Friday, October 9, 2009

Descriptive and prescriptive feminism.

We're lucky we're not anglerfish. (For those not biology geeks: the male anglerfish is a fraction the size of the female, and early in life he attaches to her skin and all his organs except the gonads atrophy. He becomes part of her body, his only function to emit sperm when she lays eggs.) It would be hard for a feminist anglerfish to argue for equal roles in society. Males can't even eat on their own.

Human males and females can both eat, are roughly the same size, and even come in the same range of colors. We got off pretty easy on the dimorphism front.

But not completely. For all we've got in common, there are some differences that can't be denied. Like, the babies only come out of one sex. And there may be strong women and weak men but for practical purposes men get a lot more muscle a lot easier. As for intellectual differences--there's no reason one sex couldn't be on average smarter. I'm not saying it's so, it's definitely not pronounced, but it's possible there's a statistically significant gap. The ideological repugnance of the idea that men are naturally better at abstract reasoning doesn't translate to physical impossibility.

(Yeah, says a lady.)

What I'm getting at is that it's useless for feminism to be strictly descriptive--to say that men and women are the same may not be true. It's useful to point out when gender dichotomies are false or exaggerated, but flatly stating that there can be no intellectual differences (or that all differences must be culturally conditioned) is dishonest. And it's a vulnerable viewpoint; if a true gap between the sexes is proven, does that mean we should go back in the kitchen after all?

It's a different matter entirely to ask whether men and women should be the same. Feminism can be prescriptive--instead of claiming to return to the natural order, we can fucking improve it! We've got technology now! And feminism is part of the technology that raises us above animals. Just as medicine frees us from our animal bodies' vulnerability to disease, feminism frees us from the biological destines of our animal bodies. The builds and "purposes" of male and female bodies may be hopelessly unequal, but as thinking humans we can repurpose those bodies to our own damn ends. A species that brought forth cities from the mud and fields from the desert would be pretty pitiful if it wasted the potential of half its population just because they're not built the same.

This silicon was meant to be sand but I'm using it to communicate with the world--my body was meant to be a baby factory but I'm using it to think and travel and save lives and rant on the Internet. It doesn't matter what I am; it matters what I can be.


  1. It's also a mistake, I think, to speak in terms of "men" and "women." Whatever the average for one sex may be or how far it varies from the average for the other, an individual of a given sex needs to be treated according to his or her merits. Men may generally be better than women at abstract reasoning, but that doesn't mean Beth doesn't belong in the Math department.

  2. Bruno - True. Whether the male and female bell curves are identical or not, there's definitely a huge overlap.

  3. My sons and I were wondering the other day about chess. We saw an ad for a women's chess event where great "Women's Chess" players were supposed to appear.

    We don't really follow chess, so we didn't really know, but we wondered whether there were two separate structures for men's chess and women's chess. A quick Googling makes it seem more or less so. That made us wonder . . . why? I mean, it's chess. There are no physical differences in play. It's pure intellect and strategy, so why not just play everyone.

    I figured it was a mixture of tradition and money. I would bet there's not a lot of consumer/sponsor money out there for chess events, and if you have separate divisions for the sexes you have more champions, more contenders, and more revenue. But that's all just WAGging.

  4. And it's a vulnerable viewpoint; if a true gap between the sexes is proven, does that mean we should go back in the kitchen after all?

    I've heard the same sentiment WRT gun rights and the argument that guns reduce crime: yeah, it may be true overall, but what if that changes or we find new evidence that demonstrates otherwise? DO we want the individual's right to make autonomous decisions about his own safety to be dependent on crime statistics?

    A species that brought forth cities from the mud and fields from the desert would be pretty pitiful if it wasted the potential of half its population just because they're not built the same.

    A good analogy might be female firefighters. Yes, the average woman has less of an essential attribute (physical strength) than the average man. And that will necessarily mean that if you set a particular standard for strength, there'll be fewer eligible women than men. But to use that as justification for a flat "no chicks" policy, depriving your force of all the women who skew higher on the female strength bell curve... Stupidity.

    The focus has to be on equal opportunity, not on equal results. The "get back in the kitchen" assholes err by denying the former, and the "resist teh patriarchy" assholes err by insisting on the latter.

