(This is a shortened version of the first chapter of Rethinking
Language and Gender Research.)
The continuum of experience
Just as we rarely question our ability to breathe, so
we rarely question the habit of dividing human beings into two categories:
females and males. At the birth of a child we ask almost automatically
'Is it a boy or a girl?' The question carries important messages about
both biological and cultural differences; the two categories seem natural
and the differences between them obvious.
However, much of our experience does not fit neatly into
binary categories, but is better described as a continuum with indistinct
boundaries. People relaxing at dusk experience the gradual change from
day to night with no concern or precise word for the exact moment when
day becomes night. Linguists traveling from village to village understand
that there are no clear boundaries dividing one dialect or language from
another. Berlin and Kay (1969) and Kay and McDaniel (1978) show that although
basic colors have a universal biological basis, the variation across languages
and individuals is so great that boundaries between colors can be identified
only with fuzzy logic, a logic based on probabilities. In a study investigating
how subjects distinguish between cups, bowls, mugs, and vases, Labov points
out that although language is essentially categorical, 'in the world of
experience all boundaries show some degree of vagueness, and any formal
system which is useful for semantic description must allow us to record,
or even measure, this property' (Labov 1973: 353). Because language is
discrete and biased toward dichotomy and clear boundaries, the scaler values
and unclear boundaries of reality are sometimes difficult to recognize
and to accept; we must continually remind ourselves that reality and language
can conflict. The many real-world continua hidden by language suggest a
question: is our automatic division of humans into female and male as justified
as we think? Are the boundaries between them as clear as the words female
and male suggest?
We have reconsidered other binary distinctions that are
no longer defensible. English speakers readily use categories such as Black
and White (or African-American and Caucasian) to classify individuals with
a wide range of skin color, despite the fact that there are no definitive
biological criteria for sorting human beings into races (Omi and Winant
1994). Terms such as mulatto or mixed race are rarely used,
possibly because of their negative connotations and possibly because of
laws stipulating that even individuals with only small percentages of 'negro
blood' are classified as Black on their birth certificates (West
and Fenstermaker 1995:34). Recently, the popular press has noted the difficulty
of treating all people of color as a homogeneous group. The 13 February,
1995 issue of Newsweek graphically illustrated its cover story 'What
Color is Black?' with a series of photos showing the wide range of hues
of those of African-American descent. The accompanying stories note the
injustice of classifying citizens by race, a practice which results in
the restriction of individual rights. Despite an obvious continuum of skin
color, however, the Black-White dichotomy persists in language and in public
discourse about race.
Feminist scholars have recently pointed out that although
the majority of human begins can be unambiguously classified as either
female or male, there are actually more than two sexes. Because the terms
female and male insufficiently categorize our experience,
English also includes tomboy, sissy, cross-dresser,
transvestite, bisexual, gay, lesbian, hermaphrodite,
androgyne, etc. The negative connotations often associated with
these words suggest that although such a multiplicity exists, these are
aberrations and departures from a basic dichotomy: female and male.
The simple belief in 'only two' is not an experiential given but a normative
In the past, linguists have used the term gender
to refer to grammatical word categories based on, but independent of sex
differences. The words sex and gender have traditionally
referred to biological and linguistic classifications, respectively. When
feminist scholars pointed out in the 1960's and 1970's that feminine and
masculine behaviors were prescriptively divided into two mutually exclusive
sets which do not necessarily correspond to female and male, theorists
borrowed the term gender from linguists to refer to behavior that
was socially acquired rather than biologically innate (McConnell-Ginet
1988, Nicholson 1994). Identifying gendered behavior as independent of
biological sex has raised new questions in a number of disciplines, including
psychology, sociology, anthropology, and linguistics. One of these questions
is, Can all humans be divided into only two biological categories?'
Recently, Butler (1990, 1993), Epstein (1990), Bem (1993),
Nicholson (1994), and others have claimed that, like gender, sex is socially
constructed and better described as a continuum rather than a dichotomy.
In what are often called Western (meaning industrialized) countries, biological
sexual variance is now surgically corrected to fit binary categories (Epstein
1990), in contrast to cultures that allow more than two biological, social
and linguistic categories (Jacobs and Cromwell 1992, Hall and O'Donovan
this volume). Even discussions of gender have often assumed innate biological
differences between females and males, but this 'biological foundationalism'
(Bem 1993) is now being challenged. Butler, Bem, Nicholson, and Epstein
do not assume dichotomies in either sex or gender and their work is encouraging
those in other disciplines to examine the consequences of looking for and
Traditional questions about language and gender
This book arises, in part, because the editors and contributors were troubled by many of the preconceptions and presuppositions inherent in the questions traditionally asked in research on language and gender. The contributors to this volume question the division of speech behavior into two gender-influenced categories. They investigate speech communities without presupposing differences between women and men and show the diverse ways in which traditional ideas about sex and gender have influenced questions asked about language and gender. Not surprisingly, these authors suggest some important new questions, including the following:
(1) Why are questions that strengthen the female-male dichotomy so frequently asked, while those that explore other types of variation evoke much less interest?
