The feminist hysteria that enveloped Harvard President Larry Summers in 2005 marked a shift away from reason and logic in American public discourse
Roughly a decade ago, returning briefly to the US after a decade living abroad in countries with more traditional cultures, I began to notice something about the USA—something that I sensed I wasn’t supposed to notice. Of course like everyone else I could see that the country had undergone and was still undergoing real changes. Some of them seemed radical, like the then-new push for legalizing same-sex marriage. Some of them, such as the strengthening strictures of environmentalism and political correctness, were intensifications of trends that had been in place for decades. I think that unlike most people, though, I came to see these changes less as changes towards the “Left” and more as changes towards the “Feminine.” For a variety of professional and circumstantial reasons I was probably more aware than the average person that men and women tend to differ in psychological traits and also that women had been steadily amassing cultural power as they had entered the upper reaches of professions such as journalism, law, publishing, science and politics. I perceived that America’s cultural changes—reflected widely in other developed countries, especially the UK—were the changes one would have expected in a society where women were gaining influence.
I was initially inclined to believe that the differences between men and women in behavior and policy preferences were mostly subtle—and mostly small in relation to the human capacity for learning new ways of thinking. But relevant events shifted me towards the stronger view that men and women are apt to differ profoundly in their psychology and cognitive functioning, which implies that the changes in store for the culture must also be profound. The “relevant event” that did more than any other to shape this view of mine occurred way back in 2005, though its message has continued to echo in the present.
The day was January 14. The occasion was a conference on “Diversifying the Science & Engineering Workforce” at the Cambridge, MA facility of the private, nonprofit National Bureau of Economic Research. The speaker was Harvard’s President, Lawrence Summers. The audience consisted of a few dozen, almost entirely female S&E faculty from Harvard and other universities. University administrators such as Summers, then as now, were under pressure from feminist academics and feminist-friendly media to even up the male/female ratio in science and engineering, the presumption being that a persistent deviance from 50:50 was due to unlawful discrimination.
Summers, a prize-winning economist and former Treasury Secretary, was considered a sharp-witted man. He was also the head of a major university, and as such would have known how to soothe feminist faculty with the usual aspirational cant. Instead, he decided on this day that he would basically speak the truth as he saw it. January 14, 2005 was the occasion of an unusual midwinter warm spell in the Boston area, with a high temperature of 63. It was the sort of pleasant climatic surprise that is apt to make a man unduly optimistic. A week later, Boston would be paralyzed by a winter storm—and Summers, a condemned heretic, would be on his way out of Harvard.
What did Summers say? Below is a representative selection from the ~7,000-word total. Craftwise his speech strikes me as unduly verbose, and it contains too many, obviously futile, attempts to appease the hypersensitive feminists before him. But it otherwise seems well reasoned and unobjectionable, and even thoughtful and useful, which is the point of this story: The women who had power over Summers—women who represent the revolutionary new regime in Western culture and politics—signaled on that day that they would never be satisfied with “mansplanations,” however logical, that contradict their dogmas.
I asked Richard, when he invited me to come here and speak, whether he wanted an institutional talk about Harvard’s policies toward diversity or whether he wanted some questions asked and some attempts at provocation, because I was willing to do the second and didn’t feel like doing the first. And so we have agreed that I am speaking unofficially and not using this as an occasion to lay out the many things we’re doing at Harvard to promote the crucial objective of diversity.
I am going to, until most of the way through, attempt to adopt an entirely positive, rather than normative approach [i.e., describing things as they are, not how they should be], and just try to think about and offer some hypotheses as to why we observe what we observe without seeing this through the kind of judgmental tendency that inevitably is connected with all our common goals of equality. It is after all not the case that the role of women in science is the only example of a group that is significantly underrepresented in an important activity and whose underrepresentation contributes to a shortage of role models for others who are considering being in that group. To take a set of diverse examples, the data will, I am confident, reveal that Catholics are substantially underrepresented in investment banking, which is an enormously high-paying profession in our society; that white men are very substantially underrepresented in the National Basketball Association; and that Jews are very substantially underrepresented in farming and in agriculture. These are all phenomena in which one observes underrepresentation, and I think it’s important to try to think systematically and clinically about the reasons for underrepresentation.
