Rebirth of Reason


Machan's Musings - Feminist Fog
by Tibor R. Machan

Not very long ago an essay appeared in Professor James P. Sterba’s book, Morality and Social Justice: Point/Counterpoint (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1995), pp. 115-46, by feminist philosopher Alison M. Jaggar, titled "Toward a Feminist Conception of Moral Reasoning." This piece argued with great zeal that there are serious differences between the way women and men think—have to think?—about morality. Women stress cooperation, nurturing, and conciliatory measures in human relations, whereas men promote competition, aggressiveness, scoring points and so forth.

This piece was just one of numerous writings in which the differences between men and women were laid out with firm conviction by certain feminist scholars. Deborah Tanner, for example, had written numerous popular and scholarly books—for example, Gender and Discourse, Framing Discourse, Talking Voices, The Power of Talk—in which she had argued that there are clear differences between how men and women think and talk.

When a few days ago Harvard President Lawrence Summers made reference to "innate differences" between men and women that could account for why women aren’t as well represented in some of the sciences as are men, all hell broke loose. The National Association of Women called for him to resign his presidency, while others slammed him and denounced the fact that a man with such prejudices could be leading a top educational institution in America.

All of this brings to mind for me how when Bill Clinton cavorted with Monica Lewinsky, hardly a peep was heard from feminists, including NOW, about the matter, despite the fact that his conduct represented the starkest example of some men using their power over not just women but young, inexperienced women in positions of subservience. The Commander-in-Chief of the United States of America hitting on an office intern! It couldn’t get worse. Yet feminists were mostly silent during the entire episode.

They were also silent about the anti-egalitarian theories of Jaggar, Tanner, and many others who insisted that women are, in fact, different from men in how they think and talk and conduct themselves. But now that Lawrence Summers repeats this kind of view, he is being singled out for condemnation. Why so?

This appears to be a token of the type of thinking that would have it that only Jews are allowed to make jokes about Jews, only blacks may talk kid about blacks, and so forth and so on. If a man states that women differ from women in this or that respect, that’s heresy. If a bunch of women says so, it must be the result of science and analysis.

Bunk. Common sense, in its admittedly rough and ready form, has always revealed that men and women are different in certain crucial enough respects. The question is, "In just what respects and why so?" It is no good saying, "Society made them different," because then that needs to be explained. And answering that "Men have managed to conspire to keep women different—say, in steering them away from the sciences, politics, business and so forth"—doesn’t work either because that, too, begs the question: "How did men manage such a feat unless there is something inherently different between the sexes, even if that is that men are meaner, women are kinder?"

When questions surrounding male and female attributes are politicized, of course, nothing much good comes of it all. Not only do some of the most vociferous civil libertarians forget their principles—as the feminists forgot theirs because Bill Clinton was a politician they liked—but rational investigation of interesting issues suffers.

Summers—whose exact words on this topic are nearly impossible to find via Google, by the way, because, presumably, he had spoken out of the limelight—made a suggestion, not much different from what Jaggar and Tanner and many other women and even some feminist men had made. For some Summers’ suggestion merely served as an opportunity to beat up on a prominent male in our culture. Too bad. It will probably retard research for some time to come.
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