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Essential Problems of Boys and Girls

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The problem with gender and sexual essentialisms is not whether or not there are essential differences between men and women, males and females. Certainly there are. The problem is the politics of determining the relative social value of these essential differences between the sexes. The problem is whether or not essential biological differences lead to essential differences between woman-people and man-people that lead to some people being presumed essentially better than others.

If there are essential differences, the erroneous presumption made by gender feminists is that individual woman-people must be better at some things than individual man-people and vice versa. If essential differences between man-people and woman-people do exist then change is impossible for individuals, since the differences between woman-people and man-people are essential, like oxygen is essential to water and chlorine is essential to salt. And for the majority of human history essentialism has, in fact, been used to relegate individual women to a diminished social status. So gender feminists have every reason to be paranoid about essentialisms that may diminish women’s social value. It is better to misrepresent essentialism, to the detriment of innocent boys, than take the risk of being intellectually honest.

The problem of gender feminists’ misrepresentation of essentialism is also one of degree. They wildly exaggerate essential differences. If woman-people are essentially different than man-people, the reality is that these differences are relatively minor and only show up statistically. The entire lunacy of the essentialism debate, as alluded to by Christina Hoff Sommers’ The War Against Boys, hinges on an intentional misrepresentation of individuals as identical with the groups into which individuals are categorized. Certainly the gender categories of “man” and “woman” include many individuals who fit into these categories by definition alone. We need merely think of the difficulty of categorizing transgendered people to see how tenuous the man-people and woman-people categories can become.

According to anthropologist Lionel Tiger, as quoted by Sommers, “Biology is not destiny, but it is a good statistical probability.” As a consequence, the exaggerated essentialisms of Carol Gilligan and Sigmund Freud are more likely influenced by politics of power and gender dominance than scientifically responsible observations and statistics. For Gilligan, women are caring and men are not. For Freud, men’s fear of castration and women’s lack of that fear make men more morally astute. For both Gilligan and Freud the fanciful unobservable superego, as formed through the unique psycho-sexual development of boys and girls, is the essential cause of boys’ or girls’ moral superiority over the other. For Gilligan boys have cooties; for Freud girls do.

The essentialisms of socio-biologist E.O. Wilson and once-Harvard-president Lawrence Summers, on the other hand, are statistical essences discovered by finding small patterns of variation between woman-people and man-people, culled from vast numbers of unique individuals, some of whom likely did not fit neatly into either category. Statistically speaking, testosterone laden individuals pursue advanced engineering degrees more frequently than estrogen laden individuals, and estrogen laden individuals pursue PhDs in literature more often than testosterone laden individuals do. But clearly there are many men and women in both fields. Men never get pregnant. Women do. But many men make great stay at home mothers and many women do not. Statistically however, women mostly mother and men mostly do not.

So, though morphology is not destiny, male morphology certainly does provide an additional, and obvious, modicum of comfort when micturating in the woods. But that miniscule Freudian reality is not really enough to drive the gender-feminist pedagogy of Carol Gilliganians. To protect girls from the imagined horrors of masculinity, according to Sommers, paranoid gender feminists are intentionally mis-educating boys to become girls in all ways possible. Oh well, boys will be girls.

About carmine

  • TA Dodger

    Most feminists are strongly anti-essentialist; I’m happy to see you are (mostly) as well.

    Just a few thoughts / criticisms

    1. Your last few lines (concerning boys being forced to act like girls) confuse me greatly because they assume boys and girls are inherently different in ways that have nothing to do with reproduction. That seems at odds with the rest of your article.

    2. Your discussion of “more scientific essentialism” is incomplete because it assumes (or seems to assume) that observed behavioral differences between men and women (going into engineering, etc.) are the result of biology and not socialization.

    3. No feminist describes themselves as a “gender feminist” and using one term to lump together all the myriad branches of feminism that don’t agree with C.H.S. is overly simplifying to put it very generously. I realize that’s probably more a criticism of her than it is of you, but you can choose to use terms which are more descriptive and accurate, even if she does not.

  • http://stoppseudoscience.blogspot.com carmine

    I actually see Hoff Sommers as one of the bright lights marking a move to a fourth wave of “independent feminism,” or what she calls “equity feminism.” This is the sort of feminism that most of my students actually would embrace. If you wonder why so few undergraduate women actually embrace feminism it is because the majority of what they see is irrelevant to their lives. And they are resentful of the patronizing tone of most academic gender feminism which presumes all women are victims of “the patriarchy.”

