The Industrial Revolution, specifically in the 19th Century, saw an emergence in STEM research, particularly advances in Brain Studies. Although, it contributed to a vast understanding of neuroanatomy, this century also laid down the scientific reasonings for the sexism, anti-feminism, body terrorism, slavery and colonialialism.
Let's begin our journey in 1673, when Francois Poullain de la Barre published, "L'esprit n'a point de sexe" meaning "The Mind has no Sex". It is astonishing, although predictable, how the school of thought shifted by the1700s.
Today, we have several books investigating the disappearance of women from science, sexist experiments designed to dictate a "woman's place in the society", their inferiority and the scientific arguments justifying racism, need for colonialism and slavery.
Before, we dive into this Exposé, let me share what I mean when I refer to the "Women's Place". During the 19th Century, several prominent scientists and neurologists decided to entrench their sexist beliefs with scientific acumen, notably, Charles Darwin and Paul Broca.
"...Women... represent the most inferior forms of human evolution and... are closer to children and savages than to an adult, civilized man.... Without a doubt there exist some distinguishable women, very superior to the average man but they are as exceptional as the birth of an monstrosity, as for example, of a gorilla with two heads; consequently, we may neglect them entirely." [LeBon, 1879]
The thought predominant at that time was the equation of Biology with Destiny: irrespective of what women wished to do, their brains were different than that of men, and that one shouldn't disturb the natural order of things. One of the other pseudoscientific arguments put forth by Essentialism, was that when a "Pink brain" was measured against a "Blue brain", it was smaller than its opponent, signifying that the "Blue brain" was higher up on the evolutionary scale than the "Pink brain".
Till date, researchers are still trying to propagate "the pink for girls and blue for boys" myth. Laden with racist and sexist assumptions, plenty of researchers, nuance their scientific findings with discriminatory beliefs.
...in specializing for gathering, the female brain honed the trichromatic adaptations, and these underpin the female preference for objects ‘redder’ than the background... An alternative explanation for the evolution of trichromacy is the need to discriminate subtle changes in skin color due to emotional states and social-sexual signals; again, females may have honed these adaptations for their roles as care-givers and ‘empathizers’. [Hulbert and Ling, 2007]
To deconstruct this assumption, gender-typical color-preference in toddlers do not develop till they are 2 years of age and doesn't get strengthened till they are 3, suggesting a strong socio-cultural underpinning to the cognitive development. [Wong and Hines, 2015] Gendered parenting causes the development of color preferences in children as young as 2 years of age.
Furthermore, studies enumerating sex differences report a very small sample size, composed of the majority demographic that is predominent at the study's location (race, age, religion, class, caste, financial stability, political beliefs). [David et.al., 2018]
In 1873, one of the prominent educators in the country, Edward H. Clarke postulated that boys enter the world fully developed and hence can withstand the rigors of school and college, unlike girls.
He goes on to comment on the inability to do both brain work and stomach work, causing the girls to develop bigger brains like men upon studying, which in turn takes a toll on their reproductive parts, causing their ovaries to shrivel up.
He further equates the development of mental conditions due the inability of girls to deal with academic stressors.
...among the female graduates of our colleges; behind the counters of Washington Street and Broadway; in our factories, workshops and homes, - may be found numberless, pale, weak, neuralgic, dyspeptic, hysterical, menorraghic, dysmenorrhoeic that are living in illustration of truth...
To quote Dr. Gina Rippon, the narrative enforcing the roles of women from the 19th to the 20th Century changed from "prescriptive, that is to say women are inferior, to proscriptice: these are the roles they should play". Hence, the 20th Century, gave rise to several accounts of psychobabble.
"We must start with the realization that, as much as women want to be good scientists or engineers, they want first and foremost to be womanly companions of men and the be mothers." [Bettelheim, B., 1965]
For some psychiatrists, specifically Rheingold, a psychiatrist at the Harvard Medical School, the solution to societal problems was that women should accept their role in society.
