This rant is prompted by a recent post by Libby Anne of Love Joy Feminism, but it is something I have found annoying for much, much longer.
Stop saying “women” when you mean “feminists.”
To be clear: I agree with her point! Scientists were not raised in a Science Bubble free of all cultural influence. When we look at historical science, we see many claims that are clearly the result of sexism or racism, rather than what the data actually say. In retrospect, too much education does not damage a woman’s uterus, women do not become insane during menstruation, and killing millions of Jews is an extraordinarily bad way to improve the human race, and probably the only reason you would believe those claims is that you are an anti-Semitic, sexist fuckwit. Given that our current culture is sexist and racist, and we know that sexism and racism can affect science, we should watch for our science being racist or sexist. I am less certain about evolutionary psychology than Libby Anne is. Certainly it’s true that human psychology is a product of adaptations that helped us survive as hunter-gatherers, and certainly pop evolutionary psychology is extraordinarily awful, but I haven’t investigated the field enough to know whether the media is misrepresenting it (as it often does to complex, nuanced fields) or evolutionary psychology is failing at the very difficult task it has set itself. But her general point is something that cannot be said too often.
But the thing is… when you say “women are more reluctant to endorse evolutionary psychology”, that is a claim that requires evidence. I can certainly think of prominent women who oppose evolutionary psychology, such as Rebecca Watson and Libby Anne herself, but there are also a lot of prominent women who support evolutionary psychology. This list includes two of the founders of evolutionary psychology and the coeditor and many of the board members of the journal Evolutionary Psychology. They don’t seem to know that women don’t support evolutionary psychology. Perhaps someone should tell them?
The thing is that just because you are oppressed does not necessarily mean you understand oppression. Everyone grows up in a sexist, racist society; everyone is taught to believe sexist, racist things, including women and people of color. I mean, women are half the population. Would patriarchy really have survived this long if it didn’t get women to believe that they deserved subservience? We would have had an armed revolution long ago! Sometimes women become feminists and begin a long process of unlearning their internalized sexism. Sometimes they don’t. The latter group, however, is still women.
Besides, what if it turns out that women are more likely to support evolutionary psychology than men are? (I couldn’t find a survey on the matter.) Does that mean pop evolutionary psychology is any less sexist? Of course not. Libby Anne’s argument works perfectly well without invoking the possibly nonexistent consensus of women.
The problem with saying “women believe X” goes beyond Ozy being a pedant, however. It sets you up for things like #NotYourShield, the Gamergate offshoot that consists of women, people of color, and LGBT people saying that they support Gamergate, in response to people saying that the only people who supported Gamergate were cishet white men. Some people responded to this by saying that all the women, people of color, and LGBT people who supported Gamergate were sockpuppets, because it is apparently totally unthinkable that there exists a woman, person of color, or LGBT person who disagrees with you, despite the observable existence of trans female trans-exclusive radical feminists, black supporters of the human biodiversity movement, etc.
But there’s a way better way you can answer that! You can say, “it is still wrong to misogynistically harass female game developers. Video games are still sexist, like literally every other piece of media in a sexist society. It doesn’t matter that Christina Hoff Sommers disagrees. Christina Hoff Sommers may be female, but that doesn’t mean she’s automatically right about everything having to do with gender.” Anti-gamergate arguments don’t actually have anything to do with what women as a whole believe. They stand firmly on their own; they would be true even if every woman in the world disagreed with them. To say “this is true because this is what women think!” actually weakens our arguments.
(Also, Zoe Quinn is an abuser. Sorry, have to mention that every time Gamergate comes up. It’s karmic balance for the number of times Eron Gjoni has been called a jilted ex.)
Libby Anne implies that one of the reasons that movement atheism is very white and very male is that movement atheists tend to believe things like evolutionary psychology. On the other hand, Catholicism, Mormonism, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and evangelicals are all quite sexist, and yet they all have more female members than male members.
To be clear: making movement atheism more feminist– that is, less likely to support gender norms which, I believe, are harmful for people of all genders– is an awesome goal which I fully support. Making women more likely to identify as members of movement atheism is also an awesome goal which I fully support. I would just like to open the possibility that these are, in fact, two separate goals. If it turns out that making movement atheism more feminist increases the number of female movement atheists, great, we’ve hit two birds with one stone. But we need to keep open the possibility that it won’t.
And you don’t need to endorse biological essentialism to believe that that might happen. One of the effects of gender socialization is that women often have different desires, preferences, and personalities from men. It is possible to have an environment that’s hostile to women without necessarily having an environment that’s sexist. To pick a gender-swapped example: knitters are more likely to be female than male and many men would be quite uncomfortable at a knitting meetup, but that doesn’t mean that knitters are sexist against men. It just means that men as a group have been socialized differently than women as a group, and some of those differences mean they’re a lot less likely to pick up a pair of knitting needles.
To be clear: I am not saying that sexism doesn’t make environments more hostile to women. Of course it does! I am just saying that sexism is one of many factors affecting whether women participate in something, and we should remain open to the possibility that movement atheism’s problems lie in some of the other factors as well, so that we can actually solve the problem.
In conclusion: I think everyone should be more careful to distinguish between “what women believe” and “what feminists believe”. If you are going to make claims about the former, please cite a survey or make it clear you’re working off anecdotal data. Similarly, we should remain open to the possibility that making movement atheism less white and male and making movement atheism less sexist are separate problems with separate solutions.