AAUW Lashes Out at Christina Hoff-Sommers

By Stephanie Herman
Rightgrrl Co-Founder
April 1995

The Media Relations branch of the American Association of University Women (AAUW) has recently issued a six-page "Fact Sheet on Erroneous Charges in Who Stole Feminism? and Recent Press Accounts," dated March, 1995, attached to a memorandum sent to all of the organization's branch and state presidents, communication chairs and initiative chairs.

Indeed, the charges Christina Hoff-Sommers brought against the AAUW in her 1994 book would seem to command a more detailed and lengthy response than the fact sheet offers; 15 of the 18 charges are dismissed in short, one- or two-paragraph answers. Not surprisingly, most responses and subsequent counter-charges outlined in the AAUW fact sheet can be easily rebutted using no new information aside from the original text of Sommers' book, Who Stole Feminism?

The first charge made by Sommers (re-stated by the AAUW) appears as follows: "The Gender Equity in Education Act (GEEA) is a $360 million bill that will establish a permanent and well-funded gender equity bureaucracy." Sommers' actual criticism appears in her book in two separate contexts:
"Fifty congresspersons responded to the alarm by sponsoring a $360 million bill, the Gender Equity in Education Act, to deal with the problems raised by the AAUW study," (138)
"The $360 million 'Gender Equity in Education' bill was introduced in Congress in April of 1993 by the bipartisan Congressional Caucus for Women's Issues... The Gender Equity in Education Act (H.R. 1793) would establish a permanent and well-funded gender equity bureaucracy." (158-59)
The AAUW responded to Sommers' references to the bill with a detailed five-paragraph explanation of the breakdown between the House and Senate versions, an outline of monies earmarked for different sections of the bill, and the actual provisions in what resulted as the reauthorized 1994 Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The following excerpt is the only section of the AAUW's lengthy response that pertains to Sommers' charge:
"When Sommers quotes a $360 million price tag for GEEA, she is citing two programs that were introduced as part of the original House bill, but not enacted."
As the AAUW fact sheet is attempting to derail "erroneous charges" made by Sommers, their attempt here fails. Sommers had no way of knowing that the bill, introduced at a price of $360 million in 1993, would not pass. At the time of the book's writing, Sommers clearly had only the initial $360 million figure, attached to the originally introduced bill, on which to report.

The AAUW response goes on to point out that Sommers' $360 million figure included an initial House request for $110 million along with $250 million designated for a "coordinated school-based health services program for low-income children." While Sommers' inclusion may be perceived as "misleading," it is necessary to recognize that the $360 million figure was originally introduced by Congress as the "Gender Equity in Education Act." Sommers was not attempting to mislead, she was simply reporting on facts, correct at the time of her writing.

In her book, Sommers also charged that the AAUW self-esteem poll did not report on black males. "The sample size by race," according to the AAUW fact sheet response, "was too small to ethically report on black males or Hispanic males. Any reputable pollster would advise against reporting out data that did not have a large enough sample. Even an article Sommers cites acknowledges that fact (Science News, 3/23/1991)." Nevertheless, Sommers' citing that the poll did not report on black males does not, in any way, exist as an "erroneous charge."

Briefly attacking Sommers' accusation that the results of AAUW's self-esteem poll undermine the methodology of self-reporting, the fact sheet states: "While Sommers ridicules self-reporting in her book as a valid methodology to assess self-esteem, she embraces it for surveys on rape and perceptions of gender bias." The AAUW is ignoring the fact that self-reporting surveys on rape and gender-bias are conducted with adults and young adults. Self-reporting in the AAUW study may very well have been compromised as the survey participants were all between the ages of 9 and 15. Instead of addressing this potential problem, the AAUW proceeds to defend its methods by simply stating, "Surveys are a viable and useful instrument to measure self-esteem." This statement is not in any way supported.

One rather amazing statement made on the fifth page of the AAUW fact sheet reads as follows: "Although our critics can trot out numbers that they use to claim equality has been achieved, other statistics reveal that more needs to be done." This sentence is baffling in its self-contradiction. Are statistics valid tools of measurement or not? On the one hand, statistics put forth by the AAUW are credible, serving as self-contained reasons to spark Congressional action. On the other hand, any statistics not in support of the AAUW's findings are dismissed as mere "numbers," having been "trot(ted) out" to make ridiculous claims. As Sommers' remarked in her book, the AAUW simply cannot have it both ways. While most Americans are skeptical of any attempt to allow statistics to stand as proof of any hypothesis, we are certainly suspicious of an organization touting its statistics as the only ones perceived as serious and credible.

The most glaring mistake found in the fact sheet involves the AAUW's wording of this charge: "Sommers... claims we ignored the views of many experts who disagreed with us." In response to this misrepresented charge, the AAUW flatly defends itself: "One of the experts who we are criticized for not citing published his article (Education Digest, 12/92) nearly two years AFTER we released our poll (1/91)."

