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Gender Differences: Mostly in Our Minds?

Times Staff Writer

It was an unusual move for Westwood’s Sisterhood Bookstore to invite sociologist Cynthia Fuchs Epstein to be a recent guest author. Bookstore guests usually promote popular fiction or major biographies.

But Epstein is an academic, and her new book, “Deceptive Distinctions: Sex, Gender and the Social Order” (Yale University Press), is a heavy-duty look at the last two decades of research on the changing roles of men and women in American society. With its sweep of disciplines from anthropology to sociobiology and 48 pages of scholarly references, the book is hardly a candidate for beach reading. Explained Sisterhood’s Simone Wallace: “It is unusual to focus on an academic book, but she is very well-known in the studies of women’s roles. . . . Furthermore, this subject just won’t go away.”

For one thing, Wallace said, gender studies raise major questions about how men and women live, work and relate to each other. “Are there innate differences between the sexes? Cultural differences? Should we accentuate them? Should we all be the same, or try to be different? How do we develop ourselves fully? It’s all very confusing right now.”

A Clear Conclusion

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Epstein, 55, a professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, is not confused. Quite the contrary. After a career of academic writing and teaching, and an intensive five years of research as a resident scholar at New York’s Russell Sage Foundation, she has arrived at a clear conclusion.

“The basic differences between men and women are far more superficial than we have been led to think,” she says. “Most differences are created and kept in place by social forces, not by biological design. I think that is big news, it’s striking news.”

Yale University Press, which is publishing the book, also thinks it is big news, and expects the book to be an academic best seller. “The book is unusual in that she is looking over the entire field,” said Yale’s Jane Levey. “She immersed herself in research from many different disciplines. She has done an exhaustive overview of the research. You will find the name of everybody who is relevant.”

Epstein’s Los Angeles visit included a Cable News Network interview and a session with students and faculty at USC’s Institute for the Study of Women and Men.

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Relaxing in an office at USC and sipping a soft drink, she talked about the book’s implications. “Everybody should care about gender research,” she said. “A lot of people think that sex segregation--all these divisions of labor in the work place and in the household--is the natural way. This is not just a male viewpoint. I think most women, too, believe that the way the social order is mapped out is inevitable.”

But we are surrounded by contradictory evidence, she said. “On one hand, we still have a lot of Victorian notions. On the other hand, a lot of women and men are doing non-traditional things, especially women, doing things they thought they couldn’t do. Women are surgeons and litigators in law firms and computer programmers. They go into coal mines and they are handling supervisory and managerial roles. There are even anchor people on television--remember the days when no one would listen to women’s voices on radio because they were not considered authoritative enough?”

In short, she said, we are not typecast by sex, even though it still might be more comfortable to believe that we are. And the “news” of her book, that men and women share far more characteristics than the stereotypes suggest is particularly important right now, she thinks. After two decades of making progress toward equality, women seem to be losing momentum, to have reached a stage increasingly described as a “plateau.”

This is not surprising, said Epstein, who, with her husband, publisher Howard Epstein, has a son, Alex, who is a film student at UCLA. “I think people are very cautious and upset: A lot of things have happened in a short amount of time, and they have been disruptive. The more power women have taken hold of, the more anxious men are about it. Women are anxious too. I think they are afraid they will be punished, that people won’t like them.”

This anxiety, she said, is reinforced at institutional levels. In the mass media, for instance, we are seeing more stories about women returning to “traditional values.”

“I think there are people in positions of power who are fostering these ideas,” she said, “like the publishers of Good Housekeeping with their New Traditionalist campaign, or the New York Times, which boxed a report on the relationship between women’s hormone cycles and their ability to achieve.”

Even the way all public opinion polls are broken down by men and women’s responses, she says, contributes to the “difference model” that shapes our perceptions of ourselves.

Negative Stories

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“I see in the press quite a lot of attention to the problems women are facing coming into positions of power and effective careers, but not many devoted to successes.

“The message seems to be that women have bitten off more than they can chew. . . . It’s really quite undermining, and I think it has an impact on society. Instead of being cheered on, women now are being discouraged.”

