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Naomi Wolf
Naomi Wolf

Naomi Wolf

Feminism and the male brain: free at last? Add to ...

North Americans of my generation grew up with the 1970s children's record Free to Be ... You and Me, on which Rosey Grier, an immense former football star, sang It's All Right to Cry. The message: Girls could be tough, boys were allowed not to be.

For almost 40 years, that era's Western feminist critique of rigid sex-role stereotyping has prevailed. In many ways, it has eroded or even eliminated the kind of arbitrary constraints that turned peaceable boys into aggressive men and stuck ambitious girls in low-paying jobs.

Feminists understandably have often shied away from scientific evidence that challenges this critique of sex roles. After all, because biology-based arguments about gender difference have historically been used to justify women's subjugation, women have been reluctant to concede any innate difference, lest it be used against them.

But now a spate of scientific analyses, based on brain-imaging technology and new anthropological and evolutionary discoveries, suggests we may have had our heads in the sand, and that we must be willing to grapple with what seem to be at least some genuine, measurable differences between the sexes.

The most famous of these studies, anthropologist Helen Fisher's The Anatomy of Love, explains the evolutionary impetus for human tendencies in courtship, marriage, adultery, divorce and child-rearing. Some of her findings are provocative: It seems, for example, that we are hard-wired for serial monogamy; that highly orgasmic women enjoy an evolutionary advantage; and that flirtation among primates closely resembles the way young men and women in a bar show their sexual interest.

Moreover, in her description of our evolution, Dr. Fisher notes that males who could tolerate long periods of silence (waiting for animals while in hunt mode) survived to pass on their genes, thus genetically selecting to prefer "space." By contrast, females survived best by bonding with others and building community, since such groups were needed to gather roots, nuts and berries, while caring for small children.

Reading Dr. Fisher, one is more inclined to leave boys alone to challenge one another and test their environment, and to accept that, as she puts it, nature designed men and women to collaborate for survival. "Collaboration" implies free will and choice; even primate males do not succeed by dominating or controlling females. In her analysis, it serves everyone for men and women to share their sometimes different but often complementary strengths - a conclusion that seems reassuring, not oppressive.

Michael Gurian, a neurobiology consultant, takes this set of insights further. In What Could He Be Thinking?, Dr. Gurian argues that men's brains can actually feel invaded and overwhelmed by too much verbal processing of emotion, so that men's need to zone out or do something mechanical rather than emote is often not a rejection of their spouses, but a neural need.

He even posits that the male brain can't "see" dust or laundry piling up as the female brain often can - which explains why men and women tend to perform household tasks in different ways. Men often can't hear women's lower tones, and their brains, unlike women's, have a "rest" state (sometimes, he is thinking about "nothing").

Moreover, Dr. Gurian says men tend to rear children differently from women for similarly neurological reasons, encouraging more risk-taking and independence and with less awareness of the details of their nurture. One can see the advantages to children of having both parenting styles.

Somehow, all this is liberating rather than infuriating. So much that enrages women, or leads them to feel rejected or unheard, may not reflect men's conscious neglect or even sexism but simply their brains' wiring. According to Dr. Gurian, if women accept these biological differences and work around them in relationships, men respond with great appreciation and devotion (often expressed non-verbally).

None of this means that men and women should not try to adjust to each other's wishes, but it may mean we can understand each other a bit better and be more patient as we seek communication.

Nor does recent scientific research imply that men (or women) are superior, much less justify invidious discrimination. But it does suggest that a more pluralistic society, open to all kinds of differences, can learn, work and love better.

Naomi Wolf's most recent book is Give Me Liberty: A Handbook for American Revolutionaries.

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