Lynet, who’s just started blogging at Elliptica, talks about the distinction between personal and political feminism. She also makes the incisive observation about standards of masculinity and femininity,
[Link] On some level, I want to be feminine. That is to say, I want to identify as a woman, want to count as a genuine member of my sex. It’s a matter of identity. I think most people feel this way about their gender. As a result, statements of the form “Men are usually…” or “It is feminine to…” are almost never able to be nothing more than statements about the way men or women are. Inevitably, they end up containing some idea that this is the way men or women ought to be.
This means that when people make entirely scientific statements about women, on average, scoring less than men on maths tests (or having a smaller sexual appetite, or whatever) I find it hard to believe that someone, somewhere, is not taking that as a normative statement; a statement about what they should do to fit in with their treasured identity. I’m not saying that people shouldn’t do these studies, or report what they find, but I think it’s important that people consider what they are playing with when they make gender statements. They are not to be made lightly or without basis.
First, let me get the personal identity stuff out of the way: I think identities are for other people. Other people are free to box me as 18, male, atheist, Israeli-born, white, and so on. My own behavior has nothing to do with those, except for the trivial things (I pee standing up, don’t go to any house of worship, etc.).
More to the point, Lynet is entirely right. Statements about gender essentialism are almost never meant as “is” statements, and infrequently meant as “seems” statements. Relationships books that try emphasizing that men and women are from different planets tend to boil down to, “In mainstream culture, men and women are encouraged to act in different but equally irrational ways, and it’s perfectly fine.”
Worse, “Men are…” statements always carry a very strong “and should be” flavor. Any male who doesn’t conform to those statements is automatically branded not a real man, with all the accompanying stereotypes.
It’s somewhat more complicated for females and “Women are…” statements, but Lynet’s basic point about wanting to be feminine holds. Women who choose not to be feminine are immediately thrown into one of several very limiting boxes: the whore, the tomboy, the hyper-aggressive corporate executive, the Lucy Liu character.
Psychologically, these statements are very damaging. They’ve gotten to the point that merely asking female testtakers to fill in an oval for gender before a math test will hamper their performance. An individual woman may escape that stereotype threat, just like an individual may choose to receive a non-mandatory vaccination; but from the perspectives of public education and public health, both stereotype threats and voluntary vaccinations are disasters.
There’s an entirely different class of essentialist statements, that of normative statements that pretend to be factual. The entire notion that women are worse than men at math boils down to shoddy research nobody would’ve taken seriously but for a burning desire to tell women to stick to cooking.
There aren’t that many factual statements about gender differences that aren’t trivial (“very few men can lactate”). Cognitively, males’ better spatial perception appears to have no consequences outside tests that ask people to mentally rotate shapes. Females’ better verbal perception has serious consequences concerning language change, but unless you’re a sociolinguist or a feminist activist concerned with control of language, you don’t need to ever know that.
And even so, people don’t usually make those statements without some social justification in mind. I’ve yet to see a single person who thinks females are underrepresented in science for biological reasons say that by the same token, women should be 80% of the average linguistics department.