Skylar Burris's Reviews > The War Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism Is Harming Our Young Men

The War Against Boys by Christina Hoff Sommers
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Dec 30, 14

bookshelves: education, sociology, feminism
Read in March, 2010

“We must put an end to all the crisis mongering,” writes Christina Hoff Sommers in a book titled THE WAR AGAINST BOYS. I’ll pause for a moment to contemplate the irony.

I picked up this book after I learned from my then kindergarten daughter that the children at her school were told not to run on the playground during recess and that a male schoolmate was informed he would be sent to the principal’s office if he continued to form his finger into a gun and say, “Pow, pow, pow.” (I used to think these sorts of school stories were ridiculously rare exceptions, until they started coming home to me.)

Sommers occasionally treats extreme examples as normative and allows some assumptions and logical fallacies to slip into an otherwise convincing argument. She clearly has an axe to grind with one particular feminist (she dedicates a good chunk of the book to tearing down the woman’s work), but many of her basic points are sound.
Sommers argues that there is a “war against boys” in the American education system, that is to say, in less polemical terms, that (1) girls receive more academic attention and focus, attend college in greater numbers, and earn higher grades than boys, even while feminists claim girls are being shortchanged, (2) stereotypically masculine characteristics and behaviors (such as competitiveness, physical courage, and war play) are discouraged while boys are encouraged to exhibit more stereotypically feminine characteristics (the “feminization” of boys), and (3) the pedagological methods employed and materials used favor girls over boys. As a solution to this problem, Sommers proposes that boys be taught in an all-male classical school environment, with an emphasis on drilling, high standards, strict discipline, competition, moral/character education, and more boy-centric reading materials.

I agree with her basic points, and I think her proposed solution has potential, although I am ambivalent about the gender-segregation component, because I think gender-segregation has many benefits as well as many disadvantages. (Personally, I’m glad my education was co-ed.)

Despite my general agreement with her arguments, I was bothered by the way she seemed to make everything into an attack on boys. For example, she notes that there is a gender literacy gap between boys and girls: girls are typically a year or more ahead in reading level, and girls read more often for pleasure than boys. This, she suggests, is because of the evil feminist attempt to “feminize” our boys. Yet, when it comes to the math/science gap between girls and boys, she simply puts that down to gender differences. She doesn’t understand why feminists get so worked up trying to close this gap, trying to make girls, on average, equal boys in math/science performance. Even though she admits that research shows women excel more than men in verbal areas, she doesn’t seem to consider that this, and not a “war on boys”, may possibly account for much of the literacy gap. Boys are shown to improve their literacy greatly in an all-male classical school environment with strict standards. But I imagine girls would too. Schools are short changing our kids, yes, but it isn’t just our boys. Give them both classical educations, and they’d both probably pull ahead in many subjects, but would the gender gaps in literacy and in math/science close dramatically? Probably not.

Even assigning Jane Eyre as required reading is part of the “war on boys,” because wouldn’t it be better if they assigned works of more interest to boys? Well, yes, boys will more likely read works of more interest to them, but the girls in my school suffered through Mutiny on the Bounty, so why can’t the boys suffer through Jane Eyre? A liberal education does not consist of being exposed ONLY to what interests you.

I get the impression that Sommers wants me to be worked up over a boy who is expelled from a private school (a *private* school, no doubt with a strict code of conduct that the student signed) for saying sexually crude things and making crude gestures to a girl. Sorry. I don’t see that as part of the “war on boys.” I see it as a rare insistence on the complete unacceptability of crude behavior. Unfortunately, many conservatives of today say, “Boys will be boys” where conservatives of yesteryear probably would have said, “Where is his sense of honor?!”

Further evidence of the “war on boys”: girls earn higher grades and go to college in greater numbers. Now, there are all sorts of reasons boys may be academically underperforming girls that have nothing whatsoever to do with feminist efforts to feminize boys. But Sommers does not seriously explore or convincingly refute these alternative explanations. Nor does she ask whether boys are, in the long-term, truly shortchanged , compared to girls, by this academic underperformance. Are women now earning more income, on average, over a lifetime, than men? Are they making more revolutionary innovations in medicine, business, and technology than men? Do they hold more political offices? She does not address such questions, to which, I’m pretty sure, the answer is no. Indeed, she acts very like the feminists she chastises, decrying a sexist war on boys the same way they decry a sexist war on girls, without adequate consideration of the myriad reasons why people do not always excel. As an example of her assumption-based logic, she mentions that (A) girls are called on in class much more often than boys, and that (B) boys are much less educationally interested and focused than girls. She assumes that (A) causes (B), but isn’t it just as likely that (B) causes (A)?

