Female Hormones: A Dangerous Myth Persists

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With the Middle East in turmoil, the economy sluggish and the nation facing a fiscal cliff, who would have thought that female hormones would become a big deal?

It’s been that kind of year.

Republican Rep. Todd Akin of Missouri — who is running for U.S. Senate — created a firestorm earlier this year when he presented his scientific theory of "legitimate rape.”

Women, apparently, have magic hormones that can distinguish when they have been actively raped and when they were just “asking for it.” In the case of the former, the hormones mount a rapid defense and the women don’t get pregnant. In the latter case — whoops, impending motherhood.

Republicans in droves deserted Akin — including GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison — and urged him to pull out of the race against Sen. Claire McCaskill.

Republican Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo. (AP File)
Republican Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo. (AP File)

Well, he didn’t. Now, conservative supporters are back to pouring money into his campaign and even the GOP establishment seems to have had a change of heart.

Akin’s argument about the mysterious power of female hormones is hardly new.

In 1947, when some women resisted getting pushed out of their wartime jobs as the soldiers came home, the book “Modern Woman: The Lost Sex” became a bestseller. Its thesis: "Male-emulating [female] careerists have such anxiety about pregnancy that their glands secrete chemicals that destroy fertility."

Baby-killing hormones in career women!? Good grief, those hormones are versatile.

In 1970, prominent physician Dr. Edgar Berman opined that women were unsuitable for elected office because of their unstable hormones. When U.S. Rep. Patsy Mink of Hawaii, took him to task, he suggested that it was just her raging hormones going out of control. “Even a congresswoman must defer to scientific truths,” he said.

But in the present era, with women sitting on the Supreme Court and flying Space Shuttles, you’d think the old hormones nonsense would have died down.

Think again.

In the 2006 bestseller “The Female Brain,” author Louann Brizendine claims:

“When boys and girls enter their teens, their math and science abilities are equal. But as estrogen floods the female brain, females start to focus intensely on emotions and communication… and start to lose interest in pursuits that require more solitary work."

This, she explains, is why girls don’t do well in math.

If this was true, it stands to reason that we would see boys’ math scores at this age soaring ahead of girls’ scores, right?

But in 2001, researchers at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill looked at some 20,000 math scores of children ages four to 18 and found no gender differences of any magnitude. Not even in areas that are supposedly male domains — such as reasoning skills and geometry.


A broader argument suggests that the hormones and brain structures of males and females are so different that boys and girls must be educated and parented in very different ways.

In the oft-cited 2004 book “The Essential Difference,” psychologist Simon Baron Cohen claims that the male brain is best for “systematizing,” while the female brain is wired for empathy. According to this theory, the male brain is ideally suited for leadership and power.

The female brain on the other hand is best for making friends, mothering, gossiping, and “reading” a partner. Girls and women, he contends, are so focused on others that they have little interest in figuring out how the world works.

To put things in perspective, it's worth pointing out that this whole thesis is based on one study that found boy newborns were more drawn to objects, while girl babies were more drawn to faces.

There is also a long list of literature flat-out contradicting Baron-Cohen’s study, providing evidence that male and female infants tend to respond equally to people and objects — regardless of gender.

Cordelia Fine, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Melbourne, says gender myths dress up as science and propagate dangerous new conventional wisdom. In her 2010 work, "Delusions of Gender," she wrote:

“There's little evidence for the idea of a male brain hardwired to be good at understanding the world and a female brain hardwired to understand people.”

When people say positive things about female hormones, it’s usually about how verbal and communicative women are, compared to strong, silent men. But even that’s up for debate.

In the “The Female Brain,” Brizendine states that women use 20,000 words per day, while men use only 7,000.

But after conducting a seven year study of men’s and women’s speech, University of Texas, Austin psychologist James Pennebaker found that both genders use roughly the same number of words in a day – approximately 16,000.

Alas, no matter what the data say, there’s always going to be someone who comes up with some other power — or drawback — of those mysterious female hormones. And predictably, those who can benefit from the pseudo-science will be all too happy to exploit it.

Parts of this piece were adapted from "The Truth About Girls and Boys: Challenging Toxic Stereotypes About Our Children" by Caryl Rivers and Rosalind C. Barnett. Copyright © 2011 Caryl Rivers and Rosalind C. Barnett. Reprinted with permission of Columbia University Press.

This program aired on October 11, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.



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