Female Facts


Women: Psychology's Puzzle, by Joanna Bunker Rohrbaugh, New York: Basic Books, 1979, 505 pp., $15.00.

Women may, in some sense, be libertarianism's puzzle too. On the one hand, the novels of Ayn Rand have had enormous influence on making female heroes and female equality explicit components of libertarian thinking. Yet, paradoxically, Rand herself has asserted: "Man is by his nature, metaphysically, dominant." Meanwhile, back in 1974, the just as influential Murray Rothbard chortled over and praised a book in a discipline outside his own field, written by an obscure sociologist who claimed that there are inherent sex differences and that women are born to be dominated (The Inevitability of Patriarchy, by Steven Goldberg, reviewed in Books for Libertarians).

Although many libertarians reject or at least question such sexist attitudes, there has been little in-print discussion of female equality. So many have not known where to turn for research evidence to support a nonsexist view. But now, profeminist psychology gets "equal time."

With breathtaking comprehensiveness, psychologist Joanna Bunker Rohrbaugh first summarizes what the research literature tells us about female psychology and gender differences in five key areas—biology, personality, social roles, bodily functions, and mental health—and then compares these studies with women's own experiences. Leaving no major question in regard to female psychology unexamined, Rohrbaugh looks at all the important relevant studies and theories, both those that argue for inherent biological differences and those that see social factors as the determinants of sex differences in behavior. She critically evaluates, rather than merely reports, the evidence, zeroing in on flaws in the studies with sharp insight and pointing out the questions not yet answered on the basis of the existing evidence.

In the chapters on biology, Rohrbaugh explores the most controversial but crucial questions: Are women born to be dominated? Are there innate differences in intellectual abilities? Do hormones play a major role in affecting emotions, nurturance, and the menstrual cycle? Drawing on The Psychology of Sex Difference by Maccoby and Jacklin, the most exhaustive and authoritative review of the literature, as well as subsequent studies, she concludes that the overwhelming preponderance of evidence suggests that social rather than biological factors are the determinants of sex differences in behavior. Innate difference in level of aggression—the only biological difference Maccoby and Jacklin are willing to concede—is, in Rohrbaugh's opinion, still not conclusively proven.

Rohrbaugh, in a criticism also expressed by other psychologists, goes on to point out that not all social influences are in the environment. Looking at three major theories of female psychology, she shows that psychology itself has its own sex bias and distortions. Taking on psychoanalytic theory first, she demonstrates the lack of scientific evidence to support Freud's misogynist views about penis envy and the Oepidus complex. Even Kohlberg's cognitive-developmental theory, which stresses social factors far more than Freud's does, comes under indictment. Though less blatant than Freud, Kohlberg sees not just the penis but the entire male body as connoting most of what it means to be human. Only social learning theory, which attributes all behaviorial differences to social factors, is, in Rohrbaugh's view, free of sex bias.

I cannot praise this book too highly. Though comprehensive and thorough, it is easy to read even for those with no background in psychology and is never dull or dry. In a measured tone that is never polemical but always firmly and consistently feminist, Rohrbaugh thoughtfully examines the major issues of female psychology, destroying the myths of innate sex differences with careful documentation from the discipline most qualified to deal with these questions. If you must read only one book on the subject, this is the one.

Sharon Presley is completing her Ph.D. in personality and social psychology at the City University of New York.