When Harvard president Lawrence Summers suggested earlier this year that women's poor success in math might be, in part, because of their innate lack of ability, he joined an age-old debate about how women's intellect compares to men's. Just ask Cynthia Russett, a Larned Professor of History at Yale University who studies cultural views of women over time. Her article in the Spring 2005 issue of The American Scholar provides background for the following timeline.
Adapted from 'All about Eve,' by Cynthia Russett in The American Scholar. Subscriptions: $25/yr. (4 issues) Box 354, Mt. Morris, IL 61054. www.pbk.org.
Plato thought that women are overly emotional, lack self-control, and are less courageous than men. On the other hand, Plato could picture a world in which women join men as rulers. Women, with the proper training, could be as rational as men.
'We must look upon the female character as being a sort of natural deficiency,' Aristotle wrote in Generation of Animals. Aristotle based his beliefs on what he saw as women's biological inferiority. Even in reproduction, Aristotle believed, a woman doesn't create -- men take the active and creative role in conception, women the passive and receptive role.
Saint Thomas Aquinas
The author of Summa Theologica, which influenced Catholic theology for centuries, continued Aristotle's line of 'reasoning.' Women, Aquinas purported, are biologically 'accidental.' Aquinas believed women to be intellectually and physically inferior to men: 'Woman is naturally subject to man because in man the discretion of reason predominates,' he wrote.
Christine de Pisan
An unusual voice of dissent was that of 15th-century poet de Pisan. She opens her Book of the City of Ladies with a visitation from three allegorical goddesses -- Reason, Rectitude, and Justice -- who refute men's charges of feminine irrationality, feeble moral sense, and inability to understand abstract concepts of law. This book began a roughly three-century debate over women's virtues and vices.
Women have special qualities of mind like 'quick wit, taste, [and] grace,' but they cannot be creative or reason abstractly, Rousseau maintained. They are good at details, bad at the underlying principles. They do not possess genius. Their education should fit them for domestic life, directed not at drawing out their capacities but at instilling the virtues needed by loving wives and mothers.
The French philosopher argued that environment and schooling shape the female qualities Rousseau took to be innate. 'From the way in which [women] are brought up, it seems that it is only intended to turn them into beings who retain the frivolity, fickleness, caprices, and lack of reason of childhood, throughout their lives.'
Wollstonecraft said society makes women what they are by encouraging their frivolous pursuits and denying them a serious education. Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman is generally acknowledged to be the founding document of European and American feminism.
Johann Gaspar Spurzheim
Spurzheim was a proponent of phrenology, the discredited idea that intelligence can be measured by studying the skull. He wrote, 'It is almost an axiom that women are guided by feelings, whilst men are superior in intellectual concentration.'
John Stuart Mill
Mill said, 'I deny that any one knows or can know, the nature of the two sexes, as long as they have only been seen in their present relation to one another. . . . What is now called the nature of women is an eminently artificial thing -- the result of forced repression in some directions, unnatural stimulation in others.'
Helen Bradford Thompson
When phrenology and other studies of the physical brain were discredited, Thompson tried to fill the void by creating a series of word associations, puzzles, and general examinations administered to university undergraduates. Her dissertations, published as The Mental Traits of Sex, pioneered what we might consider to be the empirical study of mental differences between the sexes. The advent of the IQ test rendered the tests obsolete.
In the years after 1918, a consensus grew that IQ tests show very little difference between the intelligence of men and women. Spearman, a British psychologist, decreed: 'The pack of investigators can be called off. . . . They are following a false scent.'