Response to Christina Hoff Sommers, part 1: Ovulars instead of Seminars?

Christina Hoff Sommers criticizes feminist professors for using the made-up word "ovulars" -- but in the last quarter-century, practically the only person who's used the word is... Christina Hoff Sommers.

Feminist Law Professors has posted the text of a lecture by Christina Hoff Sommers, entitled "What’s Wrong and What’s Right with Contemporary Feminism?" ((There's also a video, here. I'll mostly be critiquing the text version, which is easier to quote.)) Despite the title -- which is, Sommers notes, a softening from her original title, "Reject Contemporary Feminism" -- Sommers has almost nothing positive to say about contemporary feminism. The lecture (which can be read here, in pdf format) is 23 pages long, of which a page and a half is what's "right with" feminism; the rest is what's wrong. (In Sommers' opinion, anyway.)

This is the first of a planned series of blog posts responding to Sommers' lecture. In some posts I'll be directly criticizing her arguments; in other cases, I'll use her arguments as a springboard for thoughts of my own. I actually agree with a couple of her criticisms of contemporary feminism, and I'll note those areas of agreement as I go along. By and large, however, Sommers' arguments fall apart under examination.

Sommers opens with a funny anecdote about her dad, which I won't discuss here, but David reprints it on his blog.

I think Sommers -- who quit academia years ago to work for a right-wing think tank -- may suffer from spending too much time talking to people who agree with her. (This is a very common flaw among both feminists and non-feminists). This lecture was originally written for the Federalist society; I doubt that they blinked at all upon being told that it is her "bias toward logic, reason, and fairness that has put me at odds with the feminist establishment." Nor would they have been bothered by her expression of pity for boys with feminist mothers. But if she's sincere about wanting to have respectful dialog with mainstream feminists, snarky comments like that are counterproductive.

On to the critique.

* * *

Sommers uses the timeworn technique of quoting something silly-sounding an academic once said, and using this to generalize about the whole of "contemporary feminism." For instance, to show that "feminism was being hijacked by gender war eccentrics in the universities," Sommers writes:

To give one quick example, one of my colleagues in feminist philosophy referred to her seminars as "ovulars." She rejected the masculinist “seminar” because the root of that word is associated with, well, the very essence of male power. It is actually very funny when you think about it. But this woman was not kidding.

That does sound eccentric (and frankly silly, if it wasn't tongue in cheek). But is this a substantive critique of feminism, or just a cheap shot? If you flip to Sommers' endnotes, you'll find a citation to a use of "ovulars" by Professor Joyce Trebilcot 25 years ago. Googling shows that the word has hardly spread to common usage -- Google knows of only 300 times the word has been used on English language webpages.

But isn't 300 a lot? No, not really. For comparison, "heterocentric," a feminist neologism feminist academics actually use, is found 14,000 times. And 130 of the 300 usages of the word "ovular" are times when Christina Hoff Sommers used the term. If any contemporary feminist is using the term, it's not the feminists Sommers criticizes; it's Sommers herself.

(Most of the other usages are irrelevant to this discussion: references to a radical lesbian photography collective from 1979, right-wingers making fun of feminism, medical discussions, a women's center newsletter from 1974 (pdf link). I found only one instance of the word being used by feminist academics to refer to classes taught: an experimental UK program called "Ovular" which existed for a couple of years and offered "seminars".)

"Ovulars" is a term that was used by a handful of feminists in the 1970s, and by a single feminist professor in the 1980s. I'm not aware of a single relevant use of the term that's less than 20 years old. So it's obviously unfair and illogical to use "ovular" is an "example" of what's wrong with "contemporary feminism." ((To be sure, Sommers did say this was just "one quick example." But I assume that she wouldn't have chosen such a lousy example, if her other examples are all much better.))

This dispute is not, in and of itself, an important question. But I've spent this post discussing it because "ovulars" is an excellent illustration of three consistent flaws in Sommers' criticism:

  1. Cherry-picking wildly unrepresentative examples.
  2. No acknowledgment of differences between 1970s/1980s feminism and contemporary feminism.
  3. Important context (in this case, that her example is a quarter-century old) is either omitted or buried in endnotes.

These flaws came up again and again in Sommers' book Who Stole Feminism, and they are unfortunately present in this lecture, as well.

(Hmmn. Over 700 words, and I'm only as far as page 2 of her lecture. I'll try to pick up the pace.)

To facilitate intra-feminist discussion, comments on this post on "Alas, a Blog" are limited to feminist and feminist allies only. However, the cross-post at "Blog By Barry" is open to feminists and non-feminists.

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8 Responses to Response to Christina Hoff Sommers, part 1: Ovulars instead of Seminars?

  1. 1
    Sailorman says:

    Damn, and just as I was looking forward to reading the next paragraph, the post ended. We Want Post Two!

  2. 2
    Ali says:

    psst Amp,
    The link to the alter-comments is half broken (it works fine if you delete the part starting with “?preview”).

    and I second Sailorman, bring on the next post!

  3. I am so looking forward to this series! Great critique so far.
    As for her “expression of pity for boys with feminist mothers” — what the f***? I pity boys (and anyone for that matter) who DO NOT have feminist mothers!

  4. 4
    Schala says:

    Sommers uses the timeworn technique of quoting something silly-sounding an academic once said, and using this to generalize about the whole of “contemporary feminism.”

    To be fair, the example used is a bad one for reasons shown in the OP, however, there have been usage of that same reasoning, which gave way to words like womyn, womon and herstory – often used by radical feminists on the blogosphere and forums. Even though grammatical gender usage has mostly nothing to do with actual gender.

    For the rest, I don’t know enough of contemporary feminism, or Christina, to comment, so I’ll remain neutral.

  5. 5
    Ampersand says:

    Ali, thanks — I’ve fixed that. And thanks to everyone else, as well. Part two will be posted early Wednesday morning.

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