IWF’s friend, Charlotte Allen, wrote a piece in the Washington Post last week that has generated a heated response, to put it mildly.
The latest is from Katha Pollitt in today’s Washington Post. Before I comment on the article and the ensuing fervor, I’ll correct the record that Charlotte Allen doesn’t currently work for IWF (as Katha Pollitt says in her article) although certainly Charlotte worked for IWF and is someone I’ve personally known for years.
When I read her article the first time, I felt like I knew what Charlotte was trying to do–and did through much of the article–in creating a tongue-in-cheek critique of our gender’s excesses. She writes herself half way through the article, “We exaggerate, of course,” and on Wednesday she did a Q&A with Washington Post readers, in which she explained that the article was supposed to be humorous.
Yet I agree with the critiques that she took it too far (and lost me on the humor), particularly with the ending: “Then we could shriek and swoon and gossip and read chick lit to our hearts’ content and not mind the fact that way down deep, we are . . . kind of dim.”
Women aren’t dim, even when we indulge in girly things like fashion, romance novels, and friendly gossip. Equating our propensity to engage in this trivia with a lack of intelligence is a mistake, and, although I’m sure it was inadvertent, undermines attempts to shake the taboo from discussions of innate sex differences.
It would hardly matter if women and men had different innate strengths and weaknesses in matters of brain function if it weren’t for the push by some to try to eliminate differences in how men and women choose to spend their time and focus their energies. This most frequently comes up today when we look at math and science disciplines. As is regularly discussed in the media, while women have made huge gains in academia, there are still fewer women than men in some science and engineering courses and careers. Some groups claim that this is entirely due to discrimination against women and that therefore the government needs to take action to make sure that there are as many women in men in these disciplines.
Others of us, who don’t want government attempting to encourage (or, perhaps more accurately, discourage) people from studying one thing or another, have suggested that we should consider how factors other than discrimination play a role. This includes innate differences in aptitude and in interest. Christina Hoff Sommers has a great piece about this here, which Allison linked to on Friday. It’s always important to emphasize anytime we discuss these differences that clearly there are plenty of women who excel in math and science and that these studies on averages don’t speak at all to any individual woman’s (or man’s) abilities. They are, however, an important piece of the puzzle to understanding why there are so many more women in humanities courses and more men in engineering.
I agree with Katha Pollitt that the ability to “mentally rotate three-dimensional objects in space” should not be “the very definition of smarts.” The studies that have been done that show that women use different parts of their brains when approaching problems than men do (which make us stronger when it comes to matters of language but less skilled at certain spatial relationship tasks) aren’t meant to say which sex is smart and which is “dumb.” It just sheds a light on different skill sets and propensities in each gender, which again should not be interpreted to in any way limit our expectations for what any individual man or woman can accomplish.
It’s a shame that anyone who acknowledges innate differences between the sexes and speculates on their impact on how we choose to spend our times is almost instantaneously tarred as a sexist (just ask former Harvard President Larry Summers). It’s also a shame that Charlotte’s piece failed to appreciate the political charged nature of this topic and gave ammunition to those who like to marginalize discussions of sex differences as only the province of misogynists.