There are three broad hypotheses about the sources of the very substantial disparities that this conference’s papers document and have been documented before with respect to the presence of women in high-end scientific professions. One is what I would call the—I’ll explain each of these in a few moments and comment on how important I think they are—the first is what I call the high-powered job hypothesis. The second is what I would call different availability of aptitude at the high end, and the third is what I would call different socialization and patterns of discrimination in a search. And in my own view, their importance probably ranks in exactly the order that I just described.
[#1: high-powered job hypothesis]
I’ve had the opportunity to discuss questions like this with chief executive officers at major corporations, the managing partners of large law firms, the directors of prominent teaching hospitals, and with the leaders of other prominent professional service organizations, as well as with colleagues in higher education. In all of those groups, the story is fundamentally the same.
… the relatively few women who are in the highest ranking places are disproportionately either unmarried or without children…
… it is a fact about our society that [high-powered jobs involve] a level of commitment that a much higher fraction of married men have been historically prepared to make than of married women. That’s not a judgment about how it should be, not a judgment about what they should expect. But it seems to me that it is very hard to look at the data and escape the conclusion that that expectation is meeting with the choices that people make and is contributing substantially to the outcomes that we observe.
…So I think in terms of positive understanding, the first very important reality is just what I would call the, who wants to do high-powered intense work?
[#2: aptitude hypothesis]
It does appear that on many, many different human attributes—height, weight, propensity for criminality, overall IQ, mathematical ability, scientific ability—there is relatively clear evidence that whatever the difference in means—which can be debated—there is a difference in the standard deviation and variability of a male and a female population. And that is true with respect to attributes that are and are not plausibly, culturally determined.
If one supposes, as I think is reasonable, that if one is talking about physicists at a top twenty-five research university, one is … talking about people who are three and a half, four standard deviations above the mean in the one in 5,000, one in 10,000 class.
Even small differences in the standard deviation will translate into very large differences in the available pool substantially out [i.e., at the highest-aptitude end of the long tail]… I looked at … the evidence on the sex ratios in the top 5 percent of twelfth graders. If you look at those—they’re all over the map, depends on which test, whether it’s math, or science, and so forth—but … one woman for every two men would be a high-end estimate from their estimates. From that, you can back out a difference in the implied standard deviations that works out to be about 20 percent. And from that, you can work out the difference out several standard deviations. If you do that calculation—and I have no reason to think that it couldn’t be refined in a hundred ways—you get five to one, at the high end. [i.e., aptitude is so much more variable in men that, e.g., the very-high-aptitude pool of male physicists may be several times larger than the very-high-aptitude pool of female physicists].
So my sense is that the unfortunate truth—I would far prefer to believe something else, because it would be easier to address what is surely a serious social problem if something else were true—is that the combination of the high-powered job hypothesis and the differing variances probably explains a fair amount of this problem.
[#3: differential socialization and innate preferences—mostly the latter]
[P]articularly in some attributes that bear on engineering, there is reasonably strong evidence of taste differences between little girls and little boys that are not easy to attribute to socialization. I just returned from Israel, where we had the opportunity to visit a kibbutz, and to spend some time talking about the history of the kibbutz movement, and it is really very striking to hear how the movement started with an absolute commitment, of a kind one doesn’t encounter in other places, that everybody was going to do the same jobs. Sometimes the women were going to fix the tractors, and the men were going to work in the nurseries, sometimes the men were going to fix the tractors and the women were going to work in the nurseries, and just under the pressure of what everyone wanted, in a hundred different kibbutzes, each one of which evolved, it all moved in the same direction [i.e., towards males fixing tractors, women working in nurseries]. So, I think, while I would prefer to believe otherwise, I guess my experience with my two and a half year old twin daughters who were not given dolls and who were given trucks, and found themselves saying to each other, look, daddy truck is carrying the baby truck, tells me something. And I think it’s just something that you probably have to recognize.
