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“Factual Feminist” Dr. Christina Hoff Sommers Fields Hour of Questions and Backlash After Lecture at Suffolk University

Photo by Cole Desrosiers

In the months leading to her arrival, “Factual Feminist” Dr. Christina Hoff Sommers has faced scrutiny from the Suffolk University community. Student-run group Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) organized a lecture and Q&A led by Dr. Sommers, surrounding her work claiming to “debunk” the wage gap, male privilege, and the prevalence of domestic violence. The event, held in Somerset Cafe on Wednesday at 7 p.m., was open to all Suffolk University students and faculty. Outside guests also attended.

YAF, who paid $8,000 to host Dr. Sommers ($4,000 of which came from Student Government Association initiatives, and $4,000 from YAF’s national foundation), endured numerous verbal attacks and arguments from Suffolk University students in the weeks leading up to the event. Many of these attacks involved personal attacks against YAF Chairman Anthony DiMauro, including direct messages with vindictive remarks and names. Other less confrontational attacks included event flyers being torn down. Despite campus administrators’ involvement in attempting to prevent destruction of theses flyers, the ads were still vandalized.

Anticipating the student outrage regarding YAF and Dr. Sommers’ lecture, the event drew a large crowd. Compared to prior events Dr. Sommers spoke during, many of which involved chants protesting her overall presence and ideologies, the community present during the YAF lecture portion of the event Wednesday evening was anything but disruptive. The crowd remained quiet with the exception of scattered comments, snaps, and claps in response to remarks made by Dr. Sommers.

Dr. Sommers began her lecture with a handful of personal anecdotes regarding accusations made against her, particularly those naming her a fascist despite being a registered Democrat. She spoke of her prior lectures, specifically her lecture at Lewis and Clark Law School. Dr. Sommers claims the students “rushed to the front [of the podium]…looking down at their phones” to reference the words to the chants against her ideals. Upon her arrival on the law school campus, rumors led one police officer to question if Dr. Sommers was carrying a gun to protect herself from the students, to which she replied she was unarmed.

Being a “Factual Feminist,” Dr. Sommers explained her opinion on modern-day feminism. She explained her displeasure with the discourse of the feminist movement in it’s gravitation toward hating men. After addressing the great feats of feminist movements throughout history, she admits that despite these feats, there is still immense work to be done to achieve her ideal John Stuart Mill-esque society.

“The quest for equality has hardly begun,” Dr. Sommers said, when she compared the progress of the U.S. to other countries such as Somalia, Egypt, and Cambodia, whose women are “struggling for their basic rights [and] asking for our help.”

Naming herself a feminist, despite being in historically poor standing with much of the feminist community, Dr. Sommers further explained the turning point in her career in which the feminist community began to reject her ideals. She noted that the publication of her book Who Stole Feminism? caused a number of her peers to criticize her, due to her rejection of American women being oppressed, and the recent success of feminism. In her opinion, women were “no longer second-class citizens…because the major battles for freedom and equality had been fought and won.”

Dr. Sommers went on to name American women “the freest, most self-determining women in history,” claiming that women have not only reached the same potential and power men hold, but are moving ahead of them in many instances as well. She cited high populations of women in upper education as an example of women’s privilege.

In her elaboration of rejecting the idea of the oppressed woman, Dr. Sommers posited “[people] exaggerate the plight of Venus and they ignore the troubles of Mars.” She suggests just as men have their privilege, so do women. In turn, men have their share of struggles. Therefore, women should check their privilege if men are being told to do the same.

During the course of her lecture, Dr. Sommers encouraged people to understand the biological gravitation toward socially gendered professions when considering the gender gap in statistics in the workforce. For example, she explained how women tend to gravitate toward early education and psychology due to their natural nurturing predispositions, whereas men often opt for studies and professions in STEM fields such as mechanical engineering.

Comments such as these caused subdued scoffing in the crowd, but no disagreements rose above a whisper. Dr. Sommers spoke against a number of commonly supported beliefs that touched close to home for some students, raising the emotional tension of the audience.

One statistic Dr. Sommers explained as an exaggerated claim is that 1 in 4 women are victims of college rape. With claims like these, “[the statistics] are usually agenda-driven and unscientific,” she said. Dr. Sommers redirected the audience to a statistic produced by the Bureau of Justice which claims campuses are much safer for women, with approximately 1 in 50 women being victims of college rape.

Her final thoughts included John Stuart Mill’s idea of a perfect society, in which both men and women are able to afford each other their greatest potential. Although women have fought endlessly to achieve equality, a considerable amount of work remains.

As Dr. Sommers wrapped up her speech, the audience applauded. A handful of attendees — primarily white, male audience members — gave her a standing ovation. Immediately thereafter, students began firmly lining up to mark the beginning of the Q&A.

Just over 10 students had the opportunity to voice their thoughts, arguments, and questions for Dr. Sommers. However, a YAF member stood with each participant, holding the microphone for them. DiMauro requested that students ask just one question, without “monologuing.”

The first student to speak was Sara Maloney, a senior at Suffolk University. After thanking Dr. Sommers for coming, Maloney began with a response to the speaker’s statement about sexual assault on college campuses. Addressing the crowd, Maloney said, “If you have ever felt like you were in danger, or if you have ever felt you did not have a strong hand in an action that was done upon you, know that feeling is valid, and know that you have a very supportive family behind you. You just have to find the right places to look.”

