Gender Feminism and the Sciences

Equity feminism is a moral doctrine about equal treatment that makes no commitments regarding open empirical issues in psychology or biology. Gender feminism is an empirical doctrine committed to three claims about human nature. The first is that the differences between men and women have nothing to do with biology but are socially constructed in their entirety. The second is that humans possess a single social motive-power-and that social life can be understood only in terms of how it is exercised. The third is that human interactions arise not from the motives of people dealing with each other as individuals but from the motives of groups dealing with other groups-in this case, the male gender dominating the female gender.  –Steven Pinker on page 341 of The Blank Slate

In my book club the next book we are slated (heh) for is the one I mentioned above.  I was told, both by my husband and a friend, that there was a chapter on gender that I needed to read and give my opinion on.  Evidently gender feminists in the 70s were very vocal in their disagreement with scientists over scientists’ many findings of differences between the sexes.  I have not read the book yet nor even the gender chapter.  But I have found myself getting familiar with some new feminist terminology.  I hadn’t heard of “gender feminists” and “equity feminists” before.  But after a quick look at what gender feminists believe, I am fairly certain that gender feminists are not the sort I agree with.

Scientists find what they do, and that is okay.  The truth is the truth.  Regardless of what science finds, it does not let us off the hook for needing to be better to women as a whole.  Even if the study of our male and female bodies finds differences between them, it doesn’t mean that privilege, patriarchy, sexism and gender roles disappear.  In fact, anything more that we can find out about humanity the better.  I am not afraid of hearing that my female body is different that a male body.  Of course it is.  But does that make me lesser?  No.  And does it mean that every stereotype about women is true?  NO.

I read an excellent post a few weeks ago written about masculinity and feminism.  The author mentions that his wife recently read Delusions of Gender, a feminist critique of what science “proves” about gender.  We are also slated to read this book in our book club.  I wonder if some sparks will fly!  I don’t believe that science and feminism need be mutually exclusive, but I think that we tend to feel the need to pick sides when it comes to our beliefs.  I am fighting the idea that I should feel embattled and choose my side.  I am committed to staying open, always open to new information.

Ultimately I feel torn between two communities that I identify with.  This is a hard lesson for me to learn, that two schools of thought I love and respect are at odds with one another.  I would hope that many others in the feminist community would feel friendly and open to scientists’ work.  And I hope that the scientific community would feel friendly and open to feminists’ work.

But I know that there is tension there, not the least of which is likely because there are so many men that go into the sciences and they are a privileged group of people that are valued in our society above women.  This simply has to have an effect on the interpretations given if it is a majority of men that interpret data found in the sciences.  But again, this does not let feminists off the hook.  As I am willing to examine my own privilege, I am automatically beholden to admit when I am wrong, or that feminism can be wrong.  I don’t agree with gender feminists that there are not any differences between the sexes based on biology.

I think maybe the problem is that there are legitimate biological differences between men and women, but there is also a gender construct laid over it that we use as “evidence” that men and women are SO different.  A sticky situation indeed.  What say ye, fellow feminists?


kendahl is a queer fat left-handed INFJ synesthete mother warrior activist social worker abuse survivor unapologetically brilliant powerful witch

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9 Responses

  1. Whoa-man says:

    I’m so glad you wrote this post. As a scientist and a feminist I come across these problems all the time. I’ve gone back and forth over the years, each new class I take or book I read, I have to balance out my initial reaction with logical deduction (I really liked The Blank Slate and Pinker actually had a fascinating debate with Elizabeth Spelke about these issues which is worth reading here: ).

    On the one hand, I’ve been in situations where I get flaming mad at scientists talking about the forced copulations of primates and how this is an example of the evolutionary trajectories of rape and I’ve also been on the other side, in a classroom full of sociologists who refused to acknowledge that even young primates had specific apparent gender behaviors unassociated with socialization. It’s a sensitive and necessary conversation and that’s why I don’t like shying away from it OR people assuming the answer is simple and uncomplicated.

    For me, my current resting place is that gender is very similar to most other things in our life. So much of who we are and the behaviors we express are a combination of biological phylogeny (i.e. genetics), environmental ontogeny (i.e. epigenetics), and social and cultural construction (i.e. family structure, national mores, religion, etc.). There was a time period in American intellectual history where all disciplines and theories (sociology, psychology, feminism, literary criticism, etc) were grappling with the nature v nurture, culture v biology, innate v socialization aspects of gender (i.e. see the horrific case of John Money). I think that most people that continue to espouse this strict divide in the equity vs gender feminism are referring to this former time period of feminism (and some remnants of that generation are obviously still around), however, I highly doubt that contemporary feminism will follow in this pattern.

