The split in our thinking between “masculine” and “feminine” is probably as old as language itself. Human beings seem to have a natural tendency to divide things into pairs: good/bad, light/dark, subject/object and so on. It is not surprising, then, that the male/female or masculine/feminine dichotomy is used to classify things other than men and women. Many languages actually classify all nouns as “masculine” or “feminine” (although not very consistently: for example, the Spanish masculine noun pollo means “chicken”, while the feminine polla is slang for “penis”). This is perfectly natural; it is part of the way categorisation works in language. This does not, however, mean that it is right. It is probably unimportant whether a table or a chair is thought of as masculine or feminine. It may not even be very important these days whether we think of the sun as male and the moon as female (like the ancient Greeks) or vice versa (like most of the German tribes). However, when we start associating abstract concepts like Reason or Nature with men and women, we run into serious difficulties.
The association of Reason with men and Nature with women is well-known, and has been widely criticised. Aristotle defined Man as a “rational animal”, and by that he really meant men, not human beings. Unlike Plato, he saw women as less able to reason, hence less “human” and more “animal”. In Europe, well into the twentieth century, women were generally seen as somehow intellectually deficient. An English woman recently became Oxford's oldest graduate because although she had completed her degree course in the 1920s, at that time the university did not award degrees to female students. Presumably it would have decreased the status of the university to award degrees to an intellectually inferior sex!
Nearly all societies, from hunting and gathering tribes to post-industrial nations, offer some kind of compensation to those who lose out in the status game. For example, among the practically matriarchal Zuni Indians of New Mexico, the economically powerless men were credited with the ability to make rain. Black slaves in the American South were thought to be naturally stronger (which they generally were), better at music and dancing (which they may have been) and more cheerful (highly unlikely for slaves, but a good justification for treating them badly). In the same way, women are compensated for their supposed inability to think rationally by a mysterious “women's intuition”. Attempts were made to justify this in biological terms; women were seen as naturally more emotional and/or in touch with Nature because of their strange biology (menstruation, hormones, “vapours” or whatever). This was about as scientific as the Zuni Indians' theory that men could make rain.
Men and women are, of course, biologically different. There are even significant differences in male and female brains; women, for example, have a thicker corpus callosum (the thing that connects the two halves of the brain). However, it is a giant leap from observing that there are neurological differences between the sexes to assuming that these differences correspond to the classic Reason/Nature or logic/emotion dichotomies. In fact, some of these differences may even indicate the opposite. The left hemisphere of the brain generally deals with linear processing, as found in language and some types of mathematics, and this hemisphere develops faster in girls than in boys. The old “11 plus” test of verbal reasoning used in British schools was actually adjusted to bring boys' scores up to the level of girls'! Whatever the case, it is a mistake to look at people's brains and then decide that they must think in a certain way; it would be far better to try and find out how people actually think, and then to see if this corresponds to brain structure.
When we talk about the way men and women think, we are actually dealing with not one, but at least three separate things: how men and women usually think, how men and women can think, and how we think men and women think. Usually when we think we are looking at the first or second subjects, we are actually only describing the third. Since our main guide to how people think is their language, the fact that in most cultures men and women talk in different ways, and about different things, may lead us to false conclusions about the way they think in general. Women's conversation tends to emphasise feelings more, which may also mean that they think about feelings more. It does not, however, mean that woman are more emotional. It is perfectly possible that men are just as emotional, but for social reasons they talk (and think) about their feelings less. Similarly, the fact that in most cultures men argue more about abstract things does not mean that men are naturally more logical, it just means that the things men prefer to talk about require logical argument more than they require expression of feelings. Obviously the more you argue, the better you get at it, hence the prejudice that men are somehow biologically more logical. This would be like assuming that I am biologically better at speaking English (my first language) than Turkish (my second).
Problems also arise with the actual words we use: logic, reason, intuition and emotion. Logic is simply a set of principles for getting from something we already knew, to something we didn't. If we know that all cows eat grass, and we know that Daisy is a cow, we can use very simple logic to say that Daisy eats grass, even if we have never seen her eat anything. The more complex logic that we use in constructing philosophical arguments or designing computers is really only doing the same kind of thing. The word “rational” is a little more problematic, since it involves an assessment of aims and actions. If our aims are consistent with each other and our actions achieve our aims, then we can fairly say that we are behaving rationally. If we act in a way that prevents us from realising our aims, then we are behaving irrationally, or in other words, stupidly. For example, if I know that I will have a better relationship with my wife if I don't shout at her, but I still shout at her because I am in a bad mood, my problem is not that I am being emotional, it is that I am being stupid.
The opposite of “rational” is not, then, “emotional” but “irrational”. If we set up a pair of opposites, rational/emotional, we are likely to make the assumption that women are more emotional and therefore irrational, which is a polite way of saying that women are stupid. While having strong emotions can sometimes interfere with your thought processes, this is not automatically the case. For example, I often get quite excited when I am working on a new theory or project, but this usually makes my thinking better, not worse. Strong “negative” emotions such as rage, jealousy or depression are usually the result of irrational thinking as much as a cause of it, and men are just as vulnerable to this type of stupidity as women.
