Essays - Spring 2005

All About Eve


What men have thought about women thinking

By Cynthia Russett

March 1, 2005


Has there ever been a time when people did not speculate about the differences between men and women? Probably not, since men and women are alike in so many obvious ways, and yet different enough to invite endless commentary. When President Lawrence Summers of Harvard recently ventured to suggest that women’s lesser success as scientists might result from lesser innate ability, he placed himself in a long line of philosophers, theologians, scientists, and social and political theorists, stretching back to ancient times, who attempted to differentiate between the sexes by focusing on their mental capacities.

The most obvious differences in men and women are of course found in the anatomy and physiology of the human body, and early philosophers tended to concentrate on what could be learned from studying physical characteristics, often extrapolating from bodies to minds. Plato was a notable exception; he was no empiricist, and his ideas about women did not depend on their bodily form. But Plato’s ideas are confusing, since they do not cohere, and are fragmentary and sometimes contradictory. His dialogues contain many derogatory comments about women and “womanish” traits. Women are overly emotional; they weep and lack self-control. They are less courageous than men. Plato makes a radical distinction between bodies and souls. The noble individual possesses a soul able to rise above the body to contemplate the Forms. But women are less likely to transcend their bodies, and cowardly men are likely to return in a later incarnation as women. Plato certainly did not see men and women as equals. Women are weaker in body, and perhaps in mind. Men’s accomplishments outshine women’s.

It is worth remembering, though, that Plato lived in a period when equality between men and women was almost inconceivable, and certainly not practiced in the city of Athens. The women he saw around him—uneducated, confined to their homes, unable to participate in philosophical dialogues or in the public life of the polis—were without doubt underdeveloped socially and intellectually. It is remarkable, therefore, that Plato’s Republic offers a vision of an ideal society very different from that of Athens, one in which both men and women are members of the Guardians, or rulers. In the Republic, Plato makes the case for choosing individuals for certain positions on the basis not of their sex but of their abilities. He offers the analogy of two cobblers, one bald and one with abundant hair. You would not suppose that the hairy one had a particular aptitude for cobbling while the bald one did not. So also for the procreative differences between women and men: they are no more significant for channeling the two sexes into different occupations than are variations in hirsuteness. Thus, based on their capacities, women as well as men could be part of a social and political elite. To be sure, women who were educated and trained just like men would have to put aside a normal home life and the rearing of their children, but the inference is clear that they could be as rational in the service of the state as their male colleagues. What is notable about Plato, compared to Aristotle, is that he was not an essentialist: the male model was the ideal, but at least in utopia women could successfully approximate the male soul.

Plato’s pupil Aristotle finds no ambiguity whatsoever. In his writings, women are definitely inferior: “We must look upon the female character as being a sort of natural deficiency,” Aristotle writes in Generation of Animals. Woman’s defectiveness lies in her lack of bodily heat and consequent inability to concoct matter—that is, to cause it to develop. Thus, even in reproduction women play a lesser role, since the male provides the form of the fetus, while the female only provides the matter. Men take the active and creative role in conception, women the passive and receptive role. Furthermore, the male child represents the fullness of procreation, while the female child results from a defect in development.

Since, unlike Plato, Aristotle was something of an empiricist, he tried to support his views with observations. He suggested, for instance, that women conceive males (or have males conceived on them) when in the prime of life, while only very young or aging women conceive females. He also asserted that the male fetus moves in the womb earlier than the female fetus, indicating greater activity and greater perfection.

Thus Aristotle placed much greater emphasis on women’s biological inferiority than Plato did. When he turned to the intangible dimension of the soul, however, Aristotle resembles Plato in holding that women’s rationality lacks sufficient strength to keep the irrational soul and its desires in check. Unable to control the irrational part of the soul, women let their appetites run away with them, doing as they please rather than as reason ordains. Since women lack internal governance, they require constant governance by men. But unlike Plato, Aristotle made the divide between male and female essentially unbridgeable. There would be no female Guardians in an Aristotelian utopia.

