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The Mental Differences Of Men And Women Post by :Akiba Category :Essays Author :Havelock Ellis Date :April 2011 Read :2006

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The Mental Differences Of Men And Women

The Great War, which has changed so many things, has nowhere effected a greater change than in the sphere of women's activities. In all the belligerent countries women have been called upon to undertake work which they had never been offered before. Europe has thus become a great experimental laboratory for testing the aptitudes of women. The results of these tests, as they are slowly realised, cannot fail to have permanent effects on the sexual division of labour. It is still too early to speak confidently as to what those effects will be. But we may be certain that, whatever they are, they can only spring from deep-lying natural distinctions.

The differences between the minds of men and the minds of women are, indeed, presented to all of us every day. It should, therefore, we might imagine, be one of the easiest of tasks to ascertain what they are. And yet there are few matters on which such contradictory and often extravagant opinions are maintained. For many people the question has not arisen; there are no mental differences, they seem to take for granted, between men and women. For others the mental superiority of man at every point is an unquestionable article of faith, though they may not always go so far as to agree with the German doctor, Mobius, who boldly wrote a book on "The Physiological Weak-mindedness of Women." For others, again, the predominance of men is an accident, due to the influences of brute force; let the intelligence of women have freer play and the world generally will be straightened out.

In these conflicting attitudes we may trace not only the confidence we are all apt to feel in our intimate knowledge of a familiar subject we have never studied, but also the inevitable influence of sexual bias. Of such bias there is more than one kind. There is the egoistic bias by which we are led to regard our own sex as naturally better than any other could be, and there is the altruistic bias by which we are led to find a charming and mysterious superiority in the opposite sex. These different kinds of sexual bias act with varying force in particular cases; it is usually necessary to allow for them.

Notwithstanding the fantastic divergencies of opinion on this matter, it seems not impossible to place the question on a fairly sound and rational base. In so complex a question there must always be room for some variations of individual opinion, for no two persons can approach the consideration of it with quite the same prepossessions, or with quite the same experience.

At the outset there is one great fundamental fact always to be borne in mind: the difference of the sexes in physical organisation. That we may term the _biological_ factor in determining the sexual mental differences. A strong body does not involve a strong brain nor a weak body a weak brain; but there is still an intimate connection between the organisation of the body generally and the organisation of the brain, which may be regarded as an executive assemblage of delegates from all parts of the body. Fundamental differences in the organisation of the body cannot fail to involve differences in the nervous system generally, and especially in that supreme collection of nervous ganglia which we term the brain. In this way the special adaptation of woman's body to the exercise of maternity, with the presence of special organs and glands subservient to that object, and without any important equivalents in man's body, cannot fail to affect the brain. We now know that the organism is largely under the control of a number of internal secretions or hormones, which work together harmoniously in normal persons, influencing body and mind, but are liable to disturbance, and are differently balanced and with a different action in the two sexes.(1) It is not, we must remember, by any means altogether the exercise of the maternal function which causes the difference; the organs and aptitudes are equally present even if the function is not exercised, so that a woman cannot make herself a man by refraining from childbearing.

In another way this biological factor makes itself felt, and that is in the differences in the muscular systems of men and women. These we must also consider fundamental. Although the extreme muscular weakness of average civilised women as compared to civilised men is certainly artificial and easily possible to remove by training, yet even in savages, among whom the women do most of the muscular work, they seldom equal or exceed the men in strength; any superiority, when it exists, being mainly shown in such passive forms of exertion as bearing burdens. In civilisation, even under the influence of careful athletic training, women are unable to compete muscularly with men; and it is a significant fact that on the variety stage there are very few "strong women." It would seem that the difficulty in developing great muscular strength in women is connected with the special adaptation of woman's form and organisation to the maternal function. But whatever the cause may be, the resulting difference is one which has a very real bearing on the mental distinctions of men and women. It is well ascertained that what we call "mental" fatigue expresses itself physiologically in the same bodily manifestation as muscular fatigue. The avocations which we commonly consider mental are at the same time muscular; and even the sensory organs, like the eye, are largely muscular. It is commonly found in various great business departments where men and women may be said to work more or less side by side that the work of women is less valuable, largely because they are not able to bear additional strain; under pressure of extra work they give in before men do. It is noteworthy that the claims for sick benefit made by women under the National Insurance System in England have proved much greater (even three times greater) than the actuaries anticipated beforehand; while the Sick Insurance Societies of Germany, France, Austria, and Switzerland also report that women are ill oftener and for longer periods than men. Largely, no doubt, that is due to the special strain and the rigid monotony of our modern industrial system, but not entirely. Nearly two hundred years ago (in 1729) Swift wrote of women to Bolingbroke: "I protest I never knew a very deserving person of that sex who had not too much reason to complain of ill-health." The regulations of the world have been mainly made by men on the instinctive basis of their own needs, and until women have a large part in making them on the basis of their needs, women are not likely to be so healthy as men.

