In Search of a More Feminist Science

The feminists had destroyed the old image of woman, but they could not erase the hostility, the prejudice, the discrimination that still remained.
—Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique, 1963

A science book on the shelves of the Wellcome Library in Bloomsbury, London, not too far from where I live, caught my eye. There among the rows of academic journals and medical textbooks, tucked away in one corner, was a small volume published in 1952 and titled The Natural Superiority of Women.

“The natural superiority of women is a biological fact, and a socially overlooked piece of knowledge,” wrote the author, a British American anthropologist by the name of Ashley Montagu. This bald statement sounded radical to me when I first read it, but I could only imagine how much more radical it must have sounded back in the 1950s, when women had the vote but not much else. By the time I found his book, I had already pored over many hundreds of pages of scientific literature stretching over two centuries dedicated to the idea that women are somehow inferior to men. This little volume was a rare exception. And it was written by a man. I bought my own secondhand copy.

As I learned later, this wasn’t Montagu’s only controversial piece of work. He was a prolific author who had lectured at Princeton and became something of an intellectual celebrity in the postwar years, appearing on American chat shows. When Hitler was committing atrocities against Jews in Europe, he wrote about the fallacy of the biological idea of race. In his writings on women, he compared their subjugation to the historic treatment of black people in the United States. He campaigned against genital mutilation long before it was the high-profile issue it is today.

Montagu wasn’t always Montagu. He was born Israel Ehrenberg to Jewish Russian immigrants in 1905 in east London—an upbringing that would have almost certainly made him a victim of anti-Semitism. Maybe that’s why he ended up changing his name. He picked the eighteenth-century writer and feminist Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. She had been known for her travel writing from the Ottoman Empire and for advocating in favor of smallpox inoculation after she saw it being used effectively in Turkey. She was so sure this medical practice would save lives that she had her own children inoculated, long before it became common in England.

I don’t know whether Lady Mary was any more of an inspiration to him beyond her name, but she seems to have been. In the pages of his book, Montagu looks at the biological measures by which we assume women are inferior to men. He uses data to show that, intellectually and physically, women aren’t weak and feeble. And he makes a passionate case for improving the status of women. It’s not always objective. In fact, at moments, he seems a little amused by his own idea. “If I sometimes poke a little lighthearted fun at my own sex, I hope that no man will be humorless enough to think that I am casting aspersions upon him,” he reassures.

But Montagu is also clear that men have everything to gain from embracing change. He calls for flexible working patterns, in which parents can split child care evenly between them so both can enjoy the benefits of raising their kids. He asks husbands not to leave housework to stay-at-home wives, however much they dislike it. “Man is himself a problem in search of a solution,” he writes. “When men understand that the best way to solve their own problem is to help women solve those that men have created for women, they will have taken one of the first significant steps toward its solution… The truth will make men free as well as women.” It’s a message as timely then as it is now.

At this point, though, let me tell you the story of another anthropologist.

In 2015 Melvin Konner, who’s based at Emory University, took inspiration from Montagu’s book and wrote his own, titled Women After All: Sex, Evolution, and the End of Male Supremacy. He argues that some qualities common to women make them natural leaders in the modern age. “I happen to think it’s superior to be less violent,” Konner tells me, when I interview him about it. If brute strength is a large part of the reason for male supremacy, then in an age when strength matters less and violence appears to be declining, he says, women should naturally ascend. “I think it’ll be a better world if women have more influence.”

It doesn’t sound all that radical now. After all, change is already underway. We have women leaders. Indeed, some critics have found Konner’s arguments more than a little patronizing. But the simple idea of women being in charge, which may have been amusingly provocative when Montagu’s The Natural Superiority of Women appeared on the shelves in 1952, is taken very differently these days. When Konner’s book was serialized in the Wall Street Journal, within forty-eight hours he had more than seven hundred comments, many of them from a “men’s rights movement.” “There were some comments that were brief, but started and ended with ‘fuck you,’” he recalls. Another told him, “There’s no describing your kind of stupid.” The response came as a shock. His wife had to double lock their doors.

The idea of women gaining power, Konner admits, “is threatening” to some.

That shouldn’t really surprise us. When suffragists in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries fought for the right to vote, they faced enormous opposition. It was a bitter, bloody battle. Thousands were imprisoned and some were tortured. Every wave for change in women’s lives has brought with it the same kind of resistance.

And today, as women across the world fight for more freedoms and equality, there are again violent efforts to hold them back. According to the Guttmacher Institute, a research organization that aims to advance reproductive rights, the last five years have seen a sharp rise in attempts by some U.S. states to impose restrictions on a woman’s right to an abortion. Some of these are limits on abortion medication, others on private insurance coverage and rules about abortion clinics. “The sustained assault on abortion access is showing no signs of abating,” a news release by the institute warned in January 2016.