One [hypothesis for this] is socialization. Somehow little girls are all socialized towards nursing and little boys are socialized towards building bridges. No doubt there is some truth in that. I would be hesitant about assigning too much weight to that hypothesis for two reasons. First, most of what we’ve learned from empirical psychology in the last fifteen years has been that people naturally attribute things to socialization that are in fact not attributable to socialization. We’ve been astounded by the results of separated twins studies. The confident assertions that autism was a reflection of parental characteristics that were absolutely supported and that people knew from years of observational evidence have now been proven to be wrong. And so, the human mind has a tendency to grab to the socialization hypothesis when you can see it, and it often turns out not to be true.
Summers finished up by noting that discrimination against women in STEM faculty hiring is an unlikely explanation for the present discrepancy, underscoring the likelihood that his own alternative explanations are valid.
[T]here are certainly examples of institutions that have focused on increasing their diversity to their substantial benefit, but if there was really a pervasive pattern of discrimination that was leaving an extraordinary number of high-quality potential candidates behind, one suspects that in the highly competitive academic marketplace, there would be more examples of institutions that succeeded substantially by working to fill the gap. And I think one sees relatively little evidence of that. So my best guess, to provoke you, of what’s behind all of this is that the largest phenomenon, by far, is the general clash between people’s legitimate family desires and employers’ current desire for high power and high intensity, that in the special case of science and engineering, there are issues of intrinsic aptitude [the two fatal words, I suspect], and particularly of the variability of aptitude, and that those considerations are reinforced by what are in fact lesser factors involving socialization and continuing discrimination. I would like nothing better than to be proved wrong, because I would like nothing better than for these problems to be addressable simply by everybody understanding what they are, and working very hard to address them.
Audience members questioned him for a while after that. Almost all were polite. None put a dent in the points he had made. Some were childishly long-winded and seemed to miss his points entirely—almost as if, in some unconscious way, they wanted to buttress his suggestion about “intrinsic aptitude” with clear examples of female illogic and mental confusion. Donna Nelson, a chemistry professor from the University of Oklahoma, responded to Summers’ passing mention of twin studies and their revelations about trait heritability by declaring: “One thing that I do sort of disagree with is the use of identical twins that have been separated and their environment followed. I think that the environments that a lot of women and minorities experience would not be something that would be—that a twin would be subjected to if the person knows that their environment is being watched. Because a lot of the things that are done to women and minorities are simply illegal, and so they’ll never experience that.”
But the only strong hint of ruffled feathers came at the end, when Denice Denton, chancellor of UC-Santa Cruz, stood up and said, with some emotion: “You know, in the spirit of speaking truth to power, I’m not an expert in this area but a lot of people in the room are, and they’ve written a lot of papers … and you know a lot of us would disagree with your hypotheses and your premises.” Acting as if Summers had been aggressively asserting truths rather than cautiously elaborating hypotheses, she complained “so it’s not so clear.”
(Denton committed suicide a year and a half later by jumping off the roof of her girlfriend’s SF apartment building. According to SFGate, the chancellor, trained as an engineer, “had been named this spring in a series of articles examining UC management compensation. She had been criticized for an expensive [$600K] university-funded renovation on her campus home, and for obtaining a UC administrative job” for her girlfriend.)
A few other women at the conference were upset by Summers’s references to “intrinsic aptitude.” Whether a reporter was present I don’t know, but somehow Boston Globe reporter Marcella Bombardieri, who would later quit journalism to become a paid activist pushing progressive, feminist issues in academia, felt this disturbance in the feminist force and ran a story two days later on the 17th.
Bombardieri’s story, headlined “Summers’ remarks on women draw fire,” recast the speech not as the wordy and sedate event it was, but as riotous act of heresy that had traumatized sensitive listeners.
