Posted by Sreya Salim 

In Cambridge University’s library, there are three letters that show how women have been looked upon throughout the development of modern science. The first is a request from Mrs. Caroline Kennard, a well-known advocate of women’s rights and a scientist herself, addressed to Charles Darwin. She requests him to clarify his views on women and gender. Darwin had, in many of his discourses argued that male brains are intellectually superior to female ones and that women have in them biologically imprinted moral qualities like empathy and intuition.

Consequently, many of his followers considered women closer to animals and ‘non-Europeans’. In the reply he wrote to Kennard, not only did Darwin reassert these stereotypes, but he also wrote that women would be better off not aspiring to a life beyond their homes. The third letter is Kennard’s furious response in which she writes, “Let the ‘environment’ of women be similar to that of men and with his opportunities, before she be fairly judged, intellectually his inferior, please.”

not only did Darwin reassert stereotypes, but he also wrote that women would be better off not aspiring to a life beyond their homes.

For centuries, science has remained married to the age and prejudices it lived through. Anthropology mostly portrayed mighty aggressive men going out to hunt game, while women stayed back, tending to their children, despite there being female hunters in many tribes. A large number of Darwin’s followers considered men evolutionarily superior to women. Psychiatry until the late 20th century dictated that women are naturally predisposed to emotional breakdowns. For a long time, European academic medicine taught that female semen and womb were sources of constant pathologies and stresses.

Francis Galton, an eminent scientist often called the father of Eugenics made a ‘beauty map’ of Britain after secretly observing local women, rating them from the ugliest to the most beautiful. Dr. Charles.L.Landa, a noted British Neuroscientist, in an article he wrote in New York Times in 1915 argued that women lacked the nervous stability to vote. A woman’s upper spinal cord is smaller than a man’s and hence it affects women in their ‘efficiency’ in the evaluation of “political initiative or of judicial authority in a community’s organisation”. In fact, the cloak of scientific authority has many a times been used to subjugate and subordinate women.

Cordelia Fine, in her book Delusions of Gender coined the term neurosexism for the the prejudice against women supported by flawed and ambiguous evidence. Neurosexist studies have mostly revolved around differences between male and female brains. Everything from snout length to cephalic index has been used for centuries to illustrate the differences between men and women. Ramifications of such research have lead to a list of sex differences such as men being better at mathematics, spatial relations and logic and women excelling at nurturing, languages and empathy. However, recent research is rewriting the entire story, breaking down the sexist backdrop and biases involved in these studies.

Also read: How Biological Determinism Perpetuates Sexism Using ‘Science’

In 1888, Helen Hamilton Gardener, a prominent suffragist gave a talk titled Sex in Brain at the convention of International council of Women, Washington D.C. Her arguments were against the popular claims that an average female brain weighs five ounces lesser than a male brain and hence women are less intelligent. She was incensed that scientific facts were being twisted to hold back women from fighting for equality.

She spared significant amount of time and effort in gathering knowledge necessary to challenge these notions. She corresponded with more than twenty leading experts in Neuroscience and anatomy across New York. Her opponents included some of the most distinguished doctors and scientists of the era. If size is proportionate to intelligence, “An elephant may out think us”, she wrote.

The backlash was immediate, with Gardener being mocked and challenged publicly. “We may predict with confidence that even under the most favourable conditions as to culture, and even supposing the mind of man to remain stationary. It must take many centuries for heredity to produce the missing five ounces of female brain”, opined George John Romanes, an eminent evolutionary biologist. Today, it has been well accepted that brain size is proportionate to body size and not intellect. People with smaller bodies have smaller brains too.

Neurofeminist scholars critically evaluate the heteronormative assumptions of  brain research and examine the impact of the same on society’s views about gender.

Recent studies show that behavioural characteristics and sex differences don’t fall into two neat, dichotomous categories. The very concept of male and female brain is being challenged. Daphna Joel’s theory, published in 2015, states that rather than being distinctly male or female, brain is a mosaic of characteristics. In any person, one may find features in a form that is more prevalent in men and more prevalent in women. Hence, there is no such thing as an average male or an average female brain. Our brains are in fact intersex. The small biological differences between the brains of men and women are easily reinforced by the society, creating huge gender gaps.

With the advent of new research, we also see science becoming more inclusive towards the LGBTQIA+ community. Homosexuality was excluded from the list of psychiatric disorders towards the end of the 20th century. Gender studies is now a field of renewed interest with a number of exciting research projects going on. It is no longer considered acceptable when gays and lesbians were subjected to corrective rape, chemical castration, masturbatory reconditioning and aversive treatments. There is now a large body of evidence that people belonging to any part of the spectrum are absolutely compatible with normal mental, physical and social well being. Hand in hand with the new research, rainbows are high up in the horizon, with many countries moving towards legalisation of homosexuality, transgender welfare agencies, gender sensitisation, and other queer friendly policies.

