Considering how much interest I have in the subject of how pseudo-science is used to belittle women, it’s a real shame that I hadn’t read, until this week, the bible of critiquing choad-based science, Mismeasure of Woman: Why Women Are Not the Better Sex, the Inferior Sex, or the Opposite Sex by Carol Tavris. I’m so glad to have corrected my error, because even though this book is 16 years old, it’s more relevant than ever in an era when misogynists are seeking to canonize Larry Summers for talking out of his ass about something he doesn’t understand. The book is a refreshing blast of common sense, with Tavris arguing that women are not inferior to men, superior to men, opposite from men, or the same as men. In fact, the book is based around the idea that if you ask the wrong questions, you get the wrong answers, and society is going to continue to fail to understand women as long as we conceive women as not-men instead of as-women. Or, more importantly, as themselves, which is people who are diverse. (As are men.)
One of the most stunning and important observations she makes in the book is that all the press on the much-ballyhooed differences between men and women is on qualities where men and women don’t differ. That’s towards the end, after she chronicles the ways that men and women don’t differ, how they do, what’s biological, and what’s a function of power differentials between men and women. Where men and women don’t differ is in intelligence, moral compass, the having of emotions (though for social reasons, they do express emotions differently), needs, desires, the stuff that makes us human. And this is where the press dwells, ignoring the real world differences that actually matter, which are how men and women behave differently because they have different roles or, of course, how men and women’s experience of sexuality and reproduction differ. If a story shows even a sliver of imaginary evidence that women are less mentally capable than men, it’s front page, but a story about how women dwell on relationships more than men because they’ve got the responsibility to maintain relationships (and take the blame if they go wrong) will be relegated to the back page.*
What I really found great about the book is that it gives you a grounding to deal with the bizarre accusation anti-feminists make, which is that feminists won’t admit that women are different. It’s really clear to me that by “different”, they mean “inferior”, and Tavris explains why, getting into especially good detail on how proclamations of women’s supposed superiority in certain areas is more about shoving women into a subservient role in life. Women are told we’re more nurturing and caring, which lets men off the hook for doing the largely unpaid nurturing and caring work, and also lets men off the hook for all the blame put on the shoulders for nurturers when the nurtured ever fuck up. (Classic examples are trotted out of grown men’s behavior being blamed solely on mothers.) Tavris isn’t denying that women, on average, are more emotionally expressive than men and more nurturing than men, but she makes a stellar case that the causes and effects cited in conservative arguments are reversed from reality. In other words, conservatives say that women are more nurturing, therefore they should have all the responsibility to nurture. Tavris argues that women have all the responsibility, so they develop behavioral patterns to match, and that men would be equally capable of nurturing if given the responsibility to share.
Above all, the book is grounded in strong common sense. It was written in the 90s, when cultural feminism was on the rise, no doubt out of frustration with a lack of progress for real feminism. Tavris validates a lot of the urges and some of the surface arguments of cultural feminists, but pretty much lays waste to a lot of it from a science-based perspective. She also warns that “feminist” arguments about women’s moral sense and nurturing personalities, no matter how well-intended, would backfire and be used to put women in their places. I think we see now how the mainstreaming of work done by people like Deborah Tannen and Carol Gilligan—work that had flaws but was also thought-provoking and could be a valuable part of an intellectually honest conversation—has resulted in an intensified backlash against women’s rights. Gilligan and Tannen tried to validate women’s experiences as women, but end up getting used to argue that women are inherently incapable of participating in a man’s world. That’s one use of reading older books like this, to see how much of the author’s predictions came true, and Tavris has a great sense of how certain trends will play themselves out.
More than anything, she teaches the reader how to ask the right questions. It’s going to be hard to get out of binary thinking about gender, but the payoff is worth it. To start with, women will never be well-served by looking at them as The Other, with men as the standard, even if women are exalted about that standard.
*There is one area where men have the lion’s share of social responsibilities, which is in sex. Relationships are considered a woman’s domain, but sexual desire and know-how a man’s, so if something goes wrong sexually for a couple, then the man is often blamed. That’s dependent on a lot of things, though, and women are still held accountable for acquiescing to intercourse when they don’t want to, if it’s what the man needs to feel committed to a relationship.