Our culture is too hung up about what is male and what is female, too quick to assert that there is a man's function and a woman's function and never the twain shall meet. There are functions which men and women easily can share and which they should share. We need to recognize that each of us has within himself the capacity for some male and some female satisfactions. Women can revel in commercial maneuvering, and men can find joy in cooking, in furnishing a house, in feeding and cuddling a baby.
—From an article in PSYCHOLOGY TODAY by Dr. Edward J. Bloustein.
I bet everyone has thought about the proposition that there is natural equality between the sexes. Most educated people pay lip service to the idea that women and men are not necessarily different as far as mental capacities are concerned. Sure, men and women are different; but so are different men different. Yet the notion that the nature of womanhood differs in essentials from that of manhood in matters of the mind (we know about the body, of course) strikes our liberal sentiments off center. If only women try hard, they can be just as brilliant, rational, and creative as men have managed to be. And, of course, men could be just as emotional, gullible, and temperamental as women are reputed to be. The recurring and predominant difference is thought to be accidental.
This is what we think or say we think—when we are being watched. But deep down, in our "honest guts," most of us believe otherwise. We feel certain that there is something, must be something, different about women and men other than what makes us mothers and fathers, respectively. Excepting a few freak cases, e.g., Margaret Mead, we feel, though we will say so only privately, that men are the superior sex; we feel—especially we males—that the advantages gained on us by women are due to devious methods, lack of virtue, or whatnot but by no means due to superior intellect. At least most of us believe this. Lately even some experts—psychologists and sociologists, the "methodless scientists"—have come forth with elaborate theses as to the biological and psychological basis of this difference. The deep-seated prejudice in favor of fundamental intellectual differences between the sexes has conquered some of our intellectuals to the point where the feeling is now assuming scientific respectability. Needless to say, the scientific jargon does not permit terms such as "superior" and "inferior." It puts the matter differently, namely, in terms of "intellectual versus emotional." But of course this amounts to the same thing: men are more suited to cope with the world than are women; which means, men are superior.
But has anyone gone beyond attempting to justify the prejudice: first, our democratic prejudice in favor of equality, then our "romantic" prejudice in favor of inequality? Not really. The biological and statistical bases for upholding either dogma are absent. Biology alone can offer no grounds for embracing either thesis, and statistics cannot be provided due to the immensity of the relevant variables. Since the influence of religion, law, and custom—all of which have much to do with arbitrariness and fiat—has more than its share of responsibility for the way social habits and roles develop, we are not in a position to consider the matter statistically (our most favored tool in popular sociology and in the not-so-popular one, also). We are, therefore, left with armchair speculation, philosophical reasonings, or musings. And I shall embark on these now, in an attempt to get clear on this supposed difference of equality between the sexes.
Man has sought out woman, and vice versa, for centuries, so the circumstances of the sexes haven't changed much. Some form of companionship, brief or lengthy, has always been the object of the search. But in the course of these periods of companionship, decisions affecting both parties have had to be made. Who shall have the tail of the beast, who the head? Such used to be the questions, way back. Now it sounds more like: will we go to Canada or Mexico next year? Or, should Johnny go to Harvard or Yale? In all cases, companionship breeds the need for answers to questions, solutions to problems.
At any rate, since men and women get together, and since togetherness brings a need for answers, decisions have to be made. And here is where the problem arises. Who's gonna make the decisions? Oh, yes; we will decide on the basis of evidence, reason, rational argument, science, etc. Fine. This would be just dandy—provided we knew what these are all about. Clearly, human history is replete with failures at trying to find standards for good judgment. Mostly, except for the physical sciences, we have failed at these attempts. What is good? What is right? Who is good? What makes for evil? Surely none of these questions has been handled scientifically; and surely none appears to be open to rational consideration, at least not just yet.
In the companionship of men and women, the problems which arise and the questions which have to be answered are mostly of the form related above. Because man has failed at providing himself with reasonable standards for the answering of such questions, companionships get undermined in their attempts at harmony whenever matters of such nature are confronted. But the decisions still have to be made. So who will decide? The stronger, the bigger, the more threatening will. Since reasonable agreement is not likely with conditions being what they are in the intellectual department, decisions must be made in accordance with the capacity to enforce them.
