Tuesday, July 01, 2008

The Sex Difference Evangelists (and a History of Feminism by Camille Paglia)

Slate has a nice article on the reality (or lack thereof) of male / female sex differences. Below that, check out the newest article from Camille Paglia on the history of feminism.

I agree with this statement from the article [emphasis added]:
The bottom line from the science should really be this: Some differences between the minds of men and women exist. But in most areas, they are small and dwarfed by the variability within each gender.
Here is the first half of the article.
The Sex Difference Evangelists

Amanda Schaffer
Meet the Believers

If there's one question we never tire of, it's whether men and women speak or feel or think in fundamentally different ways. Do women talk more than men? Are their brains hard-wired for empathy? Can innate differences explain men's and women's career choices? This is today's iteration of Mars and Venus, and it's everywhere.

Amanda Schaffer and Emily Bazelon examine the science behind claims about sex difference and the brain.

The preoccupation plays out in marketing to women and tips on dating, like products designed to "attract women by GETTING THEM TO TRUST YOU." It infiltrates magazine stories, TV, and radio. Grounding the trend and giving it traction are a handful of scientists and clinicians who have made themselves over into sex-difference evangelists. Two women in particular exemplify this move, and as self-described feminists, their work is often accorded special credence. Louann Brizendine, a psychiatrist at U.C.-San Francisco, hit the best-seller list in 2006 with The Female Brain, a book that could "change the conversation at any social gathering," as New York Times columnist David Brooks put it. Brizendine argues that "outstanding verbal agility" and "a nearly psychic capacity to read faces and tone of voice for emotions and states of mind" are "hardwired into the brains of women." Canadian psychologist Susan Pinker drove home similar claims this spring with The Sexual Paradox, which argues that innate psychological differences between men and women are vitally important and too often underestimated. These writers cast themselves as reluctant truth-tellers: "I have chosen to emphasize scientific truth over political correctness," Brizendine writes.

But are she and Pinker, in fact, fearlessly revealing? Do they show us a deep mental chasm between the sexes?

The bottom line from the science should really be this: Some differences between the minds of men and women exist. But in most areas, they are small and dwarfed by the variability within each gender. To be fair, Brizendine and Pinker intermittently acknowledge this point, and they translate complex material for a wide audience, which necessarily involves simplification. They get credit for trying.

But in the end they don't leave their readers with the correct, if unsensational, impression, which is that men and women's minds are highly similar.

Both authors push the science further than it really goes, often brushing past uncertainties or making confused evidence appear clear-cut. Even on the most hotly contested questions—like whether women have better verbal skills, or are hard-wired for empathy, or have cognitive differences that limit their advancement in math and science—the case for large, innate disparities is messy and, for the most part, underwhelming. This is especially true when it comes to neural and hormonal claims, which tend to be controversial. These writers offer canny caveats about culture and its role in gender difference. But they tend to imply that if a difference has innate roots, it's likely to be relatively fixed. And that's not necessarily so. In crucial ways, the mind is malleable. Ultimately, the evangelists aren't really daring to be politically incorrect. They're peddling one-sidedness, sprinkled with scientific hyperbole.

Read the rest of the article.

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For another take on the issue of women and feminism, here is the newest from Camille Paglia, writing over at Arion. She is essentiually looking at the history of feminism as a reform movement.
Feminism Past and Present: Ideology, Action, and Reform

Click Here to View .pdf Version (Recommended)

Feminism is back in the news. After a long period when feminist debate has been mainly confined to Web sites and to books that, however well reviewed, did not find a readership beyond that of other feminists, the current presidential campaign has restored gender war to the center ring. There has been an explosion of international publicity and acrimony over the candidacy of Hillary Clinton. Hillary is not, as is too often alleged, the first woman to run for president: she has a long line of strong-willed precursors beginning with Victoria Woodhull in 1872 and Belva Lockwood in 1884 and extending to Margaret Chase Smith, Patsy Mink, Bella Abzug, Shirley Chisholm, Patricia Schroeder, Leonora Fulani, and Elizabeth Dole. However, Hillary, as she collects state primaries like trophies, has progressed much farther than any woman candidate before her, and, win or lose, she is blazing a trail for ambitious women who come after her.

