Letitia Falk

Lab Technician/Recent MSc graduate, University of British Columbia


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Sexism a product of reproductive misunderstanding

I have an idea I want to get some feedback on that merges my interest in biology with my passion for feminism ;) The explanation is a bit long so I will post a summary and then explain below. Tell me what you think!

Although we exaggerate the differences between men and women culturally, arguably the main difference between the sexes is reproductive. Our biological understanding of reproduction should therefore be paramount in shaping the way that we understand, and differentially attribute value to the sexes.

Historically, humans have gone through large cultural shifts in beliefs with regards to the relative importance of men or women compared to one another. This is how I think our understanding of reproduction matches:

1. Hunter Gatherer Societies
-Women seen as responsible for life

2. Agriculture/Domestication of livestock
-Fertilization understood, emphasizing the importance of men in reproduction

3. Modern Science
-Microscope allows for the identification of sperm and eggs, discovery of DNA and equal genetic contribution from mother and father

If this trend is accurate then we should be moving closer and closer towards equality between the sexes...well, maybe slightly towards women with the discovery of mitochondrial DNA ;)

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    Jan 20 2012: Also did you know that more playboy centerfolds come from Vancouver BC than from any other city?
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    Jan 18 2012: This is a very interesting and complicated topic, and I feel like I should do a lot of reading into the subject before I take any definite stance. However, not to dismiss your idea completely, there were a few points that I would like to disagree with on some levels.

    First, I am not sure that I would say that, unfortunately, the pure scientific understanding of sexual reproduction has not and probably will never really drastically alter our conceptualizations of gender and sex. Much the same way as race, so much of gender and sex are built into common sense essentialist thinking which is, from an outside perspective, based on faulty logic but nevertheless continues to thrive in the mindset of the general public. Really, I would have to say that the true source of gendered thought is born in the dominant social representation (Moscovici, 2000) of gender which are more controlled by social (and even physical) power than scientific knowledge. Moscovici's early work would actually be a good example of this.

    Also, I am always wary of gender representation explanations built around the idea of men being afraid of women's reproductive powers. Mainly, I am wary because it feels too reductionist of an answer as well as much too psychoanalytical. While I am not totally opposed to the incorporation of psychoanalysis on some levels, I feel a bit tense in relying on it solely in this case. Also, it would not explain why women would be considered positively in the hunter-gather societies (although I think that those societies were probably more equitable than matriarchal as both jobs were considered essential to survival, although that still would mean that women were not feared). Were does the difference come from? I would probably turn to Social Identity Theory and just the pure idea that it was beneficial to certain people at certain times. And I do not think that it happened quickly, but was more a chain of actions and non-actions that had a cumulative effect.
  • Jan 18 2012: The question uses words such as "equality" and "value" as if they are scientific objective terms. In the content of gender roles, they are not objective - they are highly subjective. People within the same family can't agree on these things - so it's hardly likely that an international consensus will evolve.

    I also dispute the point that reproduction in the key differentiator. It is A differentiator, but there are others such as physical height/strength, and how brains are hardwired, that seem equally important.

    You ask about equality. In the western world I believe that women have effectively achieved equality. There are areas for improvement - but it's largely good. In many ways, men have some catching up to do: A woman can choose to do the mom thing and/or go to work and be considered valuable either way. A man doesn't really have the choice to be a stay-at-home dad and be thought equal with his working contemporaries.
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    Jan 23 2012: "Mitochondrial DNA is irrelevant insofar as our personal attributes are concerned, unless it goes wrong. Mitochondria are the descendants of once-free-swimming bacteria, which joined with another ancient single-celled organisms to form the eukaryotes, of which we, and plants, and fungi, are all just a part. They act, as Prof Turnbull said, as little batteries in our cells; but they don't interact with "our" DNA, they reproduce independently within our cells, providing energy with their waste products. "A baby born using this procedure will have the characteristics of its mother and father; it will have DNA from a third person, but mitochondrial DNA only affects how the battery works, not who we are. Changing the battery does not change the computer," says Prof Turnbull. "The development of everything that makes us us, our brains, our hair colour etc, is in the nuclear DNA."

    It appears that mtDNA is metaphorically like tonsils, no known use but a real pain when they go wrong. Overall not a strong argument for any theory of sexual value.

    Biologically ascribing social variables is always fraught with danger, partly because of the enormous scope and complexity of our biology so far as we know it, but more so because of the even greater portion that we don't.

