Why can’t a woman be more like a man?

In reciting his famous ditty, Henry Higgins offers a comical take on an ancient dilemma.

This is a brief postscript to my essay on Care where I rather surprised myself by expounding my take on ‘feminist economics’ and the ethics of care. There’s an inherent tension in feminism as with all liberation movements. On the one hand they represent a people who have current interests and also a culture which expresses their current nature and sensibilities.

Now if the people the movement represents are oppressed or marginalised in some way, then one way for them to get on in the world is to operate more according to the sensibilities of the dominant culture. Meanwhile the natural solidarity of the marginalised group might not be too impressed with those who ‘get on’ like this. For reasons of (high) pride or (low) envy, black kids might get antsy with other black kids who are ‘acting white’ And as they reach adolescence, girls might be punished for acting too smart.

It’s always great when one is wrestling with a subtle and also highly contentious issue to come across a nice simple illustration of the issue. This article offers an excellent empirical illustration of the issue. [1. You may be able to download the article from here.] It contains the chart below which is the guts of the analysis of the extent to which Hilary Clinton adopted mannerisms of ‘masculine’ language as opposed to ‘feminine’ mannerisms. Each year in which she campaigned her language lurched strongly towards the masculine.

Ladies and gentlemen we’ve largely solved the masculine part of our development as a species. Competition has made us as rich as Croesus. We can blow ourselves up a thousand times over. But we’ve been getting worse at looking after people. All those things that require great subtlety to do well, things where empathy is one of the foundational building blocks? In education, health, building social capital. Well we’re not doing as well there are we?

It’s good that women are asserting their right to equality. But liberal feminism as currently practiced might not be helping much with these things.

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4 years ago

Perhaps campaigning is just tiring and annoying (it looks like it to me — imagine arguing with flat-Earth style Republicans), so she just became more terse and swore more, which must be very blokey.

4 years ago
Reply to  Nicholas Gruen

It is (although it is not significant). Look at Table 2. I don’t find it very convincing (more data mining really) as there is huge variation across speakers on many of those things (and indeed languages — is Chinese a more feminine language due to what is known as pro-drop [pronoun drop] and because people thus use less pronouns?), so whether it affects people vs. just happens to be different different is the real story (that is probably an answerable empirical question).

Apart from languages that are truly separate across the genders (almost none of which exist anymore — there were a few Aboriginal ones now with tiny numbers of speakers or dead), I suspect things like prosodic features are far more important than minor variations in syntactic and pragmatic ones, at least for gender differences. Obviously speaking in high frequency short words is useful for other purposes.

You can see the use of prosody very clearly in politics — women use deeper voices, and get told to sound like Homer Simpson (c.f., Julia Gillard in political vs. normal speech), etc. . I don’t know who advised Gillard to sound like she did, but I found she sounded much better when she wasn’t trying to speak as presumably her advisors told her.