Tuesday, March 15, 2011

MythBusters : Feminist Edition, #1

Okay, so this isn't MythBusters in the sense that I am going to dismantle feminism, but from all the reading I've been doing lately I thought it would be fun to do a series to address some of the weird, old, sexist adages (and perhaps ones that still prevail) about women from a feminist perspective.

So, myth #1:
I found this in Anne Fausto-Sterling's article, "Hormonal Hurricanes," and the original source of this quote that I'm referring to is from M.A. Hardaker's "Science and the Woman Question," published in Popular Science Monthly in 1881.
Opponents of higher education for women also claimed that females were less intelligent than males, an assertion based partly on brain size itself but also on the overall size differences between men and women. They held that women cannot "consume so much food as men... [because] their average size remains so much smaller; so that the sum total of food converted into thought by women can never equal the sum total of food converted to thought by men. it follows, therefore, that men will always think more than women."
Most thinking people will now look at a statement like that and LAUGH. That is often my first reaction when reading these silly old opinions about women. I think after I had a good laugh to myself about Hardaker's theory, I thought about how I eat a lot. A lot. I love eating. Duz that mean I am teh smartz?

So, this first myth is: women are small and eat little so naturally they cannot think as much as large, hardy male eating/thinking machines.

Okay, so besides the total lack of science, and the fact that measuring brains has gone out of fashion as a way to determine intelligence (which it does not, by the way), this falls under the category of problematic statements that don't make sense because humans are not made like robots and experience quite the range of capabilities within certain identity categories.

What does that mean? Well, first of all, Fausto-Sterling points out in her article that many have made the argument that not all successful dudes are built like Gaston from Beauty and the Beast.

Gaston: model of a thinking man

She says, "One respondent to this bit of scientific reasoning asked the thinking reader to examine the data: Aristotle and Napoleon were short, Newton, Spinoza, Shakespeare, and Comte delicate and of medium height, Descartes and Bacon sickly..." So first of all, by saying that only burly men who eat like horses are physically capable of producing the thought power to be successful students, that discounts the experiences of all sorts of men. Some guys are small and nerdy and quite the thinkers.

Additionally, making sweeping statements about the abilities of the men and women discounts the duh-factor that some women are really smart. And perhaps they do have a nice hearty breakfast. But even sickly and scrawny women, like the sickly and scrawny men who have made successes of themselves throughout history, are capable of being thinking human beings who can be students and produce really good work. And furthermore, it discounts the experiences of those who do not fall under the gender binary's intellectual abilities.

And while the relating women's lack of brain power to their lack of appetite may seem ridiculous, it is truth universally acknowledged that a man who feels threatened by the intelligence of women will make sweeping statements about their biological incapabilities to learn. Perhaps you remember when former Harvard president Larry Summers made a statement in 2005 about the lack of senior female professors in the math and science departments was due to the fact of the "innate differences" that make women dumber.

Let's think about this a little more deeply:
When universities began to be founded, they were generally used for the education of men. If you've ever read Little Women, you may remember Jo lamenting that although she would love to go study at a university she was both too poor and too much a not-man, while her friend Laurie couldn't care less about his education. Few colleges admitted women in the 1800s, and many big-name universities continued to have low numbers of women or none at all into the mid-to-late 1900's. Without proper access to education, who could really expect women to excel in academia? Without being given the chance to try something, how can you really expect someone to be good (or bad) at it?? (This is a really good question brought up in the sports documentary Not Just a Game, in which, among other things, the plight of female athletes and men's campaign to keep them out of organized athletics was based on a bunch of nothing. It's a great movie, I watched it today in class and I recommend it. You will not feel like you're watching a documentary. It's great!) And as access to education has changed, women have excelled and participated in higher education in record numbers. One explanation for why there are more male doctors, lawyers, professors, dentists... (etc., think of a profession and ask yourself if it's gendered... it likely is) than female doctors/lawyers/professors/dentists/etc, is that there still exist these social norms about what professions are ideal for men and women. (There's this great clip from The Simpsons when Lisa goes to a Build-a-Bear-like place and the woman helping her asks what she wants her dolphin to be dressed as. Lisa shouts out "Doctor! ...Um, professor!" and the saleswomen responds, "Okay, nurse it is! ... Kindergarten teacher!" and only acquiesces to Lisa's requests when Lisa informs her that it is a boy dolphin. And after getting the doctor outfit, Lisa says to her dolphin, "We fooled her... Betsy." I can't find a link to just the clip, but this compilation video called "Lisa Simpson Feminist Hero" from Jezebel has it in it. It's the last clip. The whole video is about 5 minutes, and it's so great, so watch it all! Lisa Simpson is definitely one of my feminist heroes.)

While these attitudes are changing, they still exist. Recall the "Guess Who?" video I posted a couple weeks back? So what we can conclude about these stereotypes formed long ago that continue to reign is that the barriers that keep men and women in gendered professions are socially constructed. While 90 years ago flapper girls were making waves with their promiscuity and wild, social ways, we now have Britney Spears and Katy Perry! What would those flappers think of them?? Attitudes change! By today's standards, flappers were pretty darn modest. And really, few people bat an eye when starlets come close to a nip-slip these days. Cultural attitudes about modesty have shifted a little bit, and although some may still call half-naked pop stars skanks, we know that this is a very different attitude than one that might have existed 30 or 50 or 100 years ago about women's sexuality. So goes attitudes about professions. One hundred years ago, imagining women in the army might have been inconceivable. Today, women are fighting for their right to serve on the front lines (and in practice, some women actually do). Eating a good breakfast is shown to help the thinking wheels in your brain machine start in the morning, but it doesn't have anything to do with the gender of that person. Smart people are just smart people!

So while myth #1 might be busted, we still have a ways to go before gendered assumptions about intelligence and ability go away.

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