2) How much of this apparent dichotomy is imposed by the
Although researchers studying language and gender are
generally sensitive to the power of language, the traditional questions
have tended to reinforce rather than to weaken the prevailing female-male
dichotomy. Researchers asking the question, 'How do men and women speak
differently?' (Lakoff 1975; Maltz and Borker 1982; Tannen 1990) not only
presuppose that women and men do speak differently, but have too
often found the language of women deficient (Jespersen 1922, Lakoff 1975),
reinforcing the perception of women as deficient (see Cameron, this
A second question, 'How does language reflect, construct,
and maintain male dominance?' represents another major strand of language
and gender research. Feminists such as Shulamith Firestone, Catherine MacKinnon,
Alison Jaggar, and Mary Daly have shown how social systems limit women's
freedom of choice and action (Tong 1989); feminists interested in exploring
how dominance is achieved through language explore how interruptions, topic
control, use of generic pronouns and nouns, polite forms, and formal and
informal speech all constitute evidence that language not only reflects
power relationships, but helps maintain them (Fishman 1982, West and Zimmerman
1982, James 1992, Bing 1995, etc). Such studies challenge the rights of
males to control language, but as a result of asking questions that presuppose
a dichotomy, they also reinforce the predominant assumption that females
and males are essentially different.
The recognition that gender roles are socially constructed
has brought about a reframing of the traditional question from 'How do
women and men speak differently?' to 'How are women and men taught to
speak differently?' Those who study culture and language have always insisted
that difference and inferiority are not the same, and scholars such as
Maltz and Borker (1982) and Tannen (1990) emphasize parallels between gender
differences and cultural differences. Although researchers adopting a cultural-difference
approach do not necessarily deny male dominance nor assume an essential
biological difference between women and men, those writing for a wider
popular audience, such as Grey's (1992) Men are from Mars, Women are
from Venus and Tannen's (1980) You Just Don't Understand, emphasize
differences, minimize similarities and completely ignore differences in
power and status. As Freed (1992) argues, such books reinforce stereotypes
and mask the fact that female and male language and behavior form an overlapping
continuum rather than two distinct categories.
The persistence of dichotomies
Linguists have documented extensively how individual speakers
command a range of styles with situationally appropriate competence (Chafe
1985, Tannen 1985, Chafe and Danielewicz 1987, Biber 1988, Freed this volume,
Greenwood this volume,). Researchers such as Tannen (1984) and Labov (1972)
emphasize ethnic variation and functional or social variation in some of
their research but in other widely cited work (Tannen 1990, Labov 1991)
seem to imply that women share a common language different from the common
language of men. For example, the question of why women use more prestige
forms presupposes that women do use more prestige forms, despite studies
that show that not all and not only women use such forms (James this volume).
There is considerable evidence that variables such as
race, social class, culture, discourse function, and setting are as important
as gender and not additive nor easily separated (Keenan 1974, Gal 1989
and 1992, hooks 1990, Goodwin 1991, Ochs 1991, West and Fenstermaker 1995,
Freed and Greenwood in press, Bucholtz this volume). Eckert and McConnell-Ginet
(1992a, b, in press) have argued against taking gender as natural or given
and have advocated grounding the study of gender and language in investigations
of the social and linguistic activities of specific groups, such as the
communities of high school jocks and burnouts (Eckert 1989). The research
of O'Barr and Atkins (1980) challenges the assumption that there is a women's
language different from that of men, arguing that differences attributed
to sex are actually differences between powerful or powerless styles of
language used by both men and women. In examining how children construct
arguments, Goodwin and Goodwin (1987:205) report, 'Though there are some
differences in the ways in which girls and boys organize their arguing
. . . the features they use in common are far more pervasive. Were one
to focus just on points where girls and boys differ, the activity itself
would be obscured.' (Ochs 1992: 340) observes, 'In relating sociocultural
constructions of gender to social meaning of language, an issue of importance
emerges: few features of language directly and exclusively index gender'
[emphasis in the original]. Evidence of this kind is often overlooked,
whereas studies that reinforce male-female differences continue to capture
the interest and imagination of both scholars and the general public.
