Why are progressives pushing Victorian era ideas about gender?

A screen from London’s Science Museum’s exhibit which asks “What sex is your brain?” (Image: Science Museum)

It was “delicacy of the brain fibers,” according to philosopher Nicolas Malebranche, that caused the feminine mind to be drawn to such frivolous matters as setting fashion trends and discerning elegance and good manners. In 1674, he wrote:

“Everything that depends upon taste is within [women’s] area of competence, but normally they are incapable of penetrating to truths that are slightly difficult to discover. Everything abstract is incomprehensible to them.”

This probably all sounds very familiar. Patriarchy has long claimed women are innately attracted to petty concerns, like makeup and fashion, but eluded by the abstract sciences like engineering and math. Malebranche was writing centuries ago. Since then, we’ve debunked absurd notions of “delicate feminine brain fibers,” and feminists have revealed gendered behavior, such as beauty practices, to be externally imposed rather than innate.

You’d think the idea of the gendered brain would be forever banished to the embarrassments of history, along with notions of a “raced brain,” which were often taken up in tandem by researchers trying to justify white men’s social domination over women and people of colour as something natural and inevitable.

No such luck. These regressive ideas persist today. Progressives across North America participated in the March for Science last month “to defend the role of science in policy and society.” Meanwhile, the old fallacy of the gendered brain has come roaring back, to little push back from the same people who demand scientific rigour in other areas.

In 2014, the BBC’s children’s channel, CBBC, released a documentary illustrating gender identity through animated pink and blue figures going down a conveyor belt with little blue and pink brains plopping inside of them. The narrator explains, “Most people’s hormones, brains, and bodies all match so that they know they are definitely a girl or a boy.” Then, a blue brain plops into a pink body. “But some people feel they’ve been born in the wrong body.”

The narrator explains that a mismatch between the gendered mind and the body is “not very common,” as the majority of people have a body that matches their inner self. Presumably, this means that the majority of women have a feminine mind.

In a recent episode of Bill Nye the Science Guy’s Netflix show, he explained that that a person could have “a male brain in a female body,” saying, “It turns out you can’t tell the gender of a brain just by looking at it.”

Thanks, Bill. Good to know that, just like Victorian era scientists said, I might have a male brain in my female body. As a woman in the male-dominated field of philosophy, with sharp logical skills and no interest in fashion, who has rejected marriage and children, I could  be viewed as an anomaly within my sex – exhibiting a “masculine mind” by some strange mistake of fate. Victorian scientist Herbert Spencer would blame this on my neglect of “the maternal functions,” arguing that if my body had produced milk for my “due number of healthy children,” I would then possess the naturally feminine “mental energy.” Science!

Spencer’s explanation for the existence of gender nonconforming women sounds ridiculous today, but it was necessary in order to support the idea that men and women were inherently different. “That men and women are mentally alike is as untrue as that they are alike bodily,” he wrote.

Our historical amnesia is troubling. We seem to have forgotten that the idea of innate difference between male and female minds was used to exclude women from political and intellectual life, and to deny them basic human rights of self-determination in the not-so-distant past.

I was heartened last year when the public responded with outrage to London’s Science Museum’s sexist pink and blue brain exhibit, which asked: “What sex is your brain?” But such bursts of sanity feel few and far between in the UK and North America, where the resurgence of the idea of the gendered brain has most prominently taken root.

In the 19th century, feminism’s first wave challenged the patriarchal order in education, legal rights, and even personal relationships. In 1866, the first lasting suffragist organization was formed in the UK. And the next year, philosopher John Stuart Mill put heat on parliament by introducing a women’s suffrage amendment into the Reform Bill of 1867.

Male scientists and philosophers responded to this feminist uprising with a profound backlash in which they frantically sought to prove there were essential differences between men and women that justified patriarchal domination. Similar to the way scientists of the time claimed black people had an inherently underdeveloped and servile nature in order to justify slavery, they employed everything from phrenology, to neurology, psychology, and evolutionary theory to show gender roles were natural.

Even Charles Darwin apparently threw the scientific method to the wind, claiming women and men were fundamentally different in mental capacity, and that women were underdeveloped and therefore inferior. In a racist and sexist fervour, scientists worked backwards, flouting the empirical nature of science. Instead of beginning with observation, scientists started from a belief in female inferiority and sought to justify it through an imagined evolutionary history.

Eventually, science did correct itself. Neurologists found time and time again that there are no significant differences between male and female brains. The idea of the “feminine psyche” was unmasked by feminists as a ridiculous male fantasy. But the actions of the scientific community during that time remain one of the most shameful blights on the history of reason. Havelock Ellis described the period as “a painful page in scientific annals… full of prejudices, assumptions, fallacies, over-hasty generalizations.”

During that mid-19th century explosion of sexism, philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer wrote what is perhaps the most misogynistic description of the female mind in the entire philosophical canon. In his 1851 essay, On Women, he argued that, due to the inferiority of the female mind, even women’s subservient position in the institution of marriage is too high a station for them. Schopenhauer explained that women have the rational faculties of a child and that “to show them great reverence is extremely ridiculous.” He claimed that because “women exist in the main solely for the propagation of the species,” they are actually more well-suited to be kept by a man as a member of his harem and treated as little more than breeding stock.

Schopenhauer was particularly bad, but he was not unusual. The science of the gendered brain and psyche had a solid foundation within the field of philosophy. We can trace this trend all the way back to Ancient Greece with Aristotle, who viewed women as akin to beasts that “just obey feelings” and should therefore be ruled by men. Thomas Aquinas similarly viewed men as the masters of women due to their superior mental faculties.

French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau argued that females were not only the physically weaker sex, but that their minds were innately predisposed to feminine behaviors, such as coquettishness, a love of ornamental trinkets, and dolls. He cited this as evidence that the purpose of women is to be pleasing to men.

Immanuel Kant is perhaps history’s most important philosopher on the nature of rational judgement and morality, yet it is rarely mentioned that women are excluded from his philosophical framework due to what he saw as their incapacity for higher thinking. Kant viewed the feminine mind as only fit for petty domestic duties, so argued that women should live under a system of constant male guardianship, for their own good.

Hegel held similar sentiments on women. As did Spinoza. The list goes on…

But even with all these “great men of history” against them, feminists were still able to tear down the sexist notion of the “feminine mind.” Philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft utterly destroyed Rousseau in her 1792 A Vindication of the Rights of Women by showing how gendered characteristics are the result of women’s second-rate education, not their biology. The second wave of feminism similarly refuted the notion of innate gender, showing instead that these roles and ideas are the result of socialization and indoctrination.

For one brief, shining moment, the truth reigned, and it was understood that the mind was not gendered — that a woman could be as brave, logical, dominant, and non-decorative as any other person… Until now.

Once again, the idea of the inherently gendered brain/mind/psyche has become mainstream — this time through the ideology of gender identity. Femininity is said to exist, not because it is an artificially imposed system of patriarchal control, but because it is an expression of a woman’s personal “identity.”

It is sad that we apparently have not learned from history. But looking back can provide us with some comfort and even hope.

If our feminist foremothers were able to eventually get out from under this essentialist backlash, surely we can do it too. History supposedly repeats itself, appearing first as tragedy, second as farce. Because our foremothers have already done the work of dismantling the idea of “pink and blue brains,” we are in a much better position to demonstrate how ridiculous it truly is.

We have the history of truth and reason on our side, after all.

Susan Cox

Susan Cox is a feminist writer and academic living in the United States. She teaches in Philosophy.