Men, Women and Sex Differences:
The Attitudes of Three Feminists
Gloria Steinem, Gloria Allred and Bella Abzug

Russell Eisenman McNeese State University

 

A case study of how three prominent feminists responded to evidence of sex differences is presented. Interesting research on sex differences is discussed, including brain differences. Much of it is from the ABC-TV program "Boys and Girls Are Different" hosted by John Stossel. The response of feminists Gloria Steinem, Gloria Allred, and Bella Abzug would seem to fit Festinger's concept of cognitive dissonance, whereby the unpleasant effect of multiple ideas contradicting each other induces persons to rationalize the one away to preserve existing and established sets of beliefs.

This paper is a case study of how three prominent feminists responded to the cognitive dissonance induced by ideas about sex differences. Festinger (1957) developed a theory of cognitive dissonance. He says that when we have two ideas that we see as inconsistent with one another we develop a state of cognitive dissonance, which we find unpleasant. We thus try to achieve consonance. But, the consonance is often achieved by rationalizing away one of the threatening ideas. For example, the idea that (1) I smoke, and (2) smoking is dangerous, should produce cognitive dissonance. Most people in this situation would rationalize away so that they could continue to smoke, now no longer seeing smoking as dangerous, despite evidence on the dangers of smoking. For the three feminists, the cognitive dissonance would occur between the ideas that (1) they think males and females are the same (and thus there should be no discrimination against females) and (2) research shows sex differences between males and females. From Festinger's work, we can predict that the tendency will be not to alter their political, ideological beliefs (belief 1), but to rationalize away the findings (idea number 2), just as smokers continue to smoke and rationalize away evidence on the dangers of smoking.

There is much interesting research occurring on sex differences between males and females. Some of it was summarized on the American Broadcasting Company television program, "Boy and Girls Are Different: Men, Women, and the Sex Difference," that aired on February 1, 1995, and was hosted by John Stossel. That research will be discussed here. Of at least equal interest is the response of the three feminists on that program: Gloria Steinem, Gloria Allred, and Bella Abzug. According to Stossel, Steinem believed that research on sex differences should not be done, and Allred believed that a program on sex differences should not be aired. While these views seem anti-research and anti-science, they are not as infrequent as one might hope.

The program also pointed out that some people who try to get grants to study sex differences have been refused funding because the topic is not politically acceptable. Thus, the political views of Steinem and Allred (and Abzug's view that findings reporting sex differences are "poppycock") have support in the real world. One of the women who does research on sex differences was advised by colleagues to avoid the area, due to its being politically incorrect.

There Are Different Feminist Views
The views of the three feminists presented here do not represent all of feminism. As Sommers (1994) pointed out, groups of zealots have taken over much of the feminist movement. Those she calls "gender feminists" seem anti-male and want to portray women as helpless victims of men. Men are the enemy, in this ideology. Further, Sommers says that research findings are misused to support the gender feminists' ideology. The present report is an example of that, in that the three feminists on the program deny valid research on sex differences in order to maintain their ideological belief that there are no sex differences. The research is "misused" in the sense that it is denied. But, as Sommers (1994) mentioned, there are other feminists who want women to have rights, but who do not denigrate men or use research in a dishonest or misleading fashion. She calls these "equity feminists."

In my book Readings in Psychology (Eisenman, 1995b) I published four articles critical of feminism. My criticisms stem from the kind of feminists Sommers (1994) condemns, who seem to be the ones with the most power. Since they are the ones fashioning laws and public opinion, they have come in for criticism from me and others (see, for example, good critiques by Levin, 1987 and Farrell, 1994). But it should be noted that other feminists, those whom Sommers (1994) calls "equity feminists," do not seem out to get men or misuse research. The ideals of the original feminist movement equal opportunities for women, freedom from discrimination, etc. still make sense today.

Eagly on Feminism and Sex Differences
The March 1995 issue of the American Psychologist contained an article by Alice Eagly (1995a) that pointed out that recent studies have shown that the assumption that research on sex differences yields only small differences is false. She says that the more recent empirical studies show large sex differences. Many feminists feel such findings of real sex differences weakens their arguments for women's rights. There were three articles in response to Eagly.