    Modern science is pretty difficult to refute and most feminists today do not think all gender differences are due to socialization. Men and women are different, especially when it comes to hormone consequences, sexual strategies, and evolutionary trajectories. However, most feminists will argue the degree of that difference. For example, we all fall into a bell curve of variation and for MOST men and MOST women we all fall into the same range. Yes, there are men at the extreme edge of sex drive (any traditionally espoused trait of gender difference can be substituted here: intelligence, spatial reasoning, empathetic understanding, etc.) and there are women at the extreme opposite edge. Yes, increased testosterone raises sex drive and yes we have found neural differences in the sex drive of various genders, but for most people the variation WITHIN a gender is as extreme as those BETWEEN genders. All of this to say we all pretty much fall under the same variations within the bell curve save some extreme examples and thus arguing that ALL men have larger sex drives (or any trait for that matter) than ALL women is erroneous and not an argument that really tells us anything about any particular man or woman because we don’t know where they fall on that spectrum and therefore no generalizations about the biology of gender are really that helpful at all. Thus, most feminist inquiries and movements will be more focused on the social and cultural aspects of gender discrimination.

    • For most people the variation WITHIN a gender is as extreme as those BETWEEN genders.

      I think that’s the crucial point – and the reason why policies and practices based on gender differences are wrong.

  2. Diane says:

    I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive, nor do I think they are inclusive as well. I’m not necessarily a feminist per se. I will be vocal on things that I think should be obvious to everyone. That being said, I have a mistrust of science only because studies can be made to back any one opinion, so, I guess what I am saying is that I hate bad science which is back by bad statistics.

  3. charlene says:

    I am a scientist, and I have no problem with the idea that there are certain inborn differences between the average male and the average female, and I actually do have a problem with someone who will not at least admit the possibility. (Of course environment/culture makes a huge difference as well.) WHen the whole Lawrence Summers thing happened, I got really annoyed because I thought he actually had a good point that there could be inborn differences, and that the feminists were not helping their case by being so shrill that there were not.

    That being said… as you say, this does not mean we should not treat people equally. And it does not mean that there is not subtle and ingrained prejudice against women in a lot of ways.

    Diane, I agree, although I would say more that a) I hate bad science/statistics, and b) I hate the media saying things that are not actually supported by a study (e.g., a study shows that there may be a small chance that cell phones and cancer MIGHT be correlated, and suddenly you get all these headlines of CELL PHONES CAUSE CANCER arrrrrgh).

  4. Howard says:

    Great Op and conversation this path leads to creditability.

  5. Stella says:

    Great post, K. I have a hard time with this topic as I can often only go by my feelings alone–sometimes I just don’t like being grouped. And sometimes, knowing more about myself as a mammal has been pretty helpful in explaining some of the reasons behind what I do (instead of saying that Satan or God or Juno or Zeus made me do it or put it into be because of some action done in the Garden of Eden).

  6. April says:

    I believe that there are certain traits that biologically are more likely to be found in women than men, but as others pointed out, this has no usefulness in judging individuals, who may be anywhere on the spectrum. For example, it is true that, on average, men are taller than women, but you will meet many specific women who are taller than many specific men.

    However, averages are useful in looking at large groups as a whole. And if, on average, differences between men and women exist, I believe that gender diversity in leadership is even more important. If leadership in a large, worldwide organization is all male, this organization is going to fall short in certain capacities that, on average, tend to be found more often in females. Likewise, the female populace of this organization will be less likely to have leadership that relates to their perspectives and needs than the male populace.

  7. Laurie says:

    IMO, feminism, as with other isms – is best approached through an integral or holistic approach of sorts. We can look at all of the information as a whole, rather than a single cause, event, or piece of history (etc), and see what it means in the broad scheme of things. The truth is nuanced, to say the least.

    I find, that aligning myself with one group to define my viewpoint almost always leaves me outgrowing that group or definition eventually. I dislike the whole idea of feminist “camps”. I love the idea of the whole of humanity working together to evolve to a better, equal-loving-supportive place.

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