Flashbacks May 2005

Notes on the Intelligence of Women

Atlantic authors from the early to the late twentieth century comment on the status of women in science

In recent months, gender and gender equity have reemerged as topics of fierce public debate. At the National Bureau of Economic Research Conference in January, Harvard President Larry Summers proffered several hypotheses for why women continue to be underrepresented in tenured positions in the fields of science and engineering. Summers suggested that a professional and academic culture that rewards those individuals—typically men—who do not compromise their work for family may be a contributing factor, along with social pressures that discourage young women from certain fields. But the clamor in the university community, and in the press, sounded over Summers's suggestion that part of the gender gap might be due to differences in innate aptitude. Summers argued that in the effort to get to the bottom of the gender disparity, perhaps too much emphasis is being placed on matters of socialization and discriminatory hiring practices and not enough on natural predilections and abilities.

Now, four months and many tense showdowns later, Summers has just announced a $50 million initiative to improve the representation and well-being of women and other minorities on the Harvard faculty. Although it is only recently that the Harvard controversy has brought the status of women in the sciences dramatically to the fore, the issue has long been a matter of debate. Over the years, The Atlantic has entered the fray, publishing articles that consider women's intelligence and achievements from a variety of points of view. Essays on these topics first appeared in the early decades of the twentieth century, at a time when women's political and social mobility were on the rise. In "Notes on the Intelligence of Women" (December 1915), an author named W. L. George reported on conversations he had had with women in his daily life to assess the difference between men's and women's intelligence. "These notes," he wrote, "are based on the observation of 65 women, subdivided as follows: Intimate acquaintance, 5; adequate acquaintance, 19; slight acquaintance, 41; married, 39; status uncertain, 8; celibate, 18. Ages, 17 to 68 (average age, about 35)." He highlighted what he saw as women's penchant for faulty logic, a poor sense of the law, politics, and religion, and an impoverished vocabulary. He fleshed out his perception of Woman thus:

She can seldom carry an idea to its logical conclusion, passing from term to term ... This comes from a lack of concentration which indisposes a woman to penetrate deeply into a subject; she is not used to concentration, she does not like it. It might lead her to disagreeable discoveries.

But this mental frailty, George argued, was the consequence of inadequate encouragement and education. Moreover, he wrote, women are at a physical disadvantage: "... woman is intellectually handicapped because her body obtrudes itself upon her. It is a subject of brooding and agitation."

In time, George speculated, women may discard their emotionalism and capriciousness, and the female intellect will transcend its feeble qualities:

I believe that woman's intellect will tend toward approximation with that of man. But meanwhile it would be futile not to recognize that there exist to-day some sharp intellectual divergences.

I believe that these differences are superficial, temporary, traceable to hereditary and local influences. I believe that they will not endure forever, that they will tend to vanish as environment is modified, as old suggestions cease to be made.

In "Further Notes on the Intelligence of Woman," which appeared the following month, George expanded on his understanding of the confluence of culture and biology, again emphasizing that the fairer sex possessed no innate mental shortcomings:

I think she will succeed, for I doubt whether any mental power is inherent in sex. There are differences of degree, differences of quality; but I suspect that they are mainly due to sexual heredity, to environment, to suggestion, and that indeed if I may trench upon biology, human creatures are never entirely male or entirely female; there are no men, there are no women, but only sexual majorities.

Women's poor mental performance at present was, in his view, a result of centuries of oppression. "Woman is still something of a savage," he wrote, because she has been "long maintained" in a "barbarous state." This accounted, he explained, for the dearth of women in the arts, letters, and sciences. Progress toward equality would eventually be made, he believed, but it would require something of a revolution:

Woman is straining toward a new order ... the swift evolution of her mind is leading her to contest more and more violently the assumption that there are ineradicable differences between the male and the female mind. As she grows more capable of grasping at education she will become more worthy of it; her intellect will harden, tend to resemble that of man; and so, having escaped from the emptiness of the past into the special fields which have been conceded her, she will make for broader fields, fields so vast that they will embrace the world.

Ten years later, in "The Weaker Sex, A Scientific Ramble" (April 1926), the renowned psychologist James H. Leuba took a much more dismissive tone toward women's quest for equality. Women had come to desire not only political equality, but acknowledgment that their mental capabilities were no less than that of men's. "Unfortunately," Leuba wrote, "whatever success they may have obtained in their political demands, the facts continue to be ... against their claim of mental equality."

Social barriers had largely been removed, Leuba argued, yet women were not producing creatively or intellectually at the same level as men. The problem, he suggested, is not a matter of mental capacity but a deficiency in mental energy. Energy, he believed, is as critical to performance and achievement as aptitude. To illustrate his point, Leuba contrived an example: Two male college students have the same intellectual capacity, but unequal energy. The more robust student will acquire more experience and knowledge, and be more successful. Leuba also produced an anecdote from his own experience: He once knew a young pianist, he explained, who forsook her gift because she did not have the energy to practice more than six hours a day. In the end, her exhaustion undermined her success. "The inferiority in the mental performance of women," he wrote, "however great it may be in quantity or quality, can therefore be explained without the assumption of inferior intelligence."

Mental energy is not independent of physical energy, Leuba suggested, and women's physical inferiority has been scientifically demonstrated—they are both weaker and have less endurance. Perhaps, he thus hypothesized, it is women's glandular activity that causes them to exhaust more easily:

Fatigue depends ... not only upon the supply of energy, but also upon the action of the organs involved in the elimination of the tissue-waste resulting from work. If not rapidly removed, these waste products clog the whole machinery. Here we are to think mainly of the excretory functions of the intestines and the kidneys, and of the oxidizing process in respiration.

If women differ from men in energy, it need not be, therefore, because of a difference in the number or size or quality of the brain nerve-cells; it may be because the differences in the endocrine glands or in the organs concerned with the elimination of the waste products.

Leuba concluded that biology thus produces an unassailable social hierarchy:

If the new knowledge about the endocrine glands makes anything evident, it is the energy inequality of the sexes—an inequality which, in respect of certain physiological functions and mental activities, constitutes a superiority, and, in respect of others, an inferiority. There is not simply a difference in total energy; there are differences in the distribution of the available energy, whatever it may be. In woman that distribution does not, on the whole, favor muscular and intellectual achievements.

Two months later, The Atlantic published an impassioned rebuttal to Leuba, written by a woman named Faith Fairfield who accused Leuba of promoting a sexist science. It is with political motives, she suggested, that such explanations of women's shortcomings are disseminated:

When the soul was most highly reverenced, woman had none. As the intellect became more important, woman lacked. And now, as ductless glands are considered the factors influencing character and the quality of intellectual and emotional activity, most assuredly woman possesses inferior, inadequate secretions.

Let us not be so easily swayed by the "romance of modern medicine," she argued; where the least is known in science the most far-fetched theories are hypothesized. Fairfield pointed out that there were more obvious reasons for women's continued lack of presence in the artistic and professional world: "Why endlessly close one's eyes to present-day factors of environment and training which have an overwhelmingly inhibitory effect on feminine ambitions?"

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