Saturday, June 18, 2005

Post Update: "Differences between the Sexes?"

I've added an update to the original post that summarised the seminar peer discussion on the question of difference between the sexes. The update adds a very helpful development from one classfellow to the posted graph sent by another.


Christine said...


Rethinking this quote you used from the SFU Women's Studies site has me a bit perplexed. You say:

The question was posed, whether it can be said, for example, that women have unique qualities that men lack. The SFU Women's Studies Department holds this view in the affirmative: their homepage declares part of its mission to be:

".... exploring how knowledge can be reshaped when women are included."

Having taken several courses in Women's Studies and Women's History, I would argue that this quote is not so much about innate qualities that women have but men lack, but more about the control of knowledge production. That is, the disciplines (ie. history, philosophy, and even literature) have for centuries been shaped, studied, and upheld by patriarchal structures (such as the church and the government) which often exclude or minimize the roles and perspectives of women in knowledge production.

Dr. S.A. Ogden said...

Well, nothing that originates here privileges essentialism: i.e. nothing favours the view that qualities relating to masculinity and femininity are innate. Differences are posited, but non-innate ones.

There is a blogged link in the post to the major scientific debate on the question between Spelke & Pinker; this post also summarises the peer seminar discussions this way:
"The concensus of your [i.e. students'] views, summarised as tightly as possible, is that differences exist, none are innate and all are the consequence of cultural influence, and qualities of masculinity and femininity can be possessed by either men and women as a matter of choice."
That's a fairly anti-innate statement!
Finally, lectures, as you recall, were defined as working from genetic and functionalist positions, and not from essentialist ones.

I hope that clarifies?

Christine said...

I understand the conclusion the class came to. My confusion lies in how the quote from the Women's Studies website holds "affirmative" the view that "women have unique qualities that men lack." That is, I understand the quote as addressing knowledge production not qualities of men or women--innate or otherwise.

Dr. S.A. Ogden said...

Here is the quotation:
".... exploring how knowledge can be reshaped when women are included."
Now granted I am a literature instructor, and thus limited to my specialty, but I can't see how this *can't* mean that women have qualities that men either lack or have to a substantially lesser degree. (How their Department should happen to configure the cause of the difference is incidental to my purposes.)
Here is the idea behind the sentence: that is, here is what the words *say.*
1.] There is (or until recently was) a body of knowledge that did not inlcude women. Knowledge, as this sentence expresses it, was exclusively masculine,
2.] The W.S. Department desires to add women to that existing body of knowledge (add = "include.")
3.] When women are added, the original body of knowledge will take on a new form: i.e. "re-shaped."

Thus, the reason that [3] takes place is that women have *something* -- i.e. something which constitutes knowledge -- that is different from what men have: in other words, men lack that something or have it to a markedly lesser degree. If it was the same (not different) men would have it also (would not lack it) and when women were added the pre-existing knowledge would *not* take on a new shape (as the sentence declares that it will) because it would (on the hypothetical assumption that women did not have anything that men lacked; that women and men were identical in the area of knowledge) simply be more of the same pre-existing body of knowledge -- *and the sentence would not need to be written*.

So much for logic, but I'm interested in why there might be resistance to the claim that women have non-innate qualities that men lack (or have to a lesser degree?) It is my impression that the idea of female qualities widely supressed by the patriarchy was accepted within academic feminism.
I just did a quick search of and came up with the following on the first results page: "Though we know we can usually count on a few good men, it is still a valid generalization that women have different life experiences."

[I'm assuming these are matters to be discussed freely in an academic setting?]

Christine said...

Ok. This thought progression is more clear to me. I understand now how this quote might be read as affirming that women have qualities (not necessarily innate) that men do not. I guess the other arguement could be made that the quote is less about qualities of women than it is addressing the politics of exclusion. I think some third wave feminists (academic and activist) would speak not neccesarily to the qualities that distinguish women from men, but to intesecting categories of possible exclusion from discourse, like gender, ethnicity, and class. Whether the excluded are women, Native Canadians, or African-Americans, any body of knowledge is going to be re-shaped when you bring in the perspective of the previously excluded, right?

As to why there might be "resistance to the claim that women have non-innate qualities that men lack (or have to a lesser degree)", I think this comes back to a continuous debate on Equality versus Difference in feminism. Take for example, early feminist activists in the suffragette movement. Some activists emphasized equality as a means to gain a voice, saying women had equal intelligence to men and thus were just as capable of participating in politics as men. Other feminists during this movement hightlighted the 'maternal', 'virtuous', and 'gentle' characteristics of women and claimed these differences made them just as capable as men to participate in politics and the running of the country. This is just an example of a debate between equality and difference that still goes on today.

I think the resitance you are refering to comes from the danger of over-generalising gender categories in making such a claim. We cannot know that all women have non-innate qualities that men lack and similarily what about men that have these non-innate qualities--to try and make a claim as broad as "Women have ____, which men lack" seems to me a highly generalised statement. As a student (in several disciplines), I have been taught that resistance to over-generalisation is a part of good academic scholarship: arguementative papers should be nuanced and careful not to make broad sweeping claims, or example.

On a last note, I'm not really sure how to take the quote from To contextualize, the quote is in reference to NOW's political action committees and how women's perspectives might differ from men's on issues such as public health, education, discrimination, abortion and birth control. They say that they "can usually count on a few good men" but that "it is still a valid generalization that women have different life experiences." So do they mean that women's life expereinces inform the aforementioned issues better than men? Hmmm.. I suppose this is not alltogether undeniable. For example, I feel more comfortable with a woman doctor for my reproductive health concerns; why? Because there is a part of me that believes when I explain symptoms or concerns about my body, she will understand better because she herself has the body of a woman.

Cheers, Christine

PS: These issues are certainly open for debate in the academic setting; what else are we here for?

crowing crone said...

How about "Chicklit and Ladlit as literature are homosexual (or heterosexual, if you prefer). They are anti-queer theory?

crowing crone said...

Are Chicklit and Ladlit (and Harlequin romances) patriarchial? And do we care?


Queer theory, in case not everyone knows how it works in literature, is well glossed in my trusty Hawthorne bible:
Various coinages involving plays on the similarity of QUEER and QUERY are popular at present [in literary theory] Thus QUEER(Y)ING suggests that a queer reading of a literary work can serve to raise questions about conventional reading, and about conventions in general.
Before this passage Hawthorne quotes David Oswell:....'queer'...has clearly come to signify an assault both on 'straight' sexual discourses and practices and on an earlier moment in lesbian and gay sexual 'identity politics' which call upon individuals to express the truth of their self....[T]he queer politics of the late 1980s and 1990s has been deployed against the binary divide between heterosexual and homosexual and in favour of an enunciation of the pluralisation of sexual identities.

crowing crone said...

I should also point out the difference between "queer" and 'bricoleur'. "Queer" has to do with reading and "bricoleur" has to do with writing. So, if we think that Carnford is a matriarchial satire on patriarchy, then Cranford would be a bricolage: it takes a "found" object (satire written by men) and appropriates that found object for its own purposes.
Levi jeans is the classic example. When they became high fashion, bricoleurs bleached and tore them at the knees, seat, etc. Then Levi counter-bricolaged by producing bleached, torn jeans. Then the young boys counter-counter-bricolaged by wearing them around their crotch, then Levi....
Or we could say that counter-bricolage is "queering".