Certain ideas (including ideas about female-male differences)
persist in the face of contradictory evidence, while other ideas just never
seem to gain wide interest or attention. Facts and arguments that challenge
conventional wisdom tend to be overlooked or forgotten. For example, in
spite of frequent efforts to debunk the belief that Eskimos have 100 words
for snow (Pullum 1989), the general public is unlikely to abandon this
myth. As Pullum (1989:277) notes, 'the lack of little things like verisimilitude
and substantiation are not enough to stop a myth.' Similarly, despite the
observations of researchers like O'Barr and Atkins (1980), Goodwin and
Goodwin (1987), and Eckert (1989), there will probably be no decline in
the number of students who begin their term-paper research with the question,
'How is the language of men and women different?' Such questions strengthen
deeply held certainties that mere facts cannot dislodge. The belief that
there are separate women's and men's ways of speaking reinforces the social
myth that males and females are fundamentally and categorically different.
Both language and traditional social practice suggest
that there are clear boundaries between biological females and males. However,
if the boundaries are not problematic, it is curious that so much energy
is expended to reinforce them and to render invisible large numbers of
people, including homosexuals, bisexuals, transvestites, eunuchs, cross-dressers,
hermaphrodites, intersexed individuals, and others who assume social and
sexual roles different from those that their cultures legitimize. Anthropologists,
psychologists, and sociologists have long accepted the idea that gender
roles are learned and arbitrary and that conventional feminine and masculine
behavior varies from culture to culture. However, despite the evidence
provided by Butler (1990, 1993), Bem (1993), Nicholson (1994), and many
others, the claim that not only gender, but the category of sex itself
is also be socially constructed is usually greeted with disbelief or skepticism.
Individuals who fail to fit the strict female-male dichotomy
are either ignored or subject to boundary policing. Groups that inhabit
or stretch the boundaries of restrictive gender roles either become taboo
(unmentioned and unmentionable) or are labelled aberrant. Thus, assertive
women may be nudged back into their approved roles by being labelled aggressive
bitches, and nurturing men may be reminded of their deviance by being
labelled wimp, sissy, fag, or pussy-whipped.
Like the binary oppositions day and night and Black
and White, the categories female and male are used
and reinforced daily, whereas words such as invert or intersexed
(words that describe hermaphrodites and ambiguously sexed individuals)
are rare and likely to evoke disbelief or confusion.
The emergence of dichotomy
It is important to examine the debate between those who
view sexual differentiation as innate and those who argue that both sex
and gender are socially constructed. An analysis of this debate will help
us understand how predominent the belief in biological essentialism is
and how the female-male dichotomy helps strengthen the conviction that
anatomy is destiny. By understanding how dichotomy is enforced, we may
recognise that we inadvertantly contribute to it. It is particularly important
to look at definitions and note who does the defining. A good place to
begin is with the definitions and the definers of the words female
Over time, scientists have had many ways to account for differences between women and men. Citing Hippocrates, many early writers 'scientifically' accounted for sex differences as a distinction between complexions; that is, the balance of the qualities hot, cold, moist, and dry. Because men were believed to have greater heat than women, they were judged to be superior (Cadden 1993:171). Edward Clark's (1873) Sex in Education used the concept of vital force to argue against the education of women, for if the nervous system has a fixed amount of energy, any energy spent in the development of a woman's brain would be diverted from her reproductive organs and, hence, would be harmful to her health (Bem 1993:10). However, the idea that male and female bodies are fundamentally different is relatively new. Historically, women's sexual organs were believed to be the same as, but less developed than, those of men.
Thomas Laqueur (1990) identifies the historical shift
in the eighteenth century from a one-sex view of the body to a two-sex
view. Just as studies such as Jespersen's identified women's language as
an inferior form of men's, so until relatively recently, the female body
was seen as an inferior version of the male's, and the 'less-developed'
female sexual organs had the same names as those of males. Prior to the
eighteenth century, philosophers and physicians assumed the incapacity
and dependency of women and children since both were incomplete or underdeveloped
men (Cadden 1993: 181). Under this view, the fact that all embryos have
tissue for both male and female genitalia and reproductive organs (Bem,
1993: 23) was not problematic for defenders of the status quo.
Both the church and Aristotle provided traditional reasons
for why males should rule females, but with the decline of their authority,
the single-sex hypothesis became a potential threat to the social order,
making it necessary to justify the limitation of women's rights by defining
women as essentially different. If women were the same, they might
ask for the same privileges enjoyed by men. The boundaries between the
sexes needed to be reinforced; intersexed individuals ceased to be acknowledged
and became redefined as a medical problem. With the shift to the two-sex
view of the body, differences rather than similarities became emphasized,
organs such as the vagina were given names of their own (Nicholson 1994:87),
and hermaphrodites subsequently became pseudo-hermaphrodites whose 'true'
sex had to be discovered by doctors (J. Epstein 1990: 100).