In our history we see numerous inequalities between man; these inequalities are usually between segments of the population which must co-operate in some areas of their lives. Thus, for example, in the military the planners rule those who must carry out the plans; in the clergy similar polar positions can be detected; in government we can see how people on various levels assume roles which necessitate final judgment in some areas. In short, as long as the basis of human decision cannot be found in reason—in our ability to come to a rational agreement, understanding of what has to be done—in most situations involving co-operation there will be the rulers and the ruled.
Since man's history experiences periodic upheavals of rationality, the ground for equality does, on these occasions, become firmer. At these upheavals there occurs a breakdown of the ruler/ruled relationship. All kinds of slavery dissolve; groups, united by racial, sexual, religious, economic, or other characteristics, demand equal treatment as to their capacity to make decisions. This demand meets with a level of success that is directly proportionate to the degree of respect which rationality—that is, the adherence to standards of judgment which are justified logically—is gaining. On these occasions those who have been judged (prejudged, actually) inferior can demonstrate their intellectual abilities; since the standards of excellence are objective (not decreed by God or the king) the fact of sexual, racial, or other kinds of equality becomes evident through empirical evidence. Since the physical sciences have long relied on such objective standards, this equality has gained its respect from those involved in science, those who see members of the "inferior" groups perform.
So, when we get to the area of values, an area where most people proclaim the impotence of reason, the need for the ancient inequalities remains. Here, where decisions still have to be made—decisions affecting parties to co-operation and companionship—the possibility of objective standards for judgment has been viewed with pessimism for as long as man has existed. Today, especially, values are all said to be the province of individual, subjective feelings. As the saying goes, "Your bag is your bag, mine is mine—you do your thing and I'll do mine"; which means, don't presume that your standard of right, good, and the like applies to anyone but you. Absolutism in ethics is confused with authoritarianism: therefore, since all of us have had enough of authoritarianism in the past few decades, we must reject the suggestion that morality is universal, applicable to all men.
But morality enters into the daily decisions of every companionship. Wherever men and women are found, there will be plenty of chances for answering moral questions, solving moral problems. So long, however, as these problems cannot be approached reasonably, so long as each question has a different answer by the various parties involved, the need to provide an answer or a solution fitting for all involved can only be met by the application of authority, backed up by force or its threat. This is why in all man/woman relations we immediately look for the boss. We know that the situation calls for moral decisions; we "know" (firmly believe) that these decisions cannot be agreed upon; so we conclude that someone has to be the arbitrary ruler, the person who can enforce his moral sentiments.
In effect, then, the authoritarianism we feared from moral absolutism (the view that there is a standard of morality applicable to all members of the species) pops up as a result of the relativism and subjectivism. This is true even in governmental systems: where no one can know (or prove) what is right, someone will simply get the physical strength to enforce his feelings, his subjective views. Dictatorships are born out of moral uncertainty, moral "agnosticism."
No, it is not true that by nature men and women are intellectually different; neither is superior to the other by virtue of sex, though, to be sure, individual differences in intellect between various people do exist. Our feeling that men are superior is derived from a tradition of male authority; our lack of deep, rationally based conviction that the sexes are equal stems from the absence of a standard to demonstrate this equality in the areas where we have most to do with one another, romance and family. While in business, education, science, etc., women may indeed have demonstrated their equality, in the home, in crises involving morals, they cannot do so simply because few of us recognize any standards of excellence in moral reasoning.
When deep "in our guts" we think that women are inferior, that they are more emotionally disposed, that they have lesser intellectual capacity than men, it would be good to check the grounds for such thinking. Where do the examples of woman's inferiority arise? In what circumstances do women find themselves helpless? How does it happen that they give in, at times?
Perhaps, after rethinking the matter in its full context, we will work on those areas which prevent us from making the equality of capacity work to the fullest. In fact, we might see to it that moral decisions need not be made by fiat but in accordance with reason. There is little question in my mind that under such conditions women will be able to demonstrate their equality without threatening the position of the male—a position which he has gained by default by his superior strength and which he is losing not to reason but to the social power women are slowly acquiring. Instead of switching the role of superior/inferior, hopefully we might do away with these categories altogether in favor of rationality.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Equality and the Sexes".