Hyde and Plant (1995) state that there is not a single feminist position on sex differences, and that some feminists argue for large sex differences. Marecek (1995) disputed Eagly (1995), saying that feminist theories show that alleged sex differences are often a reflection of interpersonal and institutional realities. Buss (1995) was the only person clearly in support of Eagly, stating that from an evolutionary standpoint there are large sex differences. In her response to the comments, Eagly (1995b) further supported her position and noted that many feminists want no differences found between men and women, in order to support efforts toward equality of treatment.

Hare-Mustin and Marecek (1988) have perhaps best summarized the politically-inspired nature of views on sex differences. They say that there are contrasting biases, with some exaggerating sex differences and others minimizing them. The task, then, for any honest person should be to obtain a correct view, without trying to overemphasize or underemphasize gender differences.

The Relevance of Scientific Research
The emphasis on political correctness rather than scientific validity is an anti-intellectual position. Research helps us understand the world better. Although any one study may be flawed, other research often serves as a corrective, pointing out what was wrong with the earlier work. Science is incremental. One study or several studies may not provide important answers, but as time goes on the addition of many new studies often shows the correct way, dealing with any flaws in the execution or conceptualization of the earlier work. People who do not understand this often think that an individual study is worthless, since it seems to have so many possible alternative explanations. But the individual study contributes to our overall knowledge in an area, and as more studies are done that individual study, seen in the context of the other studies, may be very valuable. To oppose research because it does not fit with one's political views is anti-intellectual. It is also quite possibly short-sighted, as the research may help to show how things are, and thus actually help people in living better lives. Of course, if one is totally opposed to, say, any view that there may be differences between the sexes, or if one feels that any research on sex differences will be used to put down women, then one would, on political grounds, be inclined toward opposition to such research.

Research has shown a relationship between political beliefs and prejudice (Altmeyer, 1988; Eisenman, 1991; Kinder & Sears, 1985; Sears, Lau, Tyler, & Allen, 1980; Sniderman, Brody, & Tetlock, 1991; Sniderman & Hagen, 1985). Thus, one's political beliefs may be consistent with or used to support one's prejudice. Ideology is not always objective. People may embrace a viewpoint that represents a political ideology without even realizing it, since the belief may seem attractive, being allegedly based on "equality," "fairness," or other terms which seem reasonable, but which disguise a political ideology (Eisenman, 1995a).

Sex Differences in "Boys and Girls Are Different"
Perhaps one of the most interesting sex differences shown on "Boys and Girls Are Different" was research by Michael Lewis with one-year old boys and girls. He had a barrier put up, such that the child was separated from its mother. The child could see the mother, but was prevented from reaching her. Most boys tried to knock down the barrier, but most girls just stood there and cried.

This finding is consistent with the view of greater aggression or assertion in men, and greater passivity in women. Since the children were only one year old, the results would seem more consistent with a biological explanation than with a socialization explanation, although socialization cannot be entirely ruled out since there was time (one year) for stereotyped sex differences to be imposed.

However, it may be that boys and girls have different ways of adapting to their worlds. This difference could explain why, throughout history, men have tended to obtain political power and to come up with the creative inventions, while women have not often done so. Women's strength may lie more in dealing with people and things in a less aggressive fashion, which could be very valuable in interactions with people or in raising a child. Thus, both the male and female tendencies, if such there are, have value. But to maintain that there is no difference between the sexes, one would have to denigrate any research that shows sex differences. This, of course, is what Steinem, Allred, and Abzug all did.

Another interesting sex difference study was done at the University of Rochester, and showed, according to Stossel, that due to brain differences, men and women navigate differently. Students were blindfolded and walked through a maze of tunnels underneath the campus. Men were quite accurate in maintaining a sense of direction, but women were not. This is consistent with research showing that people with higher masculinity scores tend to do better on visual-spatial tests (and in mathematics) than those who score higher on femininity (Signorella & Jamison, 1986). One can see that some women, or perhaps especially some feminists, would be upset if studies of sex differences constantly seem to favor the men over the women in some skill. But the next study is just the opposite, a study in which the women outperformed the men.

