Monday, September 22, 2014

Should feminism require us to reprogram women?

I was walking by the local sports field the other day and one of the area schools was using it to have a girls' gym class play touch football. The girls were probably about 14 years old and they were, as will come as no surprise to anyone who is familiar with the skill sets of most teenage girls, just awful at football. There are, of course, some girls who are very good at football. But if you pull a typical girls gym class and make them do a unit of football, they aren't going to do well.

And then something really touching happened. There were about ten incomplete passes in a row until one girl actually caught a ball. As it happened, she was one of the defenders so her catch was an interception. When she caught the ball, all the other girls from both teams stopped and cheered her and then they celebrated as a team. Both teams celebrated as a single team. In the girls' eyes, it was a more important achievement that one of them had actually caught  the ball than that one team should score points at the expense of another.

This was, as I say, wonderful to see.

It wasn't, however, football. The woman teaching the class had to yell at the girls to get them to start playing. The one who caught the ball just stood there instead of running for the goal line and none of the girls on the opposing team attempted to touch her to bring the play to a close.

I read elsewhere about a year ago that some researchers were claiming that they had proved that girls have all the necessary cognitive abilities to do as well, and perhaps better, than boys do at math and science if, wait for it, the girls are forced to do math and science. The problem is that girls tend to drop math and science courses as soon as they have the option.

I'll flash back here to a post I put up almost five years ago now. In it I talked about an article that Emily Bazelon had written about her attempts to show her sons that girls too could be interested in science. The problem was that while Bazelon approves of women who are interested in the science in the abstract, she herself is not terribly interested. Her sons easily surpass her in science because they care much more, which isn't surprising given that they're boys.

Bazelon is interested in fiction "about" science though.
Simon [one of her sons] and I recently read aloud The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, in which a girl in Texas at the turn of the 20th century drinks in Darwin and helps her grandfather look for undiscovered species.
I haven't read the book so I couldn't say where there is much science in it or if the science is accurately represented. What I want you to notice, though, is what Bazelon says the book is about. For her, it is a book about a girl who helps her grandfather. That makes me think of girls on a football team stopping to cheer the player from an opposing team who actually caught a ball even though that works against their team's interest.

The point here is not that girls are benevolent and cooperative while boys are confrontational and competitive. Anyone who has even vague memories of high school and university will remember that girls use the group dynamic to crush other girls who threaten them just as easily as they use it to support others. The girls I saw cheered the girl who actually caught the ball because the game had been an exercise in frustration for all of them. It isn't hard to imagine a situation where the same sort of dynamic would be used to punish the girl who was either much better or much worse than the others.

The point is that girls are much more interested in the social dimension of activities than boys are and they damn well will go on being girls whether others want them to or not. 
Ann Althouse recently challenged Rush Limbaugh's claim that ESPNW columnist Kate Fagan said we need to reprogram men:
But Fagan didn't say "reprogramming men." She said "reprogramming how we raise men." Who's getting reprogrammed? Which human beings are analogized to computers and capable of programming? It's got to be those who are raising men, which is mostly women — mothers (more than fathers) and early childhood educators (mostly women). So in fact, in Fagan's statement itself, Rush was encountering what he says he never runs across: a suggestion that women need to be reprogrammed. He doesn't notice it when he sees it, perhaps because reprogramming women is so deeply embedded in the culture that it just looks natural. Feminists continually pressure for the reprogramming of women. That's what the "lean in" campaign is all about.
First a qualification: I think Althouse is pushing the careful parsing a bit here. I suspect that Limbaugh got it right and the Fagan did indeed mean that boy's education needs to be reshaped so that men are programmed to think differently. Fagan sees domestic violence as being a problem with men generally and not with some men and women. That said, I think Althouse's deeper point is correct: ultimately, this project means reprogramming women.

First, Althouse is quite right in noting that education, bot at home and in school, is dominated by women. And it has been for a long, long time. My father, who is in his 80s, had mostly male teachers. I'm in my mid 50s and the majority of my teachers were women. I asked one of my nephews a while ago and he said he had only two male teachers in high school—one who taught gym and the other taught math. Second, she is right in noting that a lot of feminist arguments really are about reprogramming women, and "lean in" is a only the latest example.

Now, some feminists would argue that the real problem is that social pressures already are programming girls and women in ways that restrict their choices to take up math, science and touch football. You will only argue for "reprogramming" if you believe that there is already some programming taking place.  The unspoken part of the argument is a claim that after the revolution is over all "programming" could be removed because everyone would finally be free to do what they want. (It's not an accident that this part is left unspoken; just to say it inspires distrust.)

The problem is that, left to their own devices, most women embrace sexually defined roles. And they have done so more and more aggressively these last few decades. After the revolution—and feminism really changed things in our culture—women have returned to sexually defined roles as quickly as they could. (Boys, not so much, but that's a subject for another day.) As restrictions on women's dress have become freer and freer, thanks to feminism, more and more girls and young women embraced the opportunity to dress in a more sexual fashion. Given the freedom to do what they want, girls seek to define themselves in terms of their sexuality.

Back when I was in university in the 1980s, I had a male professor who gave a lecture claiming that gender differences were disappearing and his primary example was clothing. He flashed up image after image of gender neutral fashion. The problem was he had a theory he was so enamoured with that he couldn't see that young women in the classroom completely contradicted it. They were all dressed in a very feminine fashion and not in the "unisex" (what a dated sound that once new word now has) clothing he wanted them to be wearing.

Of course, it remains possible to continue to argue that this is all do to social norms that force women into behaviours they don't really want while barring most women from math, sciences and senior management but that gets harder to maintain every year. There are enough women who have succeeded in these fields that they could be presented as role models for girls and young women if only we could get more women to pay attention. 

Meanwhile, I am pretty certain the girls in the gym class were happier once they were allowed to stop playing football so they could dow hat they really wanted.

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