You don’t have to look far to find sexual inequality in the world of politics. Some 97 years since women in the United States won the right to vote, the idea that the “gentler sex” is less suited to historically male-dominated fields persists. In February, Utah Republican James Green claimed equal pay legislation would hinder family heads (assumed to be male) from making “enough [money] to support their families and allow the Mother to remain in the home to raise and nurture the children.” In 2012, Wisconsin Republican Glenn Grothman claimed “money is more important for men”, insisting that a woman “takes time off, raises kids, is not ‘go go go’”.
Earlier this year, Janusz Korwin-Mikke, a European Parliament member, was blunter:
“Women must earn less than men because they are weaker, they are smaller, they are less intelligent.”
Building a case that men and women perceive the world in fundamentally different ways, Sigmund Freud once wrote that women “show less sense of justice than men”, that they are “less ready to submit to the great exigencies of life”, and that they are “more often influenced in their judgements by feelings of affection or hostility.”
The Freudian view of human sexual dimorphism, the result of psychoanalytic scholarship undertaken in a society heavily influenced by Victorian gender norms, has stubbornly persisted into the age of Popperian science. But modern analysis reveals just how few physical variations there really are between human males and females.
“Sex differences in the brain are irresistible to those looking to explain stereotypic differences between men and women,” says Lise Eliot, co-author of a new meta-analysis on sexual dimorphism in the hippocampus. “And they often make a big splash. But as we explore multiple data sets and are able to coalesce very large samples of males and females, we find these differences often disappear or are trivial.”
Eliot’s study examined more than 6,000 structural MRI scans, revealing “no significant difference in hippocampal size between men and women”. Previous meta-analyses, the study notes, have debunked dimorphic claims about the corpus callosum and language processing centers, respectively.
The scientific evidence leads us to a foregone conclusion: that most perceived differences between men and women are almost certainly a construct of society. Arguments for the immutability of female gender roles, that women have always served a consistent “natural” purpose in societies throughout history, are as dated and incorrect as the forgotten pseudoscience of phrenology. That cultural anthropology bears this out should come as little surprise to the historically literate. Women have shifted roles and status in human societies since we began keeping records. Viking women are a salient example.
“To assume that Viking men were ranked above women is to impose modern values on the past, which would be misleading,” says Marianne Moen, a Nordic researcher. Taking issue with longstanding assumptions about the burial site of two women, Moen says:
”Since the Oseberg mound contained two women, the burial site has been analyzed as a unique find, without reference to similar sites. The finding is very similar to the Gokstadskipet longboat, which is regarded as the grave of a powerful and influential king. So why [aren’t they] regarded in the same way?”
“There are several indicators that these women were powerful in their own right – but by defining one of them as a queen it is implied that her significance was due to who she was married to or had mothered… Our perception of religion’s influence in the society is based on texts written hundreds of years afterwards, by men from a different and more misogynistic religion.”
For some, the proposition that foundational theories of history may be biased misinterpretations of historical evidence is an unsettling one. But scholarship is nothing without continuous critical revision. A fact not lost on today’s historians and cultural anthropologists, but one that evidently sails above the heads of today’s folksy pro-family politicians.
“While I think men and women are equal, they are also different”, Australian PM Tony Abbott once said. “And I think it’s inevitable and I don’t think it’s a bad thing at all that we always have, say, more women doing things like physiotherapy and an enormous number of women simply doing housework.”
“A debate between a man and woman is very complicated,” Miguel Arias Cañete, a Spanish politician, said in 2014. “Because if you abuse your intellectual superiority, or whatever it may be, you end up looking like a machista who is cornering a defenseless woman.”
The five sexist quotes I’ve presented in this article come directly from male politicians. None of them were uncontroversial. James Green was forced to walk back his position. Glenn Grothman’s arguments were met with predictable backlash on social media. An exchange between Korwin-Mikke and another European parliament member, Iratxe Garcia Perez, went viral. “I am here to protect all European women from men like you”, she said to applause.
Bipartisan denigration of women
But what does seem to be uncontroversial is a bipartisan tendency for online commentators to denigrate women they disagree with politically. Kellyanne Conway, it has been noted, is popularly portrayed as a haggard slut–a sexist criticism sometimes justified as a metaphor for “whoring” herself to the administration that employs her. As with Melania Trump, a non-politician with the great misfortune to be the wife of a historically loathed president, Conway’s perceived sexual looseness is a frequent target of online vitriol. So too is it true of Hillary Clinton, a woman with political demons so pervasive it’s absurd in its own right for anyone to resort to sexist critiques.
It’s easy to brush off sexism in the online world as mattering little in everyday life. But social media is nothing if not a reflection of the dominant culture’s thoughts, feelings, and attitudes. As women enter male-dominated fields in greater numbers, instances of interpersonal sexism will continue–fueled by the dimwitted presumption of 19th Century thinkers that something, material or immaterial, separate the sexes into a binary of responsibilities and expectations. We women and men of the 21st Century will work diligently to brighten our collective bulbs.