research Center, to which Gilligan is donating some of her files, though not most of the IDV data in question.

It's fishy, no doubt. But, data or no data, Gilligan can't be dismissed for doing purely interpretive research. Freud, Piaget, and Erikson did it, and nobody balked. Nobody, that is, until Gilligan, who censured their exclusion of women and thereby made what is perhaps her most important contribution to psychology. To Sommers's credit, she lauds Gilligan for this. But she is intent, nonetheless, on showing that, by promoting girls, feminists like Gilligan maligned boys. Sadly, Sommers is just as guilty of the reverse: Her vision of a war against boys is as alarmist as Marilyn French's of a war against women, and just as reactionary. It's good sport, though, watching bluestockings black each other's eyes.

 
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