What’s a Man, What’s a Woman?

What’s a Man, What’s a Woman? May 9, 2013

Christians are deeply vested in this double question. Complementarians are essentialists who think there are distinctive, essential differences between a man and woman, while egalitarians (the right term in this discussion) are not essentialists in that they think the differences are nurture and not nature. But this raises the double question: So what is a man essentially and what is a woman essentially? And that leads to this question: What are the distinctions?

What is one distinction between a man and a woman in your view? (Other than body differences.)

For many this double question is answered biblically or theologically. Yet across the spectrum there are attempts to demonstrate essential differences on the basis of the social sciences. Enter Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen, a professor of psychology and philosophy at Eastern University, author of “Social Science Studies Cannot Define Gender Differences,” the second article in the most recent Priscilla Papers 27.2 (2013) 12-19. [CBE] The title of her article is the point of the article. The point is significant. If she’s right, there’s very little help for essentialist arguments — something relied on by many — in social sciences.

1. Research does not resolve the nature vs. nurture debate about gender essentialism.

2. Big one: the studies show very few consistent, essential sex differences between male and female. There are average differences but not absolute differences. The overlap is almost complete between gender traits and behaviors. “So it is naive at best, and deceptive at worst, to make essentialist (or even generalist) pronouncements about the psychology of either sex…” (12).

3. Correlation does exist but there is precious little to nothing when it comes to causation. It is nearly impossible to disentangle gender from environmental issues.

4. Meta-analytic literature “shows almost complete overlap in the gendered distribution of traits, such as nurturance, empathy, verbal skills, spatial skills, and aggressiveness” (15). These essentialist traits then overlap between sexes.

5. We cannot establish anatomy is destiny until we can control for opportunity.

6. The “odds are not good for using social science research to define the content of gender complementarity” (16).

7. Parenting studies show some thing too: “children of both sexes need to grow up with stable, nurturant, and appropriately authoritative role models of both sexes to help develop a secure gender identity.

But strong co-parenting also allows growing children to relate to each other primarily as human beings, rather than as reduced, gender-role caricatures.

Paradoxical as it may seem, those who are most concerned to display rigidly stereotypical masculinity and felinity are apt to have the least secure gender identities” (17).


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