At York University in Canada, male and female students were left alone in a room to await a study. Actually, waiting in the room was part of the study, for when they sat down with the experimenter in another room the students were asked to recall what was in the room. A typical female response (all quotes are from the transcript of the program, which I purchased from Journal Graphics): "On the right-hand side of the desk, right here, was a briefcase with your initials at the top. There was a tube with mitts and a `I am 40' button on it. In the middle there were envelopes, York University envelopes. There was a thing of Clearisil and a Bazooka joke comic." This was only part of her response, but was all that was shown on the television program. Stossel said "We could let her go on much longer." Contrast that impressive memory performance with that of a typical male student: "I remember Pound Puppies. It was like, right here. I don't have a very good memory, I don't." That is it. The women remembered the room while the men tended not to remember. Since the subjects were not told that they would be quizzed on what was in the room, the memory may have something to do with recalling incidental things, or perhaps it is just general memory ability. In any case, the women far outpaced the men.

Stossel suggested that the brains of men and women may be different, accounting for these and other sex differences. Research with animals supports this view, with emphasis on different hormones produced by male and female brains. For example, Stossel pointed out that at the University of California at Los Angeles, Roger Gorsky found that when female rats were injected with the male hormone testosterone they behaved like males. Both men and women have some of the so-called other sex hormone: men have small amounts of estrogen; women have small amounts of testosterone. But, the differences are so great that it is perhaps valid to speak of testosterone as the male hormone and estrogen as the female hormone.

Stossel further points to research on monkeys at the University of Wisconsin, wherein female monkeys were injected with testosterone and grew up to behave like male monkeys, fighting but not grooming. In both the above-mentioned rat study and in this monkey study, the television program showed the male-like behavior of the testosterone injected females.

Failure to Consider Sex Differences: Haircuts
Possibly inspired by feminist rhetoric, attorneys have sued to make hair salons and others who cut hair charge the same amount for men's and women's haircuts. A television program on the subject showed stores that were charging the two sexes different amounts. The attorneys won their suit by arguing that this constituted was illegal discrimination, and likened it to the idea of charging more to cut the hair of black people than that of white people.

But, as Stossel showed via interviews, people who work in these salons say that it is much more work to cut women's hair. Women typically have more hair and it takes longer to do. Also, women are more critical, say the hair cutters, which again makes cutting their hair a more difficult task. When Stossel tried to discuss this with Gloria Allred, she was adamant that law suits would be used to enforce the absence of different treatment of men and women. She came across as angry and insensitive.

My daughter, Susan, has a perspective on this hair-splitting issue that seems to make sense. She resents being charged more, since she has relatively short hair. She says that the charge should be based on the amount of work required. Thus, most women would pay more, but women with short hair would pay less. Men with long hair would pay more. This would seem to be a fairer standard, given that there are often differences in hair length. But we may doubt that any of the three feminists interviewed on the television program would accept such a position. They seem to have a political agenda of getting more things for women, and denying any sex differences, that would lead them to side with the above mentioned attorneys and reject all other views.

According to June Reinisch:
John Stossel cited a list prepared by June Reinisch, head of the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University, documenting early behavioral differences in infants. such as the fact that girls sit up without support earlier than boys do. However, boys crawl away from their caretaker earlier than girls. Male infants startle more readily than female infants. Female infants rhythmically mouth more than male infants; that is, they suck on their tongues, move their lips, etc. She added "Men and women are not the same."

While it is not clear what all this means (males do some things more than females, and vice versa) the findings cited by Reinisch do suggest, as Stossel said, "So, could it be that when we treat kids differently, cuddle the girls, toss the boys into the air, that we're not just being sexist? Maybe we're responding to the inborn cues from the kids."

Stossel then went on to say that if there is an in-born difference between boys and girls, it should show up in the brains, and cited the work of Laura Allen, who has been studying brain tissue of the two sexes at the University of California at Los Angeles. He quoted her as saying that: "As I began to look at the human brain more and more, I kept finding differences, and about 7 or 8 out of the 10 structures that we actually measured turned out to be different between men and women."

