Many waves

Carol Tavris on feminism and misogyny, which she could also have called feminism and reaction or feminism and backlash.

Feminism and misogyny have been locked in a painful, inextricable embrace for centuries: The ascendance of one enrages, provokes and energizes the other. Each seeks justifications for its premisses and goals in religion, culture, tradition – and that most solemn of authorities, science.

No they don’t. Anti-feminism does, but feminism is deeply rooted in resistance to religion, culture, tradition. Until very recently religion, culture, tradition have been centrally about keeping women subordinate and silent.

Anyway, it gets better after that.

Whenever women sought to enter these or any other male-dominated fields, they would get the sneering question that Angela Saini, in her book Inferior, reports that a man asked her after a lecture: “Where are all the women scientists? Where are the women Nobel Prize-winners? Women just aren’t as good at science as men are. They’ve been shown to be less intelligent”. This ignorant question never subsides; it just moves to a new target. Once women got through answering “where are the women bartenders, business leaders, soldiers, politicians, scientists, and physicians?” – they are here in great numbers now, thank you, once the barriers of discrimination and tradition were lifted – the opposition is still not satisfied. The architectural historian Despina Stratigakos got so exasperated hearing “Where are the women architects?” that in 2016 – 2016! – she wrote a splendid book with that title, explaining what should have been the familiar answer: They are here. They have always been here. There would be more of them but you guys shut them out of the academies, the prizes and the historical records.

In short, stop asking questions like that and you’ll see where women are.

[T]he particular biological deficiency said to afflict women and limit their abilities keeps changing. In 1970, a prominent American physician declared that women’s “raging hormones” made them unfit for public office, commenting, apparently with a straight face, that a female president in menopause might irrationally start a war. The anthropologist Lionel Tiger announced, apparently with a straight face, that any young woman who took the US Graduate Records Exam while menstruating was in danger of jeopardizing her entire career.

I watched Lionel Tiger give a bafflingly anti-feminist (and structureless) talk at a conference once. I think everyone in the audience was bewildered.

Then, starting in the 1980s, the era of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, biology came roaring back – a result of new technologies, billions of dollars available for research, and the turn of the political wheel back towards conservatism and traditionalism.

As night must follow day, biology must follow bigotry as the popular explanation of persistent gender differences. Brains are so much sexier than those pesky problems of salary, parental leave, status, harassment, and who does the dishes. And so we got a deluge of books about the “essential”, hard-wired differences between men and women: Simon Baron-Cohen’s The Essential Difference (2003); Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate (2002); Louann Brizendine’s The Female Brain (2006), followed by The Male Brain in 2010; and a bunch of silliness from the Gurian Institute, such as It’s a Baby Girl! (2009), which claimed that “Without testosterone interfering, your daughter develops not only female genitalia but a decidedly female brain . . . [one] that will direct her female approach to the world”.

It was popular.

Explanations of behaviour based on brain scans feel so final – who could argue with all those lit-up areas? Women have a fatter corpus callosum than men? So that explains their greater chattiness! And testosterone – so that explains murder and war! And evolution – so that explains male promiscuity! It’s in men’s nature – live with it, girls!

But now feminism has returned, and with it the resistance to all that.

And so, as day must follow night, we find the emergence of books designed to counter the belief that women and men are inherently, biologically different. The first out of this decade’s chute was Cordelia Fine’s splendid Delusions of Gender: The real science behind sex differences (which I reviewed in these pages; January 28, 2011); she has followed up this volume with Testosterone Rex: Myths of sex, science, and society (to be reviewed in a forthcoming issue of the TLS). Note the emphasis on “science” in both subtitles, “real” and “mythical”.

Gavin Evans’s Mapreaders and Multitaskers: Men, women, nature, nurture reports that “male brains” are not fundamentally different from “female brains”; that men have not evolved to be more promiscuous than women; that men talk just as much as women; that the sexes don’t differ in multi-tasking, map-reading, maths or nurturing skills; that evolutionary psychologists “exaggerate the gender divide” and “routinely overstate the impact of genes and understate the impact of culture and environment”; that women are not “naturally” more empathetic than men nor worse at maths; that gender-linked preferences for pink and blue are recent cultural constructions, not genetically based; and that almost all of the media’s breathlessly reported claims of hard-wired sex differences (e.g., that genes “dictate shopping styles”) are scientifically unwarranted and reductionistic. All of this is true; none of this is new. Readers who are not familiar with these arguments, and the science of the past forty years that supports them, should read this book. Especially fathers who have daughters, as Evans does.

Unless now in the Age of Bannon we have to give the whole thing up again and wait for the next turn?

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