ABC’s Bogus ‘Pope Joan’ Story Also Hocked Feminist ‘Rule of Thumb’ Myth

The bogus story of "Pope Joan" was not the only fiction that ABC and Diane Sawyer tried to hustle on the American public in last night's Primetime (Thursday December 29, 2005). In trying to convey the environment of ninth-century Europe, host Diane Sawyer and a guest, Donna Cross (author of Pope Joan), promulgated the debunked feminist myth that the phrase "rule of thumb" originated from a centuries-old law about wifebeating. The popular hoax purports that a man was once allowed to clobber a woman as long as the club was no wider than his thumb.

In her much-acclaimed 1994 book, Who Stole Feminism?, writer Christina Hoff-Sommers shreds the "rule of thumb" myth.

"The 'rule of thumb' … turns out to be an excellent example of what may be called a feminist fiction

"That the phrase did not even originate in legal practice could have been ascertained by any fact-checker who took the trouble to look it up in the Oxford English Dictionary, which notes that the term has been used metaphorically for at least three hundred years to refer to any method of measurement or technique of estimation derived from experience rather than science.

"According to Canadian folklorist Philip Hiscock, 'The real explanation of 'rule of thumb' is that it derives from wood workers… who knew their trade so well they rarely or never fell back on the use of such things as rulers. Instead, they would measure things by, for example, the length of their thumbs'." (p. 204, emphasis mine. Ms. Hoff-Sommers elaborates further.)

It's ironic that Ms. Hoff-Sommers notes that the truth could have been attained within about 30 seconds and access to a good dictionary. The same holds true for the entire "Pope Joan" episode last night. Although the story of "Pope Joan" has not the "slightest foundation" [link], nearly the entire hour last night was spent examining the so-called "clues" of "one of history's great detective stories." Barely two minutes dabbled in the wealth of scholarship that flat-out debunks the tale.

Last night's "On the Trail of Pope Joan" was simply shoddy journalism and a cheap shot at the Catholic Church. Dr. William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, weighed in on the show before it aired. Read his impression here.


(TRANSCRIPT – From Primetime, ABC, December 29, 2005 (audio and video on file):)

Discussing ninth-century Europe:

MARY MALONE (guest): "No woman would have been allowed to appear on the streets in public. That named you as a prostitute immediately. Women were confined to their homes." (DP: I'm not an expert in this era of history. Is this even true?)

DONNA CROSS (guest): "A man was absolutely permitted to beat his wife to an inch of her life."

DIANE SAWYER: "Later, folklore would give us a phrase 'rule of thumb,' the stick for beating should not be wider than a thumb."*

DONNA CROSS: "The only law on the books was one regulating the size of the club that the husband could use."

HT to Marty Helgesen at Jimmy Akin's blog.

(* – When Diane says "folklore," she uses the word in the sense of "traditional belief." The context of her remark makes it explicitly clear that she purports the law to be true.)