Early this morning, I posted a critique of a post by Harriet Hall on SBM discussing the complexities of sex and gender. For those who may have missed previous posts, here’s a quick set of links in the order in which the posts occurred:
- “Gender Differences and Why They Don’t Matter So Much” – Harriet Hall at SBM.
- “Why Gender Differences Don’t Matter (and Other Myths)” – Me here at Skepchick.
- “Sex, Gender, and Sexuality: It’s Complicated” – Hall
- “Gender is Complicated (and Other Breaking News)” – Me
- “I Am Not Your Enemy: An Open Letter to My Feminist Critics” – Hall
It’s getting to the point where this back-and-forth is making some extremely long blog posts. I do want to respond to this latest post by Hall because I think we can all make some headway on at least some of the issues brought up.
I will say right off the bat that this is the last time I’m going to respond in any length to Hall on this particular topic. Frankly, I don’t have the time or energy to continue in a never-ending back-and-forth, especially when it’s starting to feel as though we are talking past each other on some items and that we have fundamental disagreements on others. I will certainly engage with the comments section here, and Hall is free to contact me through the Skepchick contact form if she wants to further communicate.
Before I get into the meat of her post, there is one point I will concede to Hall. She points out that on her first post she admitted that there is much uncertainty in the literature on sex and gender differences. That is true, and I should have been more aware of that point in forming my response. The problem I had was that earlier in the post she promoted a problematic Scientific American article on gendered brain differences in an effort to explain how there are “real differences between men and women.” When I later read that she was hedging everything she’d previously written about “real” differences, I found it to be unconvincing. But ultimately she’s right: She did admit that the research is complex and at times perplexing.
My Problems with Hall’s Positions
She opens her latest post with this statement:
I have been falsely identified as an enemy of feminism (not in so many words, but the intent is clear). My words have been misrepresented as sexist and misinterpreted beyond recognition. I find this particularly disturbing and hard to understand, because I’m convinced that my harshest critics and I are basically arguing for exactly the same things. I wish my critics could set aside their resentments and realize that I am not the enemy.
It’s important to note that no one has directly identified Hall as “an enemy of feminism” by her own admission, but she is able to read the intent. Keep this in mind as we move forward and Hall is repeatedly offended at my reading of her position (e.g., her claim that I “attack her for things she never said”).
I do not have resentment towards Harriet Hall. I do not consider Harriet Hall my enemy. I don’t know enough about her to hold resentment or consider her an enemy. I’m actually quite a laid-back, amicable person most of the time and don’t hold a lot of animosity towards anyone. What I do know is that the little information I have about her past actions, her responses to people taking issue with those actions, her response to those people, and her current misrepresentations of sex, gender, and sexuality on a prominent science blog bother me. I chose in my previous responses to leave her problems with PZ Myers and Ophelia Benson for them to respond to (which, by the way, Ophelia has now done), and I’m not going to address those problems here.
Now, speaking of resentment, I wish Hall would not put scarequotes around my name, as if because I write for Skepchick that I am somehow not a real person or am using some weird pseudonym. Will is my actual, real name—no need to quote it. Whatever issues she’s had with PZ Myers, Ophelia Benson, Amy, Rebecca, or anyone else really has nothing at all to do with my criticisms of her positions. For someone who is fond of accusing me of fallacies, perhaps she should stop trying to poison the well against my criticisms by bringing up whatever disagreements she has with others that I am not personally involved with.
First he accuses me of not knowing the difference between sex and gender. I understand his definition — that sex is biological and gender is cultural — but I was trying to make the point that we often don’t know for sure whether a trait is biologically or culturally determined. And whether or not he thinks it’s acceptable, some people do use the words gender and sex interchangeably.
Clearly, Hall does know the difference. But that did not come across in her first post. She consistently conflates the two categories, even after acknowledging that there are differences between them. I do not think it is acceptable to conflate them, which is why I pointed it out. I recognize that people do it, but that does not mean I have to accept it, nor does it mean they are correct.
He wants to dictate how I use language, yet he uses the word queer, a term most people in the LGBT community consider offensive. He insults me by saying I am ignorant of what gender means. He condescendingly explains androgen insensitivity syndrome to me, as if I hadn’t learned about it in medical school 45 years ago.