In the Middle Ages the theologian Thomas Aquinas continued the Aristotelian paradigm of generation in his Summa Theologica, a work that had profound influence on Catholic philosophers and theologians for centuries. Aquinas believed women to be biologically “accidental,” that is, unintended in the natural order, though not in God’s cosmic order. For Aquinas, the male seed always intends to create another male, but weakness in the seed or in the female material, or some exterior circumstance such as a south wind that brings greater atmospheric humidity, may result in the creation of a female. More important, Aquinas, like Aristotle, believed women to be intellectually as well as physically inferior to men: “Woman is naturally subject to man because in man the discretion of reason predominates,” he wrote. The male is more ordered to “intellectual operation” than the female.

Throughout the Middle Ages and the early modern period, disparagement of women’s intellect was commonplace in Western civilization. Here and there, however, a voice of dissent arose. Probably the best known of these protests was that of the 15th-century poet Christine de Pisan. Struggling with the sense of inferiority engendered by male misogyny, Christine opens her Book of the City of Ladies with a visitation from three allegorical goddesses, Reason, Rectitude, and Justice. These three were carefully chosen to refute men’s charges of feminine irrationality, feeble moral sense, and inability to understand abstract concepts of law. Her book inaugurated the “querelle des femmes,” a roughly three-century European debate over women’s virtues and vices.

Nature continued to explain the differences between the sexes during the Enlightenment of the 18th century. Perhaps the most influential of all the philosophical disquisitions on the nature and role of women was that of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In his manual of education, Emile, Rousseau notes that women have special qualities of mind like “quick wit, taste, [and] grace,” but they do not have the ability to be creative or to reason abstractly. They are good at details, bad at the principles underlying them. They do not possess genius. Their education, dictated by their functions as females, should fit them for a domestic life, directed not at drawing out their capacities but at instilling the virtues needed to become loving wives and mothers.

For Rousseau there was no question that nature had determined the very different mental and physical characteristics of men and women, but his views did not go unchallenged. Other philosophes, like Helvétius and Baron d’Holbach, argued that environment and schooling shaped the female qualities that Rousseau took to be innate. D’Holbach wrote in Système Social (1733): “From the way in which [women] are brought up, it seems that it is only intended to turn them into beings who retain the frivolity, fickleness, caprices and lack of reason of childhood, throughout their lives.”

Such was also the central argument of Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), a work that is generally acknowledged to be the founding document of European and American feminism. Outraged at Rousseau’s doctrine of women’s natural inferiority and his prescription for their education, Wollstonecraft, who otherwise admired him greatly, took it upon herself to write a heated response. Never denying that many women in their current condition lacked true morality and virtue, she insisted that nature had nothing to do with it. Women were what society had made them by encouraging their frivolous pursuits and denying them a serious education. What was needed was to provide little girls with the same education as that of their brothers: “Women must be allowed to found their virtue on knowledge, which is scarcely possible unless they have been educated by the same pursuits as men.” The nature/nurture debate on mental endowments was well under way.

The discussion of sex differences took a new turn in the early 19th century, when the science of phrenology proposed to present concrete empirical evidence of mental functioning in men and women. Enormously popular in Europe and America in the middle of the century, phrenology asserted that the contours of the skull, its prominences and depressions, revealed the mental qualities and character traits of the individual. The brain had many faculties, each located in a specific place on the brain mass that determined a particular exterior conformation. Careful examination of the head could thus provide information about the person’s mind and character.