This by no means necessarily implies any mental inferiority; it is much more the result of muscular inferiority. Even in the arts muscular qualities count for much and are often essential, since a solid muscular system is needed even for very delicate actions; the arts of design demand muscular qualities; to play the violin is a muscular strain, and only a robust woman can become a famous singer.

The greater precocity of girls is another aspect of the biological factor in sexual mental differences. It is a psychic as well as a physical fact. This has been shown conclusively by careful investigation in many parts of the civilised world and notably in America, where the school system renders such sexual comparison easy and reliable at all ages. There can now be no doubt that a girl at, let us say, the age of fourteen is on the average taller and heavier than a boy at the same age, though the degrees of this difference and the precise age at which it occurs vary with the individual and the race. Corresponding to this is a mental difference; in many branches of study, though not all, the girl of fourteen is superior to the boy, quicker, more intelligent, gifted with a better memory. Precocity, however, is a quality of dubious virtue. It is frequently found, indeed, in men of the highest genius; but, on the other hand, it is found among animals and among savages, and is here of no good augury. Many observers of the lower races have noted how the child is highly intelligent and well disposed, but seems to degenerate as he grows older; In the comparison of girls and boys, both as regards physical and mental qualities, it is constantly found that while the girls hold their own, and in many respects more than hold their own, with boys up to the age of fifteen or sixteen, after that the girls remain almost or quite stationary, while in the boys the curve of progress is continued without interruption. Some people have argued, hypothetically, that the greater precocity of girls is an artificial product of civilisation, due to the confined life of girls, produced, as it were, by the artificial overheating of the system in the hothouse of the home. This is a mistake. The same precocity of girls appears to exist even among the uncivilised, and independently of the special circumstances of life. It is even found among animals also, and is said to be notably obvious in giraffes. It will hardly be argued that the female giraffe leads a more confined and domestic life than her brother.

Yet another aspect of the biological factor is to be found in the bearing of heredity on this question. To judge by the statements that one sometimes sees, men and women might be two distinct species, separately propagated. The conviction of some men that women are not fitted to exercise various social and political duties, and the conviction of some women that men are a morally inferior sex, are both alike absurd, for they both rest on the assumption that women do not inherit from their fathers, nor men from their mothers. Nothing is more certain than that--when, of course, we put aside the sexual characters and the special qualities associated with those characters--men and women, on the average, inherit equally from both of their parents, allowing for the fact that that heredity is controlled and modified by the special organisation of each sex. There are, indeed, various laws of heredity which qualify this statement, and notably the tendency whereby extremes of variation are more common in the male sex--so that genius and idiocy are alike more prevalent in men. But, on the whole, there can be no doubt that the qualities of a man or of a woman are a more or less varied mixture of those of both parents; and, even when there is no blending, both parents are almost equally likely to be influential in heredity. The good qualities of the one parent will therefore benefit the child of the opposite sex, and the bad qualities will equally be transmitted to the offspring of opposite sex.

There is another element in the settlement of this question which may also be fairly called objective, and that is the _historical_ factor. We are prone to believe that the particular status of the sexes that prevails among ourselves corresponds to a universal and unchangeable order of things. In reality this is far from being the case. It may, indeed, be truly said that there is no kind of social position, no sort of avocation, public or domestic, among ourselves exclusively appertaining to one sex, which has not at some time or in some part of the world belonged to the opposite sex, and with the most excellent results. We regard it as alone right and proper for a man to take the initiative in courtship, yet among the Papuans of New Guinea a man would think it indecorous and ridiculous to court a girl; it was the girl's privilege to take the initiative in this matter, and she exercised it with delicacy and skill and the best moral results, until the shocked missionaries upset the native system and unintentionally introduced looser ways. There is, again, no implement which we regard as so peculiarly and exclusively feminine as the needle. Yet in some parts of Africa a woman never touches a needle; that is man's work, and a wife who can show a neglected rent in her petticoat is even considered to have a fair claim for a divorce. Innumerable similar examples appear when we consider the human species in time and space. The historical aspect of this matter may thus be said in some degree to counterbalance the biological aspect. If the fundamental constitution of the sexes renders their mental characters necessarily different, the difference is still not so pronounced as to prevent one sex sometimes playing effectively the parts which are generally played by the other sex.