    Your presumption that we exaggerate difference between the sexes culturally is just an opinion, possibly influenced by your interest in feminism, but the assertion that we need to attribute different value to each sex based on some reproductive philosophy is, well, something of a curiosity.
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      Jan 25 2012: Raiford, I agree with you about the mitochondrial DNA. It was meant quite tongue in cheek ;) Its difficult to determine at which point something becomes "exaggerated" but our interpretation of how different men and women are does seem to vary culturally. Perhaps as many have said, it is reductionist to attribute social values to Biology. It is my reference point, and I find it interesting to think about how empirical knowledge (in this case our own Biology) shapes our social values (if it does).
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    Jan 22 2012: I have to say I have enjoyed this topic and I hope that I can count on hearing from you all again. I dont know if my question re brain activity will be seen by linda taylor or not, but I would like Letitia and all the other posters on this topic have my email address if anything came up of interest. Feel free to tell me about a new topic of interest or anything else. I dont know if TED allows the open posting of email address' but mine is russ_lester@yahoo.com.
  • Jan 18 2012: I iam kinda slowminded.. I dont get the point, what is your idea? Enlighten me!:)
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    Jan 18 2012: Wow, this is very interesting Letitia but I do have some questions and statements but first must say I do like how you went from hunter gather tribes to modern day to support your main point.

    Anyhow, I would state that some understanding of biology and genetics did provide more equality and rights for women. Whenever I think about this, I think about King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn and how the women in that time were responsible for determining the sex of their child. Of course during that time there were not too many scientific studies but just imagine how many women could have prevented the guillotine. So in this sense I do think sexism is a product of reproductive misunderstanding.

    Now what I would like to ask is if you considered other approaches as well. Biology and genetics may serve a big purpose in feminism but wouldn't you also need to include studies form neuroscience, psychology ans sociology? As much as I do think that such a concepts such as sexism may be a sociological problem, could the fact that we make such judgements be something that is hard-wired within us? Could it be that women by nature are more nurturing than men? Now I'm not saying that women should stay at home and that men could do whatever they want, but what I am saying is could some of this be genetic or would such a position be purely social?

    Focusing more on the brain, I would also like to add brain function as well. Men and women think differently. Now I am not stating that patriarchal views are innate, I do think its a social construct but I do think there may be a biological aspect to it (I could be wrong being that I"m not a biologist). I really think that there is something about one's environment and circumstance that has an influence on the way that one thinks.

    I am actually with you on your position because most sexist views were profoundly unscientific and unsupported. I think a deeper understanding of science in general would be of value to feminism
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    Jan 18 2012: Letitia,

    It would be interesting to see this idea developed into a fully researched paper; I’m intrigued by how culture, economy, and sexuality have affected each other through the evolution of the human race. To flesh out the theory (pun intended), we would need a lot more examples of development of societies at different points in history.

    However, regarding reproduction understanding in sexism, I have to say that I'm neither an anthropologist or biologist, but it seems evident that women have been the most suppressed of any other segment of the human race. From current cultures and walking back to earliest civilizations, history is turgid with example of oppression of the female – and femininity.

    My theory: Fear. Men are, at the very base of our beings, scared of a woman’s procreative power; that ability to gestate and give birth terrifies men on a completely instinctive level. Not to get overly romantic (non-pun intended) men fear Woman as Creator. Since that represents divinity, men feel the need to denigrate, in order to subjugate.

    This ties in to your theory that, as the race understood more about reproduction, that fear tended to lessen (knowledge breeds understanding breeds acceptance). Addtionally, if both genders were to engage in a full and healthy embracing of sexuality and importance of both in reproduction, this would go a long way to making each see the other as an equal, and not as simply an opposite.

    I do agree with some other posts early on in this post that differences between the genders have more to do with brain function than with the reproductive organs, but since your theory is based on reproduction and its effect on sexism, I have limited my reply to just this one theory: Woman Scare Man Because She Give Birth Like God. (and yes, I know how loony that sounds!)
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      Jan 18 2012: Yes! This is what I'm aiming for: there's no doubt that MANY factors contribute to our perceived value of the different sexes, and reproductive contribution is certainly not the only factor, I just feel that it is an unexplored one. In addition gender is often different from sex and is arguably entirely culturally determined.

      In the same way that theories born of science like eugenics and social Darwinism partly laid the ground work for genocides like the extermination of Jews in WWII, I think that our understanding of the natural world provides the foundation for many ideas that we have and therefore how well we understand the differences between men and women (including how we differ at the level of the brain) should influence the way we attribute value to one another.