    Sommers, on the other hand, speaks on behalf of equal rights with a sane recognition of the verifiable biological differences that actually exist between males and females. The perverse third wave of feminism, what Sommers terms “gender feminism”, is essentially, victim-obsessed, postmodern cult think and can best be seen in the entirely irresponsible misuse of unverifiable statistics by those like Gilligan and her followers, who similarly embrace subjective presumption and ad hominem invective over objective evidence and genuine science.

    I mark the third wave as the period of feminism that arose from a combination of postmodernism and the bitterness surrounding the ERA debacle. And culminates with the paranoid fantasies of Anita Hill. The second wave fought to rectify actual inequities in the work place and education. The third wave was an invention of paltry academics in search of jobs where the patently illogical could be magically elevated to “theory.” Perhaps the most egregious example of this third wave feminist cult-think can be seen today in the stridency with which victim feminists pursue progressively more oppressive VAWA legislation.

    Christina Hoff Sommers is a philosopher, a real philosopher, who has the integrity to question political presumption with courage, honesty and intelligence. Most academic philosophers, out of fear for their jobs or mere intellectual laziness, just mouth the propaganda of the gender feminists, hoping to safely land their baby boomer retirement benefits paid for by the very students to whom they systematically deceive. But of course, we were just following orders, or were we?

  • TA Dodger

    That… isn’t actually responsive to any of the points I made.

  • http://victorplenty.blogspot.com Victor Plenty

    Welcome to “dialogue” with Doc Carmine, TA.

  • http://stoppseudoscience Carmine

    TA
    Yes I am arguing that boys and girls are biologically different in ways that have nothing to do with socialization, though much of that is likely do to morphology and exposure to androgen or other hormones pre-natally or sometime prior to the first few years of life. Nancy Chodorow in the Reproduction of Mothering makes this point nicely. So no, essentialism is not likely to be found in the chromosomes themselves. There are also many articles comparing brain structures and brain waves of males and females that demonstrate some statistical differences exist between the sexes over large numbers of subjects.

    I also think that Lawrence Summers’ thoughts about why there are more men at the very top and more men at the very bottom of the hard sciences may also have a biological explanation, but these differences are extremely insignificant on the level of real living people; in fact they all but disappear when we compare individual men and women. Statistical trends are in no way indicative of what individual people can or will do. The problem is we try, as someone recently commented, to “pathologize individuals”. So if you want to peg my position I am arguing for biological essentialism, but not behavioural essentialism. Individual Men and Women are both just as likely to do anything they physically are capable of doing irrelevant of sex. But when you compare categories there are obvious differences. And yes, those are likely the consequence of the interaction between essential biological differences, and “socialization.” Difference is real; we are not identical.
    And VP, you have cooties.

  • http://paperfrigate.blogspot.com DrPat

    No one who has parented boys and girls (or even been an observer of younger siblings, an astute baby-sitter, or an aware grade-school teacher) would agree that there are NOT essential differences between boy-children and girl-children.

    Further, these differences are precisely the ones that play into (or play against) the current disciplines and designs of the schoolroom. Boys tend to be fidgety, disruptive of quiet study time, and focused on competition; regimented classrooms that reward compliance and quiet stifle these students. Girls tend to be quieter, more compliant and focused on cooperation; they receive less value in classrooms that place a premium on competition and allow boistrous behavior.

    One need not believe that EVERY boy or girl matches these generalities to see that the majority of boys will be stifled by a classroom oriented to girls’ behaviors, and vice versa.

  • http://stoppseudoscience.blogspot.com carmine

    DrPat,
    BINGO!

  • http://www.tresbleu/blogspot.com Sister Ray

    If I understand right, “gender feminists” think women are victims of what they call the patriarchy. They think there was some time in history when men and women were equally powerful in society, but then men took power by force, and the Western religious traditions helped them hold that power.

  • http://paperfrigate.blogspot.com DrPat

    Doc Carmine, the head of this nail is in the last sentence of the first paragraph of your essay: “whether or not essential biological differences… lead to some people being presumed essentially better than others.”

    In terms of schoolroom design, the presumption in many classrooms seems to be female=better, as classrooms become more regimented and rule-bound. One result may be the spike in diagoses of “ADHD”, a behavoral disorder that can be described as “being fidgety, unable to stay quiet and focused on studies, combativeness”. In short, being a stifled little male in a female-focused classroom.

    The strongest argument against the equivalence of “essential” and “typical” may be the number of female children diagnosed with ADHD, despite the overwhelmingly matriarchal bent of the grade-school classroom.

    And pardon me, but only a “gender feminist” would not see that phrase as a redundancy.