Toy Companies: Reality from the Marketplace
Toy companies have an incentive to do whatever will sell. They are large corporations, out to make money. Gloria Steinem complained of parents inducing sex differences and said "We badly need to raise our boys more like our girls." Bella Abzug was asked by Stossel, "If society weren't sexist, the kids would do roughly the same? The boys would nurture the dolls?" Abzug said "I think so. I think it would be very much more interchangeable." Stossel then asked, "What about those who say there are biological differences" and Abzug said, "Well, I think that's a lot of poppycock."

The findings of toy companies is that even when they try to get children to buy the toys preferred by the opposite sex, they do not succeed. They would make a lot of money if toys were popular with both sexes, instead of toy A appealing to boys and toy B appealing to girls. But, their efforts to market toys to both sexes have not been effective. The consumers, the boys and the girls, want different toys. Advertising Age columnist Kate Fitzgerald said "What you see on the shelves is the reality of what has worked. Girls tend to want dolls, girls want pink, girls are more concerned with the relationships between the characters. Girls want to talk and play and be together. The toy companies have lost millions of dollars in testing and manufacturing toys that they thought would win over the opposite gender. They only respond to what kids want."

Biology as an Explanation as Opposed to Social Learning
The description of girls' preferences by Fitzgerald fits with sex differences alleged by Wilson (1992) in his sociobiological theory to be evolutionary. He says that females tend to be higher than males in empathy, verbal skills, social skills and security-seeking, among other things, while men tend to be higher in independence, dominance, spatial and mathematical skills, rank-related aggression, and other characteristics. So from this perspective it would make sense that girls would want a doll family, and to play with them as though they were interacting with each other, while boys would prefer soldiers, who fight to see who will come out on top. Not only do these choices fit with alleged biological predispositions, but they also prepare children for their future roles in society. Feminists, taking a social learning perspective, have often argued that such societal roles are due to what children are taught. Wilson (1992) and others of a biological orientation would argue that such societal roles are the normal outcome of innate biological differences between males and females. Wilson's small book is filled with evidence to support his biological model of sex differences and to refute the social learning model.

Since most people have not heard of the biological view, and have been exposed, at most, to a social learning explanation, Wilson's (1992) book is recommended as an antidote to a limited way of looking at sex differences. Of course, a strictly biological view that fails to consider the way society influences behavior would also be limited.

Funny and Sad:
Why Gloria Steinem Endorses Female Firefighters Part of the program "Boys and Girls Are Different" dealt with the efforts to have equality in hiring, such that hiring rules that limit a job mostly to one sex cannot be used. For example, many fire fighter jobs require some exhibition of physical abilities, such as chopping wood, climbing over a wall, and carrying a fire hose, before one can be hired. But since women tend to do worse than men on these tasks, there is a move to prevent fire companies from using these tasks for hiring purposes. One female fire fighter who was strong enough to pass the tests said she did not want to work with women who could not pass them, as they would be a hazard to her and the other firefighters, as well as to the people they are trying to save.

Gloria Steinem, like many feminists and others who believe in mandated equality (not just equal opportunity; see Eisenman, 1995a), wants women to be hired just as much as men, and thus objects to any pre-employment screening that results in most women not passing. When confronted with the argument that many women are not strong enough to carry injured people out of a burning building, she gave a response which was both funny and sad. It was suggested that such women could only drag injured or unconscious people down the stairs, pulling them by their ankles, which could lead to head injuries, as Cato Burn, a scholar at the Heritage Foundation, pointed out. However, Steinem, trying to defend the hiring of female firefighters, said, "It's better to drag them out, because there is less smoke down there. I mean, we're probably killing people by carrying them out at that height, you know, so I mean, you know, we need to look sensibly here at these jobs and what they really require, and not just some idea of what macho is." Some of my students laughed when she said that. It seemed like an obvious rationalization to defend her viewpoint, even when there is an argument that defeats it.

This rationalizing would be consistent with Festinger's (1957) view that when we are presented with two views, dissonance is introduced, which is uncomfortable. People try to achieve consonance by rationalizing away one of the views. Thus, a smoker has cognitive dissonance from the views (1) I smoke and (2) smoking is dangerous. The most rational response would be to stop smoking, but people are more likely to rationalize away the dangers of smoking. Thus, they can still smoke, but without the cognitive dissonance of thinking that smoking is dangerous.

