THE WAR AGAINST BOYS
How Misguided Feminism Is Harming Our Young Men
By Christina Hoff Sommers
252 pages. Simon & Schuster. $25.
Christina Hoff Sommers's new book argues that American boys are being harmed by a wide current of opinion that masculinity itself is a social evil, the root cause of violence against women. A corollary argument made by Ms. Sommers is that a campaign waged by feminist educational groups has given great currency to the idea that girls are victimized by a system that favors boys. Ms. Sommers's counter to these views is first, that boys being boys is not terrible in itself and second, that girls today are ''enjoying more freedoms and opportunities than any young women in human history.'' The burden of her thoughtful, provocative book is that it is American boys who are in trouble, not girls.
Ms. Sommers, whose last book, ''Who Stole Feminism?,'' caused a stir with its claim that the women's rights movement was veering toward self-pity and authoritarianism, makes these arguments persuasively and unflinchingly, and with plenty of data to support them. There will no doubt be rejoinders, especially from among the leading feminist scholars (female and male) whom Ms. Sommers takes on by name in this book. But she has laid down an unignorable challenge to views that have been widely expressed in American public discourse in recent years, views that have been given credibility by much of the media.
She begins, in a chapter called ''Where the Boys Are,'' with an unsparing examination of the finding, supported by many reputable institutions, that the male-dominated culture is harming girls. She cites the educational psychologist Carol Gilligan of Harvard's graduate school of education, who wrote in 1990, ''As the river of a girl's life flows into the sea of Western culture, she is in danger of drowning or disappearing.'' In 1991, inspired by Ms. Gilligan's finding that girls, when they reached 12 or 13, suddenly lost confidence in themselves, the American Association of University Women published a study called ''How Schools Shortchange Girls,'' which contended that girls had second-class status in schools compared with boys, with devastating effects on their self-esteem.
''The description of America's teenage girls as silenced, tortured, voiceless, and otherwise personally diminished is indeed dismaying,'' Ms. Sommers writes. ''But there is surprisingly little evidence to support it.'' By many important measures, she writes, girls are doing better than boys in school: they get better grades, go to college more often and join in more extracurricular activities than boys. She cites data showing that among blacks almost all the gains in enrollment in higher education are accounted for by women, which would seem to indicate that it is boys who, as Ms. Sommers puts it, ''are on the fragile side of the gender gap.''
As she covers her various subjects, Ms. Sommers comments acidly here and there, but her tone is generally measured, and she bolsters her points with an array of studies, statistics and charts. She gives a brief history of the nationwide semiholiday Take Our Daughters to Work Day, which, in her view, exemplifies the public response to ''the manufactured crisis of diminished girls.'' She shows an appreciation of the sensibilities involved here since, after all, who wants to appear soft where harm to America's girls or women is concerned?
She also shows how the more alarming presentations of issues get attention while alternative, nonalarming findings are ignored or even hidden. There is, for example, the ''gender equity'' group that got a five-year grant from the United States Department of Education after putting out statements to the effect that ''every year nearly four million women are beaten to death.'' That, Ms. Sommers dryly observes, would mean that 11,000 women are beaten to death every day, while Federal Bureau of Investigation statistics for 1996 showed that 3,631 female deaths were attributed to murder in the entire year.
There would seem in short to be some exaggeration abroad, and Ms. Sommers pounces on many examples. Her argument nonetheless would be more persuasive if she had dealt directly with what would seem to be an incontrovertible fact, that at the top echelons of American corporate and professional life women are still grossly underrepresented. It's likely that most of the fathers and mothers who take their daughters to work are not so much being credulous about girl victimization as they are trying to help their female children get ahead in what remains, despite the problems of boys, a male-dominated world.
Ms. Sommers's controlled ire is perhaps most aroused by what she presents as a discrediting of the nature of boys, a movement strong in the academic world, which sees masculinity itself as a grave threat to the moral order. She cites some amazing examples of this, among them statements by a number of feminist writers to the effect that highly publicized episodes like the school shootings in Littleton, Colo., in 1999 represented ''patriarchal culture gone haywire.'' Here is where Ms. Sommers's vision clashes in the deepest philosophical and moral sense with that of the camp she decidedly is not in. When a boy does serious wrong, she argues, it is not because of what others describe as patriarchal culture; it is usually because the boy in question had no father living in his family. In other words, she writes, it is not the masculine presence that is the problem but its absence.
''The so-called manly virtues of honor, duty, and self-sacrifice are caring virtues,'' she writes, ''and it is wrong to deride them as lesser virtues.'' The problem in America is the slow disappearance of the sort of strong moral guidance for children, especially for boys, that teaches restraint, honor and responsibility.
''Talking about moral failure is less stylish than talking about the inimical workings of patriarchy,'' she writes. ''But it is far more to the point.''
Observations like that lift Ms. Sommers's book from polemic to entreaty. There is a crying in the wilderness quality to her book, a sense that certain simple truths have been lost sight of in the smoky quarrelsomeness of American life. One may agree with Ms. Sommers or one may disagree, but it is hard not to credit her with a moral urgency that comes both from the head and from the heart.