There’s nothing a lady likes more than a good compliment. So imagine my joy upon reading the praise heaped upon my gender (or, given his embrace of biological determinism, I ought to say, my sex) by Emory anthropology and behavioral biology professor Melvin Konner in an adapted book excerpt in The Chronicle of Higher Education: “[W]omen are fundamentally pragmatic as well as caring, cooperative as well as competitive, skilled in getting their own egos out of the way, deft in managing people without putting them on the defensive, builders not destroyers.” How pleased I was to hear about “women’s superiority in judgment, their trustworthiness, reliability, fairness, working and playing well with others, relative freedom from distracting sexual impulses, and lower levels of prejudice, bigotry, and violence.” And how delighted I was to learn, from this learned man (A professor! With a named professorship and everything!) that the tears we women cry at the end of especially touching detergent commercials are doing no one any harm:
Contrary to all received wisdom, women are more logical and less emotional than men. Women do cry more easily, and that, too, is partly biological. But life on this planet isn’t threatened by women’s tears; nor does that brimming salty fluid cause poverty, drain public coffers, ruin reputations, impose forced intimacies, slay children, torture helpless people, or reduce cities to rubble.
So moved was I by this flattery, I could have wept.
It seems unlikely that Konner’s musings on the females will inspire the same student outrage as Laura Kipnis’s February Chronicle piece arguing—among other, less provocative things—that student-professor romance is no big deal. From a feminist perspective, Konner’s essay may in fact be the more worthy of rebutting. Were this just some random Internet dude calling women the more dainty sex, I’d have no interest in offering up a takedown—privately, in conversation among friends, perhaps, not for publication. But this is a serious scholar using a serious platform to present women-are-daintier as a research discovery.
The problem is not, to be clear, that Konner has dared to cast doubt on whether gender is a construct. It’s that he doesn’t even reckon with the notion that it might be one. Rather than enter into an existing conversation about gender essentialism versus culture, and about what biology can and can’t tell us about human behavior, Konner launches right in with his women-are-like-so, opening the piece as follows:
Women are not equal to men; they are superior in many ways, and in most ways that will count in the future. It is not just a matter of culture or upbringing. It is a matter of chromosomes, genes, hormones, and nerve circuits. It is not mainly because of how experience shapes women, but because of intrinsic differences in the body and the brain.
After a perfunctory disclaimer (“Do these differences account for all the ways women and men differ? No. Are all men one way and all women another? Also no.”), Konner makes the most controversial claim of his entire essay: that he’s not being patronizing.
Well, technically what he claims is that, unlike “patronizing men who said this in the past,” his point is not “that women are lofty, tender, spiritual creatures,” but rather that women are superior in other, “opposite” ways. Except that’s not where he goes. His conclusion would seem to put him very much in sync with these “patronizing men” of yore: “As women gain in influence, all else being equal, the world will become more democratic, more socially compassionate, more equal, less discriminatory, less sexually casual, and less pornographic.” Such is the feminine utopia long imagined by those who never attended an all-girls middle school.
Ignoring the first law of holes, Konner, already chin-deep, continues digging. Here he goes enumerating women’s accomplishments:
“When I went to college in the 1960s, professional schools had a handful of women in a class of a hundred. Today they are approaching half at medical and law schools. More than 40 percent of students entering M.B.A. programs—the pool of future CEOs—are women. Yes, there are glass ceilings, but they are slowly being broken. Women make up 33 percent of federal district-court judges, almost 35 percent of federal appeals-court judges, and one-third of the U.S. Supreme Court.”
He skips back and forth between greeting these developments as trends towards equality and presenting them as evidence that men are obsolete. He lands on the latter: “Although I don’t want to see the end of men, progress for women is now steady and irreversible.” This is classic zero-sum men’s rights argumentation, but couched in pseudo-feminist terms. Aren’t women amazing! Isn’t it so impressive how they’ve taken our jobs?
The most generous reading of Konner’s essay would be that he has the scientific evidence for all of this but didn’t have the space to include it, or it would simply go over the heads of a non-specialist audience. What he does include fails to convince. After citing some groundbreaking biological findings (women but not men can have babies; women have XX chromosomes, men XY; and women tend to live longer), he reaches the crux, which has to do with defining maleness as a “syndrome.” He hints at a literal end of men, but notes (correctly) that women aren’t asking for this, and doesn’t spell out, biologically speaking, how this quasi-extinction will ensue.
Even if—and it’s a big if—science could prove once and for all that women are like so, an essay with this much faint praise would still fail on style grounds alone. And ladies do not abide unstylishness.