I'm just a girl in the world...

Scotch on the rocks.

That’s what my mother drinks on the handful of occasions a year when she finds herself in a dive bar with a poor selection of Merlot. Technically, she’s a lawyer; well, she has a law degree and a license to practice in Indiana, 700 miles from the Waltham, Massachusetts courthouse down the street from where she lives. Even though my college applications listed my mom’s occupation as “attorney,” she hasn’t been a practicing lawyer in more than a decade. But ever since the car rides home from elementary school (which I never recall my father driving), my mom has regaled my two sisters and me with stories about how she forged a feminist path in the ’70s by going to college at a newly co-ed university.

Now, supporting herself by managing the court-sanctioned half of my family’s assets she (rightfully) won in the divorce and an alimony payment she was (less rightfully) awarded, my mother is still out of the workforce.

She sips her increasingly watered-down scotch—a drink that, like my mother’s claim to feminism, has had its substance diluted with time. “I am still very much a feminist,” she says. “I believe in equal rights. In this world males still have most of the advantages.” It’s apparently inconsequential that she hesitates to enter the workforce again; her beliefs stand in lieu of actions.

In a way perfected by 20 years of fighting with my mother, I concede to her position, purse my lips and glare at my glass to demonstrate my resistance.

That argument cycles through my relationship with my mother in endless incarnations and with increasing tension between us. No matter how our discussions end, I am universally left with one very un-feminist thought: Stop whining about equality while reveling in the differences. If you want to claim feminism, get a job and prove you’re just as good as any man. To be honest, sometimes I doubt if she could; she expects too many accommodations for being a woman. In grade-school terms, she acts like a girl.

Literally, in fact. At six weeks old, fetuses start to develop sex characteristics. During the first weeks and months of life an indecipherable combination of environmental, genetic, hormonal and other factors blend. According to studies, gender-based differences in learning patterns and certain developmental skills like following movement or smiling in response to stimuli are present in infants as young as one-month old. Although little concrete information is known about brain development, it is virtually undisputed that the adult brain’s physical structure—its size, the number of cells and the shape of the neuronal pathways that link it together—develops through intimate interactions with the environment. Somewhere between chemistry and genetics and the way parents coo at a little girl differently than a little boy, people with X-X chromosomes grow up to be women, with all the stigma that word may entail.

And here is where the extensive literatures that highlight difference kick in.

THAT IDEA IS PRETTY well established in subjective fields like English, but it hasn’t made much headway in areas like physics. The concept of “feminist science” (absurd as it sounds in the world where someone is always saying “no matter what anyone says, girls can do math”) is about 40 years old. A feminist critique of health research in the ’60s slowly changed the way researchers conducted studies. In 1986 the National Institutes of Health initiated a requirement that grant applications include female subjects in medical testing and research. After a 1992 study found that more than half of available drugs had not been tested for sex-based differences, the Food and Drug Administration revised its guidelines and created a new office to correct gender disparities. The prevalence of women in medicine is largely credited with the shift in ideology.

But people turn back to biology to explain the gender gaps that are so carefully measured and statistically verified. Psychologists talk about left-brain and right-brain functions as ways of explaining differences. Recent literature, though, suggests that it’s the connections between the two sides that matter. Well-publicized claims suggest that the corpus callosum—the bundle of nerve fibers that connect the right and left hemispheres—are larger and rounder in women than they are in men. Some of this research links the bulbous connections in women to holistic thinking.



SCHOLARS ARE HESITANT to acknowledge that there may be differences between the ways men and women think, even on the average. The P.C. vibe that emanates—sometimes dangerously—throughout Duke’s campus resounds particularly strongly in this arena. The chair of the chemistry department, the non-tenured art historian and the associate dean all give the same answers about differences, with varying levels of sophistication. The comments reflect an institutional commitment to gender diversity.

No one wants to deal with the very real observation that, by the time people reach the level of professor, either society or genes have created strong patterns of gendered difference. Not to mention the biological fact of reproduction, which affects women far more acutely than men. Administrators don’t like to talk about hormonal shifts and emotional tugs that might influence the interests of professors or the framing of research questions. Instead, they talk about pipeline issues and subtle discrimination that might dissuade women from pursuing science careers.

President Richard Brodhead says in his official statement on women at Duke, “A generation after the most overt form of gender discrimination were brought up for critique and revision in this country, subtler forces persist, impeding full equality of opportunity.” He suggests further study and development of programs that compensate for those forces.

These are the differences that my mother and people who run the University—people who were raised with a rhetoric of equality, people whose experience of the feminist debates is one of stamping out difference—hesitate to articulate in public. In public relations terms and sound bytes, it seems impossible to reconcile the differences with commitment to equality. It’s this double-speak that turns me off of “feminism.” The nuance that allows the equality mandate to recognize difference doesn’t fit well into headlines.