I do not want to “dictate” anything. I want to point out that the language used when talking about sex and gender matters. It does matter whether you’re talking about sex or gender. It does matter whether your language is essentializing or not. These are major problems that have been addressed at length in the literature on sex and gender.
I did not “condescendingly” explain (mansplain, if you will) AIS to Hall. I pointed out that the dichotomy she set up (“women have breasts and men have a penis and testicles. Women are XX and men are XY”) is way too simple and provided AIS an example of how those “real differences” she proposed are much more complex. She is not the only intended audience of my post.
As for chiding me for using the word “queer,” she later sort-of-apologized in the comments on her post. Apology accepted, though it was not entirely without problems, which mostly have been addressed in comments both here and on Hall’s post, so I will not go into any detail in the interest of space.
Female is a biological category. A mammal who is anatomically and physiologically capable of bearing children and lactating (or will be, if prepubertal) is surely in the biological category “female” even if she has not had those experiences.
We agree that “female” is a biological category, but we do not agree on Hall’s assessment of what that category entails. Again, someone with AIS is female-bodied, but is not anatomically or physiologically capable of bearing children. Hall herself admitted that these categories are fuzzy and not quite so clear, so I do not understand why she feels that this is a sticking point that she must declare that females menstruate, get pregnant, and lactate. Yes, some females do some or all of those things, but it is not necessary to do or have the potential to do those things to be female. That is the crux of my argument against her framing of sex.
What would he have had me say? “Female-bodied individuals are more likely to menstruate, get pregnant and lactate than male-bodied individuals”? That strikes me as an inelegant and unreasonable concession to feminist political correctness.
Yes, I would love for Hall to have said that. It strikes me as quite elegant in that it allows for variation and does not confuse gender with sex. It has nothing to do with “political correctness” and everything to do with striving for accuracy in our language on this topic. The statement “female-bodied individuals are more likely to menstruate, get pregnant, and lactate than male-bodied individuals” is a more accurate statement than “women menstruate, get pregnant, and lactate” because it better allows for the very real sex and gender variation that Hall is so adamant about focusing on.
I didn’t say I thought there was a simple clear-cut division. I didn’t even address that issue in my article.
Speaking of things we never said, I never said, “Hall said there is a simple, clear-cut division.” What I was saying is that, based on my reading of the first post by Hall, she seems to adhere to the belief in a gender binary with clear distinctions (“men have these traits, women have these traits” is a pretty simple and clear-cut division) as a real and accurate thing. This was confirmed in her second post when she said said there is no need to reject the gender binary because it is practical and useful.
Concerning the tangent on breastfeeding, that is mostly us talking past each other. She did not use the word “bonding” specifically, but the context of her discussion was that while most men cannot produce milk to nourish their children, they could still be nurturing. It seems to me that bonding is an important aspect of nurturing young humans. Despite her protestation, her comment was not limited to “breast is best [for nutrition/health]” as she was discussing nurturing, not feeding, nutrition, and the health benefits of breastfeeding (though she mentions this briefly).
I also should point out that my example of the Aka was mostly tongue-in-cheek, meant to point out that an assumption that only women allow babies to suckle is incorrect. I put “male breastfeeding” in scare quotes to indicate that I realize there is no milk production going on with the Aka but that it is still a form of bonding/nurturing through nipple suckling. There are also products created to allow men to “breastfeed” their babies using a vest with bottles embedded on the nipple spots. My point is that “women breastfeed, men do not” is an overly simplistic way to declare inherent gender differences.
In response to my claim that Hall is wrong that gender doesn’t matter, she said that’s not what she said. Yet the very title of her first blog post quite literally made the claim that gender differences don’t matter. I will take her clarification at face value that she was referring to how general gender differences in a population don’t matter much when looking at individual variation—a statement I agree with. Forgive my confusion.
However, this is not just a claim that Hall has made with regards to gender differences. Hall said in her first post that she does not want to be seen as a sexed/gendered person:
In a sense, identifying as part of a group of women only reminds people that we are women and only tends to delay the day when people will notice our accomplishments and not our anatomy.