      I think that this could be case studied via survey although the data would be purely correlative (hmm wheels are turning...)
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        Jan 19 2012: Careful. Case study, survey, different methods.
        Also wanted to point out that all three societal frameworks you listed in the intro exist today. I live in one and it's not modern science. Just a thought.
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          Jan 19 2012: I'll admit that as a cell Biologist, anything in the realm of behavior seems like basically a survey and correlation ;) I'm simply agreeing with you that these same levels of understanding of Biology exist in the world today and therefore could be studied directly which could lend support to the more anthropological theory I suggested (which is admittedly fairly broad and hand-wavy)
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    Jan 18 2012: Letitia
    You state that arguably the main difference between the sexes is reproductive. It has been my observation this is not true. The main difference is in brain function. Each thinks considerably different. This is not culturally developed. It is innate in the biology. Just think of how hormones effect a change in how we think and feel as women at all the different important points of life. And that is just the tip of the ice burg.
    The other problem is that many hunter gatherer societies were also patriarchal. And many existed at the same time. So the development of societies along that timeline is somewhat false. That whole egalitarian thing I am not sure about either. Never really bought into the concept.

    The change in society really does not reflect a biological change or even a biological awareness. The whole women's rights thing is a sociological change in response to societal need within a societal construct. It is not a universal experience and not biologically based.

    Thats my two cents but I am intrigued by this thinking. Please clarify if I misunderstood or you do not agree. It is fascinating. Thank you.
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      Jan 18 2012: Thanks for your reply Linda. You have a very good point that none of these trends were universal (the categories I've made are also widely separated in time). It would be interesting to see if this held true as a trend among people surveyed for reproductive knowledge and sexism at a single given time actually. I bet it would, but that could also be linked to overall level of education. Its just a lunch-break theory ;) However I would argue that the behavioral differences between the sexes you are talking about at the level of the brain are actually a result of the reproductive organs which produce the hormones affecting these changes, so it comes back to reproduction in the end.
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        Jan 18 2012: Good point, but I will argue back that the differences in brain function are measurable and present pre-hormonal gushing.
        In my opinion its always about the brain. Reproduction is just one function of the brain whose primary purpose is to keep us and the species alive.
        describes some of the differences and how they are modulated by experience.
        So there are differences already at birth. But these differences can be modulated by experience.
        (Kinda magazine-y but nicely put. I did not get into the original research)

        Truly brain function is the only thing that really explains gender at all. And all the varieties of gender that are out there.
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          Jan 18 2012: I think we'll have to agree to disagree on this chicken or the egg! :) I would argue that since there are species out there without a brain, reproduction takes top priority as a general rule in evolution. But until we properly understand the brain, certain things will remain a mystery
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          Jan 22 2012: Gender differentiation is mental? what is the data on studies of homosexuals? and of transsexuals? I am not being argumentative but am truly interested. Do Gay men and Gay women have similar or different brain activity ? are transgenders brain activity like the activity of the gender they are biologically or emotionally? Does brain activity in men and women who are heterosexual show distinction from the others?
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        Jan 18 2012: Still not with you. Because even stuff that does not have a brain, single one celled, asexual, organisms do a lot more than just reproduce. They respirate, metabolize, interact with the environment all sorts of other things they do (hmm brain function?). Reproduction is only a fraction of what the species does.

        I guess it will be agree to disagree. Peace
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          Jan 22 2012: @Russell: I imagine that studies have been done, but brain activity is not necessarily a measure of behavior. There is often a mix up of the hormonal signals in the brain of transsexuals where a person has the genitals of one sex but the hormonal characteristics of the other sex, however I don't think this shows up as a difference in brain activity which I think reflects more what area of the brain is in use at the current time, and less complex patterns of thought such as identity, emotion, and attraction. Homosexual, transgendered and asexual people are a good example of the difference between sex and gender though where more possibilities exist at the behavioral level than just male and female. This is why I confined my discussion to the topic of how sex/reproductive contribution rather than gender contributes to sexism.
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    Jan 18 2012: It is possible that the evolving biological truths gave women a basis for equal rights but I think it is more the emergence of technology that allowed work to be done as well by a fit female as by a fit male and the shifting of work from that which depended on labor to that which was more cerebral in nature, had more to do with it. Not the least, in fact possibly the most important was the development of the pill and the legalization and improvement of abortions and the development of maternity care. I grew up as the son of a woman who was very active in the 1970's Women s Rights Movement. I'll point out to you that in the USA the freed black slaves were given the vote before the women, that while in this country we have laws against hate crimes against gays or minorities rape is not a hate crime, and that where we have a very powerful Americans with Disabilities Act we have never passed an Equal Rights Amendment. Women make up a fraction of our wealthiest class, and are still likely to be treated as sex objects first and people a distant third or fourth.

    The standard to which we hold young girls to achieve in appearance to be beautiful, and the importance of appearance that our culture places on young girls, creates mental and physical illness eating disorders spawned a tidal wave of beauty pageants that has now even swept up our youngest girls making them into disturbingly sexual creatures, who are preyed upon by even more disturbing creatures.

