Future of modern feminism discussed at Stanford’s fourth Cardinal Conversations event

Philosopher Christina Sommers, journalist Andrew Sullivan and Stanford law Professor Deborah Rhode discussed sexuality, politics and feminism as part of the fourth event of the Cardinal Conversations initiative.

A philosopher, a journalist and a Stanford law professor debated the direction of current feminist movements and the backlash against them in connection with political polarization in America during an event at Stanford on Wednesday.

Philosopher Christina Sommers, Stanford law Professor Deborah Rhode and journalist Andrew Sullivan on stage at May 23 Cardinal Conversations event

Philosopher Christina Sommers, moderator Stanford law Professor Deborah Rhode and journalist Andrew Sullivan discussed “Sexuality and Politics” as part of the Cardinal Conversations series. (Image credit: Patrick Beaudouin)

Christina Sommers, a philosopher and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and Andrew Sullivan, a political and social commentator and contributing editor at New York magazine, shared the stage to discuss “Sexuality and Politics” on May 23 at the Hoover Institution, as part of the ongoing Cardinal Conversations initiative. Stanford Law Professor Deborah Rhode moderated the discussion.

The event was the fourth in the series, launched in January to introduce a range of perspectives and views on complex contemporary issues to the Stanford community.

The discussion focused on Sullivan’s and Sommers’ opinions and critiques of contemporary feminism and the state of gender studies at universities as well as the #MeToo movement – prompted by a question from Rhode, who challenged some of their writings on the subject.

“Whose feminism are you targeting?” Rhode said. “I ask that because often you seem to write as if it’s a fairly monolithic movement.”

Sullivan said he considers himself a feminist and regards women as complete equals to men. But he added that he is troubled by what he sees as a predominant notion that all inequality in outcome between men and women is due to oppression.

“This notion that gender is an entirely fluid construct … I just find it absurd,” Sullivan said about the representations he sees portrayed in the media and in higher education. “It’s important to make sure that in no way we treat either women or men as some kind of problematic gender or sex. But we shouldn’t go so far as to try to abolish the distinction between them or regard any inequality in outcome or difference of outcome as somehow a function entirely of social forces.”

Sommers said she considers the suffrage movements of early 20th century and the women’s movement of the 1960s and ’70s to be a success story.

But she criticized what she calls “gender feminists,” or those who believe “that we live in a sex-gender system and that every institution in the society bears the impress of patriarchy.”

“For a gender feminist, it’s not enough to have gradual reform, you need to radically reconstitute the society and overthrow the patriarchy,” Sommers said, arguing that some feminists use exaggerated statistics about sexual assaults and the gender wage gap. “I don’t believe the United States is a patriarchy. And to say so is absurd. Do I believe in male privilege? Yes. But there is also female privilege. And it’s a complicated mix of burdens and benefits.”

Sommers also said she is influenced by witnessing how women’s studies classes were taught at Clark University, where she taught philosophy in the 1980s and ’90s. She said through her analysis of gender studies textbooks, she found that they do not represent a diversity of opinions among feminists.

“I thought it was the sacred commandment of college teaching: ‘Thou shall teach both sides of the argument,’” Sommers said. “In the typical gender studies courses, they’re not taught that way.”

Rhode disputed Sommers’ description of the field of gender studies, arguing that it’s not reflective of her experience with feminist studies classes and programs at Stanford. She also challenged Sommers’ view that there is both male and female privilege and that it’s impossible to say who is better off.

“By pretty much every objective measure of wealth, power and status, American women are underrepresented at the top and overrepresented at the bottom,” said Rhode, who cited several statistics including the fact that women are the majority of the electorate, but they hold less than a fifth of seats in Congress.

In response, Sommers pointed to data on other types of equities between women and men, including evidence that men disproportionately die more while working on the job than women.

“Everyone is looking for any possible way in which women are held back and addressing it, which is good,” Sommers said. “But there is almost no one doing that for men and for boys.”

Sullivan added that he believes the differences between women and men should be celebrated and are a natural part of humanity.

“There is a wonder in being male, and there is a wonder in being female. This is not something we want to get rid of or we want to dissocialize,” Sullivan said. “Giving everybody, male or female, equality of opportunity to do what they want to do is essential, but after that let people be who they want to be. Stop obsessing and constantly looking at implicit bias.”

After the discussion, several students and other members of the audience posed follow-up questions about feminism and the future of liberal democracies amid ongoing political polarization. Those who asked questions thanked the speakers for an interesting, respectful debate.

“I’m thrilled to be here tonight to have conversations about some of these difficult topics and to do so with such civility,” Sullivan said in response to the last audience question. “We have to do it as citizens to set that example and to find and support people who will echo that.”

A fifth and final Cardinal Conversation of the academic year on the tension between free expression and diversity will occur on Wednesday, May 30. The discussion will feature Danielle Brown, vice president and chief diversity and inclusion officer at Google; John Etchemendy, professor of philosophy and provost emeritus of Stanford University; and Claude Steele, professor emeritus of psychology and dean emeritus of Stanford Graduate School of Education. Provost Persis Drell will moderate the conversation.

View video of the May 23 Cardinal Conversation on “Sexuality and Politics.”