90.9 WBUR - Boston's NPR news station
Top Stories:
PLEDGE NOW
Election 2012

"Rosie the Riveter" dressed in overalls and bandanna was introduced as a symbol of patriotic womanhood in the 1940's. Rose Will Monroe played "Rosie the Riveter," the nation's poster girl for women joining the work force during World War II. Monroe was working as a riveter building B-29 and B-24 military airplanes at the Willow Run Aircraft Factory in Ypsilanti, Mich., when she was asked to star in a promotional film about the war effort. (AP Photo)

With the Middle East in turmoil, the economy sluggish and the nation facing a fiscal cliff, who would have thought that female hormones would become a big deal?

It’s been that kind of year.

Republican Rep. Todd Akin of Missouri — who is running for U.S. Senate — created a firestorm earlier this year when he presented his scientific theory of “legitimate rape.”

Women, apparently, have magic hormones that can distinguish when they have been actively raped and when they were just “asking for it.” In the case of the former, the hormones mount a rapid defense and the women don’t get pregnant. In the latter case — whoops, impending motherhood.

Republicans in droves deserted Akin — including GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison — and urged him to pull out of the race against Sen. Claire McCaskill.

Republican Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo. (AP File)

Well, he didn’t. Now, conservative supporters are back to pouring money into his campaign and even the GOP establishment seems to have had a change of heart.

Akin’s argument about the mysterious power of female hormones is hardly new.

In 1947, when some women resisted getting pushed out of their wartime jobs as the soldiers came home, the book “Modern Woman: The Lost Sex” became a bestseller. Its thesis: “Male-emulating [female] careerists have such anxiety about pregnancy that their glands secrete chemicals that destroy fertility.”

Baby-killing hormones in career women!? Good grief, those hormones are versatile.

In 1970, prominent physician Dr. Edgar Berman opined that women were unsuitable for elected office because of their unstable hormones. When U.S. Rep. Patsy Mink of Hawaii, took him to task, he suggested that it was just her raging hormones going out of control. “Even a congresswoman must defer to scientific truths,” he said.

But in the present era, with women sitting on the Supreme Court and flying Space Shuttles, you’d think the old hormones nonsense would have died down.

Think again.

In the 2006 bestseller “The Female Brain,” author Louann Brizendine claims:

“When boys and girls enter their teens, their math and science abilities are equal. But as estrogen floods the female brain, females start to focus intensely on emotions and communication… and start to lose interest in pursuits that require more solitary work.”

This, she explains, is why girls don’t do well in math.

If this was true, it stands to reason that we would see boys’ math scores at this age soaring ahead of girls’ scores, right?

But in 2001, researchers at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill looked at some 20,000 math scores of children ages four to 18 and found no gender differences of any magnitude. Not even in areas that are supposedly male domains — such as reasoning skills and geometry.

A broader argument suggests that the hormones and brain structures of males and females are so different that boys and girls must be educated and parented in very different ways.

In the oft-cited 2004 book “The Essential Difference,” psychologist Simon Baron Cohen claims that the male brain is best for “systematizing,” while the female brain is wired for empathy. According to this theory, the male brain is ideally suited for leadership and power.

The female brain on the other hand is best for making friends, mothering, gossiping, and “reading” a partner. Girls and women, he contends, are so focused on others that they have little interest in figuring out how the world works.

To put things in perspective, it’s worth pointing out that this whole thesis is based on one study that found boy newborns were more drawn to objects, while girl babies were more drawn to faces.

There is also a long list of literature flat-out contradicting Baron-Cohen’s study, providing evidence that male and female infants tend to respond equally to people and objects — regardless of gender.

Cordelia Fine, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Melbourne, says gender myths dress up as science and propagate dangerous new conventional wisdom. In her 2010 work, “Delusions of Gender,” she wrote:

“There’s little evidence for the idea of a male brain hardwired to be good at understanding the world and a female brain hardwired to understand people.”

When people say positive things about female hormones, it’s usually about how verbal and communicative women are, compared to strong, silent men. But even that’s up for debate.

In the “The Female Brain,” Brizendine states that women use 20,000 words per day, while men use only 7,000.

But after conducting a seven year study of men’s and women’s speech, University of Texas, Austin psychologist James Pennebaker found that both genders use roughly the same number of words in a day – approximately 16,000.

Alas, no matter what the data say, there’s always going to be someone who comes up with some other power — or drawback — of those mysterious female hormones. And predictably, those who can benefit from the pseudo-science will be all too happy to exploit it.



Parts of this piece were adapted from “The Truth About Girls and Boys: Challenging Toxic Stereotypes About Our Children” by Caryl Rivers and Rosalind C. Barnett. Copyright © 2011 Caryl Rivers and Rosalind C. Barnett. Reprinted with permission of Columbia University Press.

Tags: Election 2012, Gender, Women's Health

The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_LLH7SFRBBDZ54YLFVP6POB6XAI ANNA

    How the world works IS solved by focusing on others, not systematizing. Cohen makes a false equivalence and then tries to validate it. The problems in the world are so egregious and so entrenched: War, subjugation of women, male ego, etc. Religiosity rubber stamps this patriarchal status quo. If and when humans evolve, the root cause of all this will finally be abandoned. Then and only then will we be able to save ourselves from ourselves. I’m not hopeful.

  • PithHelmut

    The world would be best serviced if every position of power were held by a women with only women-delegated males assisting them. Men are the ones with the problem (beloved though they are) but their problem is testosterone which urges men to do the atrocious things that they do. They of course have control over these urges nevertheless we have seen throughout history and the present day, that men are stuck in a framework they can’t seem to navigate their way out of. Their usual solution is war or coercion not persuasion. Therefore women, if indeed these early studies are true, are more suited to positions of power than are men founded on their more practiced discipline of negotiation rather than domination.

  • Pingback: Is there still gender inequality in the workplace? » College of Communication » Blog Archive » Boston University

  • Pingback: Female Hormones: A Dangerous Myth Persists | Cognoscenti « Composing the Election

  • Pingback: COM in the news: October 2012 » College of Communication » Blog Archive » Boston University

TOP