Phrenology did not disturb the conventional wisdom of the time: in men, intellect predominated over feeling; in women, the reverse. “It is almost an axiom that women are guided by feelings, whilst men are superior in intellectual concentration,” wrote J. G. Spurzheim in Phrenology, or the Doctrine of Mental Phenomena (1833). Yet despite such pronouncements, phrenology on both sides of the Atlantic seems to have been cordial to the aspirations of women, apparently because it managed the considerable feat of positing both that mental endowments were constitutionally determined and that they were malleable. Weak faculties could be strengthened by exercise, overly powerful ones curbed. This reformist optimism gave at least one Scottish feminist grounds for proclaiming that “phrenologists had proved . . . that women’s brains were capable of being improved to a degree which would make them equal and even excel the men in all the better accomplishments of our common nature, and give them power to break the chains of the tyrant and the oppressor, and set them completely free.”

Always under challenge from the major authorities in psychology and physiology, phrenology saw its claim to scientific status dim even during the years of its greatest popularity. Though phrenology purported to be based on empirical evidence, its pioneering attempt to localize cerebral functions did not, in fact, rest on experimental work. Yet its conception of mental phenomena as biologically based and susceptible to empirical study shaped the future of research in psychology and physical anthropology during the remainder of the 19th century.

Physical anthropology, above all, used skull measurement as the sure path to unlocking the secrets of the mind. Its characteristic and crowning achievement was craniology, the study of the skull and brain. Measuring skulls, it was believed, could disclose the size of the brain, with the understanding that bigger was better. “Other things being equal,” wrote the eminent French anthropologist Paul Broca in 1861, “there is a remarkable relationship between the development of intelligence and the volume of the brain.” In examining the brains of men and women, scientists in Europe and America shared a unanimous conclusion: women’s brains were smaller than those of men. In this finding they were correct: women’s brains are smaller than men’s. But it does not follow from this (though many drew the conclusion) that women are less intelligent than men, since their body weight is also less, and less brain mass is required to move it around and maintain motor function. Skull measurement did not, as it happened, prove a reliable indicator of brain weight. Craniologists needed to weigh actual brains. These were in short supply, but enough were found to confirm that women’s brains weighed less than men’s. To the educated English-speaking public, the gender disparity in brain weights became familiar as “the missing five ounces of female brain,” from a phrase in the widely read and reprinted article “Mental Differences Between Men and Women” (1887) by the Darwinian psychologist George John Romanes.

Faced with discouraging results from the crude correlation of brain weight with intelligence (in 1894, Havelock Ellis found that the heaviest brain weights yet recorded were those of “a totally undistinguished individual, an imbecile, the Russia novelist Turgenev, an ordinary workman, a bricklayer, and the French zoologist Cuvier”), physical anthropologists resorted to increasingly sophisticated examinations of brains, analyzing the complexity of their fissures and recesses. Smooth brains indicated low intellect; highly convoluted brains bespoke excellence. Shape mattered too. Despite the collapse of phrenology, scientists still maintained the belief that intelligence was seated in the forefront of the brain. Thus massive foreheads promised intellectual power.

By the turn of the 20th century, the correlation of brain measurements, and even of more advanced indices like brain topography, began to be abandoned under the attack of further neuroanatomical research. Scientists interested in the study of the mind had, up until this point, had little recourse but to use somatic analysis; there were, after all, no intelligence tests and indeed no psychological tests of any kind. The endeavor to learn about the mind itself from its physical manifestation, the brain, was reasonable, however much the interpretations drawn from this enterprise were shaped by preconceptions. But now the turn away from somaticism left a void. New analytical instruments would have to be devised. In this country, a graduate student at the University of Chicago, Helen Bradford Thompson, tried to fill the breach with a series of word associations, puzzles, and general-information examinations administered to university undergraduates. Her dissertation, published as The Mental Traits of Sex, pioneered what we might consider to be the empirical study of mental differences between the sexes. It was shortly rendered obsolete, however, by the advent of IQ tests and their popularization after World War I.