Controversy will continue for many years over the degree to which sexism has or has not hindered Hillary’s campaign. Has she been treated more severely by the media than her male opponents? Has she herself opportunistically played the gender card? There can be no doubt that Hillary, for complex reasons, has attracted archaic, mythic stereotypes—the witch, the crone, the bitch, the shrew, the ball-busting nutcracker. The National Organization for Women, which has languished in relative obscurity for almost a decade, recently seized the moment to proclaim, in a press release about Hil­lary entitled “Ignorance and Venom: The Media’s Deeply Ingrained Sexism,” that “Media misogyny has reached an all-time high”—a statement that, as a professor of humanities and media studies, I quite frankly find ridiculous.

Earlier this year, there was a major intervention by Gloria Steinem, the doyenne of American feminism for nearly four decades, who in an incendiary New York Times op-ed defending Hillary declared that “gender is probably the most restricting force in American life”—another highly questionable generalization. Steinem portrayed Hillary as a noble victim of sexism and in effect lobbied for all women to vote for her merely because she is a woman. In the blogosphere and in reader letters on news sites, women Democrats like me who are supporting Barack Obama have been called “traitors” who are undermining feminism. My defense would be that women have been advancing so rapidly in politics—we have female mayors, senators, governors, and even a woman Speaker of the House—that there is no longer a need, if there ever was one, for lockstep gender solidarity. Women are rational creatures who can vote in each election on the merits.

In any case, it can be argued that Hillary is an imperfect feminist candidate insofar as her entire public life has been tied to her husband’s career; her past professional performance, furthermore, notably in regard to healthcare reform, has been uneven. The US has embarrassingly lagged behind other nations in never having had a woman leader, but this is partly due to the special demands of the presidency. It has been much easier for women to become prime minister, the leader of a party who assumes office when her party wins an election. The US president symbolizes and unifies a vast nation and must also serve as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, which puts special pressure on women seeking that role. Education, fractured by identity politics, has inadequately prepared women for seeking the presidency—which is why for nearly twenty years I have been calling for young feminists to study military history.

Hillary Clinton’s candidacy has done more to awake and re-energize feminism than anything since the enormous controversy over Anita Hill, who testified against Clarence Thomas’ nomination for the Supreme Court in 1991. Hence, it’s time to reassess. Where has feminism been, and where is it going? And why did feminism recede after its high visibility during the culture wars of the 1980s and early ’90s—when feminist leaders were routinely consulted by the media on every issue facing women? Ironically, it was during the two Clinton presidencies that feminists began to lose ground as key players in the public arena. Throughout the 1990s, news stories regularly reported how few young women were then willing to identify themselves as feminists.

Two technological innovations—cable TV and the World Wide Web—broke the hold that American feminist leaders had had on media discourse about gender for twenty years. Suddenly, there was a riot of alternative points of view. Most unexpectedly, a new crop of outspoken conservative women arrived on the scene in the ’90s—Laura Ingraham, Barbara Olsen, Monica Crowley, Ann Coulter, Michelle Malkin—who blurred conventional expectations about female self-assertion. These women, who had attended elite colleges and in some cases had worked in the Republican administrations of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, were aggressive, articulate, funny, and startlingly sexier and more glamorous than their dour feminist adversaries. The old Pat Nixon stereotype of conservative women as dowdy, repressed, soft-spoken, and deferential was annihilated. Old Guard feminists, who came across as humorless and dogmatic, were losing the TV wars to a spunky new breed of issues-oriented women. Barbara Olson, who died in the attack on the Pentagon on 9/11, was a co-founder of the Independent Wo­men’s Forum, an association of conservative and libertarian women that was first formed as a response to liberal media bias in reporting during the Anita Hill case, in which Northeastern women journalists were directly and perhaps inappropriately involved.

After 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq, gender issues were even further sidelined by questions of life and death and the clash of civilizations in an era of terrorism. There was a resurgence of popular interest in military regalia and history and in traditional masculinity, showing up even in children’s toys. Feminist commentary on this development—which was predictably labeled “reactionary”—has seemed out of touch with the times. Perhaps whenever survival is at stake, we need to unite as human beings rather than as quarreling genders. The legacy of 9/11 has certainly presented a problem for Hillary Clinton in her political aspirations. The necessity at this time for a woman candidate to look strong and to show command of military issues certainly led Hillary to vote for the fateful war resolution authorizing President Bush to use military force in Iraq—a decision that has come back to haunt her and that has made her a constant target of that audacious and ingenious female guerrilla group, Code Pink.

