Gary K. Clabaugh, Emeritus Professor of Education, La Salle University

It now is widely thought that men and women share the same capabilities. That is why, many argue, they should share corresponding opportunities. After all, gender is at least partially defined culturally; and, up to now, only males determined which traits were defined as “masculine” and which “feminine.”

One can readily see how one-sided that ended up being. Nevertheless, there is a body of scientific research suggesting men and women are, in fact, fundamentally different. Not just in their plumbing, mind  you, but in how they think and what they value. A woman’s thinking, this research suggests, is more intuitive, more rooted in emotion and more subjective than a man’s.

If this is true, biology really is destiny. And, in seeking justice for women, we might be inadvertantly exterminating the merits of her sex.

Past prominent men overwhelmingly favor the fundamental differences argument. But they also almost exclusively emphasize the negative. Let’s see some of what they had to say. In his Journal entry on February 16, 1897, the patriarch of Russian literature, Count Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), put it this way: “Women do not consider the demands of reason binding upon themselves and cannot progress according to them. They haven’t got this sail spread. They row without a rudder.” And in a letter dated April 14, 1858 this renown champion of universal brotherhood, selfless simplicity and passive resistance to evil, observes, “A woman’s thoughts are far more comprehensible in French.”

In Poems: Little Things. the German poet and dramatist Emmanuel Geibel (1815-1884) writes, “A woman’s intuition knows what is good and beautiful. However, do not trust the woman who offers you reason.” Similarly in On the Characteristics and Natural History of Women, the Polish born social critic Bogumil Goltz (1801-1870) observes: “A man can say what he wants; a real woman assigns no spiritual power to words. She does not listen to reasons. To her they are an unbearable imposition that limit her feelings and her reign through her feminine instinct.

Even left-leaning, reform minded males argued similarly. Johann Fichte (1762- 1814), for example, a philosopher hero of nineteenth century democratic reformers, notes in TheScience of Rights“She [woman] cannot and shall not go beyond the limit of her feeling.” 

In the past that is how the issue of man’s versus woman’s thinking has commonly been exploited. For instance, in On Women the celebrated “philosopher of pessimism” ArthurSchopenhauer (1788-1860) claims deficit not just difference when he avers, “Women are defective in the powers of reasoning and deliberation.” Likewise, in The World as Will and Idea, he alleges, “Women have great talent, but no genius, for they always remain subjective.”

A related negative notion, very popular with misogynists, is that what women lack in abstract intelligence they make up for in “cunning.” The Austrian philosopher and social critic Otto Weininger (1880-1903) gives typical expression in this idea in his Sex and Character when he asserts:

“Woman is neither high-minded or low-minded, strong-minded or weak-minded. She is the opposite of all these. Mind cannot be predicated of her at all; she is mindless. That, however, does not imply weak-mindedness in the ordinary sense of the term, the absence of the capacity to “get her bearings” in ordinary life. Cunning, calculation, “cleverness,” are much more usual and constant in the woman than in the man, if there be a personal selfish end in view.”

Assertions that a woman’s thinking is different and inferior, have been used repeatedly to justify the exclusion of women from serious schooling (and serious most anything else). In The Philosophy of Right , for instance, the eminent philosopher Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) argues: 

“Women can, of course, be educated, but their minds are not adapted to the higher science, philosophy, or certain of the arts. These demand a universal faculty. Women may have happy inspirations, taste, elegance, but they have not the ideal. The difference between man and woman is the same as that between animal and plant. The animal corresponds more closely to the character of the man, the plant to that of the woman. In woman there is a more peaceful unfolding of nature, a process, whose principle is the less clearly determined unity of feeling.”

Elsewhere in The Philosophy of Right Hegel claims, “The education of woman goes on one hardly knows how, in the atmosphere of picture – thinking, as it were, more through life than through the acquisition of knowledge.””

Anyway, goes the argument, women have a limited need to know in the first place. Concerning astronomy, for instance, in Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime the legendary philosopher Immanual Kant 1724-1804) patronizingly asserts: “[Woman] need to know nothing more of the cosmos than is necessary to make the appearance of the heavens on a beautiful evening a stimulating sight to them.” Besides, observes the famed philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) in Beyond Good and Evil“When a woman inclines to learning there is usually something wrong with her sexual apparatus. Likewise the notorious communist revolutionary Friedrich Engels observes in Landscapes, “It is only too easy for doubt to corrode the feminine mind and raise the intellect to a power which it ought not to have in any woman.””