Medical enforcement: fixing nature's mistakes
The medical categorization of intersexed individuals shows
that the distinction between female and male is not only a linguistic and
cultural but also a medical issue. Epstein (1980:104) quotes a 1964 medical
textbook that states 'There is no standard legal or medical definition
of sex.' Biological sex results from variations in chromosome combinations
(such as XX, XY, XO, XXX, and XXY), internal gonad structure, external
gonad structure, hormonal dominance, secondary sexual characteristics,
apparent sex, psychological sex, and sex of rearing. In the majority of
human births, the combinations of these factors lead to clearly sexed females
and males, but they can also result in as many as 70 different types of
intersexed individuals (Epstein 1990 105). Such intersexed individuals
are not as rare as most people believe. Duckett and Baskin (1993 S80) report
that the incidence of intersex is approximately 1 in 30,000 newborns, of
which about 10% are true hermaphrodites. The more common pseudohermaphrodism
results from a number of causes, including hormonal variations. Although
the birth of intersexed individuals is not rare, it is unmentionable,
even in tabloids that regularly report such outrageous topics as copulation
with extraterrestrials and the reappearance of Elvis.
The assignment of intersexed individuals to the categories
of male and female is not arbitrary, but it is complex and dependent on
the biases of particular physicians. Although chromata are often an important
factor in determining sex, they are not always the deciding factor. For
example, in the case of Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (testicular feminization),
individuals with XY chromatin patterns and normal androgen levels appear
to be female at birth and are generally raised as females. Referring to
a summary of studies on true hermaphrodites, Duckett and Baskin (1994:
4-5) note that although hermaphrodites are generally 'assigned' a female
sex, those with a Y chomosome are made female as often as those with an
X chromosome are made male. As Epstein (1990) notes, for some physicians,
chromosomes are less relevant in determining sex than penis size; that
is, male is defined neither by the genetic condition of having one
Y and one X chromosome nor by the production of sperm, but by the aesthetic
condition of having an appropriately large penis (Epstein 1990: 126).
Evidence in the medical literature suggests that different
physicians use different criteria for assigning sex. If the primary physician
for an intersexed child is a pediatric endrochrinologist, the child is
more likely to be classified as female, but if the decision is made by
a urologist, the same child is more likely to classified as male. As one
endocrinologist noted, urologists 'like to make boys' (Kessler,1994: 229).
It is worth noting that physicians recognize and emphasize to parents of
intersexed children that sex as well as gender is socially constructed,
but this is rarely discussed in public domains. One pediatric endocrinologist
reports '[I] try to impress upon them [the parents] that there's an enormous
amount of clinical data to support the fact that if you sex-reverse an
infant...the majority of the time the alternative gender identity is commensurate
with the socialization, the way that they are raised, and how people view
them, and that seems to be the most critical' (Kessler 1994: 227).
Thus, just as society enforces the division between genders,
the medical profession enforces a binary division into two sexes, suppressing
the fact that sexuality is a continuum. Intersexed individuals (who were
previously treated as monsters) are now defined as 'treatable,' with physicians
reconstructing the body as either male or female with surgery and/or hormones.
The possibility of not 'curing' these individuals is never considered.
Although determining a true sex sometimes takes as long as two or three
months, the pretense remains that all humans are born male or female, but
never both, neither, or indeterminate. Despite relatively large numbers
of babies born intersexed and an extensive medical literature on the subject,
references to intersexed or ambiguously sexed individuals are uncommon
in public discourse. Since most intersexed individuals are 'cured' as infants,
even those individuals who are most affected are often unaware of their
previous biological status, one enforced by silence. Similarly, until quite
recently, gays, lesbians, cross-dressers, and other groups at the boundaries
of gender were also treated with silence, and in many situations, they
Sex and gender polarizations are widespread, but also
culture-specific. The way different societies define homosexuality and
intersexed individuals suggests that 'compulsory heterosexuality' (Rich
1980) is not universal. Many cultures recognize supernumerary genders,
categories that describe roles other than feminine and masculine; the most
widely cited are the Native American berdache (Martin and Voorhees
1975, Whitehead 1993). In most Native American tribes, the berdache had
well defined and sometimes respected status (Whitehead, 1993: 502-503).
In most cases, the supernumerary terms refer to gender roles rather than
to sex, as in the case of North Piegan women who became ninauposkitzipxpe,
'manly-hearted women' (Martin and Voorhies 1975:101).