Of course, I’ve pointed out ad nauseum that being a woman is not necessarily a matter of anatomy. But still, what Hall is advocating for here—whether she is doing it intentionally or not—is a gender-blind meritocracy where people are valued based solely on their accomplishments and not on their differences (in other words, a world in which gender doesn’t matter). And this is where Hall and I have a major disagreement. See, I do not find difference and diversity in a society to be a weakness, but a strength. Noting people’s differences and their accomplishments are not mutually exclusive activities. I do find it inspiring that Hall was a pioneer. She clearly worked hard against the injustices that most second-wave feminists fought against. But I also wonder why someone who is so adamant about not being recognized by her gender would have written a memoir based on her experiences as a female flight surgeon. It seems as if Hall is arguing out of both sides of her mouth: “Stop recognizing me as a woman, but don’t forget I was a forerunner for women in the Air Force.” Why is it acceptable for Hall to call attention to her own awe-inspiring attacks on patriarchy but not for feminist skeptics to get together and discuss the status of women in the movement? Why must we recognize Hall’s feminist achievements and pretend that it is no longer good or useful to recognize other feminist achievements by women?
Hall on Diversity and Conferences
Towards the middle of her post, Hall addresses the question I posed (and had answered) in my first post:
Would she begrudge queer people or people of color joining together in solidarity in the same way that she poopoos on people identifying as “women skeptics”?
It seems that Hall does not want multiple conferences that focus on the particular needs of subsets of people within the skeptical/atheist community. In her latest post, Hall says that she has no objection to minorities joining together in solidarity. But apparently only as long as they’re not talking about skepticism/atheism:
I have a personal preference to participate as an integral member of the general body of skeptics, rather than meet with a subset of women skeptics. I would be distressed if the skeptical movement were balkanized into ineffectiveness by creating separate meetings for every conceivable minority group.
Having a personal preference for certain kinds of conferences is fine. I doubt anyone would have a problem with that. However, that’s not what Hall has said in the past. The unsolicited opinion she posted on Facebook was in response to someone promoting Women in Secularism. They did not ask “who thinks having a conference for women in secularism is a good idea?” But still, Hall took it upon herself not just to express a preference, she also said:
Efforts like this tend to divide the secular movement. Why can’t we all just get along and cooperate on our mutual goals? I think conferences like this only tend to postpone the day when the sexes will truly be treated equally and no one will pay attention to whether a person has chest bumps or dangly bits.
That’s more than just a personal preference. That is an active call to cease having conferences for specific subsets of the skeptic/atheist community. She is saying that conferences like WiS are harmful to the skeptical/atheist movement. That’s more than a personal preference for general conferences, and I find it disingenuous for Hall to pretend otherwise.
Do we need a conference devoted to elderly transsexual black Hispanic scientists? OK, so that’s ridiculous; but at what point does it become ridiculous?
Actually, it’s not up to me to decide whether there is a need for a conference devoted to topics of interest to elderly transsexual black Hispanic scientists. But you know what? If someone set up such a conference, I sure as shit wouldn’t tell them they’re harming the community. It’s one thing to think a conference is pointless and choose not to attend. It’s all together different to accuse the people involved with it of inflicting harm. It’s also not based in any empirical evidence I’ve seen! Anecdotally, it seemed like the first Women in Secularism was a huge success and many people genuinely and deeply enjoyed their time there. Why does Harriet Hall find it so destructive for minorities to gather together to discuss issues of importance to them? How does Women in Secularism take away from, say, Skepticon? The idea that creating multiple different kinds of conferences with multiple different foci is harmful just doesn’t jibe with me. I have not seen any evidence to indicate this is so. And I also must ask: harmful to whom? It certainly is not harmful to minorities to have a place to gather and have their voices heard!
Hall also says that she “said nothing about erasing identities from view.” True, she never said “let’s make people invisible!” The problem is that her position—that conferences organized for the purposes of bringing subsets of skeptics/atheists together in solidarity to address issues they find pertinent that are being ignored by the larger skeptical/atheist community—can have the effect of making people invisible. And to call their efforts to organize and have their voices be heard “harmful” plays into the rhetoric of social oppression, whether Hall intends for it to or not.
Different Understandings of Feminism
Hall ends her post with a plea and a declaration. I would like to take these point-by-point, and I will address them specifically to Dr. Hall.
Please read what I say, not what you choose to imagine I meant to say.
I did read what you said, and what I find problematic is the hidden bias in the way you’re talking about these issues. There’s a cognitive bias going on here that you are refusing to see or acknowledge. Also, just because you do not intend to say something does not mean your words will have your intended effect. So it’s not so much that I’m “imagining” what you meant to say, it’s that I’m viewing it from the perspective of the wider world in which you and I exist.