In 2012, a group of researchers in Neuroscience and gender studies across the globe formed The NeuroGenderings Network to study how social norms, life experiences, biology, and lab conditions affect the results of neuroscientific studies. The term neurofeminism was coined as a counterpoint to neurosexism. Neurofeminist scholars critically evaluate the heteronormative assumptions of contemporary brain research and examine the impact of the same on society’s views about gender.

Though scientific method has often been upheld as the gold standard of objectivity, the reality is that scientific research is an inherently social and political activity that has far reaching implications from the confines of a laboratory. Science has remained a battle ground for gender debates for a long time. For centuries, it was kept away from the reach of women. Its principles have often been manipulated and distorted to project male superiority, to snatch away choice and consent from women, to subjugate gender minorities. Today, with more and more projects incorporating feminism and female perspectives into science, women are reclaiming their positions in laboratories.

Also read: Is Science Free From Gender Bias?

At school, I remember being told to keep away from sports, to walk with poise, to sit still, and to keep my lips pursed. “Women are weak”, we were told, “born with dirty bodies and delicate minds”. Biology classes were replete with reminders on how girls have to remain pure and pristine. There were carefully crafted, ‘science-coated’ stories on menstruating women being impure and outgoing girls being immoral. Some day, I want to walk back all the way down the narrow lanes and tell my fifteen year old self that she is the grand daughter of a witch who was burned. For all the women lynched, cornered, and hemmed in, I would want her to look around, ask questions and understand that for someone who pays attention To science, it is hard to not be a feminist.

References

  1. Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong – and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story by Angela Saini.
  2. Delusions of Gender: The Real Science Behind Sex Differences by Cordelia Fine
  3. Neurofeminism and Feminist Neurosciences: a Critical Review of Contemporary Brain Research by S. Schmitz and G. Hoppner.
  4. Sociology of Mental Health and Illness by A. Rogers and D. Pilgrim.

Sreya is a Doctor. Woman. Writer. Feminist. Sift through her idiosyncrasies, and you will find an old table, a cup of coffee, dusty books, dandelion blooms and carefully crafted daydreams. Follow her on Facebook.

Featured Image Source: Exepose

1 COMMENT

  1. Hey,

    You misunderstand Daphna Joel’s arguments, that are already grounded on some methodologically poor research. You write:

    “In any person, one may find features in a form that is more prevalent in men and more prevalent in women. Hence, there is no such thing as an average male or an average female brain.”

    But there is. By average male and female brains, we refer to brains that have all of the features that you refer to in their average form. Most things in physiology don’t give us between-sex distinctions, but rather bimodal distributions. An analogue to male and female faces is apt here. We know that men on average have a bigger nose than women, so I guess you could say that there is an “average male nose” and an “average female nose” in the context of size. Take all possible features of the face, and you can construct an “average male face” or an “average female face”. Of course, in any person, you may find features in a form that is more prevalent in men and more prevalent in women.

    The same applies for the brain, where men and women exhibit non-aligned distributions in a huge number of measurable phenotypes. These range from microstructure to the systems-level structure, as well as many different functions. This is all very unsurprising, given that there is some level of sexual dimorphism in most organs, from skin to hair to respiratory system to endocrine system etc. You call biological differences in the brain small, which is fair in an everyday context, where the role of environment and social factors undisputedly play a massive role in determining behavior, personalities, and power structures. But to neuroscience, some of those differences are absolutely crucial.

    As a neuroscientist, I’m concerned that the feminist section, that is attempting to downplay or even renounce sex differences in the brain, is doing a massive disservice not only to the academia, but also to the society. Funding agencies are already cognizant of the implications of findings in biology on sociopolitical issues, and this creates different kinds of biases in the scientific progress.

    Another, more concrete issue is that when using lab animals, because the sex differences are large enough to significantly increase variability and error, and reduce the effect size of the experiment. Scientists often opt to use only male mice, because if the between-animal variability is smaller, the effects of e.g. a pharmacological treatment on the dependent variable are more likely to be significant. The standard for generalizability of course is to include animals of both sexes, but the idea about sex differences being small makes this standard feel like a waste of resources. As a result, many drugs are essentially designed for males. This obviously has implications on healthcare, and further increases the inequality between men and women.

    This is an important article for its historical relevance to feminism. We have come a long way from thinking women are less intelligent due to their reduced brain mass or cortical thickness. I think today, it is extremely important, also for gender equality, that we correctly understand what makes men and women different, and then figure out what to do with this information to make the world a more equal place.

    Samu

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