Some societies also have common names for intersexed individuals.
Although the Pokot of Kenya usually put intersexed individuals to death
as monsters, they use a common word, serrer, to refer to 'male and
female yet neither male nor female' (Jacobs and Cromwell 1992: 50, Martin
and Voorhees 1975: 89). Similarly, the hijras are a visible and
socially recognized part of society in India (Hall and O'Donovan this volume).
The Navajo call the intersexed nadle, and distinguish between real
nadle (presumably hermaphrodites) and those with either male or
female genitals who pretend they are nadle. Both categories have
well-defined and respected status in Navajo society, and the roles of both
are sanctioned by Navajo mythology (Martin and Voorhees 93). The existence
of four genders in tribes such as the Pima (males, females, males who act
like females, and females who act like males) is a direct recognition by
the society that not all people fit into just two categories. The mythologies
the Navajo, Pima, Mojave, and other Native American groups recognize that
intersexuals, homosexuals, and transvestites have always existed.
The scientific basis for dichotomy: language and the brain
Scientists have abandoned many of the theories formerly
used to justify the inferior status of women, including the complexion
theory and the life-force theory. In place of these now-discredited hypotheses,
some scientists are now asking how the brains of females and males differ.
Claims based on brain research have long been used to distance privileged
groups from those judged to be less worthy. As Gould (1981:52-69) shows,
nineteenth- century scientists such as Morton looked for and found objective
evidence to prove that whites had larger brains than Indians and Blacks.
This problematic research tradition continues. According to Fausto-Sterling
(1993), J. Phillipe Rushton, a psychologist at the University of Western
Ontario, 'raised an uproar by claiming that different races have different
brain and penis sizes' and he has also published articles claiming that
within each race, 'women have smaller brains than men' (Fausto-Sterling
1993:32). Fausto-Sterling notes the consistency with which the research
on brains tends to mark as superior the characteristics of the researchers
themselves, even if this requires some reinterpretation of the evidence.
For example, in comparing the brains of deceased eminent men, turn-of-the-century
scientists discovered [male] 'scientists had some of the largest brains'
(Fausto-Sterling 1993: 35).
Current research on the brain continues to seek differences
between the sexes. Shaywitz, et al. (1995: 609) report 'remarkable
differences in the functional organization of a specific component of language,
phonological processing, between normal males and females.' In one part
of this study, female and male subjects were asked to perform rhyming tasks;
magnetic resonance imaging scans reportedly showed left lateralization
of brain activity for all of the men and slightly less than half of the
women, but bilateral activity for the remainder of the women. In a different
type of brain research, Roger Gorski and his colleagues have discovered
that the preoptic nuclei of male rats are significantly larger than those
of female rats, and Laura Allen in Gorski's laboratory has gound a similar
sex difference in the human brain. (Kimura 1992: 120). Doreen Kimura, one
of a number of researchers studying the effects of female and male hormones,
claims that 'the effects of sex hormones on brain organization occur so
early in life that from the start the environment is acting on differently
wired brains in girls and boys'(1992: 119)
Researchers such as Kimura say they 'don't have any ax to grind, political or otherwise' (quoted in Holloway 1990: 42), and also claim that they approach their projects with no preconceptions. However, the very questions such researchers ask and the statements they have made in interviews belies this objectivity and suggests that they are actively seeking differences. Gorski (interviewed by Stein 1990) asserts, 'Sex differences in the structure of the human brain exist. And I for one strongly believe that some of them are shaped by the sex hormone environment. My position remains: It's sexually dimorphic until you've proven it isn't' (Stein 140). In a New York Times article, Bennett Shaywitz is quoted as saying (Kolata 1995 C7), 'It is a truism that men and women are different....What I think we can do now is to take what is essentially folklore and place it in the context of science. There is a real scientific method available to answer some of these questions' (Kolata 1995 C7). Some researchers such as Witelson find differences, but caution that 'Different is different' (Phillips 1990: 46), not better or worse; but as Gorski notes, 'What happens is that people overinterpret these things' (Kolata 1995 C7).
In reporting brain research, the popular press both overinterprets
and exaggerates the results. Experiments by Bennett and Sally Shaywitz
and their colleagues at Yale University (1995) found no differences on
two of three language processing tasks, but they did find that slightly
more than half of the women processed rhymes differently than the men.
Science News announces this experiment with the headline 'Brain
scan tags sexes as words apart' and introduces this story with 'More often
than they would like, men and women have trouble talking to one another.'