  5. Don - The one that gets me is the "Best Actor" and "Best Actress" division at every entertainment awards show.

    But that is weird. I assume (I really hope!) that women aren't banned from general chess competition, and that "women's chess" is a side event for social reasons like the Gay Olympics, but I might be too optimistic here.

  6. Elmo - The weird part is, a lot of the "resist teh patriarchy" people try to claim evidence of a matriarchy in ancient history, missing the point that even if such a thing existed (and it probably didn't), who cares? Very few things in ancient history provide good models for modern society.

    Is a patriarchy or a matriarchy "natural" for humans? I don't care. It's natural to sleep outside in the cold and have your kids die of dysentery.

    Then again, it's natural for humans to improve their lot in life. We're drawn to technology the way termites are to building hills--it's our nature to manipulate our environment every way we can. A human sleeping in the dirt, or a man treating women like a caveman, is about as "natural" as a beaver with no dam.

  7. Excellent post. If some intellectual gap exists, and it would take some serious evidence to convince me of even that, I think that it's cultural, and not biological.

    I've both read articles that stated and had discussions with knowledgeable people who indicate that people are born with a range of possible intelligences. For a person to maximize their intelligence, they need to engage in challenging reasoning and critical thinking exercises frequently. If, as a culture, we have tended select gender roles that expose more males to reasoning and critical thinking, then it would be reasonable to expect that there would be more "smart" males, without implying any biological contraints on relative difference of maximum intellectual capability.

    I work in a technical field, and while there are fewer women than men, I find that those women in the field are the intellectual equals of their male coworkers. I strongly suspect that the lower frequency of women in the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) fields is a result of cultural bias against exposure of critical thinking skills towards women. I also suspect that as that cultural bias is eliminated, as I belive we are doing, that women will become equally represented in areas requiring intellectual merit.

    If there even is some type of strictly gender-based intellectual bias, which I doubt, I also suspect that it is heavily subsumed by inherited intelligence. I'm not a biologist, but I'm pretty sure that women born to intelligent parents have MUCH more intellectual potential than men born to parents with average or sub-par intelligences.

  8. This is, like, the best post ever. Reminds me of the famous line on Donna Haraway's A Cyborg Manifesto: "The cyborg would not recognize the Garden of Eden; it is not made of mud and cannot dream of returning to dust." Let's leave the arguing about what the "real," "true," "natural" state of humanity is to the fundamentalists and ultra-conservatives.

    One of the problems with this issue is that people tend to mistake statistical averages for essential truths: If men are on average better at math, then it's a "male skill" and women who appear good at it are beneficiaries of affirmative action. But even if that were true, it wouldn't in anyway invalidate the achievement of the (slightly rarer) female math genius.

    Also, weirdly, debates about gender/intelligence tend to center around the sciences, where women have been less prominent for some reason. But most research seems to prove that women, on average, have better linguistic skills and verbal abilities. There's no shortage of women excelling in fields that require verbal intelligence. So why do we tend to assume that being good at math/science/engineering makes you a genius, while English, history, sociology, education, etc. are "soft" fields that aren't as serious? It's hardly a coincidence.

  9. No doubt, intelligence is represented in much more than math skills. A genius in english, history, or sociology is still a genius. I do reject, however, that the idea of math being a "male skill" or linguistics being "female skill" on any basis other than cultural bias. A lot of claims that I have heard made regarding mental gender-based skills are non-verifiable on a biologically scientific level.

  10. Gay Olympics? Is that where they do BJJ instead of Judo?

  11. Wow, you're on a brain-cell tear these days, Holly!

    Love the "and silicon is meant to be sand ... and my body was meant to have babies, but" line.

    The distinction between prescriptive and descriptive gender stuff is great too. I just wouldn't limit it to what feminists do. (If you were to ask me to sum up in one line on gender proscriptions it would be "The specific criminal offense for which Joan of Arc was legally burned at the stake was dressing in men's clothes.")

    I think the key to studying gender isn't to say men and women are equal. It's to start with an assumption that we're the same and inquire when we're different. Which isn't far from what, say, Ev Psych types do except they assume we're different as night and day and then try to ignore or explain away similarities.

    Lovely post.