While I am not in favor of “feminizing” boys, I am in favor of "civilizing" children, boys among them. Feminization seeks to suppresses male nature; civilization, much less ambitiously, merely seeks to channel it. But civilizing boys requires lauding and grooming stereotypically masculine virtues, such as honor, chivalry, and courage. It also requires girls to exert pressures on boys by practicing stereotypically feminine virtues such as chastity and modesty. And gender stereotypes are never popular with feminists. Thus we insist that gender differences are social constructs and try to “remake” masculinity. The result of this experiment, Sommers argues, has not been beneficial for boys. I’d argue that it hasn’t been beneficial for girls either.
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message 1: by Sandra (new)

Sandra Skylar, an excellent review. The same thing appears to be happening here in Australia.

Boys are lagging behind in academic circles. Girls lag behind in corporate circles. Single sex high schools appear to be the answer for boys (according to studies), however don't work as well for girls. I went to an all-girl public high school and loved it.

I truly don't know what the answer is but the problems will become more obvious, in future. Once again, great review, keep 'em coming.

Skylar Burris Thanks, Sandra.I don't think single-sex public schools (public here means government-run; I'm not sure what it means in Australia, since I know it means private in England) have often been tried in the U.S.; I think they would meet with great resistance and might possibly even be considered unconstitutional. We've had a very long history of co-education here. There are private single-sex schools for girls, but few for boys. Personally, I would like to see a public voucher system in the U.S. that allowed parents to choose from different kinds of private-run or government-run schools; the competition would create improvement in the schools and it would allow parents to choose which type of school to send their kids to; they could choose a school they thought would best suit their particular child. Some kids might do better in a traditional/classical setting; others in a montosseori setting; some in a co-ed setting; some in a single-sex setting.

message 3: by Sandra (new)

Sandra Public here in Australia means the same as US. We have a long history of both co-ed and single sex govt & private schools. I agree entirely that kids are all different and some do better in one than another.

Our federal govt does do a voucher system in that it pays each school an amount per student, so the more students the school has the more they pay. That doesn't affect the cost of schooling though and private fees can be quite steep.

Nearly all schools in Australia have uniforms also, and that is amazingly expensive. My nieces are changing schools this Easter break and the winter uniforms etc will cost my sister about $600 and that's a govt school and my nieces are 6 and in Grade 1.

But I'm getting away from the topic, I think Aus is lucky that we have so many options, re the type of schooling we can choose, so that it better suits the individual.

message 4: by rivka (new)

rivka Skylar wrote: "I think they would meet with great resistance and might possibly even be considered unconstitutional."

Actually, I think some have successfully been created. Yup, looks like -- with mixed results.

Not very successful in California about a decade ago. (I think there have been some more recent attempts that are still in progress here.)
Apparently a law passed in late 2006 makes it easier, both for single-sex classrooms and schools.

Skylar Burris Thanks, Rivka, for the links. Come to think of it, she may have mentioned some of those in the book. I think she mentioned they met with a lot of resistance when they were started (what new thing doesn't, though). I wondered if same-sex public education was ever done on a state or nationwide scale (rather than a few here and there) if it would be challenged constitutionally (as a no "separate but equal" sort of thing). I see there is apparently an entire organization dedicated to trying to institute single-sex public education in the U.S..

Now, the main complaint on the same-sex CA schools seems to be that they didn't "empower" girls and emphasize gender enough. I don't really care about that politcospeak. I want to know--did the girls learn more or less? Did they test more or less proficient than their co-ed counterparts, after controlling for income, backgorund, etc.? Studies that control for those kind of things seem to show that most kids do better, academically, in same sex settings.

"I'm curious: does Sommers' identify the "misguided feminism" of the title as a particular strand within feminist thought"

She doesn't identify it by name, but its basically the "men are responsible for all the evil in the world and the patriarcy is responsible for all of the failures of women and if men would just be more like women the world would be a better place" strand. I don't think it's as influential a strand as she thinks it is, but I don't deny that there is a problem with male academic achievement that rests at least in part with the way boys are taught; ways that don't make good use of their "boy natures." So, in short, no, she doesn't seem to distinguish between types of feminism.

message 6: by Sandra (new)

Sandra Skylar, the studies done here in Aus indicate that boys do much better without the girls, because they aren't showing off and pay more attention in class, but it was a bit more iffy re the girls.

From memory it was that, girls either did better without boys because they weren't trying to look "dumb",(because boys don't want to go out with smart girls?) or they did the same as co-ed schools. So it wasn't as clear cut an outcome for the girls.