Jet's cover story 'Why men and women cannot be like each other'
reports that 'Researchers at Yale University recently discovered that men
and women will never be like each other because they use their brains differently'
and concludes, 'Many researchers agree that it's no wonder the battle between
the sexes rages on as mounting evidence indicates women are more effective
communicators and do better on language tests than men, who are more adept
at spatial concepts' ('Why men and women cannot be like each other' 1995:
Not only does the popular press exaggerate and overgeneralize
difference, it also completely omits any mention of evidence of similarities.
For example, Shaywitz et al. reported no differences for
semantic or orthographic processing, and although eight of the nineteen
female subjects showed the 'male' left lateralization, the researchers
(and the popular press) create the impression of homogeneous groups by
reporting that 'women' process language bilaterally. Thus, the public representation
of the brain's processes as inherently different ignores 42% of the female
subjects and the fact that males and females performed the same way on
two of the three tasks. Unfortunately, these intergroup differences often
go unreported, even in the scientific literature. As Epstein notes, most
reports obscure any similarities that might be characteristic of the majority
of a sample: 'Reports of sex differences tend to gloss over the size of
difference. The titles of articles that report findings convey the impression
of mutually exclusive categories rather than overlap. Thus, results tend
to be perceived as based on attributes that are innate or set early in
life' (Epstein 1990: 37).
In contrast to the historical fascination with establishing the differences between females' and males' brains, research investigating other types of difference rarely captures the attention of the media or the popular imagination. For example, a number of researchers have associated different cognitive functions with different brain hemispheres and have identified left brain activity with linear analytic thinking and right brain activity with the unconscious and with creativity (Corballis 1983, Ehrenwald 1984, Springer and Deutsch 1993). Ehrenwald discusses research on professional groups predicted to have different cognitive styles and reports that 'alpha measurements show that the people from business, law, and accounting professions differ from individuals in creative professions in the way their hemispheres process cognitive tasks'(Ehrenwald 1984: 10). Similarly, using Conjugate Lateral Eye Movement Tests (see Bryden 1982: 260-263), Gannett (n.d.), explores cognitive distinctions for writers and finds significant differences between the lateralization of critics and imaginative writers (fiction and poetry). Gannett's experiments suggest when problem solving, critics tend to be left-dominant and imaginative writers right-dominant or bilateral. Studies of cognitive style seek and find variations similar to those the media would have us believe result from essential differences between the sexes.
Differences in brain activity have also been correlated
with cultural differences, reading direction and second language learning.
Obler (1981) reports right hemisphere participation in second language
acquisition and diminished left-dominance for languages, such as Hebrew,
which are read from right to left. Contrasting how speakers of different
languages process sounds, Tadanobu Tsunoda discovered that Japanese speakers
'tend to register far more sounds in the left hemisphere than in the right.
While Westerners usually process isolated vowels, animal sounds, natural
sounds and nonverbal human sounds such as crying in the right hemisphere,
the Japanese process them all in the left, or verbal hemisphere.' (Merrill
1981:74) This study was reported with some skepticism by Merrill, who says
'Intriguing as Tsunoda's findings are, they have not yet been replicated...Some
scientists find his theories astonishingly elegant, while others are waiting
for more data to come in' (Merrill 1981:75). Tsunoda's work was of such
interest to the Japanese, however, that '[d]espite its highly technical
language, the book became a best-seller in Japan,' (Merrill 1981:76), possibly
because it reinforces the belief of many Japanese that they are a unique
Michael Corballis (1995: 397) asks 'Why is cerebral asymmetry
so relentlessly fascinating?' The on-going debate about brain lateralization
is of interest partly because it encapsulates a new scientific way to explain
differences society is intent upon enforcing. As Fausto-Sterling (1993:
37) argues, just like the now-discredited nineteenth century research about
brain size, current research emphasizing brain differences reflects social
rather than scientific arguments. Efron (1990) is also skeptical of many
current claims about right and left hemispheric activity or dominance and
of the 'true believers' who make speculate about hemispheric specialization.
He criticizes many of the claims which have been made about the brain,
including those of Kimura, and shows why they form a 'closed conceptual
system' (Efron 1990:27) which cannot be falsified. His response to speculation
about about hemispheric specialization is: 'The real problem...is that
we do not at present understand the cognitive function of any brain
area, let alone an entire hemisphere' (Efron 1990:27).
Like Pullum's attempts to undermine the 'great Eskimo
vocabulary hoax', attempts by Fausto-Sterling, Efron, and others to diminish
overgeneralizations about brain differences will probably go unheeded.
As Hess (1990:81) reminds us, 'For two millennia, "impartial experts" have
given us such trenchant insights as the fact that women lack sufficient
heat to boil the blood and purify the soul, that their heads are too small,
their wombs too big, their hormones too debilitating, that they think with
their hearts or the wrong side of the brain.' The answers have changed,
but the questions have not. Researchers and the media remain fascinated
with any new way to pose the question: How are men and women different?
