We’ve all been buffeted in the past few years with claims that women and men grow out of boys and girls who are “hard-wired” at birth to be boys and girls and men and women that fill stereotypical roles. Based on what I know about the people reading Persephone Magazine, I expect many if not most of you have spent a lifetime fighting that prescriptivism and the expectations that come along with it, so I hope you’ll take heart!
Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference was recommended by Molly Westerman at First the Egg, a blog about feminist pregnancy, childbirth, and parenting (one I highly recommend, if you’re looking for such a thing). She read it several months ago with the monthly reading group she runs in connection with her blog and had a lot of good things to say about it, so onto my reading list it went!
In Delusions of Gender, Fine engages in a thorough debunking of much of the most commonly-cited literature on neuroscientific findings about gender. She breaks down dozens of studies and the sometimes poor analyses of them by secondary authors and journalists, detailing their methods and their actual findings, as well as the possible reasons the studies end up so poorly-interpreted by secondary sources. Many are merely victims of the fact that neuroscience is an incredibly fascinating field that is nevertheless in its infancy, which is a truth often overlooked by those ready to jump on brain science as the explanation for all things.
If you ever find yourself engaging in an argument with someone who thinks it’s appropriate to cite hard-wiring in defense of gender stereotyping, look no further than this book for help. In addition to discussing the problems with the very idea of hard-wiring (or innate gender roles) at length, she also manages to cover several studies that reinforce the idea that cultural gender norms are imprinted in children’s brains within a matter of weeks after their birth, furthering her goals of breaking down the arguments that people would use to divide us.
I have two quibbles with this book: first, it very clearly has a target audience in mind, and that audience isn’t the one that needs to be convinced. While it serves wonderfully for someone who spends a lot of time arguing these topics (I had STFUConservatives and STFUSexists in mind the entire time I was reading it), it wouldn’t be the kind of book you could hand to someone who wasn’t at least leaning to the no-prescriptive-gender side of the fence.
Second, there are a few points where both the author and those she interviews appear to conflate sex and gender. This isn’t the majority of the book, and her inclusion of trans* interviewees is otherwise useful, but it was something that jumped out at me and I felt worthy of noting.
Overall, though, a great synthesis of a lot of often complex research and conversations about the same,and worth picking up if only for the ability to shut someone down when they break out the pop psychology against you.
Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference / Cordelia Fine. W.W. Norton & Co, 30 August 2010. U.S. $25.95 (hardcover)
Cover image from Amazon. Post image “O, Beloved Rabbit” via Squiggle on flickr.