The president of Harvard University, Lawrence H. Summers, sparked an uproar at an academic conference Friday when he said that innate differences between men and women might be one reason fewer women succeed in science and math careers. Summers also questioned how much of a role discrimination plays in the dearth of female professors in science and engineering at elite universities.
Nancy Hopkins, a biologist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, walked out on Summers’ talk, saying later that if she hadn’t left, ”I would’ve either blacked out or thrown up.” Five other participants reached by the Globe, including Denice D. Denton, chancellor designate of the University of California, Santa Cruz, also said they were deeply offended, while four other attendees said they were not.
Note the histrionics of Nancy Hopkins, a woman so overwhelmed with indignation that she went right ahead and reinforced all those old stereotypes about women and their preference for drama over reason. Note too Bombardieri’s last sentence, which a careless reader might take as evidence that a majority of attendees were “deeply offended.”
Naturally, other MSM organs picked up this story and amplified it. Denton and Hopkins now had their national megaphone.
The NYT on Jan 18:
HARVARD CHIEF DEFENDS HIS TALK ON WOMEN
The president of Harvard University, Lawrence H. Summers, who offended some women at an academic conference last week by suggesting that innate differences in sex may explain why fewer women succeed in science and math careers, stood by his comments yesterday but said he regretted if they were misunderstood.
“I’m sorry for any misunderstanding but believe that raising questions, discussing multiple factors that may explain a difficult problem, and seeking to understand how they interrelate is vitally important,” Dr. Summers said in an interview.
Several women who participated in the conference said yesterday that they had been surprised or outraged by Dr. Summers’s comments, and Denice D. Denton, the chancellor designate of the University of California, Santa Cruz, questioned Dr. Summers sharply during the conference, saying she needed to “speak truth to power.”
Nancy Hopkins, a professor of biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who once led an investigation of sex discrimination there that led to changes in hiring and promotion, walked out midway through Dr. Summers’s remarks.
“When he started talking about innate differences in aptitude between men and women, I just couldn’t breathe because this kind of bias makes me physically ill,” Dr. Hopkins said. “Let’s not forget that people used to say that women couldn’t drive an automobile.”
Buried in the NYT’s piece was this interesting fact [emphases mine]:
Dr. Summers arrived after a morning session and addressed a working lunch, speaking without notes. No transcript was made because the conference was designed to be off-the-record so that participants could speak candidly without fear of public misunderstanding or disclosure later.
Presumably Denton and Hopkins, who with Bombardieri were the ring-leaders of this hysteria, would say that an off-the-record rule such as that is merely a “Man’s Rule,” designed to protect the patriarchy and keep women down—and thus can be flouted by feminists without fear of reproach!
But they didn’t merely flout this rule: They turned it against Summers, exploiting the apparent lack of a transcript by dramatically misrepresenting his speech as a misogynist rant. Their complaints of psychosomatic injury (“I just couldn’t breathe”) were presented as prima facie evidence that they were the traumatized victims of a serious thoughtcrime.
Many women and men had listened to Summers’s talk, or had heard of his arguments second-hand, and had perceived nothing objectionable. Ultimately it would turn out that an official recording had been made. A transcript of that recording emerged, and it indicated that by traditional, commonsense standards, Summers had neither made false, “hurtful” assertions nor even had been guilty of mild insensitivity. To the contrary, the man had spoken sensibly and sensitively—even oversensitively. My own impression is that he had come to the gathering with the view that his audience of feminist academics included some bad apples who were childish and emotionally unstable and might easily fly into a temper. He simply had underestimated how irrational and unstable they were! And as the hysteria blew up, it was clear that Summers’s feminist antagonists were the ones making unsupported assertions. They and not he were the dogmatists who wanted to quash all opposing ideas.
Bombardieri, for her January 17 piece in the Globe, tried to mute any sense of pushback from defenders of Summers, but clearly had gotten an earful from the organizer of the NBER conference, Harvard economist Richard Freeman:
Freeman … described Summers’s critics as activists whose sensibilities might be at odds with intellectual debate.
