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BOOK REVIEW : A Scrupulous Investigation of Male-Female Inconsistencies : THE MISMEASURE OF WOMAN, <i> by Carol Tavris,</i> Simon & Schuster, $23; 394 pages

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

What if we looked at sex differences in an entirely new way? What if males were the abnormal ones, the sex that had to be explained and justified? Early on in her thoughtful and entertaining book, “The Mismeasure of Woman,” Carol Tavris presents an instructive exercise. She quotes a familiar list of what’s wrong with women, as measured against men: low self-esteem, undervalues her work, too emotional and so on.

Then she turns it around. What’s wrong with men, as measured against women? Inflated self-esteem, overvalues his own work, unfeeling.

So women are not competitive enough? Why don’t we say that men are not cooperative enough? Women have no sense of humor? Men have an offensive sense of humor. Needless to say this is deliciously cathartic for the female reader. At least for a moment women can believe that they, those guys over there, they’re the bizarre ones. And men, at least for a moment, might have to admit, “Rats, we’re the ones who need correcting.”

But Tavris doesn’t let her women readers wallow for long. It does no good, she teaches us throughout the rest of the book, to replace the woman-as-problem bias with the man-as-problem one. Tavris believes we’ll all end up happier if we start looking at human similarities. For example, it turns out that the dependent, appeasing qualities we identify as female will be exhibited by almost anyone, female or male, in a powerless position.

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And those people-oriented attitudes we think of as feminine are often found in members of either sex who happened to be stuck in a dull job.

“Women and men who are in dead-end, low-paying, non-stimulating jobs tend to focus on the aspects of the job that are, by default, the most pleasurable: namely relationships with others.” Give George Steinbrenner a few years as a waitress, Donald Trump a couple of seasons in a beauty shop, and their people skills would really shape up.

Tavris points out the misconceptions that reign in science, medicine and law because men are presumed to be normal and women deficient. The coolest scientific language, as Stephen Jay Gould demonstrated in “The Mismeasure of Man,” can absorb and express ambient prejudices. A Science magazine paper on the two halves of the brain, for instance, concluded, “the female brain was well lateralized--that is, manifests less hemispheric specialization--than the male brain for visuospatial functions.”

“Notice the language,” Tavris writes, “The female brain is less specialized than, and by implication inferior to, the male brain. They did not say that the female brain was more integrated than the male’s.”

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Medical texts describe the female body as unruly, with almost every function a disorder. In anatomy books, Tavris finds, “Menstruation is failed conception; menopause is failed reproductive functions.” But again Tavris restrains the woman reader from rushing to deem women superior. She worries about the impulse to worship women’s menstrual powers.

“It makes about as much sense to me as would a male celebration of ‘scrotal powers’ that produce ‘life-giving sperm’ in a constant cycle of depletion and renewal.” Through all her scrupulous investigation of scientific inconsistencies, Tavris retains this informal tone.

Although she warns against female vengefulness, she’s very sharp. A psychologist testing men’s hormones found that, as testosterone levels increased, “hand steadiness and good humor decreased.” This study was overlooked, while newspapers leaped to cover another linking female sex hormones with women’s ability to perform tasks. The abilities tested turned out to be tongue twisters and precise hand movements.

“Perhaps women’s skill at precise hand movements,” she writes, “explains the predominance of females in needle-pointing, although it cannot account for the predominance of males in neurosurgery.”

With zeal, Tavris criticizes female self-help movements for mistakenly blaming women’s psyches for women’s problems. “When men have problems,” Tavris observes, “society tends to look outward for explanations; when women have problems, society looks inward.” Twelve-step programs, the co-dependency movement, support groups--all get nailed by Tavris for making women obsessed with “feminine” problems.

What should women aim for, if not to be the same as men? “Equality as acceptance,” Tavris answers. With sameness, 14-year-old girls might have to play football; with equality women’s high school sports would receive the same money and resources as men’s sports.

Tavris’s previous book was the study, “Anger: the Misunderstood Emotion,” in which, among other things, she pointed out what was worth getting angry about. Here she advises women to quit blaming themselves, to stop letting the system off the hook. In “The Mismeasure of Woman,” Tavris turns her own anger into a sensible, satisfying argument. She hasn’t gotten mad, she has gotten even.

Next: Jonathan Kirsch reviews “The Spy Who Saved the World” by Jerrold L. Schecter and Peter S. Deriabin (Scribner’s) .

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