THE WAR AGAINST BOYS - How Misguided Feminism is Harming our Young Men by Christina Hoff Sommers, Simon & Schuster, New York, © 2000, ISBN: 0-684-84956-9, 251 pp, $25.

Review by Del Meyer, MD

Christina Hoff Sommers, PhD, who has also written Who Stole Feminism? How Women Have Betrayed Women, now brings to our attention some serious misguided plans for raising boys, or as Gloria Steinem summarizes in the "boys-should-be-changed" camp, "We need to raise boys like we raise girls." Sommers contends that only one side of this issue seems to reach the press. She warns us of the rather serious efforts by multiple organizations, including the Department of Education, the American Association of University Women (AAUW), the Public Education Network (PEN), the Ms. Foundation for Women, to "reconstruct boyhood."

Mothers are known for saying, "Boys will be boys." Some hope that’s true and consider it a complement. Others feel that is unfortunate – especially for girls. Jonathan P Decker in his book Great Dads details accounts of successful people telling their stories of "how fathers shape our destiny." What is it with boys? Many a mother asks trying to understand her son’s behavior. Moms instinctively know how a daughter’s mind works, but as for their boys – well, they seem to be wired differently. Edwin and Sally Kiester, in their Reader’s Digest article, "What Moms need to know about Sons" tell us we can relax – boys are not as tough as they look. The fact that boys love to play rough doesn’t mean they’re on the road to becoming roughnecks. In fact, there are clear benefits to all that physical and competitive play. "Boys learn the limits of aggression, how far they can go safely without injury, how to be aware of others’ feelings." Harvard psychologist, William Pollack, observes the "Boy Code" which he contends mothers must learn in order to understand how boys think and act – and why – which makes raising them easier. Boys, who find themselves locked out of their homes without a key, have been known to scale the roof and let themselves in by a skylight. Girls gaining entry seem to be given help, frequently with a ladder. Dennis, the Menace, with all his boundless gun toting energy doesn’t seem to have ever hurt a human or a pet and is quite docile when his mother disciplines him.

A relative of mine, who is a neonatal ICU nurse at the University of Michigan, said she stepped into her garage where her husband, sons, and daughter’s fiancé were restoring a Mazda Rx7. She said the "testosterone level" was so high she immediately retreated into the house. Males do secrete ten times the amount of testosterone that females do, so it shouldn’t be hard to understand the overwhelming level of energy in that garage, presumably being put to good use.

Not only do mothers need to know about boys, Dads also need to know about their daughters writes Marie Crumb of Schoharie, NY, in Readers Digest. More understanding of the differences between the sexes is certainly needed. For years, feminists have maintained that girls have been short changed academically and drained of self-esteem by a society that favors boys. After years of correcting any disparities, Sommers maintains that the continued social reconditioning of boys to make them more like girls, may now be doing harm to our boys. She points out that much of the male/female differences are innate, not the result of social conditioning. The real cause of violence in boys is the absence – not the presence – of fathers and other masculine role models. Canceling recess in school to prevent boys from being rowdy may have the opposite effect.

Sommers gives us the background for the feminization of boys starting in 1990 when Carol Gilligan announced to the world that America’s adolescent girls were in a crisis. She subjects Gilligan’s research on girls and boys to extensive analysis and finds it less than scientific and effectively dispenses with the myth of the "Fragile Girl." Mary Pipher calls American society a "girl-poisoning" and "girl-destroying culture." Pipher informs her readers in Reviving Ophelia that her clinic is filled with girls "who have tried to kill themselves." Sommers recites the CDC suicide statistics and it’s really the boys who are committing suicide, increasing at three times the rate of girls. In a population of nine million 10- to 14-year-old girls, an absolute increase of 13 is not evidence of a "girl-destroying culture." The AAUW spent $100,000 on a study of "How Schools Shortchange Girls " and then $150,000 promoting it to an uncritical and enthusiastic media. Susan Chira’s report of this for The New York Times was headlined "Bias Against Girls Is Found Rife in Schools, with Lasting Damage." When the author called on Ms Chira and asked her if she had obtained any critical evaluation of her thesis, Ms Chira stated, after a long silence, "I don’t want to talk about this." When asked why she had not sought out critics, she said, "I see where this is going. . . . . I wish you the best of luck. Goodbye," taking the journalistic equivalent of the Fifth Amendment. When she called back later, Sommers asked if she would write it the same way today. She responded that she would not have, since we now have learned so much about boys’ deficits. .

Sommers states that it took The New York Times six years to question the validity of the reports and, thereafter, state that the AAUW was completely wrong. By then the damage, including a Gender Equity in Education Act in 1994, was already done. What the author sees as bizarre is that this came about right at the time that girls had just overtaken boys in honor societies, student newspapers, debating clubs and in almost every area, except sports; and women’s groups are targeting the sports gap with a vengeance. Sommers says it was like calling a wedding a funeral. As girls were succeeding so well and a feminist society declared their War Against Boys, the new misplaced emphasis mushroomed.

MetLife, which has no political ax to grind, produced a study which contradicted most of the PEN as well as the AAUW findings. They found that girls are more likely than boys to see themselves as college bound, more likely than boys to want a good education, and boys generally feel that teachers do not listen to what they have to say. Sommers feels this should have been good news at this PEN conference, but the media did not publish it. When a Washington, DC, teacher at the conference mentioned that it is so rare for a boy to do well at her school, that "it’s a big occasion when a guy gets into an honor society or wins an award," no one commented. Nancy Leffert, a child psychologist at the Search Institute in Minneapolis, reported the results of her massive survey of more than 99,000 sixth- through twelfth-graders. She reported that girls were ahead of boys in thirty-four of forty assets! On almost every significant measure of well-being, girls had the better of boys: they felt closer to their families, they had higher aspirations and a stronger connection to school– even superior assertiveness skills. She concluded by saying that in the past she had referred to girls as fragile or vulnerable, "but if you look at our survey, it tells me that girls have very powerful assets."

Sommers also enlightens us to the extent that the Department of Education is trying to re-socialize boys in the direction of femininity; the Supreme Court has legitimized discrimination against boys; schools are eliminating the game of tag as a precursor to stalking portraying every boy as a potential rapist; and that most of the abundant new evidence that male/female differences are innate, not the result of social conditioning, is being censored by the media.

Remember the headlines in 1996, when six-year-old Jonathan Prevette, who kissed his female classmate, was punished as a sexual harasser? Or the mother in Worcester, Massachusetts who came to pick-up her three-year-old son and was told he had been reprimanded and made to sit in the "time-out chair" for having hugged another child. "He’s a toucher," she was told. "We are not going to put up with it." This book is full of nuggets of information that threaten our society. We need to read this volume and give one to our teachers. It helps us explained why boys are being punished in our schools – for being normal boys.