Similarly, despite enormous efforts to raise awareness, female feticide in South Asia and female genital mutilation in Africa remain endemic. The spread of religious fundamentalism, which emphasizes female modesty, is also seeing the promise of female sexual freedom decaying right before our eyes.

A phenomenon known as the “Nordic Paradox” shows that equality under the law doesn’t always guarantee women will be treated better. Iceland has among the highest levels of female participation in the labor market anywhere in the world, with heavily subsidized child care and equal parental leave for mothers and fathers. In Norway, since 2006, the law has required that at least 40 percent of listed company board members are women. Yet a report in May 2016 published in Social Science and Medicine reveals that Nordic countries have a disproportionately high rate of intimate partner violence against women. One theory to explain the paradox is that Nordic countries may be experiencing a backlash effect as traditional ideas of manhood and womanhood are challenged.

The world may seem better for women than it was in 1952, when Ashley Montagu wrote The Natural Superiority of Women, but in some ways it’s worse. Resistance from certain corners is so powerfully toxic that it threatens to overturn the progress that’s been made.

You may think these struggles have nothing to do with the lofty world of science. Academics often balk at the thought of mixing their work with politics. But when it comes to women, there’s no avoiding it. Without taking into account how deeply unfair science has been to women in the past (and in some quarters, still is), it’s impossible to be fairer in the future. And this is important for all of us. Because what science tells us about women profoundly shapes how society thinks about the sexes. The battle for minds in the fight for equality has to include the biological facts.

Pretty much every scientist I interviewed for this book who is working to challenge negative research about women told me she or he is a feminist. This doesn’t make them any less brilliant at their work. In some cases, just the opposite. The social psychologist Carol Tavris, author of The Mismeasure of Woman: Why Women Are Not the Better Sex, the Inferior Sex, or the Opposite Sex, puts it to me this way: “Here is feminism, which involves ideological, political, and moral beliefs and goals. And here is science, which requires us to put our beliefs and assumptions, including those inspired by feminism, to empirical test… For decades feminism has been a lens that illuminated biases in science. It made science better. Women began studying questions about women’s lives—menstruation, pregnancy and childbirth, sexuality, work and careers, love—that most male researchers simply weren’t interested in. When men did include women in their studies and found gender differences, they often concluded that women weren’t just different from men, but deficient. So feminism was a crucial way to explode beliefs that people held that were just wrong.”

When I set out to write this book, I wanted to get to the heart of the facts, even if they were uncomfortable. Where the facts weren’t clear, I wanted to highlight the debates around them. I didn’t want to show that one sex is inferior and the other superior (I don’t believe that’s a distinction anyone can even reasonably make). I just wanted to better understand the biological story about myself and other women. As I’ve learned, science is far from perfect. That’s not the fault of the method but of us. We imperfect creatures crash its home and dirty its carpets with our feet. We throw our weight around when we should instead be its respectful guests. With us in charge, science can only be a self-correcting journey toward the truth. As such, none of the research I’ve written about represents the end of the story. Theories are only theories, waiting for more evidence.

But however unclear the research is in some areas, I did find reassurance that science has everything to offer women and men who want to live in a fairer world. Feminism can be a friend to science. It not only improves how science is done by pushing researchers to include the female perspective, but science in turn can also show us that we’re not as different as we seem. Research to date suggests that humans survived, thrived, and spread across the globe through the efforts of everyone equally sharing the same work and responsibilities. For most of our history, we lived hand in hand. And our biology reflects this.

In some ways, of course, our biology makes no difference to how we live today. We’ve entered the epoch that scientists call the “anthropocene,” in which humans are recognized to have had a profound impact on global ecosystems. We control our environments in ways that no other animal can. What’s more, we control ourselves. We have birth control that can stop women getting pregnant and paternity tests that allow fathers to identify their children. Within decades, it may be possible to delay menopause far into old age. Artificial intelligence may eventually rewrite the laws of work and love. The world in which we evolved into humans isn’t the same anymore. We’ve given ourselves the option to live any way we want.

In this world, then, it may seem strange that we’re laboring under the same old stereotypes that have been around for centuries, that we’re taking so long to make sexual equality a reality when the power to do it is entirely in our own hands. The cloudy window of the past has so distorted how we see society that we find it hard to imagine it another way. This is why science matters for every one of us. The job ahead for researchers is to keep cleaning the window until we see ourselves as we truly are, the way Ashley Montagu tried to do, and as so many pioneering researchers have done and continue to do today.

The facts are what will empower us to transform society for the better, into one that treats us as equals. Not just because this makes us civilized but because, as the evidence already shows, this makes us human.

Excerpted from Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong- and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story by Angela Saini (Beacon Press, 2017). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.