It is not necessary to go outside the white European race to find evidences of the reality of this historical factor of the question before us. It would appear that at the dawn of European civilisation women were taking a leading part in the evolution of human progress. Various survivals which are enshrined in the myths and legends of classic antiquity show us the most ancient deities as goddesses; and, moreover, we encounter the significant fact that at the origin nearly all the arts and industries were presided over by female, not by male, deities. In Greece, as well as in Asia Minor, India, and Egypt, as Paul Lafargue has pointed out, woman seems to have taken divine rank before men; all the first inventions of the more useful arts and crafts, except in metals, are ascribed to goddesses; the Muses presided over poetry and music long before Apollo; Isis was "the lady of bread," and Demeter taught men to sow barley and corn instead of eating each other. Thus even among our own forefathers we may catch a glimpse of a state of things which, as various anthropologists have shown (notably Otis Mason in his _Woman's Share in Primitive Culture_), we may witness in the most widely separated parts of the world. Thus among the Xosa Kaffirs, as well as other A-bantu stocks, Fritsch states that "the man claims for himself war, hunting, occupation with cattle; all household cares, even the building of the house, as well as the cultivation of the ground, are woman's affair; hardly in the most laborious work will a man lend a hand."(2) So that when to-day we see women entering the most various avocations, that is not a dangerous innovation, but perhaps merely a return to ancient and natural conditions.

It is not until specialisation becomes necessary and until men are relieved from the constant burden of battle and the chase that the frequent superiority of woman is lost. The modern industrial activities are dangerous, when they are dangerous, not because the work is too hard--for the work of primitive women is harder--but because it is an unnaturally and artificially dreary and monotonous work which stifles the mind, depresses the spirits, and injures the body, so that, it is said, 40 per cent. of married women who have been factory girls are treated for pelvic disorders before they are thirty. It is the conditions of women's work which need changing in order that they may become, like those of primitive women, so various that they develop the mind and fortify the body. This, however, is an evil which will be righted by the development of the mechanical side of industry, for machines tend constantly to become larger, heavier, speedier, more numerous and more automatic, requiring fewer workers to tend them, and these more frequently men.(3)

It may be added that the early predominance of woman in the work of civilisation is altogether independent of that conception of a primitive matriarchate, or government of women, which was set forth some fifty years ago by Bachofen, and has since caused so much controversy. Descent in the female line, not uncommonly found among primitive peoples, undoubtedly tended to place women in a position of great influence; but it by no means necessarily involved any gynecocracy, or rule of women, and such rule is merely a hypothesis which by some enthusiasts has been carried to absurd lengths.

We see, therefore, that when we are approaching the question of the mental differences of the sexes among ourselves to-day, it is not impossible to find certain guiding clues which will save us from running into extravagance in either direction.

Without doubt the only way in which we can obtain a satisfactory answer to the numerous problems which meet us when we approach the question is by experiment. I have, indeed, insisted on the importance of these preliminary biological and historical considerations mainly because they indicate with what safety and freedom from risk we may trust to experiment. The sexes are far too securely poised by organic constitution and ancient tradition for any permanently injurious results to occur from the attempt to attain a better social readjustment in this matter. When the experiment fails, individuals may to some extent suffer, but social equilibrium swiftly and automatically rights itself. Practically, however, nearly every social experiment of this kind means that certain restrictions limiting the duties or privileges of women are removed, and when artificial coercions are thus taken away it can merely happen, as Mary Wollstonecraft long ago put it, that by the common law of gravity the sexes fall into their proper places. That, we may be sure, will be the final result of the interesting experiments for which the laboratory to-day is furnished by all the belligerent countries.

