Taking Science Seriously

Conservative dogma about sex roles ignores inconvenient realities.


The feminist denial of biological differences between the sexes can be downright hilarious. Who could forget Gloria Steinem, interviewed by ABC's John Stossel in 1995, deriding research on sex differences in the human brain as "anti-American crazy thinking"? In some quarters it's still a dogma that all sex differences in social roles, behavior, and attitudes are the result of the "social construction of gender."

In the face of this "biodenial," as the scholars Daphne Patai and Noretta Koertge dub the phenomenon, conservatives are supposed to be the voice of common sense defending the basic realities of human nature. It's a necessary job: A rigid orthodoxy of androgyny is likely to have adverse consequences, both personal and political (such as aggressive, coercive efforts to eliminate disparities that might be rooted in inherent male-female differences). Unfortunately, the conservative critique careens to the opposite extreme, as if there were nothing between Gloria Steinem and June Cleaver.

A case in point is Taking Sex Differences Seriously (Encounter Books), a new book by Stephen E. Rhoads that bears blurbs from such conservative luminaries as Francis Fukuyama and Danielle Crittenden.

Rhoads, who teaches public policy at the University of Virginia, marshals scientific data in support of supposedly traditional wisdom about the sexes. Unfortunately, he mixes genuinely interesting information and analysis with dubious generalizations, slim or anecdotal evidence, and sometimes downright junk science. And his conclusions can be distilled to such hoary precepts—e.g., girls who are too smart or too ambitious will have trouble landing a husband—that one feels like making a beeline for the nearest chapter of the National Organization for Women. With friends like these, human nature needs no enemies.

There is indeed a growing amount of research pointing to innate psychological differences between men and women. But there are several caveats. For one thing, scientific knowledge in such areas as brain neurochemistry and the link between hormones and behavior is still in its relatively early stages; much remains unknown, inconclusive, or poorly understood. Brain organization and hormonal makeup, for instance, may be influenced by human activities and environment.

Perhaps more important, nearly all sex differences are characterized by vast overlap: Generally, a trait more typical of one sex will occur in the other sex 35 percent to 45 percent of the time. Of the two brain-difference studies most widely publicized in the 1990s, one found the "male" pattern of brain activity in 40 percent of women; the other found the "female" pattern in about a third of men.

Rhoads occasionally acknowledges both the shortcomings of the research and the variability within each sex. But once he moves past the disclaimers, Taking Sex Differences Seriously drowns in generalizations. Men are competitive, dominance-seeking, aggressive, and ambitious; women are nurturers and peacemakers with a "taste for harmonious, egalitarian connections." (As the very sensible feminist Elizabeth Fox-Genovese wrote some years ago, no one who has been snubbed by a high school girls' clique could ever make such a claim with a straight face.) Men want careers and sex; women want marriage and babies.

Rhoads rarely clarifies the extent of these gender gaps. By and large, he is content with such broad statements as, "When asked how they would like to be described, men use words like dominant, assertive, independent. Women asked the same question say loving, generous, sensitive." All men? All women? In studies measuring these attitudes, women's ratings of the importance of such traits as compassion and sensitivity to others' needs may be all of 10 percent higher than men's.

When Rhoads does cite figures, they aren't exactly overwhelming. For instance, about half of male college freshmen and 68 percent of their female peers say that "helping others in difficulty" is "a very important or essential life objective." (In reality, it should be noted, men are as likely as women to give to charity, and they spend only slightly less time on volunteer work despite their greater involvement in the paid work force.)

Elsewhere, Rhoads reveals that 81 percent of high school girls but "only 72 percent of boys" say having a good marriage is extremely important. He doesn't mention another poll in which 73 percent of teenage girls and 61 percent of boys said they could have happy lives even if they didn't marry.

Of course there are plenty of real, observable differences, on average, in the attitudes, preferences, and behavior of men and women—most notably in the areas of child rearing and sex. These differences probably are due to a mix of biological and cultural factors.

Few people outside the radical fringe of the feminist academy would disagree with Rhoads on these points. Furthermore, his policy prescriptions are mostly sound. The government, he writes, should not hold college athletic programs to an artificial standard of "parity" based on the assumption that men and women have identical levels of interest in sports. Maximizing parental choice—to raise children full-time, to place them in child care in an informal setting, or to use institutional day care—is better than a taxpayer-subsidized, one-size-fits-all model of universal day care.

Unfortunately, Taking Sex Differences Seriously is to some extent a diatribe against personal choices that don't fit the traditionalist mold. A woman who seeks career success and power outside the home, Rhoads tells his readers, "will have to be as agile as Spiderman if she is to be happily married as well."

Couples who believe either parent can stay at home with the children are cautioned that, while less maternal employment is beneficial for the children, less paternal employment is likely to have the opposite effect. (Here, Rhoads relies on studies that make no distinction between fathers who choose to stay home and those who are involuntarily unemployed or underemployed.) Rhoads almost gleefully recounts the story of an ambitious professional woman who developed such contempt for her homemaker husband that she refused to have sex with him and started having affairs with her colleagues.

Anecdote is heaped upon anecdote to show that working mothers are doomed to misery and that highly successful women are quitting their careers in droves to tend to the home fires. Some of Rhoads' examples don't tell the whole story. He mentions that in 1996 Democrat Blanche Lambert Lincoln of Arkansas "decided not to run for reelection to the House of Representatives when she found that she was carrying twins"—but he leaves out the somewhat inconvenient fact that two years later Lincoln ran for the U.S. Senate and won.

Rhoads trots out the usual suspects—Gloria Steinem, Jane Fonda, Simone de Beauvoir—to show that even feminist women are drawn to higher-status dominant men. For some reason, we never hear about Margaret Thatcher, a very powerful woman who seems to have had a very happy marriage to a non-alpha male.

To top it all off, Rhoads ends his book with a call to women: "Men like challenges. Women might ask them to step up and be real providers, leaving women more time and capacity to better fulfill the domestic role." They should also, he counsels, allow men to be "the ostensible head of households" as an incentive to marry, while wielding a subtler power through their feminine wiles.

Some feminists will probably say Rhoads' retro message is dangerous to women. More likely, these odd flights of nostalgia will make his book irrelevant. Americans do not, as the statistics cited by Rhoads show, embrace "androgyny." But rigid gender roles are growing steadily less popular, particularly among young people. It is now widely recognized that feminists were wrong to denigrate the traditionally feminine choices made by many women. It is just as wrong and just as myopic for conservatives to denigrate freely chosen nontraditional ways of life.