Silencing Sommers Clinton Holdovers have their way with HHS

January 2002

Imagine that a feminist heroine like Carol Gilligan or Catherine MacKinnon had been silenced by federal officials at a government-sponsored conference, simply for airing her feminist views. Then imagine MacKinnon or Gilligan being put upon by a group of paid government consultants and told by a man to "shut the f*ck up, bitch" while the rest of the crowd laughed at her derisively. Now imagine our feminist heroine, having been publicly silenced and insulted, finally leaving the conference, while the federal officials running the show did nothing to challenge or chastise the man who had hurled the insult.

Of course, none of this happened to Catherine MacKinnon or Carol Gilligan. Just imagine the media firestorm if it did. But this did happen to the famous critic of feminism, Christina Hoff Sommers, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Sommers was delivering an invited speech at a conference on "Boy Talk" (a program sponsored by the Center for Substance Abuse and Prevention (CSAP) of the Department of Health and Human Services) when CSAP official Linda Bass summarily interrupted, and commanded Sommers to end her talk. Minutes later, as Sommers was forced by a hostile crowd to defend her claim that scientific studies ought to be used to help evaluate the effectiveness of government drug-prevention programs, Professor Jay Wade, of Fordham University's Department of Psych-ology - an expert on "listening skills" - ordered Sommers to "shut the f*ck up, bitch," to the laughter of the others in attendance. Having been muzzled by Bass and put upon by the crowd in a manner well outside the bounds of civilized discourse (and with not a move made by those running the conference to chastise Professor Wade) Sommers had little choice but to leave - effectively ejected from a government conference, simply for airing her views.

I called Professor Jay Wade for a comment on his insulting remarks to Sommers at the conference. It turns out that Wade had himself gone back to HHS and asked them to tell him, using the tape, exactly what he had said to Sommers at the conference. So Wade's remarks to me reflected the official transcript, which does not include the word "bitch." Wade said he remembers saying "Shut the f*ck up," to Sommers, but was unsure about whether he said "bitch." "I could have said 'bitch.' I probably thought it," Wade told me. Sommers says that Wade did in fact say "bitch," and careful listening to the tape reveals that the word was uttered, although almost drowned out by the derisive laughter of the crowd.

Under questioning, Wade was apologetic for his remarks, which he acknowledged to be thoroughly unprofessional - although he's made no move to apologize to Sommers herself and spent most of our call taking potshots at her. According to Wade, Sommers roused the anger of the people in the crowd - especially minorities, many of whom, according to Wade, had no advanced degrees - by insisting that scientific research was needed to validate the effectiveness of government programs. That hardly seems a crime.

But Wade also said that what was really bothering Sommers was that she had been left feeling "insulted" and "flustered" by HHS officials, who had refused to let her finish her presentation. So why exactly had Sommers been silenced by HHS officials to begin with?

I called Alvera Stern, acting director of the Division of Prevention Application and Education at HHS, for comments on what had happened to Sommers. Readers of National Review Online will know that I'm a fan of Sommers and her work, so I thought it was particularly important that I have a taped copy of the session, so as to fairly establish the truth of what happened. To her credit, Stern was kind enough to provide me with both a transcript of the session and a copy of the tape. Unfortunately, Stern's explanation for what happened simply doesn't hold up.

Stern told me that Sommers's talk had been cut off because she'd run overtime. But it's obvious from the tape that Sommers was silenced at the moment she began to raise questions about "Girl Power" - the female counterpart of the "Boy Talk" drug-prevention program that was the subject of the conference. And even Jay Wade - hardly a Sommers fan - told me that it was Sommers's attempt to discuss Girl Power that had led to her being silenced. The tape makes it clear that Linda Bass, the HHS official who shut Sommers off, said nothing at all about Sommers's time being up. Bass simply insisted that any discussion of "Girl Power" was out of bounds - although it would seem to be impossible to properly evaluate a proposal to create a "Boy Talk" counterpart to "Girl Power" without considering the effectiveness of the Girl Power program itself.

So what exactly is "Girl Power," and why were HHS officials so determined to prevent anyone from raising questions about it? The Girl Power program was a cornerstone of Clinton HHS secretary Donna Shalala's pro-androgyny feminist agenda, and a favorite of Hillary Clinton's. It's obvious from the transcript that the officials who run "Girl Power" were unwilling to allow any questions about the efficacy of the program to be raised. Sommers's daring to imply that overcoming femininity in girls and masculinity in boys might not be the most effective way to fight teenage drug abuse is the real reason she was put upon and effectively ejected by this crowd of HHS consultants and administrators.

The highly questionable premise of the Girl Power program is that making girls less traditionally feminine will somehow cause them to be less likely to smoke, take drugs, or get pregnant. Of course, most people would expect the opposite effect. Isn't it precisely because girls are nowadays less bound by traditional codes of feminine behavior that we are seeing increases in smoking, drug-taking, and premarital sex among girls? Given the exceedingly debatable assumption upon which it rests, Christina Hoff Sommers can certainly be forgiven for asking to see some empirical research confirming that the Girl Power program actually succeeds in reducing substance abuse by making girls less traditionally feminine.

But of course it would be naive to think that reducing drug abuse is the real purpose of either the Girl Power or Boy Talk programs. A careful reading of the reams of slick, expensive pamphlets put out by HHS under the heading of Girl Power makes it clear that the problem of drug abuse is just a convenient bureaucratic excuse for housing these programs in the Center for Substance Abuse and Prevention division of HHS. The obvious purpose of Girl Power and Boy Talk is feminist social engineering.

How exactly does encouraging girls to shoot, hunt, or play the drums, instead of sew and dance make them less likely to smoke or get pregnant? The Girl Power pamphlets cite statistics in which female athletes get pregnant at lower rates than non-athletes, but that could easily be a "selection effect," rather than actually caused by going out for the team. This is obviously something that needs to be carefully researched. And doesn't Girl Power's own resort to statistics validate Sommers's point that real empirical studies are needed to show that the Girl Power program actually reduces drug abuse?

The truth is, Health and Human Services' Girl Power and Boy Talk programs are simply government-funded attempts to promote the training for sexual androgyny mandated by feminist Carol Gilligan and her followers. Studies by Gilligan, and such groups as the American Association of University women - studies that describe alleged "crises" of sexual identity among American girls and boys - are the only "evidence" that HHS officials will allow to be invoked in assessments of these programs. Of course, in a series of brilliant studies, psychologist Judith Kleinfeld - as well as Sommers herself, in her extraordinary book, The War Against Boys - have already thoroughly debunked Gilligan's notion of a "girl crisis." That is why Sommers was cut off by HHS officials as soon as she was about to raise questions about the shaky empirical foundations of the Girl Power and Boy Talk programs.

Do Girl Power and Boy Talk really reduce teen drug use? It doesn't matter. Is there really a "girl crisis" or a "boy crisis?" It doesn't matter. Ultimately, the Clinton holdovers at HHS aren't interested in these questions, because the real rationale for their pet programs never really had anything to do with teen substance abuse - or even educational competence - to begin with. All of these rationales are simply bureaucratic window dressing for channeling literally millions of government dollars into a misguided and chimerical attempt to break American girls of their femininity and American boys of their masculinity. Christina Hoff Sommers understood this, and that is why she was silenced, insulted, and ejected from a conference before she could speak the truth. Will the Bush administration acquiesce in this outrage?