She attributed this partly to “a sort of amnesia about the very recent past, and how tough it was before we had laws that made it illegal to discriminate on the basis of sex. People have forgotten how recent it was that women couldn’t get into professional schools.”

Equally unhelpful, she said, are the schools of gender research that emphasize differences between men and women. Various approaches, such as sociobiology or psychoanalysis, analyze women’s difference in terms of basic moral reasoning, or Freudian instincts, or evolutionary factors, or endocrine function. Even more radical is the attitude--to be found both in the ranks of right-wing fundamentalists and radical feminists--that women are not only different but, with their special qualities of nurturing and connectedness, superior to men in every way.

The contention that women are “special,” which is emphasized in such psychologies of caring and nurturing, is like “packaging old wine in new bottles,” Epstein says. Such theories, she said, “will be used to create and perpetuate sexism and inequality.”

Author’s Background

Epstein, whose previous books include “Women in Law” (Basic Books) and “Woman’s Place” (University of California Press), has served on a Presidential Commission on the Status of Women, advisory groups on affirmative action and has held a Guggenheim fellowship. The privately endowed Russell Sage, which is devoted to research in the social sciences, selected her “because her specialty has been gender roles in the work place,” according to the foundation’s director of publications, Priscilla Lewis.

“The foundation has been interested in exploring gender and institutions, the idea being to probe how changing definitions of gender roles have affected American institutions; for example, the home, the church, the family, the work place,” Lewis said. “We wanted to see how those things have intersected.”

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In Lewis’ opinion, the book is a benchmark because it pulls together current thinking and writing on gender from a large collection of sources.

“It looks at a body of research that has grown hugely and without much overall assessment over the past 20 years,” she said. “It’s time to pause for minute and see how it stands up, what it suggests when it’s all put together.”

When it’s all put together, said Epstein, the evidence shows that, despite intense webs of law and social customs to keep women in their place, they can change. “We saw that happen in the women’s movement--give them just a little chance and they go to law school, medical school, business school--do all the things they were socialized not to do.”

In other words, biological and social differences can be separated, she said, although she acknowledged that current research presents a mass of contradictions, and that her book will provoke controversy. “There are lots of people committed to the notion that there are basic differences between men and women.

Studies of Studies

“My book argues that, of course, there are some unchangeable differences, in terms of sexual makeup, but they are minimal in terms of what men and women are able to achieve. Why? I’ve looked at 1,000 studies, including studies of studies. I’ve considered the whole array.”

At Rutgers University, Catharine R. Stimpson, dean of the graduate school and chair of the National Council for Research on Women, agreed that “the gender issue is very hot right now in academic theory and in law.”

That’s because we are in the midst of major societal change, she said, with everything in movement, including attitudes about acceptable roles for men and women.

Trying Out New Ideas

“As we experiment with different ways of being men and women, the mind is trying out new ideas about what it all means. The future really reasserts itself on this one: I do think we are moving toward the area of similarity, rather than difference.”

The Book’s Theme

Change, Epstein said, is a major theme of her book.

“Social expectations are powerful dictators,” she has written. “It is a question of a range of possibilities. Men probably will never be able to have babies, but they may be able to mother, or teach children, as well as women do. Women may never win a weight-lifting contest competing with men matched for weight and training, but they are fast catching up on marathon running and solving mathematical problems.”

But it is important that society present them with the range of possibilities, she said. “It seems clear that intellectual capacity and emotional qualities are distributed through humanity without restrictions of sex any more than race of nationality,” she has written. “What we’re finding is how adaptive human beings are, how they can change throughout the life cycle.”

She sees “Deceptive Distinctions” as the culmination of her scholarly work.

“I really care about this message,” she told her USC audience. “I’ve been in the field for 20-odd years and I see how resistant people are to the notion of change. It’s comfortable to think we are typecast. But we aren’t.”

Her advice for women, or men, who aren’t sure how to proceed:

“Look to your personal history. If it feels comfortable to be straightforward and forceful, be that way. If it feels comfortable to be nurturing and caring, be that way. We are not monolithic. We all have many traits and they are activated in many ways, if we can see the possibilities.”


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