Two Kinds of Discrimination
Steinem wants women hired as firefighters, and when evidence suggests that the discrimination in hiring may be valid, she comes up with a rather bizarre argument about how it is better not to lift up people when carrying them out of a burning building. An important point is that discrimination is not necessarily bad. We have heard the word "discrimination" used so often in civil rights cases in a negative way, that we may fail to see its other usage as a positive thing, as when a test validly discriminates between who can do the work and who cannot. This is the good kind of discrimination, on a par with saying that a wine connoisseur has a discriminating taste for wines.

The EEOC Lawsuit Against Sears
The idea that any discrimination is bad has led to harmful results. For example, Stossel pointed out the case of Sears and the lawsuit against them by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. "Been to Sears lately?" asked Stossel. He said, "If you buy something here [at Sears] you should know that some of your dollar goes to pay for years of litigation between Sears and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The EEOC apparently found out that more male than female sales clerks at Sears earn big commissions, apparently due to more men than women working in such departments as lawnmowers and appliances. The EEOC took the evidence of different sales figures, and different sexes tending to work in different departments, as evidence that Sears discriminated against women. The lawsuit lasted for years and cost $20 million, according to Stossel. Sears said, in effect, (quoting Stossel) "We didn't discriminate. We asked women to do all those jobs. It's just that few women want to sell things like lawnmowers." According to Stossel, "After the EEOC was unable to produce any women who said they'd been discriminated against, Sears won the suit. The $20 million the litigation cost will be passed on to us customers."

Sports and "Discrimination"
This reminds me of an event that happened several months after the program. A federal judge held that Brown University is guilty of sex discrimination because, even though it provides an equal number of intercollegiate athletic programs for male and female students, there are fewer women in the female sports programs. Thus, Brown was found to be discriminating on the basis of Title IX, that says that universities may not discriminate on the basis of sex. Many universities are having a problem with Title IX, since more men then women are typically interested in playing collegiate sports, more fans are interested in the male sports, and, especially because of football, more money is thus spent on the male sports. Also, it is typically only some of the male sports that produce revenue for the school (although the high costs of such sports as football or basketball means that few sports really wind up making money, if the costs are taken into account, except in the instances of big-time athletic programs that receive large donations from alumni).

I have heard horror stories of how women's sports used to be the step sister, receiving little in the way of support, relative to the men's sports. For example, while one university's men's basketball team got to stay at nice hotels, the women's basketball team had to stay at cheaper motels and sleep two to a bed. The university did not give them enough money for each women basketball player to have her own bed. Such things need correction. But, to say that everything has to be equal is to go against both the reality of how much men value competitive sports as opposed to women, and how little fan interest there is in women's sports. Perhaps men like to participate in competitive collegiate sports because they are responding to their greater physical strength, which makes them more interested in using that strength in a sport, and also due to the alleged male need for dominance and rank (Wilson, 1992). The nature of most sports would seem less consistent with the observed female interests in such things as interpersonal communication, taking care of children, or verbal skills, to name a few. All of those things are of limited use in the fast action of most competitive collegiate sports. Communication is obviously needed in sport, but the kind of deep interpersonal communication favored by women is not what is needed, but rather something to help you quickly establish dominance over an opponent.

Who Gets Custody of the Child?
An interesting point emerged when Stossel mentioned that perhaps, over the centuries, women have shown more interest in child rearing than have men. This would be the view of Helen Fisher, an anthropologist, who believes that sex differences evolved over millions of years, as men and women did different things, and thus the successful men and women who survived passed on genes for different kinds of behaviors. For example, women are less likely to abandon their child than are men. Perhaps this is another sex difference, and consistent with the early woman caring for the child while the man was out hunting, and also consistent with the tendency of courts to award child custody to the wife and not the husband.

However, when Stossel interviewed men's rights activists on the issue of who the courts tend to give the child to, the roles were reversed, with the men's rights activists sounding like the three feminists, and arguing against sex differences. Consider the following exchange between Stossel and two men's rights activists, Richard Bogash and Sidney Siller:

Stossel: Aren't women better mothers, better nurturers? Bogash: Fathers and mothers are both equally good parents. Stossel: Evolution shows that women have done most of the mothering? Siller: That is not that is not that is a myth. That is a myth.

