It’s a great day to celebrate women’s movements past and present, but does feminism require the belief that women are basically like men?
This was at least an implicit claim of Second Wave feminists, modeled on prior movements for ethnic and racial equality. Blacks, Jews, and even the Irish had been targeted with biological theories. Their supposed inferiority was referred to “blood” in the nineteenth century, genes in the twentieth, but either way the goal was to “prove” that no education or cultural change would redeem them.
Anthropologists played an important role in proving the power of culture in group differences, showing that biology plays little or no part; culture easily accounts for ethnic variety in thinking, feeling, and behaving.
It made sense to think that gender would be similar: superficial biological differences with no implications for behavior. Proponents of male supremacy had claimed that women were held back not by men but by biology. For those struggling for gender equality, “Women can do anything men can do” was a clarion call.
All we have learned suggests that this was right: culture, upbringing, education, media, stereotypes, and men’s attempts to keep women down fully account for past differences in performance. Inequalities have shrunk as these influences have changed, and will likely continue to do so.
But what if gender biology is not as trivial as that of race? What if certain inclinations, affecting certain behaviors, are due in part to genes, hormones, and the brain? And what if in the end these differences could be viewed as favorable to women’s rights and opportunities?
This is neither a new nor an anti-feminist idea. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, in a speech before the National Woman Suffrage Convention in Washington, on January 19, 1869, said, “Those who represent what is called ‘the Woman’s Rights Movement,’ have argued their right to political equality from every standpoint of justice, religion, and logic, for the last twenty years.” She summarized them, and they are even more convincing now.
But she continued: “All these arguments we have to-day to offer for woman, and one, in addition, stronger than all besides, the difference in man and woman. Because man and woman are the complement of one another, we need woman’s thought in national affairs to make a safe and stable government.”
She offered an eloquent litany of male violence and oppression darkening the annals of history. We could give the same account almost word for word today. Stanton didn’t understand genes, hormones, or the brain—no one did—but she clearly believed some differences between men and women are what many academic feminists today would decry as essential.
She used that belief to advance her cause. “No one need wonder,” she said, “at the fragmentary condition of everything, when we remember that man, who represents but half a complete being, with but half an idea on every subject, has undertaken absolute control.” Stanton advocated a sixteenth amendment giving women the vote, but that had to wait half a century to become the nineteenth, passed by Congress on June 4, 1919 and fully ratified by the states on August 18, 1920.
Almost a century later, our leadership is not much more than half a being, but this is changing. We may elect a woman president—both sides have candidates—and the number of women has grown for decades in Congress and in corporate leadership, although it remains far too low.
Most sex differences are learned, but a few may indeed be essential. Men account for the vast majority of violence and exploitative sexuality in all cultures, and mounting evidence point to a role for genetic, hormonal, and brain differences. Meanwhile, social science research suggests that women lead, negotiate, and legislate more collaboratively and transparently than men.
We can’t yet link these differences to the biological ones. But research is confirming Stanton’s claim: Man is but half a being; we need women’s equal participation to make a whole world.
Women fulfill their potential not by imitating men but by creating a society characterized by balance between both male and female strengths. What a worthwhile concept to contemplate while going to the polls to VOTE! Elizabeth Cady Stanton and all the other courageous crusaders for voting rights still have the power to inspire transformational change, especially here in places like Ferguson Missouri, where much of the leadership in healing and moving forwards from systemic racial inequity has been woman-led.
I agree with every aspect of your theory as articulated in “Women After All.” I have always believed that there are essential differences between the sexes. Getting a doctorate in Women’s Studies in the early 1990’s was hell for me as a female with an essentialist position. Further, I have always been enchanted with Elizabeth Cady Stanton -the true architect of the Women’s movement.
My book, “SHE-Q – Why Women Should Mentor Men and Change the World” was published by Praeger in 2012. Feminists, of course, dismissed it.
The following year, Praeger gave me an advance to write “The Coming Age of Women.” At that time the feminist response to new neurological findings of superiority in the female brain ( coming shortly after dismissing Rosin’s work) was dismissed as “neurosexism.” The last vestiges of my tolerance for the female anti-essentialist position just went away and I gave the money back. Since then I have tried, as a female, to come to terms with the great irony that the feminist position actually despises the feminine qualities.
I would love to communicate with you about the feminist response to your book -and a million other things.
Thank you so much for writing “Women After All.”
Michele (Shelley) Takei
Dear Shelley (if I may), I am touched by all that you say and it is clear that we agree on pretty much everything. I have indeed faced charges of sexism, and I can only shudder at the thought of being a difference feminist and a woman in a women’s studies program in the ’90s. I think you gave up too soon though. Take a look at the comments on my book by clicking on “Books” above, especially those by lifelong feminists like Louise Lamphere, Unni Wikan, Sarah Hrdy, and others. Margery Lucas’s review in Society is called “Difference Feminism Now” and is encouraging. Don’t give up. Write to Praeger and see if you can get the advance back! “The Coming Age of Women” is a great title, and with the top contenders for the top job in the US and the UK both at them moment being women, you should strike while the iron is hot! Best wishes in all your endeavors, Mel