On my drive home from class last night I caught part of the program On Point with Tom Ashbrook on my NPR station. His guest was Cordelia Fine, psychologist and author of Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference. In the book, Fine’s mission is to expose and disprove the sloppy science used to justify gender stereotypes, which she labels “neurosexism.” From a Washington Post summary:
Fine traces its roots to the mid-19th century, when the “evidence” for inequality included everything from snout elongation to “cephalic index” (ratio of head length to head breadth) to brain weight and neuron delicacy. Back then, the motives for this pseudoscience were transparently political: restricting access to higher education and, especially, the right to vote. In a 1915 New York Times commentary on women’s suffrage, neurologist Charles Dana, perhaps the most illustrious brain scientist of his time, catalogued several differences between men’s and women’s brains and nervous systems, including the upper half of the spinal cord. These differences, he claimed, proved that women lack the intellect for politics and governance.
None of this was true, of course. Not one of Dana’s brain differences withstood the rigors of scientific investigation over time.
Delusions of Gender sounds very similar to The Mismeasure of Man, though I have not read the former. I tuned in as Ashbrook asked Fine about the political and social implications of her book and the so-called science it demolishes. She explained, of course, that the alleged–and real–differences between male and female brains are used to justify personal, social, political, economic sex inequality. But she is more concerned about scientific integrity than sexual politics.
My excitement quickly turned to agitation as Ashbrook began taking calls.
To summarize the first caller, “Are you a mother, Cordelia? Because I used to think the way you do but once I had my four kids I could no longer deny that sex differences are inborn.” Oh here we go. Fine said yes, she is a mother, but her status as a parent has nothing to do with the facts. Gendered stereotypes affect a child’s life even before zie is born, and even well-meaning parents project their own unconscious biases onto young children. Plus, parents are not the only influence on children’s–even babies’–behavior.