What precisely is feminism? Is it a theory, an ideology, or a praxis (that is, a program for action)? Is feminism perhaps so Western in its premises that it cannot be exported to other cultures without distorting them? When we find feminism in medieval or Renaissance writers, are we exporting modern ideas backwards? Who is or is not a feminist, and who defines it? Who confers legitimacy or authenticity? Must a feminist be a member of a group or conform to a dominant ideology or its subsets? Who declares, and on what authority, what is or is not permissible to think or say about gender issues? And is feminism intrinsically a movement of the left, or can there be a feminism based on conservative or religious principles?

While there are scattered texts, in both prose and poetry, which protest women’s lack of rights and social status, from Christine de Pisan to Anne Bradstreet and Mary Wollstonecraft, feminism as an organized movement began in the mid-nineteenth century, inspired by the movement to abolish slavery—just as the resurgence of feminism in the 1960s was stimulated by the civil rights movement, which targeted segregation and the disenfranchisement of African-Americans in the Jim Crow South. Feminism was therefore keyed to the expansion of liberty to an oppressed group. And feminism was always linked to democracy: it is no coincidence that feminism was born in America and that that became the early model for British feminism.

In general, feminist theory has failed to acknowledge how much it owes to the Western tradition of civil liberties grounded in ancient Greece, not simply in the flawed democracy of classical Athens, with its slave economy and its severe circumscription of women’s lives, but much earlier in the first appearance of the individual voice in Archaic poetry, one of whose finest practitioners was the world’s first major woman writer, Sappho of Lesbos. Second, feminist theory has failed to acknowledge how much the emergence of modern feminism owes to capitalism and the industrial revolution, which transformed the economy, expanded the professions, and gave women for the first time in history the opportunity to earn their own livings and to escape dependency on father or husband. Capitalism’s emancipation of women is nowhere clearer than in those magical laborsaving appliances such as automatic washers and dryers that most middle-class Westerners now take for granted.

Third, feminist history has insufficiently acknowledged the degree to which the founders of the woman suffrage movement—that is, the drive to win votes for women—were formed or influenced by religion. It is no coincidence that so many early American feminists were Quakers: Susan B. Anthony, for example, was the daughter of a Quaker farmer, and Lucretia Mott was a Quaker minister. It was in Quaker meetings, where men and women were treated as equals, that women first learned the art of public speaking. The quest for suffrage, motivated by religious idealism and paradigms, cannot therefore automatically be defined as a movement of the left. Indeed, the social conservatism of most of the suffrage leaders was shown in their attraction to the Temperance movement, whose goal of banning alcohol in the US finally led to the fourteen socially disruptive years of Prohibition after World War One. In the nineteenth century, alcohol was seen as a woman’s problem: that is, working-class men were alleged to waste the meager family income on alcohol, which led in turn to the neglect or physical abuse of wives and children. Temperance, flaring into public view in the 1870s, was called the “Women’s Crusade” or “Women’s Holy War.” Temperance women gathered in groups outside saloons, where they prayed, sang hymns, obstructed entry, and generally made nuisances of themselves. Many saloons had to move or close. It was one of the first examples in history of women mobilizing for social action.

However, the impulse to regulate private behavior that can be seen here was a persistent element in feminism that would resurface in the virulent anti-pornography crusade of the 1970s and ’80s. The nineteenth-century suffrage leaders reacted punitively to Victoria Woodhull, who espoused free love—an issue that Susan B. Anthony and others felt would tar the entire movement and doom it politically. They were motivated by a contrary goal to rescue women from “vice,” that is, the clutches of prostitution. Sexuality outside of traditional marriage was seen as a danger that had to be curtailed by moral norms. The preeminence of ideology over the personal can also be seen in Anthony’s nun-like devotion to the cause and in her prickly resentment of the way her colleagues were pulled in another direction by the needs of family and children. By the end of her life, Anthony was revered and universally honored, but her obsessive focus on a single issue was perhaps not a model for the balanced life.
Read the whole article.

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