Skylar Burris "Skylar, the studies done here in Aus indicate that boys do much better without the girls, because they aren't showing off and pay more attention in class, but it was a bit more iffy re the girls."

That's what I would expect.

"From memory it was that, girls either did better without boys because they weren't trying to look "dumb",(because boys don't want to go out with smart girls?)"

This theory was brought up in the book, as well as boys acting "dumb" to be cool...maybe it's just where I grew up, but it was never considered "uncool" for kids to do well in school. So I wonder about this theory, but I suppose it applies in some locales and among some groups of kids.

message 8: by Sas (new)

Sas "We must put an end to all the crisis mongering,” writes Christina Hoff Sommers in a book titled THE WAR AGAINST BOYS. I’ll pause for a moment while you contemplate the irony."

This made me laugh. True. True.

I know that it's a bad idea to comment when I haven't read the book in question, but you know that I have to smile that it's "feminism" that's causing boys to fall behind in school. about video games, television, computers. Boys, more so than girls, tend to gravitate to that techonology and become completely immersed, spending endless hours in front of screens instead of reading, interacting and being creative.

Skylar Burris Very good point, Sas. The increased prevalance of entertainment technology is a major change in the past 30 years. This is one of the many possible contributing factors to the academic underperformance of boys she doesn't consider.

What I'd like to know, however, is is the underperformance new? She doesn't really delve into that. In the one room school houses of yesteryear, did girls outperform boys on average in literacy?

I do agree with her, however, that we need to make education more boy friendly -- let them move around a little more, let them compete more, let them play at recess the kind of games (cops and robbers, war, etc.) many of them naturally want to play (and if they don't want to play, fine, but don't force them not to), and have more reading choices that are of interest to boys, especially in the anthologies, and don't have so many touchy-feely tell us how much you love yourself and talk about your bad feelings self-esteem exercises.

message 10: by Sas (new)

Sas I think one of the reasons that we see fewer of the types of role playing games (cops and robbers, etc.) that you and I saw as a child is because of the increasingly violent nature of that play today. I can tell you that in preschool, very few of my four year olds wanted to be the good guy that rode in to save the day. The wanted to be the bad guy- the evil pyschopath that maims and mutilates. Even at the doll house (where trust me I would have been happy with 1950's role playing- of mommy home with the babies and daddy coming home from work), we had to have conversations with the boys about throwing mommy and baby from the roof and trying to decapitate them. And I blame that on the inappropriate violence that parents let their pre-schoolers watch. So what happens is that schools go to the extreme of not even allowing kids to point pretend gun fingers at oneanother.

Skylar Burris I don't know if it's necessarily what they watch. I notice that with my kids too, who watch no violent television at all (in fact, we have no television reception as you know, so they watch only kids DVDs). The other day, they were role playing, and my son was pretending to be the "bad daddy" and my daughter was saying, "You be the bad daddy and you put me in the wood chopper." Now, you'd think they'd watched some horrifying movie. (Or that we were psychopathic parents, which I assure you is not the case.) But they haven't. So I'm not sure where they got this idea from. They've seen woodchoppers on the street when people come to trim the trees, but I mean the idea of putting a person in it -- I don't think any violent movie had to give them that idea; I really think they came up with it themselves. Kids are fascinated with death from ages 3-6, and they come up with weird, gruesome ideas, and it isn't real to them at all. They don't think about it, really. I suppose they could have gotten the idea from older kids in the neighborhood or at school. And, of course, I have read her Grimm's fairytales, which can be gruesome (though no wood choppers).

Is this new? I know it's normal to be fascinated with death at that age, but the idea of mommy falling off the roof or heads being chopped off or getting fed to the wood chopper...did kids play that kind of thing in the past? I honestly can't remember if my friends or I said this kind of stuff as young kids. I don't recall doing it myself, but I don't know for sure, and boys play more at violent games than girls. I think you mentioned you've taught little kids for a long period and have noticed a significant difference? It's interesting that discouraging war play and violent play - and almost zero tolerance approach to gun play in schools - has conincided with MORE graphic violent play, and I wonder if the zero tolerance approach was loosened, if kids would learn to engage in violent role play in better ways.

I really don't have a problem with them playing the "bad guy" -- as long as someone is playing the "good guy", and they *are* thereby making distinctions between what is good and what is bad. My son likes to be the bad guy. It's make believe. It's how they get their little minds around good and evil and find a way to feel safe in a world where they have no control. It's not like they're torturing the neighbor's cat. They're playing a role, a role they clearly define as "bad."