All women has the right to vehemently object to these attacks. But what if years of this sort of misogynistic clap trap blinded us to very real sexual dissimilarities? Should educators teach girls differently than boys in order to help them fully develop that uniquely intuitive, poetic, metaphorical way of thinking that might be distinctively feminine? (Perhaps we should add here that a number of critics similarly charge that female dominated elementary schooling feminizes males.)

Sigmund Freud (185-1939) famed founder of psychoanalysis, in A Critique of Mill on Women , writes: “It is really a stillborn thought to send women into the struggle for existence exactly as men….” In Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime Immanual Kant backhandedly acknowledges that some women are able to transcend intuition; then observes, “Even if a woman excels in arduous learning and painstaking thinking they will exterminate the merits of her sex.”

The notion of a distinct divergence between femininity and rational objectivity has been attacked by feminists since the early 18th Century. (Mary Astell’s 1701 publication, Serious Proposal to the Ladies. seems to be one of the first.) Despite these and similar feminist denunciations, the obvious influence of male dominance on defining “masculine” and “feminine,” however, genetically based differences in male and female cognition are still a possibility. Though it may seem unlikely, more stringently logical, impersonal judgments might eventually be found to be genetically linked to masculinity. Similarly, a woman’s capacity for objective understanding might be discovered to thrive at the expense of even more valuable subjective, emotional qualities.

Significantly, the Dictionary of Feminist Theory asserts that there are a number of radical feminists who share the view that a woman’s thinking is substantially different from a man’s. It is, they claim, based on intuition. Moreover, they argue, a woman’s thoughts are essentially more poetic and metaphorical.

Before dismissing this possibility, consider the following. Using Proton Emission Tomography (PET) scans, brain researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have uncovered strong evidence that men and women do not think alike. (Science, January 1995) While most brain functions seem identical, women are more inclined to use that highly evolved part of the lower brain that regulates emotions and which only apes and humans share.

Men more commonly use that aggression-associated portion of the lower brain which is dominant in reptiles. Women also favor the side of the brain associated with abstract thinking, verbal memory and problem solving. (For right-handed people, the left hemisphere.) Men, on the other hand, tend to rely more on the right hemisphere which specializes in spatial problem solving (trig, for example). Interestingly, though, men are also twice as likely to “think like women” than women to “think like men.”

Of course, the Penn study deals only in probability, not absolutes. Moreover, the researchers note a significant cross-over between typically male and female brain patterns.

Are present unisex schooling practices actually based on a “stillborn thought?” Have efforts to free schools from sex role stereotyping inadvertently been “exterminating the merits of her sex?” That remains to be seen. Research on sex-linked differences in human thinking are provocative, but still inconclusive.

Meanwhile, however, extensive research on effective teaching involving a variety of disciplines and educational perspectives does indicates the fundamental importance of individual differences. Constructivist learning theory; research relating to multiple intelligence; whole language; second language acquisition; thematic integrated instruction; and authentic assessment all point to the primacy of the individual. Such individualistic approaches accommodate possible sex-linked differences without the practitioner prematurely taking sides in the debate.

Except for the implication that men are more prone than women to respond like belligerent lizards, little has been said here about “male” thinking. Across the centuries influential men have predictably asserted that male thought is not only different, but superior. To remedy this hubris, we will allow the distinguished American journalist, critic and essayist H. L. Mencken (1880-1956) to have the last word. In his In Defense of Women Mencken observes: “That it should be necessary at this late stage of the senility of the human race to argue that women have a fine and fluent intelligence is surely an eloquent proof of the defective observation, incurable prejudice, and general imbecility of their lords and masters.”

The author thanks Professor Leo Rudnytzky, La Salle University, who joined him in researching claims made by famous and infamous men on the subject of woman. LaSalle University graduate student Arpie Zarunian also assisted this effort by helping organize these quotes.