Taking Sex Differences Seriously – Chapter 2 (pages 29-44)

February 7, 2013 | NeW

I’d be admittedly bored if this book were just a thorough litany of the differences between men and women. Thankfully, Rhoads is quite careful not to be either too broad or too simplistic, and I was fascinated by this week’s reading. Having established that some gender differences (neurological, social, spatial) seem to exist before birth, he now delineates further, claiming that

… there are two types of women. (31)

Using blood samples taken from pregnant women, to gauge their individual estrogen/testosterone levels, researchers then compared the development of the daughters after birth. It appears that:

… women exposed to more testosterone [prior to birth] were less stereotypically feminine. (30)

Rhoads is quick to point out that these women are not simply masculine, but rather

… more likely to mix typically feminine with typically masculine traits and behaviors. (32)

Women whose mothers had higher testosterone levels were more apt to pursue sports, careers, and aggressive ambitions; women whose mothers had lower testosterone levels were more inclined towards raising children, staying at home, and less competitive pursuits. However, Rhoads notes that:

While there are lots of “tomboys,” there are few “bettygirls.” (33)

Men, while they may have different levels of testosterone and do tend to form groups (jocks vs. nerds), all consistently exhibit the same characteristics; they are masculine, stubborn, competitive, and single-minded, although their personal application of these traits may vary. Compared to the two types of women, there seems to be just one type of man. Accordingly,

“… the nerds aren’t so very different than the jocks…” (34)

This unique dichotomy among women muddles the dialogue between feminists and traditionalists. Neither side understands the other because – if Rhoads’ research is right – even we women aren’t all wired the same. Recently,

“… feminist books reveal that they still don’t fully understand traditional women.” (37)

Homemakers may be viewed as lazy or overly dependent on their husbands while career women may be considered selfish and negligent towards family. Both often feel misjudged and resent the other.

There are few physical casualties in this war, but the anger is palpable. (38)

Rhoads explains that:

Feminists deal with the fact that large numbers of women do not share their worldview by assuming that they have been cloistered or not fully exposed to liberative achievement in the larger world… (37) They expect that as more women have mothers with jobs or play sports in school, the serious careerists will become the vast majority and the traditional women will disappear. (37)

Because of these assumptions, feminists have long advocated curricula favoring the careerists, even to the exclusion of accurate history. Thus, now:

Elementary and secondary textbooks are even more biased than the media in the way they treat the differences among women. (40)

Speaking from his own experience as a professor, Rhoads believes that:

Many bright young women are a little ashamed of who they are. (42)

This remark resonated with me. Personally, I think this sense of shame exists on both sides; I feel pressure to be both a contented homemaker (per my traditional values, and esteem of motherhood) and also an accomplished professional (to validate and utilize my talents, skills, and education). When I choose one in lieu of the other, I feel guilty – and a little jealous of those doing whatever I’m not. Yet, I see my friends trying to combine the two, in differing ratios – and most of them are going mildly insane, no matter how effectively they manage their load. Mercifully enough, Rhoads isn’t advocating any particular path; he’s not lobbying for us to stay at home, or go to work, or to mix the two. He’s just explaining that different women may have different preferences, for equally valid (and primarily inexorable) reasons. While it might seem fairest to simply leave each woman to make her own choice, this chapter concludes with the observation:

But, we must make a collective decision about how women’s lives are presented in civics and history textbooks. Currently, traditional women’s choices are ignored in these books. (44)

Rhoads’ even-handed appraisal of women as a diverse group was enlightening and palatable. I found myself re-contemplating this chapter frequently, while washing dishes or driving home – a response which I consider a reliable indication of impact. Perhaps the greatest takeaway for me was the compelling reminder to not judge too hastily, whether my husband’s thought process or my sister’s career choice; comparing my own to theirs might truly be more unjust than I ever before realized. Next week, Elizabeth will tackle Chapter 3.

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