“Woman is nurturance...anatomy decrees the life of a woman... when women grow up without dread of their biological functions and without subversion by feminist doctrine, and therefore enter upon motherhood with a sense of fulfillment and altruistic sentiment, we shall attain the goal of a good life and a secure world in which to live it.” [Joseph Rheingold,1964]
There was a fair amount of misuse of Biological knowledge of the time propagate to the white male narrative suggesting a woman's inferiority in society. Popular press of the early 20th Century concentrated on impregnating the fear of "female hormones" into the public, instilling the rhetoric, "What would happen should a woman lead alongside experiencing PMS?! The entire industry would crumble down!"
Even the field of Neuroscience is obsessed with Gender Differences in Brain Morphology. From "left brain: males and right brain: females" to size differences to differences in grey matter/white matter to even hippocampal variations, the list, seems endless.
When we venture into the 21st Century, we are still surrounded by the same mysoginy that seems to have flourished since the 17th Century.
The 21st Century also saw the requirement for a "raw, innate talent/intelligence" to be possessed by an individual, which too was subjected to gendered scrutiny. In fact, the structuring of an IQ Test on the general intelligence (g) factor, supported by craniometric measurements, is rooted in racism and sexism. [Janik A,1983].
Neurosexism still makes the headlines today as researchers devote their time trying to find "binary sex differences" in morphology, connectivity and the architecture of the brain.
In the first paper, the fundamental sex differences mentioned were so minute that it shouldn't really make a headliner on the Daily Mail suggesting Men and Women are wired differently. The second however, doesn't conduct any research unto spatial cognition or language processing, they however, correlate their study with the popular gendered stereotype, prevalent in 2012.
The Brain, au contraire to held gendered prejudices, doesn't present itself in a binary format. It is however, plastic in nature, continuously forming newer connections and foregoing unused ones as we age, based on our environmental experiences. There are no fixed morphologies or connections that we live with and nothing so rigid preventing our abilities to learn, master a new skill, exhibit talent/intelligence. Our brain architecture is greatly influenced by the environment we find ourselves in.
Alongside to being a positive influence, an experience-based plasticity also devotes power to stereotypical threats, racial biases and discriminatory contexts within which a brain develops.
The idea that the brain exists in a binary is highly simplistic, disregarding multitudes of existences within this sex spectrum, displaying varying degrees of intelligence, skill and interest.
Baron-Cohen, S. (2002). The extreme male brain theory of autism. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 6(6), 248–254.
Bettelheim, B. (1965). The Commitment Required of a Woman Entering a Scientific Profession in Present-Day American Society. Woman and the Scientific Professions, paper presented at the MIT Symposium on American Women in Science and Engineering.
Changizi, M. A., Zhang, Q., & Shimojo, S. (2006). Bare skin, blood and the evolution of primate colour vision. Biology Letters, 2(2), 217–221.
David, S. P., Naudet, F., Laude, J. R., Radua, J., Fusar-Poli, P., Chu, I. M., Stefanick, M. L., & Ioannidis, J. P. A. (2018). Potential Reporting Bias in Neuroimaging Studies of Sex Differences. Scientific Reports, 8(1).
Edward H. Clarke (1873). Sex in education: A fair chance for the girls.
Hurlbert, A. C., & Ling, Y. (2007). Biological components of sex differences in color preference. Current Biology, 17(16).
Janik, Allan (1983). "The Mismeasure of Man". Ethics. 94 (1): 153–55.
Rheingold, J. (1964). The Fear of Being a Woman. New York: Grune and Stratton.
Widener, Alice (1979), Gustave Le Bon, the Man and His Works, Liberty Press.
Wong, W. I., & Hines, M. (2015). Preferences for Pink and Blue: The Development of Color Preferences as a Distinct Gender-Typed Behavior in Toddlers. Archives of sexual behavior, 44(5), 1243–1254.