    All in all I think that Modern technology and the burning bras and w omens power movements are why the tide has changed for the 21st century woman. For a great example of women s lives prior to the 1970's try watching some episodes of Mad Men.
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      Jan 18 2012: Thanks for your comment Russel. Technology and the generation of more cerebral-type jobs is not something I had thought of...I think that until the last couple centuries life was less career-based though and women would have been equally valuable for childbearing/rearing as men are for more physical labor. I think you hit the nail on the head completely with the creation of the pill though, as it gave women the possibility of uncoupling sex from pregnancy for the first time in history. This lessened the need for women to be treated as property by men as a way of ensuring the offspring they're raising are genetically theirs. I think that technology both created new possibilities (like the pill) and also shifted the consciousness of society through what we learned about our basic biology but you are right that the real progress was made by individuals making changes in consciousness changes to law. And there is obviously still a long way to go... I think you're very right about the lingering importance of beauty on the value of women. Although my personal opinion is that the problem is less that we are treated as sex objects, and more that we are divided (often by ourselves) so strictly into either sex objects or nearly asexual. If you ask me, when women start embracing their sexuality is when we will really start to see change.
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        Jan 18 2012: "This lessened the need for women to be treated as property by men."
        Thank you for posting early that your discussion is based on feminism but I did want to point out that some of us have never, ever experienced this. Not because we did not have a similar experience but because we interpret the same experience differently.
        Remember, it was not just men doing unto women, but women allowed it. And if you allow it, it will happen. I just never allowed it.
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          Jan 18 2012: Absolutely. It takes two to tango. I'm by no means trying to blame men for a history of injustice towards women. I'm just wondering why our perceptions change when they do.
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        Jan 20 2012: I agree and the realization by woman of the power that their sexuality bestows is a huge factor.

        In today's world in many ways women have more rights then men.

        Men are likely to lose custody battles, fail if they seek alimony from ex wives, men must pay for children they father weather they wish the child to be born or not.

        Women can also terminate a pregnancy with out the fathers input or consent, and obviously no man can compel a woman to bear or abort a child.

        In society we are enjoined to grant women equal rights, and to hold doors open for them ,
        and give up our seats.

        If at a workplace a woman is aggressively flirtatious to a man there is no socially supported legal recourse, the same is not true for women flirted with by men.

        If a man were to take a drunken girl home for sex he might face rape charges, while it would be impossible to find a court to entertain the case if the opposite were alleged.

        So perhaps things have moved farther to the omens side then its seems, if so it certainly has taken long enough.
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          Jan 21 2012: Russel you are quite right! Although I might be inclined to group the holding doors open, giving up seats etc kinds of actions in the "how you treat specifically pregnant women" category since that was actually a pretty common state for a woman to be in before the use of birth control. And it seems to me, like a fair trade-off ;)

          I think a lot of the child-raising inequalities are a regrettable consequence of our only recently distant "stay-at-home-mom" philosophy and will hopefully improve over time.
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    Jan 18 2012: 1. In our hunter-gatherer days evidence suggests that human cultures were egalitarian or Matriarchal. Although we have little evidence from this period of human history (fossils and cave paintings), a look at our closest living relatives the bonobos may provide clues. These primates are matriarchal and highly sexual, having such human-like sexual behaviors that bonobos are not shown in most zoos for fear of making visitors uncomfortable. It is likely that in this period of history, without ritualized and controlled mating (marriage), our ancestors had not yet made the link between sex and pregnancy. Nine months is a long period of time and humans (and a few primates) are unique in being sexually available constantly. At this time, women may have been seen as solely responsible for life explaining the Matriarchal tendencies of these societies since reproduction is arguably the MOST important process for our survival.

    2. The domestication of animals and the advent of agriculture show a shift in our understanding of nature. Learning to manipulate the reproduction of plants and animals must have been accompanied by a better understanding of our own reproduction. Medieval literature contains metaphors where the reproductive abilities of women are likened to fertile soil and semen is likened to "seed". Medical diagrams as recent as the 1800's depict tiny fully formed people inside of sperm indicating that men were considered majorly responsible for forming children.
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    Jan 18 2012: 3. Technological advances like the microscope have furthered our understanding of reproduction to what it is today. We now know that women contribute far more than just an incubating environment to a developing child. One of the easiest cells to visualize are eggs and fertilization is one of the earliest events studied by microscope. Discovery of the genetic material: DNA also shows an equal reproductive contribution with half the genes coming from the father and half from the mother. I think that this shift in understanding may be responsible for some of the major changes to women’s rights initiated over the last century.