[Paleopsych] City Journal: Stanley Kurtz: Can We Make Boys and Girls Alike?

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Stanley Kurtz: Can We Make Boys and Girls Alike?
2005 Spring

    When Lawrence Summers suggested that biology might be partially
    responsible for the relative rarity of female mathematics professors,
    he was provoking an academic giant. Powerful as the president of
    Harvard may be, his influence is as nothing compared with that of the
    behemoth that is the women's studies movement. The field of women's
    studies originated in the heady sixties and grew exponentially through
    the seventies and eighties. By the mid-nineties, when Daphne Patai and
    Noretta Koertge published Professing Feminism, their searing critique
    of the field, more than 600 undergraduate and several dozen graduate
    women's studies programs were up and running at colleges and
    universities across the country.

    The intellectual cornerstone of women's studies is "gender," the
    notion that differences between men and women are not rooted in
    biology, as Summers had hypothesized some might be, but are cultural
    artifacts, inculcated by an oppressive patriarchal society. Precisely
    because the gender idea builds a specific (radical) political
    orientation into the field, Patai and Koertge point out, women's
    studies proved intellectually suspect from the start. You can read
    that radical politics right in the National Women's Studies
    Association constitution: "Women's Studies . . . is equipping women to
    transform the world to one that will be free of all oppression . . .
    [and is] a force which furthers the realization of feminist aims."
    True justice for these radical feminists means overcoming gender and
    establishing an androgynous society. So when Summers asserted that
    something besides artificial cultural roles--something besides
    "gender"--might account for the distinct positions of men and women in
    society, he was undermining the intellectual and political foundation
    of the entire women's studies establishment.

    The alternatives to feminist orthodoxy don't end with Summers-style
    invocations of biology as destiny. Take psychiatrist Leonard Sax's new
    book, Why Gender Matters: What Parents and Teachers Need to Know About
    the Emerging Science of Sex Differences, for example. Sax begins by
    arguing that variations in how boys and girls learn result from brain
    biology. But, unlike many believers in hardwired sex differences, he
    goes on to argue that we can triumph over biology through single-sex
    education. If we teach boys and girls separately and in sync with
    their biologically based learning styles, he claims, they will perform
    equally well in all academics, including math.

    There's also a fourth possible view on the relations between sex and
    success--one that no one has systematically articulated to date. If
    those who assert biological differences between the sexes disagree
    about whether we can overcome them, the same might apply to those who
    assert the power of cultural differences. Even if we do provisionally
    hold that virtually all differences between men and women are
    cultural, might it not also be true that those differences are
    impossible to overcome? If so, it wouldn't be "gender" but the
    feminist effort to eliminate it that is truly oppressive. This fourth
    view suggests that the very same cultural forces that make feminists
    desire androgyny may actually prevent us from achieving it. The
    cultural sources of "gender" difference, properly understood, would
    then inform us not that our gender identities are infinitely malleable
    but that they're effectively impossible to change.

    Sociologists have thought long and hard about the cultural
    "reproduction of society"--the transmission of deeply held cultural
    attitudes across the generations. Some social thinkers focus on the
    conscious transmission of cultural messages through religion and
    custom, while others highlight the influence of deeper social
    structures, such as economic organization or family forms. The most
    sophisticated feminist theories of gender--those that offer the most
    plausible alternatives to biological explanations--take the latter
    view. To explain the reproduction of gender differences, they zero in
    on family structure, especially during the first months and years of
    life, to a time when the way we care for children is far more
    important than the words we speak.

    A case in point is the work of psychoanalytic sociologist Nancy
    Chodorow, a women's studies pioneer who gives flesh to a radically
    "cultural constructivist" idea of gender. Nearly every feminist plan
    for engineering a new, androgynous society--from the "egalitarian
    feminism" of political theorist Susan Okin to the "difference
    feminism" of developmental psychologist Carol Gilligan--offers a
    variation on Chodorow's themes, so it's worth considering them

    Chodorow hypothesizes that the differences between the sexes simply
    derive from the contingent circumstance that women happen to be the
    primary caretakers of children. The special, "feminine" empathy
    required for rearing children, she suggests, becomes indelibly
    associated in our minds with people who just physically happen to be
    female. Identifying with their daughters, moreover, mothers tend to
    stay tightly connected with them for years, drawing them into a circle
    of mutual dependence and empathy that is the essence of femininity. So
    it's not television ads or Barbie dolls that turn little girls into
    caring women, who themselves want to be mothers. It's the emotional
    closeness of mothers and daughters that perpetuates the conventional
    female sexual role for generation after generation.