Difference is not the problem
One important fact cannot be overlooked: there are some
biological differences between most women and most men. Nobody denies this,
although some writers suggest that feminists are being irrational when
they object to findings that emphasize female-male differences. Noting
that in higher math, 'the topmost ranks are thronged with male minds,'
Nicholas Wade (1994:32) says, 'Some feminist ideologues assert that all
minds are created equal and women would be just as good at math if they
weren't discouraged in school.' He discounts the effect of bias and cites
an expert who 'concludes that boys' superiority at math is mostly innate.'
The issue, of course, is not difference, but oversimplification
and stereotyping. One obvious oversimplification is that of using statistical
differences between two groups as proof that all members of one group have
certain characteristics shared by no members of the other group (and vice
versa). This oversimplification has traditionally been used to limit choices
and opportunities for girls and women. Contrary to what Wade suggests,
the point is not that everyone is created equal, but that everyone should
be allowed equal opportunity. Even if we were to discover some correlation
between gender and innate superiority at certain math skills, this would
not necessarily be problematic, unless it were used as an excuse to ignore
biased behavior in the classroom (such as teachers interpreting statistical
differences as categorical and telling their students that girls are no
good at math). However, when the average performance of a group is used
to restrict the opportunities of individuals, we no longer have to educate
'above-average' people, such as girls who just happen to excel at math.
Wade might have considered similar evidence from other
fields. The top-ranked chefs are also mostly male; does this suggest that
cooking is also an innate ability better left to men? Doreen Kimura judges
females to be less suitable than men for the fields of engineering and
physics. (Kimura 1992:125) Does this suggest that colleges should train
no female engineers or physicists, regardless of prior achievement?
Does this justify the androcentric bias in engineering programs described
by Bergvall (this volume)? As Gould (1984:7) notes, biological determinism
is a 'theory of limits,' and theories which treat all members of a group
as identical impose real limits on real people.
The issue is not difference, but a focus on difference which results in gender polarization, 'the ubiquitous organization of social life around the distinction between male and female' (Bem 1993: 2). Bem observes:
It is thus not simply that women and men are seen to be different but that this male-female difference is superimposed on so many aspects of the social world that a cultural connection is thereby forged between sex and virtually every other aspect of human experience, including modes of dress and social roles and even ways of expressing emotion and experiencing sexual desire. (Bem 1993:2)
As Bem shows, the problem with gender polarization is not that there are differences, but that these differences defines mutually exclusive scripts for being male and female (Bem 1993: 80).
Gender polarization makes it easier to limit opportunities
and exclude girls and women from education, public office, and the military
and easier to deny them legal protection and highly paid positions. For
example, in a court case claiming employer discrimination against women,
representatives defending the retail corporation, Sears, argued 'that "fundamental"
differences between the sexes (and not its own actions) explained the gender
imbalances in its labor force' (Scott 1988:39). The plaintiff's attorneys
provided statistical evidence to show that women were not being hired in
commission sales jobs. Sears contended that differences could be accounted
for not by discrimination against women, but by natural difference.
By treating women as a homogeneous group and establishing this group as
different, Sears won its case. Apparently 'women' did not want the
more lucrative positions, in spite of the fact that it was women who sued.
The issue is not difference, but the denial of any differences
within or across groups. In the United States, individual rights are fiercely
defended, so it is ironic that women are so often treated as members of
a group and not as individuals. Exclusion on the basis of sex is not uncommon.
For example, in the United States, women have been excluded from some state-supported
military academies (the Citadel and the Virginia Military Academy) despite
outstanding achievement of women at others ; for example, the number one
graduate from West Point in 1995 was Rebecca Elizabeth Marier.