But yeah, I can see a teacher stepping in and saying, "Let's not put the baby in the wood chopper. Why don't you feed the baby instead?" LOL. But it's when they step in and say, "Don't make a gun out of your fingers, don't make a gun out of a stick, don't ever play with a pretend make believe gun in any way or you are going to the principal's office!" For a lot of boys, that's like telling them not to breathe.

Interesting blog article -

message 12: by Sas (last edited Mar 21, 2010 08:51PM) (new)

Sas I am positive that your daughter got that idea from somewhere. Maybe an older child. Children almost never randomly play- "You be the bad daddy and put me in the woodchopper." LOL I also grew up on the original Brother's Grimm and they can be pretty gorey tales, so who knows. Does the woodsman chop up the wolf in Red Riding Hood? I can't remember now.

Yes, children do focus on death between the ages of 3-6 but it's more on the order of "why do people die?, when do people die?, will mommy or daddy die?, where does the cat go when he dies?" It's rarely, "lets find the most gruesome way to die." Although, I can remember being terrified at six that mother would die by being running over by subway train, but that was only because I had overheard a news story reporting on just such a death.

You can tell the kids that watch hours of unsupervised television or unsupervised video games in a heartbeat. You ask them to draw something and it's Robocop wiping out whatever. If you're at the water table it's the kid holding the baby doll underwater to drown him" This is where I recommend that maybe we could pretend to give the baby swimming lessons.

I agree that boys naturally make guns out of everything. My boys made them out of half a bagel. Lol So yes, it is like asking them not to breathe. At pre-school children are redirected to other activites-they can shoot each other at home. They are not sent to the principle with the exception of the little boy who threatened to bring a gun to school and kill his classmate because she didn't share the blocks with him.

Kids who don't watch violent programming tend to engage in real imaginative play and have a broader range of interests- they talk about dinosaurs, jungles, oceans, people in the neighborhood- firemen, police officers.

The change that I've seen over the past twenty years comes from exposure to increasing violence at an increasingly younger age and parents who are happy to plop their kids in front of television, rather then read them a story or paint a picture with them (g-d forbid that you get paint or playdoh on the rug!) Uh- oh, I may be working up to a rant. LOL

message 13: by Skylar (last edited Mar 21, 2010 11:21PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Skylar Burris Yes, the woodsman does chop up the wolf...maybe that was the connection. Maybe it was having read that, seeing the trees get chopped up and me calling the machine a wood chopper...maybe she just put it all together in that way. Of course, the thing is, whether or not you let your own kids watch violent age inappropriate television, the fact remains that they are socialized by their peers, so I guess, in a way, there's not much hope of escaping those effects entirely, though you can minimize them.

"(g-d forbid that you get paint or playdoh on the rug!)"

That's why you have a basement with an old beat up floor.

message 14: by Sas (last edited Mar 22, 2010 05:15PM) (new)

Sas Did you edit this? I was about to respond to something that's not here. LOL I must really be tired. I assume we've been down this road so many times that it's best not to go down it again. LOL

I should add that I did take us a bit off topic.
I do agree that boys require more physical play. They need to get rid of the extra energy. Boys have a hard time sitting and concentratinng without a physical outlet. There should be soccer, football, baseball,or just plain running at recess.

Skylar Burris I know some girls too who have a hard time sitting and concentrating without a physical outlet...not that I'm naming any names...although my daughter did win a bet with my Uncle over Easter that she couldn't do 100 kartwheels in a row...and now we have to go to the dollar store.

Apposite Boys need to be "civilized"??????????????

Skylar Burris All children need to be civilized.

message 18: by Apposite (last edited May 22, 2010 12:03AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Apposite Skylar wrote: "All children need to be civilized."

You made it sound like only boys needed "civilizing" and that girls were okay as is, like boys were "uncouth" and deficient from birth. I think boys were much better off before all this change and that is part of Summers's reasoning. They are adrift now. Frankly, it would look better saying that all children (as you say it) need to "raised" to be good citizens. Being "civilized" has different meanings depending on the society one is being acculturated into.

Skylar Burris Well, I do think that traditionally, historically, women have (perhaps less so in recent years) served as a "civilizing" influence on men in at least this sense: they have established boundaries and expectations that have confined men's natural wanderlust and tendency toward promiscuity and even something as mundane as their choice of language. Certainly many men act and speak differently in groups solely composed of men than they do when around women. Perhaps "domesticating" would be a better word choice. Lately, rather than continuing to apply these standards and boundaries and expectations, women have been encouraged to relinquish them and to become more man-like themselves, even while we are encouraging boys to become more girl-like. I don't believe in "feminizing" men (i.e. forcing them to talk about their "feelings" when they don't wish to; prohibiting them from engaging in war play; discouraging competition, etc.), but I think there is a difference between "feminizing" men and exerting female influence on men in order to encourage certain types of "civilized behavior". I do not, for instance, think that the boy who is disciplined for making crude sexual gestures at a girl is being "feminized"; he is being civilized. But modern culture is such that girls do not any longer have the solidarity to naturally exert this influence via near-unanimous expectation, and so it is being forced on boys and men politically and hierarchally and perhaps tyrannically rather than naturally and communally. I think there is a push for "feminization" going on to some degree, and I disagree with that push--but I do not think the push is AS severe as Sommers thinks, and I do not think it accounts for AS many problems and discrepancies as she seems to think.