Her statement was followed by supportive clapping from the crowd. Dr. Sommers’s response was “Do you have a question?”

The questions that followed were from a diverse range of students, nearly all addressing concerns with Dr. Sommer’s thoughts on the idea of a patriarchy and intersectionality in modern feminism.

“When we’re looking at certain inequalities between men and women, instead of focusing on this binary between what is female and what is male, why are we not discussing masculinity and what it upholds within the patriarchy?”

“I was just wondering, when you’re looking at your facts, are you looking at a diverse range of statistics, or are you just looking at stuff affecting heterosexual men?”

“How exactly can the good things that you seem to think exist about intersectionality be incorporated into liberal feminism when liberal feminism has never incorporated those things, when existentialism is solely because liberal feminism has always excluded marginalized identities within women?”

“You said that American women are doing way better. Does that include black women? Does that include the black trans people that are being murdered in this country?

“While I have depended on my femininity in order to be strong, I have clung onto that even though it has been struck against me… how can you say that it’s toxic and rooted in the society that we have?”

“The Bureau of Justice reports that for every 50 cases of first-degree sexual assault reported to the police, only one of those offenders is actually incarcerated. How do you suppose we become more tolerant of sex crimes in our country?”

Various shouts and commentary from audience members mixed with snaps and claps throughout the Q&A period, both to show support and agreeance with points made in response to Dr. Sommer’s lecture, and with answers offered by Dr. Sommers.

One audience member, wearing a Hooters t-shirt, said “I’m a software engineer, and one of the scariest things is the infiltration of social justice into the field of engineering…Are you as scared as I am about toxic femininity in engineering?”

Other supporters of Dr. Sommers also voiced their appreciation for her speech and asked questions about her ideology.

Suffolk University students in attendance were unsure as to what they would be walking into when the event started. John Nemegut, a senior at Suffolk University, claimed that the event was different than he had originally thought. “I thought the event was going to be about what [the flyers] said,” he said.

Another source, who wishes to remain anonymous, explains,  “I would say most of us saw the flyers, so we already got the notion that it was going to be a very taboo and controversial event.” Despite the source’s thoughts going into the event, this source remained open to the ideas which Dr. Sommer’s presented.

The source elaborated in saying, “As someone who identifies as a feminist [and] is more on the liberal side of things, I already knew that this event wouldn’t be for me. But it is interesting to always hear people’s perspectives, and I do believe that people have the right for freedom of speech. But [that] doesn’t necessarily mean we can tolerate ignorance.”

When asked about his overall thoughts regarding the event, Suffolk University YAF Chairman Anthony DiMauro said, “I thought the event was exceptional, and Dr. Christina Hoff Sommers is a peerless academic who provided a viewpoint desperately missing at this campus. I appreciated her sympathetic tone and her fearlessness in the face of a loud, upset minority in the room.”

With so many differing opinions about who would be present at the event and what audience members would say, DiMauro added his thoughts regarding the success of the event. “I think it was successful, first, because of the thought-provoking words of our guest, second, a large turnout of those interested in an honest discussion. Of those who participated, we appreciate all those who disagreed in a civil manner, staying true to the liberal-democratic tradition.”

Daniel Gibson, a junior at Suffolk University, thought that the event went much smoother than originally anticipated, despite some longer comments from disagreeing audience members. “For the most part, people were very civil when Dr. Sommers was speaking… the minute the Q&A commenced, I knew people were going to be annoying, dismissive, and disruptive… Anthony made it very clear tangents and long-winded remarks would not be tolerated and people dismissed the warning completely.”

Another anonymous source shared similar thoughts to Gibson. “I honestly didn’t really agree with anything she said, but the questions forum…wasn’t constructive and a lot of people misconstrued what [Dr. Sommers] said. Things were not done respectfully.”

Sofia Ohrynowicz, a senior at Suffolk University, had a different feeling about how the Q&A portion of the event went. “Last night’s event was masked as a place where debate could happen between the YAF and feminist activists on campus,” she said. “What occurred was those who disagreed with the YAF and the speaker were openly laughed at, had the microphone taken from them even if they were still speaking, and when they asked Sommers a researched question, you were given a nonsense smoke-screened speech that never answered the question. This was not an event where both sides were respected. We saw that from the very first speaker who dared to come up with her research and have an educated debate.”

Despite mixed thoughts on the event, David Deangelis, Director of Student Leadership and Involvement at Suffolk University, agrees with DiMauro that the event was an overall success. “I thought it was a great event where students heard an opinion and were able to form their own opinions, listening to opposing views and challenging them in turn with their own personal beliefs and values,” he said. “Creating conversation and dialogue that can stir conversations can in turn stir the learning experience.”

When prompted to discuss the level of preparedness for extreme outbursts, he said he was “very impressed with the level of civility. Everyone was very respectful.” To ease any tension between students and authorities, SUPD officers remained far from sight, but accessible. Deangelis noted, “SUPD did a great job supporting YAF in the whole project.”

In the end, there were over 200 people in attendance, many of which stood in the back of the room due to the lack of seating. More viewed the event through YAF’s Facebook live stream of the event, despite audience members not being asked for permission to be filmed. In light of the large number of audience members, Chairman DiMauro ensured audience members there will be more events similar to last night’s lecture in the future.

 

With contributions by Matt Brown and Renae Reints.

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