    Boys learn their gender lessons early, too, Chodorow maintains. Since
    traditional mothers assume that boys are different from girls, early
    on they tend to encourage their sons to be independent. As mothers
    begin to push their sons out of the warm circle of empathy, boys get
    the message that people with Daddy's kind of body should act
    differently from the way Mommy acts. If they want to be men, boys
    learn, they've got to overcome the qualities of emotional empathy of
    people like Mom. Masculinity thus finds its ground in a rejection of
    "feminine" qualities.

    If we could just break the association between gender and child care,
    thinks Chodorow--if men as well as women could "mother" children--then
    we might vanquish gender. Men and women would still have a few
    distinct body parts, of course, but "masculine" and "feminine"
    personality differences would no longer have anything to do with
    bodily equipment. No one would assume that only people with a certain
    kind of body should be caring and empathic. The speed with which a
    child became independent would no longer depend on whether it was male
    or female. A new era would dawn.

    Yet even if this understanding of gender as learned behavior is right,
    androgyny proponents quickly run into a problem. As Chodorow herself
    underscores, mothering by women produces women who themselves want to
    be mothers. The mechanism at work may be social and psychological,
    rather than biological, but it's no less real for that. How, then, do
    you get women to mother less and men to mother more, especially when,
    according to Chodorow, everything in a typical male's early rearing
    makes him wrong for the job?

    Plato faced this dilemma when he drew up history's first great plan
    for a perfectly just society in the Republic--a society that required,
    among other things, androgyny. His solution: send the members of the
    old, imperfect city into exile, so that the new, just city could be
    built from scratch. Otherwise, their recalcitrant mental habits would
    sabotage the creation of the new order. The fact is, attempts to force
    a society out of its most deeply held cultural values can be every bit
    as tyrannical as schemes to override our biological nature.

    But what if a society actually existed--not just a theoretical
    utopia--whose inhabitants yearned for androgyny? What if a society
    existed whose citizens, motivated by a burning passion for perfect
    justice, committed themselves to a total reorganization of the
    traditional family system, with the express purpose of eliminating
    gender? Such a society has existed, of course: the early Israeli
    kibbutz movement. The movement wasn't just a precursor to modern
    feminism, it's important to add. The kibbutzniks were utopian
    socialists who wanted to construct a society where the ideal of "from
    each according to his ability, to each according to his needs" would
    govern the production and distribution of goods. It was as part of
    this larger socialist vision that the kibbutzniks set out to wipe away

    Kibbutz parents agreed to see their own children only two hours a day,
    and for the remaining 22 hours to surrender them to the collective,
    which would raise them androgynously (trying more to "masculinize"
    women than "feminize" men). Boys and girls would henceforth do the
    same kind of work and wear the same kind of clothes. Girls would learn
    to be soldiers, just like boys. Signs of "bourgeois"
    femininity--makeup, say--would now be taboo. As if they had stepped
    out of Plato's Republic, the children would dress and undress together
    and even use the same showers.

    The experiment collapsed within a generation, and a traditional family
    and gender system reasserted itself. Why? Those who believe in
    hardwired natural differences obviously would say that cultural
    conditioning couldn't remove the sexes' genetic programming. Indeed,
    in his now-infamous conference remarks, Lawrence Summers invoked the
    history of the kibbutz movement to help make his case that biology
    might partially explain sex roles.

    Feminists, though, say that the kibbutz experiment didn't get a fair
    chance. However committed to gender justice the kibbutzniks might have
    been, they were all traditional Europeans by upbringing. Somehow they
    must have transmitted the old cultural messages about gender to the
    children. Perhaps, too, those messages came from the larger Israeli
    society, from which it was impossible to shelter the boys and girls
    entirely. What's more--and Chodorow would doubtless emphasize this
    fact--the kibbutz child-care nurses were all women. A 50/50
    male-female mix might have done the trick.

    Yet American androgyny proponents rarely refer to the kibbutz
    experiment--for understandable reasons. Its failure--even if you
    accept their own cultural explanation for it--puts a serious damper on
    the idea of androgynizing America. In the U.S., after all, there's
    nothing remotely approaching the level of commitment to surmounting
    gender found among the early kibbutzniks. If androgyny proved
    unattainable in a small socialist society whose citizens self-selected
    for radical feminist convictions, how could one bring it about in
    contemporary America, where most people don't want it? It would take a
    massive amount of coercion--unacceptable in any democracy--to get us
    even to the point where the kibbutzniks were when they failed to build
    a post-gender society.