The case of Debra DiCenso, an amateur bodybuilder, provides
another reminder of how much variation there is within the categories women
and men and a striking example of how strongly gender polarization
is still enforced. Ms. DiCenso was arrested for working out in the men's
weight room in a Boston gym because the heaviest dumbbells in the women's
weight room were 34 pounds too light for her workout. This would not be
a problem for most women, but for the 'crime' of working out in the men's
weight room (not forbidden by any gym rules) and for refusing to leave
when asked, this woman was 'handcuffed, driven to the police station and
booked' (Virginian-Pilot, 4 June,1995: A6). Debra DiCenso's 'crime'
was that of disobeying the unspoken rules of gender polarization. For her,
the problem was not difference; she's different not only from most men
but also from most women. For Debra DiCenso, the problem was inequality
Difference, diversity, and gender polarization
Some aspects of difference are positive; feminists have
sometimes emphasized difference in order to claim the language, bodies
and work of women as equal and valued (Scott 1988, Tannen 1990, Hess 1990)
and to acknowledge a variety of possible ways of enacting gender, as well
as race and class. However, for many feminists, the word difference
is a problem because, in some contexts, an emphasis on difference makes
it possible to ignore and justify rather than challenge the existing power
differential between groups. Attempts to prove difference can reinforce
gender polarization and rationalize the limitation of opportunities for
For those who perceive no inequality of opportunity, difference
does not signal an underlying pattern of dominance. Trudgill (1974:95),
for example, states: 'Thus geographical, ethnic group, and social-class
varieties [of language] are, at least partly, the result of social distance,
while sex varieties are the result of social difference.' Many feminists
would disagree, arguing that sex, class and ethnicity all involve social
distance (difference in status) and not simply difference (Bing 1995, McIntosh
The word diversity also has different meanings for different people. For many feminists and people of color, the word diversity implies equality of opportunity for traditionally excluded groups and the recognition of individual differences within groups. Gender polarization is a failure to accept diversity. As Scott says of gender polarization:
In effect, the duality this opposition creates draws one line of difference, invests it with biological explanations, and then treats each side of the opposition as a unitary phenomenon. Everything in each category (male/female) is assumed to be the same; hence, differences within either category are suppressed (Scott 1988:45).
For members of privileged groups, diversity is often unwelcome.
Although difference can be used to justify the status quo, diversity
challenges it. To some people, diversity, like affirmative action, does
not suggest equal opportunity, but another false dichotomy: Do we give
a woman an opportunity, or do we choose the best candidate, that is, someone
who is qualified? The simplifications of such dichotomies not only hide
the genuine complexities of experience, but also provide justification
for the exclusion of individuals.
Critics, such as Wade (1994), who chastise 'feminist ideologues'
for pointing out the dangers of emphasizing difference should address the
question of what it is they find so threatening about diversity. After
all, diversity just a more complex and accurate understanding of
It would be ironic if feminists interested in language
and gender inadvertently reinforced gender polarization and the myths of
essential female-male difference. Unfortunately, there are indications
that this is exactly what happens. In a chapter called 'Speculations on
the Evolution of Mind, Woman, Man, and Brain,' Joseph (1992) cites the
work of a number of linguists, including Tannen (1990) to underscore what
he believes are essential female-male differences. Linguists must realize
that when they publish answers to the question, 'How do women and men speak
differently?' their discoveries of difference may be co-opted for the purpose
of strengthening gender polarization.
If we are to abandon traditional dichotomies and BINARY
questions, we must ask new questions and DISCOVER new metaphors WHICH help
us think about sex, gender, and language. Nicholson (1994: 100) suggests
that we compare women to a tapestry unified by 'overlapping threads
of color,' noting that 'no one particular color is found throughout the
whole'. This metaphor suggests a 'complicated network of criss-crossing
intersecting similarities and differences' (Nicholson 1994: 100). Nicholson
also borrows the well-known game metaphor from Wittgenstein; just as there
is no single feature common to all games, there is also no characteristic
common to all women, but any two individuals in a group will share some
common trait. West and Fenstermaker (1995) suggest a visual metaphor to
account for interactions of gender, class and race; they propose a number
of intersecting circles to capture the fact that different members of groups
share some, but not all characteristics.
In order to comprehend the complexity of experience, most
people need some way to simplify it, and these new metaphors suggest ways
to simplify and think about gender without ignoring individual differences
within or across groups. All of these ways of thinking about groups emphasize
diversity rather than dichotomy. By refusing to allow oversimplification
by asking new questions, we can abandon the tired and repressive old dichotomy,
'How do women and men speak differently?' remembering that every time we
seek and find differences, we also strengthen gender polorization.
The old binary models of deficit, difference and dominance all emphasized difference by overlooking overlapping categories and similarities. All of these models suggest dichotomies separated by clear boundaries. Athough, in one sense, the boundaries exist more in language than in reality, in another sense they raise barriers for women and people of color. In order to move from binary thinking to an acceptance of diversity, we need to examine the presuppositions which underlie our questions, seek new metaphors and new models, and study different communities of practice without preconceived ideas about language and gender. We need to understand that the most natural questions, such as 'Is it a boy or a girl?' reveal a great deal about our value system. Can we now move on to try new questions?
* We would like to thank John Broderick, Alice Freed,
Charles Ruhl and Craig Waddell for comments on earlier versions of this
chapter and Ethel Pollack and Kathy Pearson for helping us find information.
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