Biological Determinism and The Subjection of Women

Shortly after I started this blog, I put out a call for suggestions regarding topics. A close friend responded with their thoughts on the apparently profound hostility of many modern feminists to biological determinism, and it’s one of those things I always meant to get around to writing about, but I never had a great deal at the forefront of my mind to say about it. However, I’ve spent the last week reading J. S. Mill’s The Subjection of Women, written in 1861, and now I find some thoughts coalescing.

I’ve had an interesting reaction to this book. I agree with almost everything in it, as I suspect most modern feminists would, given that the two strong arguments it presents are for women’s suffrage and the independent ownership of property during marriage. It’s also interesting simply from a historical point of view to see the treatment Mill gives the topic, in particular the supposed differences in natural aptitude between men and women. He makes a series of analogies with reference to slavery, and in one case, the impact of the extent to which some European nations are “by nature more excitable” than others.

I was surprised to notice I have basically the same reaction to his discussion of supposedly natural differences between different ethnic groups – a combination of discomfort, cringe and mild “Oh, how quaint” amusement – as to his discussion of supposedly natural differences between men and women. Here’s the thing, though: Mill refers to the former as though they’re a given, but he’s a self-identified skeptic on the latter. He argues that at the very least, at his point in history, the question remained open as to whether there were any inherent differences between men and women, and he apparently thought it likely that differences in the way women were raised and educated in England at the time accounted for most, and possibly all, of those differences which could be observed.

“Whoever is in the least capable of estimating the influence on the mind of the entire domestic and social position and the whole habit of a life, must easily recognise in that influence a complete explanation of nearly all the apparent differences between women and men, including the whole of those which imply any inferiority.”
Somehow, seeing someone write frankly about biological determinism, even from a skeptical point of view, seems kind of crass. It’s especially strange that I have that niggling reaction, because I am much, much more comfortable with the idea of biological determinism than a lot of other modern feminists. Like the friend who suggested it as a topic, I’m frustrated with the treatment it gets. That quote from Tony Abbott that people bandy around to show what a troglodyte he is provides a great example – simply saying that he thinks there are inherent differences is apparently evidence that he’s a misogynist. Of all the quotes we could use to demonstrate that he’s a fucking caveman, that’s the most popular one? Really?

Now, like Mill, I consider the question reasonably open, even 150 years later. I think a significant proportion of the differences we see in gendered behavior are the result of culture, education, and socialisation, rather than biology. It is almost inconceivable to me, however, that the endocrinological differences between men and women have absolutely no effect on the development of neurology, personality, or thinking. Sex hormones are, to put it frankly, a hell of a drug. Talk to someone who’s taken them as part of a gender transition if you have any doubts. Shit, talk to someone who gets bad PMS – I don’t, but I have friends who report wild moods swings and general horror for a few days a month. Even this feels taboo to say now – some women get PMS and it effects their moods and the way they think while it’s going on. Surely that statement is not beyond the pale? And yet, in the backlash against sexist horseshit about how no woman should be the head of state of a nuclear power because she’ll press the button as soon as she gets a period, I feel weird saying that PMS is a thing.

And I think this is what underlies the profound hostility to biological determinism in general – it’s reactive. It’s a response to a culture in which people like Tony Abbott believe that any inherent biological differences which might exist explain, and are entirely sufficient to explain, why so few women are engineers. I, as someone who’s very comfortable with biological determinism, would not concede that. At the most, I would concede that they are likely to explain some of the discrepancy in the numbers of female and male MMA fighters, but certainly not all of it. And that, again, feels taboo, because so many people are so hostile to the idea that biology explains anything at all about the personalities of cis-women.

And there’s the rub. There is an interesting schism in the thinking on biological determinism on the topic of cis-women and cis-men, and as far as I’ve observed, a great deal more open-minded thinking and discussion on the topic as it relates to trans people. Some of the same people who would go blue in the face at my statements above will be quite comfortable with, and may even fall back upon, the hypothesis that trans gender identities are biologically determined. So too sexual orientation. There’s a lot of lively debate about both issues within modern gender politics, of course, but it doesn’t seem nearly as much a faux pas to say you think sexual orientation or gender identity are, or could be, partly or wholly biologically determined, than to say you think some gendered behaviour in cis-women has a biological basis.

I think, at bottom, this hostility is largely political. I think we fall back on biological determinism for trans and gay rights, because it looks like a defence of their position. “They can’t help it, they just are that way, it’s not a choice” etc. I think that is some problematic and unhelpful shit, but that’s another whole entry on its own. When discussing cis-women, though, the idea of inherent differences is inextricably bound to the idea of inferiority in certain areas, or to oppressive norms about how women are naturally suited to nurturing, motherhood, etc. Biological determinism, in that context, is so bound up with things that are anathema to modern feminism that many of us feel compelled to categorically reject it.

If you’re rejecting it, though, you have to reject it entirely – unless I’ve missed something, gendered behaviour can’t be entirely constructed in cis-women but partially or wholly biologically determined in trans-men. I’m pretty sure about that. But we don’t have to categorically reject it, because it doesn’t have to be married to a concession that women are inherently inferior. If I say that the average woman is less inclined to physical violence than the average man, that’s all I’m saying. I’m not saying no woman will ever be or has ever been as talented as Muhammad Ali, I’m not saying women are weak or cowardly, I’m not saying we need men to protect us. I’m also not saying men are thugs with no self control. I’m just saying men live with a higher baseline level of testosterone and are subjected to significant surges, and women are not, and maybe that has some effects on their respective inclination towards certain behaviours. Read about ‘roid rage. It’s a thing.

This isn’t radical. I would argue that it isn’t even political, although I’m sure I would fail to convince a great many people on that point. We can still talk about culture, and education, and socialisation, and sexism, and the exclusion of women from male dominated disciplines. I just don’t want to have those discussions with this elephant in the room, especially if we’re going to acknowledge the elephant when it’s convenient for trans issues, and render it invisible again as soon as Tony Abbott opens his mouth. Do we really want to give the Tony Abbotts of the world that degree of power over our discussions anyway?

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One thought on “Biological Determinism and The Subjection of Women

  1. Good post.

    I’ve always thought of the “blank slate” view of gender and sexuality in the social sciences as somewhat akin to the “perfect rational actor” assumed in economic models; they know it’s not quite true, but it’s a useful assumption to develop good theories.

    But increasingly it seems to me like it’s just the opposite; they really do believe it, even though their theories don’t actually require it. Which seems like a weird situation.

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