The Weaker Sex: A Scientific Ramble

"Whatever success [women] may have obtained in the realization of their political demands, the facts continue to be, or seem to be, against their claim of mental equality."
More
I

Alfred Adler, one of the band of physicians whose minds were fertilized by the extravagant and yet fruitful theories of Freud, would reduce most mental disorders to the action of what he calls the 'inferiority complex.' That complex is doubtless one of the causes of the present moral restlessness and dissatisfaction among women. They have eaten of the fruit of the tree of knowledge and are smarting at the discovery of the inferiority of their social status—an inferiority revealed, it seems to them, even in those traditional forms of male behavior which pass for homage to the sex, such as the raising of the hat in salutation, the yielding of seats, and so on. Women care not so much for the vote, for the responsibility of guiding the Ship of State, as for relief from a humiliating position.

Under the goad of imputed general inferiority women have claimed not only political but also mental equality. It has seemed to them that nothing short of the full recognition by the dominant male of their mental capacity would bring to them the sense of worth and dignity before which the complex and its baleful effects would vanish. Unfortunately whatever success they may have obtained in the realization of their political demands, the facts continue to be, or seem to be, against their claim of mental equality.

With regard to the past, they have found it sufficient to plead social disabilities as an explanation of their inferior performance in every or almost every form of activity. How could woman have attained eminence when the institutions of higher learning were closed her, and when society in general refused to help her to gratify any of her ambitions if it led beyond the home?

Science, in the form of mental tests, has seemed to come to the support of this uncertain argument. No significant differences have been found to exist between schoolboys and schoolgirls or even between adult men and women. Unfortunately, the mental tests so far available are applicable to only certain parts of the mental life: the functions of the sense organs (acuity of perception, fineness of discrimination, and so forth), memory, certain forms of imagination, of comparison, of judgment, and some other aspects of what makes up 'intelligence.' No adequate test of the dynamic aspect of the mind—that is, of interest, persistency, energy—has as yet been devised. When it is realized that the intellectual abilities are useless without motive power, the impossibility of deducing from the possession of equal intellectual abilities equal life-achievements becomes obvious. Little may be expected of a person finely gifted intellectually, if he be not also well endowed with mental energy. The talents of the artist, without the power of ceaseless work, are of little avail.

Unfortunately, again, for the peace of mind of women, the extensive removal of social disabilities, which has recently taken place, has not yielded the fruits expected by the believers in equality of mental ability. It is true that even now, in many professions and activities, women enjoy neither the encouragement nor the freedom given to men. Nevertheless, it may well seem to dispassionate observers that the degree of liberation gained by women during the last fifty years has not been followed by the fruits which equality of ability would have produced. Feminine musical composers and performers of the first rank are remarkably few, though public opinion and social customs place no obstacle in the way of the female musician.

Equality of opportunity and of intelligence can ensure equality of mental achievement only if energy also is equal. Are there reasons for referring to less mental energy the inferior performance of women? I think there are.

It is with trepidation that I engage in so delicate a venture as the demonstration of the inferiority of women in mental energy. Claiming a purely scientific interest in these matters would, I fear, not spare me a storm of protest. But may I not at least contend that the reference of women's deficiency to energy, and not to intelligence, constitutes a favorable change of venue? Is it not easier to confess to fatigue than to lack of wits? So it almost seems that success in this attempt means ridding womankind of the dreadful inferiority complex. They may, therefore, perhaps bear with me. In any case, I trust to their fairness a trait which, I am glad to say, is not impugned in the following pages.

II

Differences in energy exist, of course, within the same sex. Let us, then, to begin with, seek a clear and somewhat detailed understanding of their effects as they manifest themselves in persons of the same sex.

Here are two college freshmen, Paul and Peter, whom we will suppose identical in intellectual excellence and in every other mental trait, energy only excepted. They are equal as to the quality of their mental abilities and dispositions, including their emotional make-up; they differ only in the quantity of the mental work they are able to perform. Let us assume that seven hours of college work leave Paul tired out, while Peter can do nine hours of the same work without more fatigue. What will be the consequences of this difference?

If both are average students and work just enough to pass the examinations, and if an average of seven hours' work a day is required for that purpose, then at the end of the day Paul will be tired out and therefore not inclined to further mental effort. His knowledge will remain, on the whole, limited to college studies. If he belongs to committees, to the editorial board of the college paper, or to any other extra-academic bodies, his services will not be of much value—he has too little energy left after doing his class-work.

Quite otherwise with Peter. He will have each day, on an average, two fruitful hours to devote to some pursuit other than the necessary class-work. He will be useful to college organizations to which he may belong. As simple member or as chairman of some of these, he will come by a variety of information that Paul will not get. He will, in particular, learn to manage men, and will have an opportunity to develop the traits of the leader. The greater his knowledge and effectiveness, the more he will be in demand and the more competent he will continue to become. Should Peter have deep intellectual interests and, instead of doing merely the necessary academic work, should he devote his spare energy to the extension of his knowledge and training, a corresponding accumulation of efficiency would take place in that direction.

Four years of college life, with each day two additional hours of fruitful activity on the part of Peter, will produce such differences between him and Paul in actual achievement and power of achievement that no one will regard them as intellectually equal. Even their teachers will get the impression that Peter is the possessor of far greater mental ability than Paul. He is, in fact, better informed and far more efficient; yet they began with intellectual talents of the very same quality.

The ascription of superior performance to superior, intellectual endowment when it is due, in fact, to superior energy is one of the common confusions besetting a muddle-headed humanity. The much-performers in business, politics, and even in the arts and sciences, are often ranked far above the true place in the scale of intellectual talents—talents to observe, to remember, to understand, to appreciate, to reason. The very quality of the achievements conspires with their quantity to produce the deception. For quality also is improved by long sustained effort. In my student days, I boarded for a while in the same house with a young woman said to have a remarkable gift for the piano. Yet, as time passed, she seemed, more and more discouraged. Her professor was not satisfied with her progress; he complained that she did not practise enough. As she told me that, she added, 'I play six hours a day; I can do no more—I am done up.' Has it not been said that Paderewski, during his apprenticeship, had been known to sit at the piano twelve hours a day? The promise of this young woman's talent was frustrated by insufficient energy.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

The Death of Film: After Hollywood Goes Digital, What Happens to Movies?

You'll never hear the whirring sound of a projector again.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

The Death of Film

You'll never hear the whirring sound of a projector again.

Video

How to Hunt With Poison Darts

A Borneo hunter explains one of his tribe's oldest customs: the art of the blowpipe

Video

A Delightful, Pixar-Inspired Cartoon

An action figure and his reluctant sidekick trek across a kitchen in search of treasure.

Video

I Am an Undocumented Immigrant

"I look like a typical young American."

Video

Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion

Writers

Up
Down

More in Technology

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In