Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Angela Davis & Global Gender Gaps

The quasi-libertarian climate change skeptic John Tierney has ventured into the territory of Our Innate Differences, and it’s a doozy. His recent New York Times column is a roundup of some recent academic studies demonstrating the pesky persistence of personality and achievement differences between men and women in developed countries.

But the real can of worms has been opened by David Schmitt et al in their article, “Why Can’t A Man Be More Like a Woman?: Sex Differences in Big Five Personality Traits Across 55 Cultures”. Schmitt and his colleagues summarize their conclusions in the following way:
Overall, higher levels of human development – including long and healthy life,
equal access to knowledge and education, and economic wealth – were the main
nation-level predictors of larger sex differences in personality ... It is proposed that heightened levels of sexual dimorphism result from
personality traits of men and women being less constrained and more able to naturally diverge in developed nations. In less fortunate social and economic conditions, innate personality differences between men and women may be attenuated.
So. What they’ve found is that gender personality differences in rich, developed countries are actually more pronounced than in poor, developing countries. That’s fascinating enough as it is. The real whopper is, they attribute this difference to the fact that in countries like the U.S., men and women’s personalities are “less constrained and more able to naturally diverge.”

That’s right ... they went there.

They’re proposing that in a historically patriarchal, racist country like the United States, in which women could not vote until well into the 20th century, in which women still do not receive equal pay for equal work, and in which women are routinely killed by their domestic partners – to name a few issues – women and men’s personalities are “less constrained and more able to naturally diverge” than in, say, a historically patriarchal, racist, post-colonial developing country like Tanzania, in which boys are often sent to school instead of their sisters, in which women perform almost all of the country’s domestic work unpaid, and in which many girls still undergo genital mutilation as a tribal rite of passage – to name a few issues.

Having lived in both countries, I won’t deny that the opportunities provided to most girls and women in the U.S. are infinitely greater than opportunities provided to girls and women in Tanzania. But I don’t think for a second that’s because the United States is a fully enlightened, post-sexist culture in which men can develop freely into breadwinning protectors, and women into nurturing, sensitive caretakers. I’d venture that patriarchy, oppressive gender norms and expectations remain extremely pervasive and powerful here in the Land of the Free.

I believe Angela Davis’ Women, Race & Class (1981) has an important contribution to make on this subject. Davis’s discussion of the gender norms of slaves, compared to the gender norms of middle-class and wealthy whites, is one of the most fascinating I have read. These excerpts come from the first chapter of the book.
The slave system defined Black people as chattel. Since women, no less than men, were viewed as profitable labor-units, they might as well have been genderless as far as the slaveholders were concerned ... Judged by the evolving nineteenth-century ideology of femininity, which emphasized women’s roles as nurturing mothers and gentle companions and housekeepers for their husbands, Black women were practically anomalies. (p. 5)
So it was the utter economic oppression of slavery – in a capitalist United States – which creates the canvas of “genderlessness” on which Black gender equality will be based. Gender relations in this case – in all cases – are directly linked to the economic conditions in which they occur.
Women were not too “feminine” to work in coal mines, in iron foundries or to be lumberjacks and ditch diggers ... Required by their masters’ demands to be as “masculine” in the performance of their work as their men, Black women must have been profoundly affected by their experiences during slavery. Some, no doubt, were broken and destroyed, yet the majority survived and, in the process, acquired qualities considered taboo by the nineteenth-century ideology of womanhood. (pp. 10, 11)
Again, given the right economic conditions (in this case, violently coerced labor), there is apparently no limit to the physical strength and endurance of a woman. For white women, though, the prevailing wisdom was quite different.
As the ideology of femininity – a byproduct of industrialization – was popularized
and disseminated through the new ladies’ magazines and romantic novels, white women came to be seen as inhabitants of a sphere totally severed from the realm of productive work ... “Woman” became synonymous with “mother” and “housewife,” and both bore the fatal mark of inferiority.
But among Black female slaves, this vocabulary was nowhere to be found. (p. 12)
Of course, later, when Black people in the U.S. were no longer slaves, our own government attributed Black social problems to the fact that their women hadn’t yet been subordinated to male authority! Go figure:
The “Moynihan Report” directly linked the contemporary problems of the Black community to the putatively matriarchal family structure ... According to the report’s thesis, the source of [continued Black] oppression was ... a “tangle of pathology” created by the absence of male authortity among Black people! The controversial finale of the Moynihan Report was a call to introduce male authority (meaning male supremacy of course!) into the Black family and the community at large.
So what’s all this got to do with present-day Tanzania, present-day America, and Dr. Schmitt’s study?

Listen, y’all. The nurturing, agreeable personalities of first world women living in present-day global capitalism are no more “natural” than the personalities of 19th century women who stayed inside knitting doilies because their ladies’ magazine said so. The physically powerful, “genderless,” enduring female slave is no more a “natural” phenomenon than the uncomplaining Tanzanian woman who rises at five to begin her housework, and collapses back into bed at eleven.

All these things aren’t equal. These women didn’t, and don’t, lead lives of equal freedom and fairness. There is nothing that compared to the violent exploitation of slavery.

But: We must get away from this idea of “natural” personality traits. Calling one woman’s personality natural, and another woman’s personality “constrained,” is a gross oversimplification of the history and politics that govern their existences. It's an all-too-effective way of obscuring the economic and social forces that are actually shaping their lives, their work, their wages, and yes, their goddamn personalities.

1 comment:

Clumpy said...

I've lived in the third world as well, and in my experience the mild sense of economic urgency permeating everything creates egalitarian cultures far more readily than relative abundance. I'm sure this isn't a worldwide phenomenon.

One thing I've found fascinating is that it isn't an issue so much of men consciously oppressing women as ingrained universal segregation out of the womb. Meaning that parents guard their daughters closer, encourage submissive behavior by punishing boys less severely for fighting (I say this merely to highlight the disparity and not to say that fighting is a positive behavior). Boys are given toys that stand as facsimiles for things that smash and shoot ("Tonka: Built for Boyhood"), and girls are given human-shaped toys you should not smash but should be cared for (again, without saying that one activity is preferable to the other).

A woman with equal qualifications will be given an interview for the secretarial position before one in management, by both a male or female interviewer. If you add race into the factor the different treatment gets even more ridiculous.

So many of the legal roadblocks are gone, which leads some people to get complacent and assume that sexism (or racism) is gone. It's not. Sure, things are better now than they were before (the mere fact that a woman can aspire to a career outside of the service or care industries without stigma is at least encouraging), but there's still a long way to go. As a male frustrated with so much of our culture I see much of modern feminism as an attempt to educate both men and women on the gender disparities we take for granted.

(Case in point for the unconvinced: Any mixed group can be a bunch of "guys", but an individual female cannot be a "guy". Our idioms see "male" as the default. Go fig.)