Richard Freeman, who invited the Harvard president to speak at the conference, said Dr. Summers’s comments were intended to provoke debate, and some women over-reacted.
“Some people took offence because they were very sensitive,” said Dr Freeman, an economist at Harvard and the London School of Economics. “It does not seem to me insane to think that men and women have biological differences.”
Freeman’s defense of Summers was followed by others’, including that of Hannah Gray, a distinguished member of the Harvard governing body, the Harvard Corporation. Conference participant Paula Stephan, a professor of economics at Georgia State University, also defended Summers, telling the NYT that his “remarks offended some participants, but not her. ‘I think if you come to participate in a research conference,’ Dr. Stephan said, ‘you should expect speakers to present hypotheses that you may not agree with and then discuss them on the basis of research findings.’”
Then there was Harvard colleague Steven Pinker’s reasoned defense of Summers in The New Republic.
Summers did not, of course, say that women are “natively inferior,” that “they just can’t cut it,” that they suffer “an inherent cognitive deficit in the sciences,” or that men have “a monopoly on basic math ability,” as many academics and journalists assumed. Only a madman could believe such things. Summers’s analysis of why there might be fewer women in mathematics and science is commonplace among economists who study gender disparities in employment….
The analysis should have been unexceptionable. Anyone who has fled a cluster of men at a party debating the fine points of flat-screen televisions can appreciate that fewer women than men might choose engineering, even in the absence of arbitrary barriers. (As one female social scientist noted in Science Magazine, “Reinventing the curriculum will not make me more interested in learning how my dishwasher works.”) To what degree these and other differences originate in biology must be determined by research, not fatwa. History tells us that how much we want to believe a proposition is not a reliable guide as to whether it is true.
A defender of Summers in The Atlantic even went so far as to attack his antagonists: “The hysteria about Summers furthers the career agendas of feminists who seek quotas for themselves and their friends.”
But as Larry Summers’s defenders, and Summers himself, must have suspected, reasoning like this was just pissing in the wind. The typhoon of hysteria, deliberately fed by the media and an email-enabled campaign among feminist academics, continued to strengthen. The NYT followed its initial story on Jan 18 with another one the next day, headlined “NO BREAK IN THE STORM OVER HARVARD PRESIDENT’S WORDS.”
Members of a Harvard faculty committee that has examined the recruiting of professors who are women sent a protest letter yesterday to Lawrence H. Summers, the university’s president, saying his recent statements about innate differences between the sexes would only make it harder to attract top candidates.
The committee told Mr. Summers that his remarks did not “serve our institution well.”
“Indeed,” the letter said, “they serve to reinforce an institutional culture at Harvard that erects numerous barriers to improving the representation of women on the faculty, and to impede our current efforts to recruit top women scholars. They also send at best mixed signals to our high-achieving women students in Harvard College and in the graduate and professional schools.”
The letter was one part of an outcry that continued to follow remarks Mr. Summers made Friday suggesting that biological differences between the sexes may be one explanation for why fewer women succeed in mathematic and science careers.
Denice D. Denton, the dean of engineering at the University of Washington who confronted Mr. Summers over his remarks at the conference, said that her phone had not stopped ringing and that she had received scores of e-mail messages on the subject. She said Mr. Summers’s remarks might have put new energy into a longstanding effort to improve the status of women in the sciences.
“I think they’ve provoked an intellectual tsunami,” Dr. Denton said.
Emotional tsunami would have been more accurate—but anyway Summers felt the full force of it. He had been a high flier for most of his life; while still in his 30s he had won the prestigious John Bates Clark Medal for his economics research, in his 40s he had been Secretary of the Treasury during the Clinton Administration. Surely other important positions awaited him. But now at the hands of Puritanical feminists he faced the modern equivalent of the stake or the gallows: vilification from every progressive pulpit across the land, followed by professional and social ostracism.