Gradually, in the years after 1918, a consensus grew that IQ tests showed very little difference between the intelligence of men and women. The British psychologist Charles Spearman, referring to the search for such difference, wrote, “The pack of investigators can be called off. . . . They are following a false scent.” Yet the idea of sexual difference lingered on. Defeated in one guise, it emerged renewed in another. Probably the most popular new form was the variability hypothesis, the idea that on a bell-shaped curve of intelligence, women cluster around the average, while men are more scattered. At the extremes of genius and idiocy, men predominate.

Another new development in the study of intelligence was a more precise understanding that it was not one capacity but many. Thus a person might excel in languages but do poorly in mathematics. The growing use of Scholastic Aptitude Tests beginning in the 1930s helped to cement this notion and to establish the common wisdom that males do better at mathematics than females. Male variability appeared to be reinforced by the figures for mathematical ability, which show males doing both very badly and very well. At the upper end, male mathematical prodigies have been found to outnumber female prodigies by a large margin. It was on the basis of this kind of information (though these issues are far from conclusively settled) that President Summers made his remarks about the reason for the scarcity of women in scientific careers.

Can anything be learned from this lengthy and not always edifying story? One conclusion, at least, seems plausible. Nowhere in the work of these 19th-and 20th-century scientists has mention been made of the influence of the environment on the mental functioning of an individual of either sex. That is because environment was routinely dismissed by them. Nature, not nurture, was what counted. “If a man is gifted with vast intellectual ability, eagerness to work, and power of working,” wrote Francis Galton, the father of eugenics, “I cannot comprehend how such a man should be repressed.” Hardheaded physician Henry Maudsley sniffed, “Village Hampdens, mute inglorious Miltons, and bloodless Cromwells do not sleep in the graves of the rude forefathers of the hamlet.” As for gifted women, they “suffered no other hindrance to the exercise and evolution of their brains and their intellect than those that are derived from their constitution and their faculties of development.” No obstacles hindered, no customs entrapped them.

Not a single psychologist or social theorist alive would hold such a position, when examples of its falsity come daily to mind. Nor does Summers fail to acknowledge the importance of culture in his analysis. He is, however, skeptical about its explanatory power, asserting that “the human mind has a tendency to grab to the socialization hypothesis when you can see it, and it often turns out not to be true.” He would prefer to place emphasis on women’s comparative unwillingness to accept the long hours and intense commitment demanded by “high-powered” careers like science (without ever asking whether these conditions are desirable). He also prefers to emphasize differences in innate ability. “It does appear,” he writes, “that on many, many different human attributes . . . there is relatively clear evidence that whatever the difference means—which can be debated—there is a difference in the standard deviation, and variability of a male and a female population.” At the high end, Summers continues, that means about five males are found for every one female. Fewer females on the rarified heights of scientific intellect results in fewer females in scientific careers.

Even if we were to agree that the variability hypothesis was proven, we might suggest that, while science does indeed require a high level of intelligence, most scientific work is not done by geniuses (who do not come along every day). Scientists are no doubt very bright, but an individual does not have to be at the extreme high end of mathematical ability to do well in science. And motivation, of course, counts for much.

Lawrence Summers has rekindled a debate that has simmered for centuries, and good will likely come of it, since universities will probably feel the need to work harder at diversifying their science faculties because of the attention the debate has received. It is also likely that research into sex differences in mind and brain will continue. Meanwhile, the wisest statement on this matter might well have been made more than 140 years ago by the British political theorist John Stuart Mill: “I deny that any one knows or can know, the nature of the two sexes, as long as they have only been seen in their present relation to one another. . . . What is now called the nature of women is an eminently artificial thing—the result of forced repression in some directions, unnatural stimulation in others.” Any differences that might be found between the sexes, Mill believed, could only be judged natural if they could not possibly be artificial, the effects of education or socialization.

We do not live in the Victorian era; the artificialities of women’s lives have diminished. Can anyone say that they have been altogether eliminated?

Cynthia Russett is the Larned Professor of History at Yale and the author of Sexual Science: The Victorian Construction of Womanhood and a co-editor of Second to None: A Documentary History of American Women.

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