There are quite a few books in existence that I should have read already, that if I admit I haven’t read, I’ll feel obliged to add “…yet” to the end of the sentence, and the admission would probably garner surprise, from anyone who knows me, because of COURSE I must have read them. They seem so influential on my thinking! Usually these books are in the bibliography of Richard Dawkins, Stephen Jay Gould and other evolutionary biologists. (What? Dawkins has opinions about religion? I’m not interested.)
Well, that list of books just got one shorter when I finally got my hands on and read The Mismeasure of Woman by Carol Tavris. Considering its more famous big brother, The Mismeasure of Man by Stephen Jay Gould was one of the most influential books on my interpretation of anthropology and psychology, you’d think I’d have got my hands on this one earlier, but I had no excuse. Other than the fact that I already knew a bit about the way social and scientific rhetoric is used to put women In Our Place, and I wasn’t expecting to be super surprised.
I wasn’t super surprised, but there were still revelations that made me go “huh.”
Like the idea that Premenstrual Tension might not actually be a thing.
(No, think about it: the main indicator for PMT is that symptoms occur in the two weeks leading up to ones period. As in – in a two week window out of every four. That’s a really large window, ladies. Add to that observer bias and society’s insistence on dismissing every negative mood women ever experience, and I’ve decided to give up on believing myself an irrational slave to hormones ever again.
It’s 22 years old, this book, and it does only touch on intersectionality: the experiences of women of colour and queer women are only touched on, trans* people aren’t mentioned at all. And I have no idea what has changed in the last two decades: maybe medical students don’t all learn to think of the 70 kilogram male body as the paradigm from which all other patients deviate. Possibly someone has done extensive research on premenstrual symptoms and proven that societies perceptions are right: menstrual hormones do unequivocally cause specific mood changes. But that’s not the point.
The point is that the human insistence on dividing the world into two: artists and scientists, virgins and whores, clever and stupid, money makers and nurturers, men and women, is harmful to men, women, and everybody who wants and deserves to be treated as an individual (that’s everyone).
We all lapse into oppositional thinking without being aware of it. In one charming study, parents were simply asked to describe their children. Those who had three or more children spoke about each child in individual terms: Jane is intellectual, they might say. Sam is social and Pam is athletic. Parents who had two children, however, described them as opposites: Pam is a leader, Sam is a follower; Sam is the sociable son, Pam is the unsociable daughter.
Do I agree with EVERYTHING in the book? No. Do I take even what I agree with at face value? No. But it paints a powerful picture of the way the way we think and speak of sex and gender affects our society, and it’s well worth picking up if you’re interested in that sort of thing.