“Intuition” is an even trickier concept. We usually say that we arrive at an idea or solution to a problem “intuitively” when we know something without knowing how we came to know it. A scientist may arrive at a new theory because the idea just “pops into” his or her head, or even turns up in a dream. You may get an “intuitive” feeling that a person is dishonest without actually having heard them say something you know to be untrue. In both these cases, what seems to be happening is that the mind stores and sorts information unconsciously, providing us only with the end result of this process. There is no guarantee, of course, that this conclusion will be true; a scientist would still have to perform experiments to prove their intuitive theory, and you would probably want some hard evidence to prove that the person you feel is dishonest really does tell lies.
There is therefore nothing particularly strange or mystical about intuition; it is something we do all the time. Why, then, do we talk about “women's intuition”, as though men never arrive at a conclusion without consciously following all the stages that were necessary to reach it? Again, the answer is probably linguistic. As we have seen, traditionally women's conversation is less formal, less argumentative, and more concerned with feelings than men's conversation. Intuitive conclusions are therefore more acceptable in an all-female group. Men, on the other hand, are expected to argue more, and to argue more logically, presenting evidence in a systematic way to back up their conclusions. It is less socially acceptable in an all-male conversation (or a conversation where the men are doing most of the talking) to say “Well guys, I don't know why, but I just get this kind of feeling that e=mc2.”
We can see, then, that these pairs of opposites, logic/intuition and rational/emotional, are not only false, but also damaging, particularly to women. It therefore surprising that some feminists actually support a version of this patriarchal nonsense. Particularly at the more “spiritual” end of the Radical Feminist community, there is a tendency to glorify women's “intuition” and “closeness to Nature”, and to avoid “logic” as somehow “male”, as though it were a psychological problem resulting from too much testosterone. The fact that men often use logic, or at least logical-sounding arguments, to “put women in their place” is not a fault of logic, it is the fault of those men's sexism and lack of social skills. More innocently, men are often accused of being too “cold” and “logical”, not because there is anything wrong with their ideas, but because they do not understand the unspoken rules of female conversation, in the same way that women are often accused of being “illogical” or “emotional” because they do not argue using the same language as men.
If women reject logic and rely solely on feelings, they are left in the weak position of having to argue with feelings. Feeling that something is true does not make it true, and it will not convince anyone else that it is true either. You can say, “I feel X”, but the person you are arguing with can just as well reply, “Well I don't.” The result is that the argument usually goes nowhere. This is particularly damaging in arguments between men and women, since both sides are likely to go away with their prejudices strengthened; the men think women are subjective, emotional and illogical, and the women think men are impersonal, cold and over-intellectual.
To justify their feelings of hurt at being “beaten” in an argument, the women concerned may go further and dismiss the whole thing as “male logic”, as though there were two types of logic, on for men and another for women. This then places the men in an impossible position, since if they attempt to be reasonable, they are accused again of using “male logic”, in the same way that if a woman gets upset in an argument, it is taken as proof that she is overly emotional, and hence irrational. This does not only lead to a lack of communication between the sexes, it leads to a lack of communication in which women come off worse, since policy is generally made as the result of argument, not sharing feelings.
A further criticism of “male logic” extends the argument to take in the whole of science and technology, which are seen as “aggressive”, “phallic” and “toys for the boys”. While it is true that science and technology were at least initially male inventions (largely because at that time only men had the time and resources to do this), and while it is also true that a lot of early scientific thinking used sexist and even violent terminology (e.g. Bacon's “putting Nature to the rack”, where the physical world is seen as a woman who must be tortured to give up her secrets), this does not mean that there is anything inherently masculine about a chemistry experiment or a digital watch. Again, if women leave science and technology to the men, they will be left in a world which is understood and shaped by men. By all means criticise the sexist and unscientific metaphors that scientists and technologists use, but (to use a more feminine metaphor) let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater. By all means think of the Earth as a Mother Goddess if you like that metaphor, but remember that it is only a metaphor; the Earth is a planet, not a woman.
As I said initially, language categorises. If it didn't, it wouldn't work, as you would have to have a separate word for everything in the world. Categorisation works largely through prototypes, stereotypes and maybe even archetypes, and these types frequently use metaphorical and symbolic imagery borrowed from other categories. Nature tends to be seen, metaphorically, as a woman, but that doesn't make her (or rather it) a woman. The modern personification of logic is Star Trek's Mr. Spock, pointy-eared, unemotional, and of course male. This does not mean, however, that to be logical you need to be unemotional or masculine, any more than it means that you have to have pointy ears. After all, in much European literature and painting (especially during the Enlightenment) both Reason and Nature were personified as women. They are, after all, not opposites; Stoic philosophers such as Epictetus frequently used the words “nature” and “reason” to talk about the same thing. What feminists, like any intelligent people, need to do, is analyse and criticise the false polarisation and dubious metaphors that distort our thinking, not repeat them in a in a different form.
Robin Turner, 1997
This essay also appears in A Meeting of Minds: a brief rhetoric for writers and readers (Longman, 2004).