And so, he did what so many victims of witch-hunts, Inquisitions, and ideological purges had done before him: He caved. He confessed his heresy and begged forgiveness. As the NYT reported on day 4 of the hysteria, Jan 20 [emphases mine]:
HARVARD PRESIDENT APOLOGIZES AGAIN FOR REMARKS ON GENDER
With the unabated furor over his recent remarks suggesting that women may not have the same innate abilities in math and science as men, Harvard’s president, Lawrence H. Summers, issued a two-page apology to the Harvard community late last night.
“I was wrong to have spoken in a way that has resulted in an unintended signal of discouragement to talented girls and women,” Mr. Summers said in a letter that was posted on his Harvard Web site.
“Despite reports to the contrary, I did not say, and I do not believe, that girls are intellectually less able than boys, or that women lack the ability to succeed at the highest levels of science,” Mr. Summers wrote.
It was his third public statement in three days about his remarks at a conference on women and minorities in science and engineering last Friday, with each statement becoming stronger and more apologetic. His remarks have dominated the discussion on the Harvard campus and beyond, with female academics, alumni and donors expressing concern over his leadership.
Mr. Summers, an economist and a former treasury secretary, acknowledged that he had been hearing plenty of reaction himself. “I have learned a great deal from all that I have heard in the last few days,” he wrote in his statement. “The many compelling e-mails and calls that I have received have made vivid the very real barriers faced by women in pursuing scientific and other academic careers.”
He wrote in the letter that he had attended the conference, held by the National Bureau of Economics, “with the intention of reinforcing my strong commitment to the advancement of women in science, and offering some informal observations on possibly fruitful avenues for further research.”
However, he added: “Ensuing media reports on my remarks appear to have had quite the opposite effect. I deeply regret the impact of my comments and apologize for not having weighed them more carefully.“
It was abject. It was shameful. It was a surrender to the forces of unreason—to the hysterical mob that had already done so much to distort both science and the hiring of scientists. Despite this crawling penitence, or perhaps because of it, Summers lost his job as Harvard President. In March, a majority of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, including female faculty, of course, but also male faculty fearful of the same whirlwind that had consumed their leader, approved a resolution of “no confidence” in Summers. The NYT reported among things that:
J. Lorand Matory, a professor of anthropology and African and African-American studies, told reporters after the meeting that Dr. Summers should step down. “There is no noble alternative for him but resignation,” said Professor Matory, who introduced the resolution….
Dr. Summers, an economist and a former United States Treasury secretary, has been meeting individually with faculty members throughout the Faculty of Arts and Sciences over the last several weeks, apologizing for his remarks about women and for any other offense he might have given and asking for their support so he could move forward.
Although the resolution was only symbolic, and Summers in the ensuing months continued to try to placate and soothe his antagonists, it eventually became clear that his position was unrecoverable. On February 22, just about 13 months after his fateful utterance of the words “intrinsic aptitude,” the New York Times reported:
PRESIDENT OF HARVARD RESIGNS, ENDING STORMY 5-YEAR TENURE
Lawrence H. Summers resigned yesterday as president of Harvard University after a relatively brief and turbulent tenure of five years, nudged by Harvard’s governing corporation and facing a vote of no confidence from the influential Faculty of Arts and Sciences….
… advisers and confidants of Dr. Summers said he privately concluded a week ago that he should step down, after members of Harvard’s governing corporation and friends—particularly from the Clinton administration—made it clear that his presidency was lost.
No one should have shed any tears for Summers. He was offered a university professorship at Harvard, joined a hedge fund, and within a few years became a high-profile economic adviser at the Obama White House. As embarrassing and degrading as it all was, his public confessions and repentance, his surrender to the New Inquisition, apparently were effective in forestalling his full banishment. At the end of the day Summers retained his wealth, his high status, and his potential for moderately high public office.