So my mother’s tendency to regard her status in life as the universal plight of women may not be her fault. Let’s blame it on society. Or a chromosome. Or maybe the real blame lies with whoever decided that this female stuff is considered a fault to begin with.

My mother was thrilled to be pregnant each of her three times. When my youngest sister was in utero, I remember my mom parading through the house in a pair of pants and a bra, the skin over her bulging belly taut. She considered pregnancy an accomplishment and was proud to show it. At the time, I thought it was gross; by high school, I considered such displays grotesquely obvious. No man has to declare that he has a family in such a public way.

In recent history, this display aggravated the stigma surrounding women in the workplace. Pregnancy is a nine-month event; sperm donation, in whatever way it occurs, takes about thirty minutes—if you’re lucky. That’s a much shorter interruption in daily productivity. When my mom quit her job, it wasn’t because the pregnancy or even the social expectations made her. It was because she felt an overwhelming pull to spend more time at home with us, her kids. It was a choice, but now that we’re all grown up, I don’t always think she knows how to get back into full-time work again.

When scholars talk about the representation of women in academia, these are the questions that are nice to consider. They are societal pressures and choices that might, somewhere, have neat little social-science solutions. Universities, especially Duke, are great at this. If women feel like having children is an impediment to tenure, let’s create a way to stop the tenure clock. If maternity leave carries stigma, let’s offer a non-gendered family leave policy that applies to men as well as women.

In practice, the current gender debates and the twenty-somethings who are just now entering the workforce have been raised in a society that lets girls do all the things boys could do. My first doctor was a woman. I had the option to play Little League. I was in high school before I even heard the allegation that boys were better at math. Even the cartoons we were weaned on were full of “girl power!” and female agency.

Equality demands were the rallying cry of a prior generation. The obvious barriers to female success have been abolished, and as far as I am concerned, talking about female-oppression is a self-fulfilling prophecy at best and a whiney excuse the rest of the time. Since the ’70s women have fought for the right to participate in corporate, academic and social life; now we can. If the problem is still unequal representation, then get out there and do it. If the women who razed gender barriers during the ‘70s have demonstrated that it was a man’s world, then they have also shown that it’s possible for any individual woman to succeed.

This could be the end of it. It could be a heralded success that instead of a gender gap we now have a generation gap. At 22, I don’t believe in the glass ceiling that is still a reality for my mother. I have never felt like my femininity per se would keep me from the corporate ladder or the tenure track. Grasping onto special accommodations has always felt like weakness.

But what echoes and resounds is that whatever success an individual woman might have, she will always be a woman—emphasis on the gender rather than the success. And if she acknowledges in her work the millions of sex-based cultural influences and perspectives that have shaped her individual view, she is, like-it-or-not, a feminist. At the risk of sounding like a feminist myself, a title I’ve calculatedly avoided, that’s a label no man automatically has to face.

It turns out that in a modern debate about gender, there is as much curiosity about how women think differently as there is about equity—and that is part of the problem. “Gender is assumed to be an issue of people who bear the mark of gender as their burden,” says Robyn Weigman, chair of the women’s studies department. And in a way that no one else I’ve talked to has, she articulates the clash that makes me nervous about living the rest of my life as a woman. Eventually, she says, any argument for equality will crash into the very real biological differences. And any purely biological argument that implies determination will collide with a sense of equity and social justice. As feminism has progressed, it’s moved forward in a system that doesn’t allow the full expression of biological differences.

So the “girl power!” my mother defines as her feminism, is not the end point. “You can take what’s been degraded and turn it into an asset, but you’re still in the same value system,” Ms. Weigman says.

And that’s exactly where the answers of well-versed professors and my own anxieties grow stale. We’re stuck in a system built upon a difference that defines women as lacking.

Faced with studies about average differences between sexes, Susan Roth, dean of social sciences and a psychologist, is one of many women who refute the categories. She emphasizes the extreme outliers in either gender: “It matters whether you’re talking about real people or some frequency distribution…. It hasn’t been my experience as a psychologist that my male and female colleagues have been different.” After thirty more minutes of conversation, Ms. Roth acknowledges a handful of traditionally gender-based traits: the tendency to compliment clothing and the increased attention she pays to her assistant’s personal life. And although she never implies that having a son affected her work, she does admit with some puzzlement that she felt connected to her child in a different way than her husband ever did.

Those are just qualities to which society has attached gender stigma. On the average, women might be more communal and less competitive, but that doesn’t mean cooperation should be considered a feminine quality.

But what sends hollow pulsings down my spine is how acutely obvious these tiny, gendered variations in attitude seem. They mean that maybe, women would actually do work differently than men.

These differences, combined with the choice to accept or reject them, are the very possibility that shifts my femaleness from a disability to hide or repress to something to potentially use. After all, I’m always going to be a woman. What if exploring the implications of that fact, implicitly and explicitly, were what it meant to “think like a girl?”


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