    The best account of the experiment's breakdown, offered by
    anthropologist Melford Spiro in his books Gender and Culture and
    Children of the Kibbutz, points out an even bigger obstacle to
    androgyny. Ultimately, Spiro argues, the kibbutzniks didn't succeed
    because the mothers wanted their kids back. They wanted to take care
    of their young children in the old-fashioned way, themselves. Two
    hours a day with their kids wasn't enough. Even among the kibbutz
    founders, Spiro notes, women often agonized over the sacrifice of
    maternal pleasure that their egalitarian ideology demanded. He quotes
    from one mother's autobiography: "Is it right to make the child return
    for the night to the children's home, to say goodnight to it and send
    it back to sleep among the fifteen or twenty others? This parting from
    the child before sleep is so unjust!" Such feelings persisted and
    intensified, until collective pressure forced the kibbutz to let
    parents spend extra time with their kids.

    Spiro holds that a pre-cultural form of maternal instinct subverted
    the kibbutz's child-rearing approach. But a plausible cultural
    explanation is even more devastating to feminist hopes for a
    gender-free America. What really defeated androgyny on the kibbutz,
    this interpretation posits, was the profound tension built in to the
    very culture of modern democratic individualism that the kibbutzniks
    embraced--the tension between liberty and equality. As part of their
    insistence on their unique individuality, the kibbutzniks recognized
    the unabridgeable unique individuality of everyone else. Hence, their
    insistence on radical equality. Full equality meant that everyone had
    to treat everyone else the same way. Even the differences between my
    children and the neighbors' kids would have to go. They pretended that
    their children belonged to the collective--"child of the kibbutz,"
    they would say, not "my child."

    But the other side of democratic individualism is the idea that each
    of us is uniquely individual. And inseparable from this individualism
    are certain aspirations--to express yourself personally, and to treat
    yourself, your possessions, and your family differently from how you
    treat everyone else. Child rearing doesn't escape these aspirations.
    In fact, in modern societies people pay far greater attention to the
    unique characters of their children than people do in traditional,
    group-oriented societies. Lavishing intense, personal attention on
    their kids is a favorite way for modern individuals to exercise
    personal liberty.

    Kibbutz mothers who hoped to treat everyone the same thus also wanted
    to express their individual characters by molding their own kids. The
    two goals--reflecting the two sides of modern democratic
    individualism--were finally incommensurable. Eventually, the desire
    for personal expression trumped the quest for radical equality. The
    parents decided to raise their own kids in their own way. No one ever
    got the chance to find out if further tinkering might have eliminated
    their children's gender differences.

    The culture of democratic individualism characterizes contemporary
    America, too, of course, and it still cuts two ways. Feminists insist
    on radical equality, and androgyny is the logical outcome of that
    drive for equality. Yet at the same time, especially since the baby
    boomers came on the scene, many American women have treated the
    experience of motherhood as an exercise in self-expression--indeed,
    they do so more fervently than the kibbutzniks.

    A modern, self-expressive, committed-to-full-equality American mother
    might know that her child is getting quality care from a relative, a
    nanny, or a nursery, but she'll often feel dissatisfied, since the
    care isn't hers. Part of the point of being a parent, she'll feel, is
    to express one's unique personality through how one cares for and
    shapes one's children. In practical terms, she'll be reluctant to give
    up her kids long enough to break the cycle of "gender reproduction."

    True, the last 40 years have seen tremendous changes in the social
    roles of men and women--changes that could never have happened were
    there not significant flexibility in gender roles. From the standpoint
    of feminism's ideal of androgyny, though, the shift is still very
    partial. Until the link between women and child rearing completely
    breaks down, neither corporate boardrooms nor Harvard professorships
    of mathematics will see numerical parity between men and women. In the
    meantime, in disproportionate numbers, at critical points in their
    careers, women will continue to choose mothering over professional

    From either a biological or cultural point of view, then, the feminist
    project of androgyny is ultimately doomed. But that doesn't mean that
    it can't do harm in the meantime. In America, many boys are slipping
    behind in school; their sisters are significantly more likely to go on
    to college. Yet thanks largely to the influence of academic feminists,
    legal and educational resources still flow disproportionately to
    supposedly victimized girls. In the end, gender won't disappear,
    whatever the mavens of women's studies hope, but the careers of some
    bright young men probably will.

    Even if the differences are cultural, rather than biological, they are

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