American civil society, on the other hand, didn’t fare so well. Summers’s high-profile moral cowardice emboldened the unreasoning feminism he had faced, and within another decade Harvard and most universities across the land were quasi-totalitarian in their insistence on conformity with feminist ideology. The same conformity spread as well through the mainstream media and entertainment industries, and even into the executive layers of big corporations. Opponents would use labels like “Progressivism” or “Cultural Marxism” to describe this mindset. But such descriptions seemed incomplete somehow, for this brand of Leftism wasn’t simply a different set of policy prescriptions. It also involved a different attitude towards ways of thinking and behaving that seemed fundamental to Western societies. Such as debating with reason and logic.
Women, not universally but on average compared to men, appear to have less affinity for the verbal swordplay of reasoned argument. Polls and surveys routinely show them to be less supportive of free speech and debate. An obvious hypothesis would be that women are not as comfortable with debating because they are, compared to men, more emotionally sensitive—less able to discourse dispassionately about things that affect them. That emotional sensitivity in turn would appear to be an adaptation for child-bearing and child-rearing, which have been women’s primary responsibilities for 99.99999% of human/primate existence. A woman in maternal mode, particularly when the life or health of her child is at stake, would also have more use for a dictatorial bearing (“because I said so!”) than an open-to-reason approach. In recent decades, as women have been moving out of the home and into public life, becoming journalists and politicians and scientists and other influencers of policy, they have been—I submit—bringing this maternal mindset with them.
The Summers episode arguably highlights an even more important dimension of the female mindset. Women as compared to men appear to have a strong ability to transmit their anger and anxiety to other women or to “catch” it from other women, thus forming what one might call emotional coalitions or outbreaks. That trait-set would seem to follow from the fact that women are relatively emotionally sensitive, and it’s easy to see that in certain circumstances, it could be a powerful weapon with which to oppose male hegemony or otherwise allow women collectively to get their way. That susceptibility to emotional contagion, and the matching propensity for emotionally acting-out, would also explain why women (and girls) have been the chief propagators of hysterias throughout history, from Salem to the Devils of Loudoun to the defenestration of Larry Summers. A touch of genuine insight and not mere misogyny may therefore have been what led the ancients to link such behavior with the possession of a womb (ὑστέρα – hystera).
But what of men? Why do we, the “stronger” sex, routinely lose to the “weaker” sex in these conflicts? Why have women found it so easy, in recent decades, to achieve ascendancy over us in the most advanced human societies? Here I can only wade more deeply into speculation and suggest that we the males of our species have evolved a set of instinctive but largely passive, placatory strategies for dealing with outbreaks of female hysteria—strategies to which we still automatically resort even though they no longer work well. Consider for example how men cope with a very old form of hysteria: the female-dominated “spirit-possession” syndrome that persists in one form or another in many traditional, patriarchal societies, and is often organized in “possession cults.” A woman playing this role typically will adopt the voice/personality of an authoritative male “spirit,” and will use its authority to demand gifts or some other concession from her husband. In principle, a husband in this situation could organize with other husbands, disband the cult, deliver exemplary punishment to his wife, etc. In practice—perhaps because millennia of experience have established this as the better way—he tends to accede to the “spirit’s” demands, or tries to work out some compromise. Similarly, hysterias in developed countries, such as the epidemic of Multiple Personality Disorder and its variants in the 1980s and early 90s, have tended to fade out, often from their own absurdity, and have almost never been successfully and abruptly quashed by direct, organized male opposition. A large part of the explanation, in both cases, is that the women at the cores of these hysterias are quite good at co-opting influential men, making it hard for men to unite against them.
Thus it may be that women through their greater ability to form emotional/hysterical coalitions in pursuit of a goal have much more power over men than meets the eye, and correspondingly have much less interest in, or susceptibility to, traditional male tools of persuasion such as reasoned argument. Moreover, it may be that men such as Larry Summers who encounter this primordial feminine power, and retreat before it, are not just behaving “rationally” but are also unconsciously acting out an ancient appeasement reflex. If so, I suspect this appeasement reflex no longer works for men, collectively and in the long run, because in modern societies the traditional limits on female power no longer exist: Now every surrender to that power increases it.
published 23 Aug 2019