There is also the sense in which women have traditionally been recognized for their civilizing influence on men. To quote G.K. Chesterton, "Will no one say how much every man owes to the tyranny and privilege of women, to the fact that they alone rule education until education becomes futile: for a boy is only sent to be taught at school when it is too late to teach him anything. The real thing has been done already, and thank God it is nearly always done by women. Every man is womanised, merely by being born. They talk of the masculine woman; but every man is a feminised man. And if ever men walk to Westminster to protest against this female privilege, I shall not join their procession." Now this is a very traditional way at looking at male/female roles, and it is not the same as the modern "feminization" of boys, which really seeks to eradicate stereotypical male qualities such as adventurous spirits, the need for competition, a sense of physical bravery, stoicism, etc. The modern feminization is an utter rejection of "traditional" gender roles, rather than an appreciation for the balance created by the male/female interplay.

Apposite Skylar: Perhaps "domesticating" would be a better word choice.

I think both terms are condescending at best. It bespeaks inherent superiority arrogance. Men today are devalued as it is and it will take time for the scales to equal out.

message 21: by Regina (new)

Regina Why would a movement for equality that seeks to give equal opportunities to all people and seeks to end gender-based violence against women be the cause for men's failure? That seems like an inherently flawed argument. Do boys and men somehow need the subjugation of women/girls to succeed? Simply becuase the feminist movement has happened and subsequently (supposedly) boys are performing at lowing rates in school does not make this a cause and effect. Correlation does not equal cause and effect. This brief blog post poses some interesting ideas on this topic: I also like this quote:

In education, as in the rest of society, it’s time to discard the zero-sum game of the “gender wars” mentality and start helping males and females to work together for success.

message 22: by Apposite (last edited Dec 06, 2013 01:02AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Apposite "Do boys and men somehow need the subjugation of women/girls to succeed?"

No, but they are not encouraged as they need to be and tend to be disfavored while girls are given more attention and pushed ahead.

message 23: by Jpseudonym (new) - added it

Jpseudonym Not to quibble, but pointing out a problem isn't necessarily "mongering". Pointing out petty or non-existent problems is.

message 24: by Skylar (last edited Dec 30, 2014 09:24AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Skylar Burris Pointing out a problem isn't mongering. Painting that problem as a calculated war effort may be. I believe a problem exists. It is also exaggerated.

message 25: by Jpseudonym (new) - added it

Jpseudonym Skylar wrote: "Pointing out a problem isn't mongering. Painting that problem as a calculated war effort may be. I believe a problem exists. It is also exaggerated."

You're obviously free to believe whatever you wish, but at the very least there is evidence to suggest otherwise. However, like many issues, how big an issue becomes or how it is viewed usually gets decided by who its advocates are. I believe that if the problem was urgent enough and big enough to address when it was against girls, then it should be as equally important when it's against boys.

message 26: by Skylar (last edited Dec 30, 2014 10:14PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Skylar Burris Well, I don't believe there was a "war against girls" in school in the previous generation (my school days) either, so the "it should be as equally important" argument doesn't mean much to me. I thought a lot of that "oh how woefully mistreated are girls in school" stuff was exaggerated in the past too.

I have a boy and a girl, both school-age, and I really think there are some ways education can be improved for boys: I think a classical approach is especially effective, as is more recess time and shorter school days. (Of course, I think this would be a good improvement for girls too!)

However, I also think there are actual gender differences (exceptions always, of course, but in general). One such difference is that girls are n general more naturally "academic" (school-suited) than boys and more verbal. That doesn't mean they are necessarily going to outperform boys in the professional field, however.

This idea that boys are being especially persecuted in schools today strikes me as a little bit of a stretch. People act as though it is a new, feminist expectation that boys sit still and not interrupt the teacher and that they do their boring school work and not run around in class and not talk in sexually explicit ways to the girls and generally behave in an orderly fashion. It's not. They were expected to behave that way one, two, three generations ago. We didn't drug them when they misbehaved, of course. We beat them instead. But the expectation itself is not new, nor is it a particularly feminist one.

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