The Harvard faculty of arts and science just last week passed a motion expressing a lack of confidence in the leadership of President Lawrence Summers. Such censure is unprecedented in Harvard’s near 400-year-history. Summers unwittingly stepped on the third rail of university politics when he speculated that innate differences between the sexes might be one reason there are fewer women than men at the highest echelons of math and science. To understand the hornets’ nest Summers has stirred up, one needs to have a close look at the main hornets.
To an outsider, the controversy must look very strange. Nothing Summers said was a threat to the advancement of a single competent woman in any of the sciences. The statistical fact that more men tend to score in the top-five percent of math-aptitude tests makes no predictions whatsoever about the abilities of any particular man or woman. Far from being outrageous or sexist, Summers’s comments were completely respectable and altogether mainstream. But not in the academy. As one outraged Harvard feminist professor of ethics, Mahzarin Banaji, told the Harvard Crimson, “In this day and age to believe that men and women differ in their basic competence for math and science is as insidious as believing that some people are better suited to be slaves than masters.”
The January 14 conference where Summers spoke was organized by the National Bureau of Economic Research. While many members of the audience found his remarks measured and thought-provoking, a few were deeply offended that he entertained the idea that natural differences between men and women played a role in career paths. The press has widely reported on the overreaction Nancy Hopkins, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology biologist and feminist activist who says she almost became physically ill. What many press stories fail to mention is that this is not the first time Professor Hopkins had been offended by perceived sexism.
Soon after Summers uttered his fateful speculations, the New York Times ran a front-page story that purported to be an objective survey of the latest scholarship on sex differences. Except that the lead reporter, Natalie Angier, is anything but objective. In 1999, she published a book entitled Woman: An Intimate Geography. That book is a manifesto for the “gender is a social construction” school of feminism. Gloria Steinem was completely blown away by it and called it “liberation biology.” An excited reviewer from Elle magazine said of Angier’s book “If Our Bodies, Ourselves has become the bible of women’s bodies, let Woman: an Intimate Geography be our Shakespeare.” Never mind the hundreds, if not thousands, of serious researchers–geneticists, endocrinologists, neuroscientists, developmental psychologists–who disagree with Angier and who provide compelling evidence for many innate differences and against the social construction thesis. Though she mentions one such critic in passing, readers of Angier’s article in the New York Times are given no hint of the power and extent of the research on biological differences that affect aptitudes and preferences. Quite the contrary, Angier made it look as if Summers was way out on a limb even to have entertained his tentative speculations about biologically-based difference.
Angier and her sisters-in-arms, recognize only one explanation for why there are fewer women than men teaching math and physics at Harvard or MIT: sexist bias. That there are more male than female math prodigies; that women, as a group, are less obsessively focused on careers and more likely than men to find fulfillment in taking care of children, is not an acceptable explanation.
For her article, Angier interviewed Yale astrophysicist Megan Urry. Times readers were not informed that Urry is even more hard-line than Angier herself on the topic of gender bias–if that is possible. In the 90s, Urry was part of a feminist campaign to rename the Big Bang Theory. As she told a CNN interviewer, “A lot of the style is very macho, and that can be off-putting to young women, and ‘big bang’ is just another little grain of sand in that big sandbox.”
What is she talking about and what sandbox? And what kind of young woman with a serious interest in science would be put off by a graphic description of a momentous cosmic event–only someone like Professor Urry carrying a gender bias chip on her shoulder.
A week or so after she was quoted in the Angier article, Urry entered the fray with her own attack article on Summers in the Washington Post. She sees bias and sexism in the choice made by many women to leave science and stay home with children. She does not regard such choices as freely made: “What troubles me is that I rarely saw men making…the choice to stay home with kids.” It simply never occurs to her that men and women might actually be wired differently when it comes to preferences for a domestic life style.
In her allegedly objective article on the state of gender research, Angier cites not only the authority of Urry, but also the views of Virginia Valian, a psychologist at Hunter College. Who is Virginia Valian? In 1998, she wrote a book for MIT press called Why So Slow? The Advancement of Women. Of course, she assumes that women’s progress has been slow. For feminists like Valian, good news is no news. For Valian as for Urry, sexist bias and sexist socialization are the only acceptable explanations for the different career choices men and women make. One passage tells you all you need to know about her mindset. She asks readers to share her horror at the injustice that women perennially suffer:
If she lies in bed while the baby cries, telling her husband that it is his turn to get up, she is perceived as cold and unfeeling. Even though it is his turn and he should know that without being told–he should be subliminally listening for the baby’s cry and leap out of bed the moment he hears it–he is not a monster–either to himself or to the baby’s mother–if he does none of those things but mumbles that he is too tired. From the perspective of fairness, none of this makes sense.
Well, from the perspective of common sense and human nature, it makes perfect sense. And what is her remedy for this pervasive, endemic and age-old injustice that even women reinforce? She wants all children to be socialized to androgyny. “Egalitarian parents can bring up their children so that both boys and girls play with dolls and trucks.”
As I said, Natalie Angier cited the expertise of both Urry and Valian in her Times article. And, just as had happened with Megan Urry, Valian was invited to write her own article for the Washington Post.
Think of these women: Nancy Hopkins, Natalie Angier, Megan Urry, and Virginia Valian. It is rare to meet such people in everyday life–but the academy is their natural habitat and there you find them in dismayingly large and indignant numbers. A few Harvard women have come to Summers’s defense: the literary scholar, Ruth Wisse, the economist Claudia Goldin. But few women and even fewer men stand up to the hard-liners in the academy, who are ever eager to show that “men just don’t get it.” Some male faculty have openly supported Summers (most notably, Steven Pinker and Stephan Thernstrom) but it appears that most have run for cover, or joined the pack of Summers’s tormenters.
The Harvard faculty is in very bad shape right now. Summers could be forced out and replaced by a right-thinking woman. The forces of resentment have the power to do that. But, what they do not have is the power to repeal the laws of nature. Mother Nature does not play by the rules of political correctness. And not even Harvard can flourish when intellectual freedom is forced to play by twisted feminist rules.
And speaking of play, boys are not going to play with dolls: They will continue to resist all and every efforts to resocialize them in accordance with specifications worked out by Virginia Valian and her sister ideologues. Women too are going to continue to disappoint Big Sister for they will remain attached to their children and homes in special ways deplored by Summers’s accusers.
Of course, offending feminist professors was not Summers’s only crime. He is outspoken, direct, and does not suffer fools gladly. Not only did he violate the holy dogma of social constructionism, he regularly violates a sacred commandment of modern education: Thou shalt be sensitive, nurturing, and protective of everyone’s self-esteem. Such “virtues” now count for more in an academic leader than integrity, intellectual vision, or a commitment to free inquiry and free expression. If Summers goes down at Harvard, it will seriously damage the standards and traditions of American higher education.
–Christina Hoff Sommers is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. This essay is adapted from a talk she recently gave there. Her new book, One Nation Under Therapy: How the Helping Culture is Eroding Self-Reliance, co-authored with Sally Satel, will be published next month by St Martin’s Press.