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I’m currently on vacation and, whether it’s responsible or not, trying to avoid the news and thinking historically about it. But even in a self-imposed bubble, and the bubble imposed by spotty internet and phone connections, some things break through.

What has broken through? Some dude at Google thinks he’s discovered the Truth About Women and he’s sorry/not sorry but it’s just The Truth.

There are two main historical points to make about this “manifesto.” The first is that there’s a long historical record of people like the author making the claims he’s making. The second is that his claims are historical, even though he claims that science makes them ahistorical; these ideas have a long history, but they aren’t just “the way people have always thought.”

There’s an important difference between believing a group of people has a particular role to fill in society and believing a group of people is fundamentally biologically incapable of filling anything other than a certain role in society. These two beliefs often overlap, and are related, but they’re not the same.

Despite popular assumptions that everyone in The Past thought women weren’t capable of rigorous intellectual work because they were biologically flawed and controlled by their reproductive organs, that’s just not the case.

In the early years of the American republic, parents of the upper and rising middle classes sought out rigorous academic educations for their young daughters, with curricula that would stress out today’s tweens and their parents: multiple foreign languages, history, rhetoric, geography, philosophy, and natural and physical sciences, along with dancing, drawing, painting, sculpting, and singing or playing a musical instrument.

To us today, these might look like college prep tracks, but that wasn’t the point of these educations. Depending on who and when you’re talking about, the point of educating young women was to allow them to participate in educated, cultured conversations, to be good and pious Christians, to be good members of the republic, to assist their future husbands in keeping a business going, and to develop strength of character through rigorous study.

That a woman could do all of this, and study the same things her brothers did, didn’t fundamentally change what her role was in society. But her designated role in society didn’t mean she was inherently incapable of rigorous intellectual work either.

By the middle of the 19th century, the United States had undergone significant social changes in the decades since independence: rapid colonization of the continent, industrialization, marked changes in agriculture, the explosive growth of the slave economy, and, important for our purposes, a significant increase in the number of women receiving academic educations that went beyond reading, writing, and sums, both in private academies and common schools. Some were even going to new co-educational and women’s colleges, and pushing to open up even more men’s colleges to women.

In the latter half of the century, there was a backlash against the education of women, but this time, it was explicitly rooted in physical difference. Rather than arguing that women’s education disrupted society because it causes women to forget their obligation, scientists argued that women were incapable of the intellectual work they had been doing, because of different brain sizes or the inexorable control of the uterus.

Others argued that women’s intellectual labor was physically dangerous to them, as it took essential nutrients and energy away from a woman’s childbearing capacities. This could, in turn, endanger the nation, and educated white women were accused of contributing to “race suicide,” their selfish desires for education contributing to a declining white birth rate. When women started to outnumber men in the teaching profession, men raised the specter of a generation of “feminized” boys who had lacked appropriate male role models in the classroom. Rather than opening up long-standing male colleges to women, the end of the 19th century saw the creation of very separate women’s branches.

We can see this “crystallization” of sex differences, as Rosalind Rosenberg put it. We can see the historical moment when people started to make a new claim about the differences between men and women. People didn’t always think this way. But rooting this claim in biological/physical difference helped make it The Truth in the minds of many Americans.

Mr. Google Manifesto makes claims about “natural” differences between men and women and he believes those claims are therefore unassailable, existing outside history and culture. The fact that even in in fairly recent American history we can see competing ideas about gender roles, competing ideas about what is “natural,” and even competing ideas about what exactly determines those roles should give the lie to his claims.

And if all that doesn’t convince you, let’s just consider his claim that women are naturally less tolerant of stress. Seriously? In a world where I am asked to give this sort of claptrap the benefit of the doubt, even as a thought experiment:

*This essay draws heavily on Rosalind Rosenberg’s Beyond Separate Spheres, Catherine Clinton’s The Other Civil War, and Margaret Nash’s “Rethinking Republican Motherhood: Benjamin Rush and the Young Ladies’ Academy of Philadelphia.”

 

 

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