Hostility or Ignorance of Research
When some people wish to speak from a political position regarding the rights of their gender, it seems convenient to overlook or denigrate research, if it leads to conclusions not consistent with one's bias. This is, however, a very anti-intellectual way to think. But apparently some feminists such as Steinem, Allred, and Abzug are so imbedded into their ideology that they will not entertain any research findings that do not support what they already believe.

Another possibility is that they are either ignorant of research methods in general, or are simply ignorant of the specific research that is done on sex differences. Perhaps these feminists, and others devoted to equality, have no real sense of how the scientific method operates to help us understand our world. But they do have a political ideology. Lacking any real understanding of how hypotheses are tested, and supported or not supported, how research is incremental and builds on past research, etc., such people ignore research, except when they hear of findings that support what they already believe. They would never concede that perhaps a biological explanation is superior to a social-learning explanation to account for something that they had conceptualized as being environmentally caused.

How the Feminists Came Across on the TV Show
The three feminists came across badly on the television program. Largely, this was due to their views: their refusal to accept research. However, part of it could have been due to how they were presented. Gloria Allred seemed constantly angry, and her desire to have constant lawsuits seemed absurd. But, television programs can often make you look how they want. Perhaps some of her anger was due to topics discussed but not the specific ones shown. Some of her advocacy of lawsuits may have been a general point, not specific to what was being discussed. For example, to show that a lawsuit seems absurd in a specific instance, and then to interview Allred about lawsuits and have her speaking in favor of them, makes it seem like she advocates a lawsuit in the absurd case. I got the feeling this was being done to her, due to the way the program was edited, which showed certain things, and then had a general statement from her, in response to a general question from Stossel.

If I am correct, then she was treated unfairly, and made to appear to communicate things she was not really communicating. In defense of the program, Allred is an attorney and seems to be very much in favor of lawsuits. Like Steinem and Abzug, she also favors the view that men and women are the same, and considers any evidence to the contrary to be misleading and harmful. As I mentioned at the beginning, according to Stossel, Steinem argued that no research should be conducted into sex differences, and Allred believed that such research as had been conducted should not be publicized on TV.

Steinem came across as a rigid person who would not consider any idea inconsistent with her ideology. Her defense of female fire fighters who are not able to carry out victims was a telling point. Although not as overtly angry as Allred, she seemed sarcastic at times, as when she told Stossel she could smell sexism better than he could, in response to his saying that research showed that women have a better sense of smell than men. This might have appealed to those who support her, but it failed to deal with Stossel's point, and just put him down and avoided the issue.

Abzug seemed like a pleasant person, but one totally ignorant of research on sex differences, and perhaps ignorant of research in general. Of course, most people know little or nothing about research, but when one is in the public policy arena, there is some obligation to understand relevant findings and not be close-minded about them.

One problem for feminism, besides the specific content of their ideology, has been that nonfeminists perceive them as not very appealing people. Feminists are fond of saying that the media portray them as hairy-armed, unattractive women (Wolf, 1993). But there is also the accurate negative perception if one comes across rigid and sarcastic (Steinem on the program) or constantly angry (Allred on the program).

There are feminists who do research, as well as those who follow the research literature. The picture of anti-research bias presented above is either (a) a function of the three specific feminists studied or (b) the stance they took when the research went against their beliefs. Perhaps they know a little research, and selectively report it to further their goals.

Further Thoughts
Do the brains of males and females really differ, resulting in very different behavior? A very readable book on the biology of sex differences is that of Moir and Jessel (1991), who record the observed brain differences. A more cautious approach is presented by Springer and Deutsch (1994). A useful discussion of psychological perspectives on gender can be found in Brannon (1995), a feminist who emphasizes social influence more than biological causes.

Steinem (1986) has published a very readable memoir of her involvement in the feminist movement. On the back cover of the paperback edition, actor Alan Alda is quoted as saying, "Her book is like the woman herself: intelligent, concerned, articulate, precise, and never without a sense of balance." However, this is not the way I felt she or the other two feminists came across on the television program "Boys and Girls Are Different." It would be interesting to understand why.

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