The Magazine

Love in the Ruins

Men, women, and the way we live now.

Aug 2, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 44 • By HARVEY MANSFIELD
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The studies Rhoads summarizes show how far our official doctrine of gender neutrality is from the truth. Most were made by social psychologists attracted to feminism, such as Alice Eagly, Diane Halpern, and Eleanor Maccoby, who expected to discover that sex differences were little or nothing. They found otherwise, and they had the courage to say so. Rhoads himself conducted a study of married female assistant professors--surely, next to unmarried female assistant professors, the second most progressive group in the American population. Although they said that husbands and wives should share equally around the home, in fact they did many more of the tasks, and what's more, enjoyed doing them. (Even changing diapers.) Rhoads concludes that despite the women's movement there has been no decline in sex stereotyping by people generally, who see men as more ambitious and competitive than women. And the sexes still use traditional stereotypes to describe themselves, men seeing themselves as more assertive, women as more tender-minded.

Rhoads quotes F. Carolyn Graglia's description of a mother's job as "cheerful responsiveness to constant interruptions." Of course if you are serious about a career, you have to gain control of your schedule and secure yourself against the relentless, unapologetic claims your children make on your time. But if you are serious about being a mother, you have to be receptive to your children and not look outside your family for your happiness. Women are more likely to want to nurture, as is shown in the facts (confirmed by social science studies) that girls like dolls and boys like cars and guns, and that boys play rough and girls do not.

Nonetheless, some women desire careers and thrive in them; others prefer the traditional roles--an opposition that Graglia calls a war. Each party hurts the other: the traditional women by doing more than half the housework, which makes it harder for the careerist women to teach their husbands equality; and the careerist women by disdaining men's fidelity and refusing their courtesies, which are vital to traditional women. To explain the difference, Rhoads proposes that there are really two kinds of women differing in the amount of testosterone they carry. If so, it would seem difficult to satisfy both kinds at once. Are there also two kinds of men--since manly men look down on effeminate men?

A third theme of sex differences is that women are the weaker sex. To be sure, most men are weaker than the strongest men, but in the case of women, weakness pertains to the sex as a whole. A woman seeks in a man "someone to look up to," of greater height and strength than herself, while a man wants just the opposite--someone shorter, smaller, younger, and less intelligent than he, whom he can protect: in sum, a quite irrational choice from a woman's viewpoint. Women like men with status; and well-off women like Lady Macbeth--who, you would think, have enough status--want more of it in their husbands than do other women.

Women can be as aggressive as men, but the aggression is "relational." So, too, women's anger is more bitter, as it is more likely to be frustrated than men's. They rage at men in a way that men do not rage at women. "Starting in 1970," says Rhoads, "women have been more depressed and unhappy than they used to be."

THIS SEEMS the price of going against nature--although Rhoads does not quite say so. Taking sex differences seriously means attributing them to something permanent in us rather than to social construction. But we no longer have a way of understanding the permanent structure of things as nature. At this point in the argument, both sides in these debates typically appeal to evolutionary theory, but quite what "evolutionary psychology" tells us remains hotly debated.

Evolution suggests that nothing is permanent and everything is constructed over time, only very gradually and in a sense not by human choice. Applied to human psychology, we seem to be left with men who are supposed to seek many mates, and women one or few. This is not really a choice: It was a "selection" determined slowly over eons. Therefore men living now have a "nature" that in theory must change but in practice cannot be changed because it would take too long. Evolution makes us better by validating every change that occurs, since we are made to select whatever change enables us to survive better. So we are progressive beings full of hope for a better future but fitted out with conservative natures made long ago that constitute a heavy drag on our hopes.