Please don’t try to argue about statements I never made.
I have not personally argued against statements you never made. I’ve argued against your misinformed statements and the consequences of your statements. You seem quite fixed on the idea that people are putting words in your mouth and building arguments around it, yet you do not seem to recognize how you yourself do this. You even started the post off with an acknowledgement that you do this.
Please try to understand that “I like to do it my way” does not equate to “I’m accusing you of being wrong for doing it your way.”
Except, as I just pointed out, you did not just say “I like to do it my way” and you did accuse us of being wrong and, further, of actively harming the skeptical/atheist movement.
Please try to be civil and respectful and avoid insults.
I agree with you on this, and I certainly apologize for any insults in my posts. However, I find that this plea in particular is perplexing considering the T-shirt you wore at TAM. You were informed how insulting and disrespectful that was, and you refused to view the t-shirt in light of all the other stuff going on in the community. Instead of being civil (i.e., not wearing it anymore once you found out people were offended by it), you continued to wear it for two more days. Can you see how a plea for civility and respect and avoiding insults from you might be viewed with a bit of trepidation at the least? You seem willing to demand these things from others and wholly unwilling to do them yourself.
I am a feminist too, even though my brand of feminism may not meet your expectations of how a feminist should act. There are different roads to the same destination. Don’t disparage mine.
I certainly do not think you are not a feminist, and I’ve never personally claimed you’re not a feminist. I’m not in the business of declaring who is and is not whatever identity. What I’ve tried to point out is that your understanding of feminism seems to be mired in second-wave feminist thought. And in the same way that I criticize radical feminists, I will criticize second-wave vanguard feminists for refusing to acknowledge that feminism has greatly expanded from a focus on employment and labor and discrimination against women in work (along with the pervasive lack of intersectionality in second-wave feminist positions). I’m really not sure that the road you’re on and the road I’m on go to the same place simply because they’re both named “feminist.”
I don’t think I deserve your contempt and hostility.
I have no contempt for you, and my hostility is directed at your positions, which I clearly find to be highly problematic and often self-righteous and hypocritical. But do not confuse my strong (sometimes snarky and cranky) criticism with contempt for you as a person.
As for Hall’s ideas of common feminist ground, I think Ophelia has addressed it best in her post:
No one is talking about enforcing a requirement that equal numbers of men and women be present in any sphere of human endeavor. But, that doesn’t mean we should just look at any particular sphere of human endeavor that has a huge gender imbalance and conclude that it reflects pure choice and that’s all there is to it. That’s especially true when the sphere in question is a highly rewarded one, whether with money or status or intellectual stimulation or other such goods. (And that cuts both ways. There are vocations whose rewards are emotional and relational, where men may be scarce.) That’s especially true at this point in the timeline, because it’s just way too early. Maybe after many decades of effort to level all the playing fields, a time will come when it actually is safe to say “ok, this is how things shake out when there are no obstacles hard or soft,” but that time is not yet.
So no, nobody wants the job police to collar women who want to be poets and force them to be computer scientists. But that’s not the issue.
Ultimately, I hope that Hall will take some time to re-consider the points I’ve made. If she feels that I am making straw arguments, it might be useful to ask why someone who is fairly well versed in the literature on sex and gender would take issue with her points. I do not feel that I am making straw arguments here, and I do take that criticism seriously. I recognize that there is more than the literal words people write. There is a context—multiple contexts, actually—within which these blog posts occur. To pretend that they happen in a vacuum is naïve and has an obscuring effect.
But in the end, I do not write these posts because I want to change Hall’s mind. That would be nice, but my main goal is to point out to a broader audience how the ways that we think about sex and gender are often quite problematic—even research into these topics is often mired in cultural biases.
Even as a queer person, I catch myself thinking or saying heteronormative or cissexist things because it’s deeply ingrained in our ways of thinking. The best response is not getting offended when someone points these things out to me; it’s to recognize that I am a human who comes with cultural baggage that is impossible to shake. But that does not mean I should stop trying. And if Hall is as interested as I am in living in a world sensitive to people’s differences, I would hope she can find it in her to re-consider the inherent heteronormativity and cissexism in her positions and work to overcome those biases.