Manbrains and ladybrains: Squaring the circle

How would you define man and woman, or male and female? And if you can’t do this, is there any point in being a feminist at all, arguing on behalf of a group you only half-recognise? 

De Beauvoir’s famous quote “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman” would suggest that those identified female at birth are socially conditioned to become “women” (whether they like it or not). Certainly this is something that rings true for me and many other feminists I know. We do not feel that we were born women; we’ve been encouraged to embrace an identity which frequently militates against our desires, capabilities and motivations. This sense of disjuncture is a powerful prompt for social change, hence it’s hardly surprising that the further along this road we go, the more bogus scientific “evidence” is uncovered to prove us wrong.

This week we’ve seen a new batch of reports claiming that “stereotypical differences in male and female behaviour” are to be explained not by conditioning but by a “hardwired difference between male and female brains”. Frustrating though this is, fortunately it’s already been expertly debunked by the brilliant Cordelia Fine, who reminds us of what should be a well-known fact (at least to scientific researchers): “the social phenomenon of gender means that a person’s biological sex has a significant impact on the experiences (including social, material, physical, and mental) she or he encounters which will, in turn, leave neurological traces”:

Yet the researchers do not pay any attention to the gendered experiences (such as hobbies, subjects studied at school or higher education, or participation in sporting activities) of the young males and females in their sample.

This absence has two consequences. First, the researchers miss an opportunity to investigate whether gendered experiences might influence brain development and enhance the acquisition of important skills valuable to all. The second consequence is that, by failing to look at gendered social influences, the authors guarantee that no data will be produced that challenge the notion of “hardwired” male/female neural signatures.

Fine’s rebuttal has been celebrated by many bloggers and activists. For instance, cis white feminist Zoe Stavri (@stavvers) is overjoyed:


Hurrah indeed! I’m happy, too. Nonetheless, I’m wondering whether everyone who claims to care for gender equality feels the same way. After all, isn’t Fine- – and by extension Stavri — being transphobic in rejecting the idea that being a man or a woman is a matter of “manbrains and ladybrains” as opposed to social conditioning?

Fine differentiates between “biological sex” and “the social phenomenon of gender”. I think this is an important distinction to make. Biological sex is real. There is a difference between male and female bodies and reproductive functions, and it’s one that we disregard at our peril. And yet I sometimes see it suggested that because the difference isn’t one you can sum up in 140 characters (some people are intersex, not everyone is fertile, no one is fertile for the whole of their lives etc.) it’s a difference we should simply ignore. Witness, for instance, this frankly ludicrous series of tweets. I do not think a person can be a true feminist and find such arguments acceptable. My femaleness is not in my mind but my body. I did not get to choose and what is more, this would not matter, were we in a world in which sufficient allowance was made for biologically different bodies and non-gendered, free-thinking minds.

My risk of an unwanted pregnancy and being denied an abortion is not a random fact about me. It’s a fundamental part of what it means to be born female, shoved into the class “woman” and hence devalued as an autonomous human being. It will remain so even when I can no longer conceive. I won’t shed my perceived lack of bodily autonomy; it will have different manifestations but it will persist because I was born into this body. To claim “not everyone who is born female can bear children therefore bearing children has nothing to do with being female” is rather like me arguing that because I was born with three nipples, any biology textbook which claims having two nipples is a feature of being human is making a random assertion rather than an obvious generalisation. And generalisations matter. To argue otherwise is not only to dismiss the history of discrimination but to perpetuate it. We live in a society geared around the belief that the default human being is white and male. The fact that you can’t generalise about everyone who is not white and male — the fact that, indeed, many such people have some characteristics and advantages which overlap with white males  — is not an argument for pretending that the generalised imbalance doesn’t exist.   

I think this is straightforward. Other people do not. Even so, it’s important to recognise how profoundly dangerous it is to claim that some have male brains in female bodies and vice versa, since this clearly suggests that there is such a thing as a male or female brain and that if one is cisgendered, one has a brain which “matches” one’s body. This just isn’t true. I don’t have a female brain to match my female body. I just have a brain, albeit one that’s been subjected to a huge amount of gendered conditioning which has been at odds with my own perception of myself (hence the reason why I am a feminist). I don’t think this radical, and neither do I think the alternative viewpoint is more inclusive. The alternative is simply at best inconsistent, and at worst misogynist, once again privileging personalised prejudices about womanhood over a humane recognition of the potential and possibilities of all.


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