Feminism has made enough real gains that organizing women to struggle together as a special interest group is often counterproductive, as it encourages the development of a victimized group mentality, rather than encouraging women to develop as individual people. While ostensibly trying to break down gender barriers, women’s advocacy groups often end up making gender an issue where it otherwise wouldn’t be.
Last spring, President Summers stumbled onto a feminist hornets’ nest when he posited that perhaps there are fewer female scientists because of “inherent differences” between men and women. The resulting swarm not only managed to avoid considering the possibility that he may have had a point, but insisted on an even more offensive explanation. The underlying assumption was as follows: Why would a woman not become a scientist? Because she has been convinced that she is not smart enough. Why would a man not become a scientist? Because he doesn’t want to.
This supposed defense of “women in science” simultaneously implies that women have no agency in their own decisions about their studies and also emphasizes the “woman” over the “science.” A male chemist is a scientist, and his achievements are to his own credit. A female chemist is a “woman in science.” She has something to prove, and her achievements go to the credit of women in her field, or even in general.It is worth adding that these arguments are made almost exclusively by women who are not “in” science. In both the math and physics departments, the individuals I’ve met are busy trying to prove themselves with real work, rather than making excuses about irrelevant factors like gender.
The disproportionate number of women in science indicates that there must be disproportionately few men in some other discipline—English, for example. Yet, we hardly ever hear about them; in fact, we rarely hear anything about masculine gender roles, though it appears that these are often even more rigid. Female doctors are now completely commonplace, but male nurses still warrant notice. Suggest that a woman ought to cook dinner because of some inherent ability, and you may end up eating a lonely meal of take-out, but what man would take offense at the assumption that he ought to be the one to mow the lawn and fix the plumbing?
Undeniably, there are substantive inequalities between the opportunities available to women and men; the proposed solutions, however, are often bewildering. On further consideration, it becomes clear that the goal of these efforts is to satisfy the women’s lobby, rather than actually improving the situation of women. The much-touted Women’s Center, for example, will probably do very little to improve the number of women in tenure-track positions on the faculty—but it will do a lot to make the Radcliffe Union of Students happy, along with other groups on campus that ostensibly advocate for women.
It will also underscore the status of women as a special interest group. What do we need a Women’s Center for that we can’t do in any other space on campus? To gather together, one might assume, and celebrate our femininity, what makes us special, our—dare I say it?—innate differences.
Virginia A. Fisher, a Crimson news comper, ’08 is a mathematics concentrator in Cabot House.