Definitely formulated statistical data of these results are scarcely yet available. But we may study the action of this natural process on one great practical experiment in mental sexual differences which has been going on for some time past. At one time in the various administrations of the International Postal Union there was a sudden resolve to introduce female labour to a very large extent; it was thought that this would be cheaper than male labour and equally efficient. There was consequently a great outcry at the ousting of male labour, the introduction of the thin end of a wedge which would break up society. We can now see that that outcry was foolish. Within recent years nearly all the countries which previously introduced women freely into their postal and telegraph services are now doing so only under certain conditions, and some are ceasing to admit them at all. This great practical experiment, carried out on an immense scale in thirty-five different countries, has, on the whole, shown that while women are not inferior to men, at all events within the ordinary range of work, the substitution of a female for a male staff always means a considerable increase of numbers, that women are less rapid than men, less able to undertake the higher grade work, less able to exert authority over others, more lacking both in initiative and in endurance, while they require more sick leave and lose interest and energy on marriage. The advantages of female labour are thus to some extent neutralised, and in the opinions of the administrations of some countries more than neutralised, by certain disadvantages. The general result is that men are found more fitted for some branches of work and women more fitted for other branches; the result is compensation without any tendency for one sex to oust the other.

It may, indeed, be objected that in practical life no perfectly satisfactory experiments exist as to the respective mental qualities of men and women, since men and women are never found working under conditions that are exactly the same for both sexes. If, however, we turn to the psychological laboratory, where it is possible to carry on experiments under precisely identical conditions, the results are still the same. There are nearly always differences between men and women, but these differences are complex and manifold; they do not always agree; they never show any general piling up of the advantages on the side of one sex or of the other. In reaction-time, in delicacy of sensory perception, in accuracy of estimation and precision of movement, there are nearly always sexual differences, a few that are fairly constant, many that differ at different ages, in various countries, or even in different groups of individuals. We cannot usually explain these differences or attach any precise significance to them, any more than we can say why it is that (at all events in America) blue is most often the favourite colour of men and red of women. We may be sure that these things have a meaning, and often a really fundamental significance, but at present, for the most part, they remain mysterious to us.

When we attempt to survey and sum up all the variegated facts which science and practical life are slowly accumulating with reference to the mental differences between men and women(4) we reach two main conclusions. On the one hand there is a fundamental equality of the sexes. It would certainly appear that women vary within a narrower range than men--that is to say, that the two extremes of genius and of idiocy are both more likely to show themselves in men. This implies that the pioneers in progress are most likely to be men. That, indeed, may be said to be a biological fact. "In all that concerns the evolution of ornamental characters the male leads; in him we see the trend which evolution is taking; the female and young afford us the measure of their advance along the new line which has to be taken."(5) In the human sphere of the arts and sciences, similarly, men, not women, take the lead. That men were the first decorative artists, rather than women, is indicated by the fact that the natural objects designed by early pre-historic artists were mainly women and wild beasts, that is to say, they were the work of masculine hunters, executed in idle intervals of the chase. But within the range in which nearly all of us move, there are always many men who in mental respects can do what most women can do, many women who can do what most men can do. We are not justified in excluding a whole sex absolutely from any field. In so doing we should certainly be depriving the world of some portion of its executive ability. The sexes may always safely be left to find their own levels.

On the other hand, the mental diversity of men and women is equally fundamental. It is rooted in organisation. The well-intentioned efforts of many pioneers in women's movements to treat men and women as identical, and, as it were, to force women into masculine moulds, were both mischievous and useless. Women will always be different from men, mentally as well as physically. It is well for both sexes that it should be so. It is owing to these differences that each sex can bring to the world's work various aptitudes that the other lacks. It is owing to these differences also that men and women have their undying charm for each other. We cannot change them, and we need not wish to.



(1) See, for instance, Blair Bell's _The Sex Complex_, 1916, though the deductions drawn in this book must not always be accepted without qualifications.

(2) G. Fritsch, _Die Eingeborene Sued-Afrikas_, 1892, p. 79.

(3) 1 D.R. Malcolm Keir, "Women in Industry," _Popular Science Monthly_, October, 1913.

(4) See, for many of the chief of these, Havelock Ellis, _Man and Woman_, 5th Edition, 1914.

(5) W.P. Pycraft, _The Courtship of Animal_, p. 9.

(The end)
Havelock Ellis's essay: The Mental Differences Of Men And Women

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