The problem is, of course, that Sommers never claimed the AAUW, in its report, failed to cite experts who disagreed with the report's findings; her statement instead involved the media:
"Except for Carol Gilligan and her followers, no other experts in adolescent psychology were cited by the press. Indeed, in none of these stories was a single critic cited, despite the existence of a large body of findings and contrary opinions that the AAUW had ignored," (140) [italics mine].

Even her reference to AAUW's ignoring contrary findings does not involve the inclusion of said findings in the AAUW report. To imply that Sommers expected the AAUW to cite future dissenting opinions in their 1991 report is, quite frankly, absurd.

One of the more complicated charges listed on the fact sheet is stated in the AAUW's own words as follows: "The AAUW Report denigrates vertical approaches to subjects like math and science and is prejudiced against those subjects."

It's important here to note that Peggy McIntosh, one of several authors of the AAUW/ Wellesley Report, "How Schools Shortchange Girls," had previously made an unscientific finding regarding lateral (feminine) and vertical (masculine) thinking and knowing constructs (a notion born of and reciprocally spurning the flawed idea of "female ways of knowing"). The entire AAUW response to this charges appears as follows:
"False. The report presents Peggy McIntosh's typology and vertical thinking construct as one kind of curriculum approach. The AAUW Report stresses the importance of further study into gender differences in math and science confidence and achievement so that the gender gaps can be eliminated. AAUW sponsors, conducts, funds, and supports numerous national and local programs to encourage girls in math and science."
Before addressing this rather sparse response, one must first observe that the AAUW has failed to fully state the charge Sommers was making in reference to vertical teaching approaches and the report's prejudices against them. The exact passage appears below, as Sommers uncovers a fundamental inconsistency within the report:
"On the one hand, (the Wellesley Report) tells us that girls are left behind in math, science, and engineering and that we must take steps to help them catch up... But the report goes on to denigrate vertical approaches to subjects like math and science, despite the fact that they depend on exact thinking and calculation. It's not that the authors of the report could not make up their minds; in fact, they seem to have little use for exact thinking and real science. But the reporters and politicians needed some evidence that girls are being shortchanged. The discrepancy in science and math, though small, was useful for that purpose. So the report cites the boys' advantage in these areas, ignoring for the moment its own prejudice against those subjects." (174-75)
The AAUW response includes nothing to refute or explain this inconsistency in the report. Saying that the organization sponsors, conducts, funds, supports and encourages girls in the fields of math and science does not answer the charge of the report's inherent "prejudice" against such disciplines which rely on vertical teaching methods and vertical thinking constructs. "Supporting" girls in math and science in no way implies that the AAUW, based on the content of its report, "supports" vertical thinking.

In fact, Sommers has clearly shown that the AAUW does not. If it were true that the AAUW Report was merely listing the vertical construct as just "one kind of curriculum approach," rather than criticizing it in favor of lateral thinking curricula, then how does the AAUW explain its own endorsement of lateral teaching methods which address the "daily texture of life" for girls (see Sommers, 173-74), as opposed to the "either/or, right/wrong" aspects of vertical thinking currently being utilized for both boys and girls in most classroom environments? This endorsement, as quoted from the report by Sommers, is not mentioned.

Other obvious omissions by the AAUW include any fact or further explanation to support the following statement, "She (Sommers) is simplistic in her analysis"; any qualifying statements to support the subjective term "best" in the following claim: "In all our research, we worked with the best universities, the best scholars, and the best survey research experts in the country"; or any facts to illustrate the following comment: "Ours is not a radical agenda despite Sommers' characterization of AAUW."

In response to Sommers' illustration of the fact that boys suffer larger drop-out rates, lower grades and higher incidences of drug abuse, the AAUW states, "Engaging in who is worse off is not a constructive discussion and will not help our children." But isn't the AAUW itself pinning all its research on the preconception that girls are worse off than boys? Instead of fully understanding the charges Sommers has brought against the AAUW, the authors of this memorandum are clearly attempting to divert the attention and subsequent blame placed squarely on the shoulders of the AAUW, with this innocent query: "What does Sommers have to offer women and girls of America?"

In fact, the entire purpose of the AAUW fact sheet seems to involve diverting blame and attention away from the organization itself, as is illustrated by this statement at the end of the memorandum accompanying the fact sheet: "...this debate is not about AAUW; it's about the children in this country." No thinking person could ever draw the conclusion that pointing out flaws in the methods of data collection and interpretation that may have been committed by the AAUW will in any way hurt the children of this country. On the contrary, Sommers' attempt to uncover the truth is both appreciated and acknowledged as a fundamental service to male and female children, who are both misrepresented and underestimated by the advocacy research of the AAUW.

This article copyright © 1995 by Stephanie Herman and may not be reproduced in any form without the express written consent of its author. All rights reserved.