Susan Cox discusses the resurgence of the bigoted, pseudo-scientific belief in “male brains” and “female brains,” and its hallowed history.
In a recent episode of Bill Nye the Science Guy’s Netflix show, he explained that that a person could have “a male brain in a female body,” saying, “It turns out you can’t tell the gender of a brain just by looking at it.”
Thanks, Bill. Good to know that, just like Victorian era scientists said, I might have a male brain in my female body. As a woman in the male-dominated field of philosophy, with sharp logical skills and no interest in fashion, who has rejected marriage and children, I could be viewed as an anomaly within my sex – exhibiting a “masculine mind” by some strange mistake of fate. Victorian scientist Herbert Spencer would blame this on my neglect of “the maternal functions,” arguing that if my body had produced milk for my “due number of healthy children,” I would then possess the naturally feminine “mental energy.” Science!
Spencer’s explanation for the existence of gender nonconforming women sounds ridiculous today, but it was necessary in order to support the idea that men and women were inherently different. “That men and women are mentally alike is as untrue as that they are alike bodily,” he wrote.
Our historical amnesia is troubling. We seem to have forgotten that the idea of innate difference between male and female minds was used to exclude women from political and intellectual life, and to deny them basic human rights of self-determination in the not-so-distant past.