Saturday, August 20, 2011

Riots & gender (by Suzie)

Large-scale violence rarely triggers a public discussion of gender, even though men and boys are the majority of perpetrators. Consider last week's mayhem in Britain: Although some women participated, “most of those involved have been young men from poor areas,” the Guardian reported.

The civil liberties of male suspects are being discussed, and for good reason -- some sentences sound absurd. But what about the rights of women who wanted to go about their business, without ending up in a mob of angry men? The threat of male violence restricts the lives of women, but people have become so accustomed to it that it often goes unquestioned.

Concepts of masculinity play a large role. A man may get respect through violence, or with the right consumer goods. After all, marketing tells us how men should look and what stuff they need. But it does the same for women, and we're not nearly as likely to break a store window to get what we want or to gain respect. Even if genes were solely responsible for the violence gap, society could look at ways that males could be taught to be less violent.

At least some of the poor neighborhoods damaged by the UK riots will get more money. It irritates me that men get attention by violence or the threat of it, while women's rights often get written off as less important.

A 15-year-old boy has been charged with raping a 13-year-old girl in Woolwich. But the Guardian
points out that it happened after the riots there, not during, as had been first reported. Now we are free to ignore it, just like most rapes, which get no political analysis.

Next time a girl or woman gets raped, why don't women take to the streets and smash any business that caters to men? Oh, never mind, men would strike back harder, just like British authorities are upping the sentences for the rioters.

Most conservatives consider those who stole and/or destroyed property as criminals. In response, Naomi Klein writes about the riots as political. When people in politics and business loot their own countries and others, Klein says, you can expect those hit hardest to hit back. She calls this physics, but it appears to be a physics of men, since the highest authorities are predominantly men. How do we change society so that men aren't hurting us from above and below?

After revolutions, women often end up little better or worse. How do we revolt while ensuring we aren't simply trading one master for another? What if the people in the street want to trade places with the people locked in their mansions? It makes me think of someone I know who called herself a communist and was bitter about the fine things owned by people with bigger salaries. I joked that she wanted to redistribute the wealth -- to herself.

Unlike gender, there has been much discussion of race and ethnicity in regard to the riots. The Guardian reported that people of all races and ethnicities participated, while some white conservatives are blaming blacks and/or Muslims. There needs to be an examination of culture as it intersects with gender. For example, will street crime lead to greater restrictions for some women?

Why is it so easy to see class, race and ethnicity but not gender?

Friday, August 19, 2011

This Post Has Nothing to Do With Feminism III (by res ipsa)

Going to Oregon and in search of vegetarian and vegetarian-friendly restaurants and wineries you might like.

Will be in Portland, Ashland, and Eugene, among other locales.

Any suggestions you can offer would be appreciated. --res

As if Governor Sandwiches Isn't Punishment Enough...

Helluva way to run a business:
Alix Genter, who is set to marry her longtime partner in NY next year, had picked out a dress at Here Comes The Bride when manager Donna Saber found out she was gay— because she'd crossed out the word "groom" and written "partner" instead on the paperwork, and Saber called that a "provocation"—and refused to sell her the dress. Saber said what Genter was planning was "illegal" and that "we do not participate in any illegal actions."
Maybe for her next act, Ms. Saber can get a job at a Target pharmacy and refuse to dispense birth control to female customers. As if this country didn't have enough judgmental assclowns...


A Re-Post: Some Thoughts About Misogyny

This is another early post but still full of interesting stuff, I think. A topic I'm going to return to, given the openly misogynistic sites on the Internet and the vile misogyny in non-moderated newspaper comments sections.

Misogyny, like in the hatred of women. This term always seemed inadequate to me, as there's considerably more contempt of women in the air than actual hatred, though the latter can be found, too, especially on the net, and there is also something close to fear of women. We need a word that encompasses all of these, or words to reflect the different types and intensities of feeling.

I believe that misogyny has always existed. I also believe that the majority of men, or the majority of people in general, are not misogynistic, but there is a sizable chorus of hateful voices, and these voices are always humming in the background. The effect this has is to make us almost oblivious to mild hatred of women: it's just how things are. This happens to me a lot. I read an article or see a cartoon or overhear a conversation, and I'm left with an odd displaced feeling which is not quite fear or disappointment but something similar, a feeling of something being wrong or missing, like looking at a group photograph where one person has been whitened out, yet nobody notices. Then later my overworked brain puts the pieces together and I realize that the point of the story was something negative about women or that the cartoon was only funny if you think that women are stupid/greedy/indolent/overemotional, or the overheard conversation expressed an anger at some woman by smearing her for being a woman.

David Gilmore, an anthropologist at New York University at Stony Brook, wrote a book titled Misogyny some years ago. In it he gives us hundreds of pages of evidence on the existence of fear and hatred of women in primitive societies, in so-called advanced societies and in all types of intermediate societies. He also almost delights in showing us the extent of misogyny in many religious writings, in literature and in the visual arts. Any reader brave enough to read him should prepare by downing a stiff drink of nectar or two.

Just about the only people not committing misogyny in Gilmore's book are women. My suspicion is that this omission is a direct result of Gilmore's mild misogyny: that women don't exist except as objects of men's hatred and/or veneration. But this omission is a serious one. Misogyny is not uncommon among women. Misogynist women give us advice in radio call-in shows and political advice as television commentators. They are hired by some religious extremists and politicians to justify largely anti-woman practices. They write articles and books telling women how to live and then blaming them for the negative consequences of these 'choices'. Some of them probably even live in your neighborhood.

True, there are many more misogynistic men than women, but the ignorance of the fact that women, too, can be infected by misogyny casts doubt on Gilmore's theories about the causes of woman-hating. These rely largely on psychological and genetic explanations stressing men's experiences and emotions about women, in particular about women as mothers or as sex objects. Since Gilmore specifically argues that women's experiences and emotions are different from those of men's, his explanations can't cover generalized misogyny.

Which is sort of disappointing, as he provides the reader with a multitude of possible theories. In fact, almost anything seems a likely cause, which doesn't bode well for women, or the reader who might reach for another strengthening sip of nectar. Still, there are a few dim rays of hope for us equalists: Studies suggest that misogyny decreases when men take a more active role in child-rearing and when the sexes work together. Maybe it's just a case of increasing the general understanding between the sexes? I don't know. Disappointingly, Gilmore ends his book by appealing to men to fight their incipient misogyny by noticing how gentle and kind creatures women really are. He obviously never met me.

Whatever the other reasons for misogyny might be, I believe that one reason for its endurance is that people bash women because they can. Women have traditionally not been able to fight back very effectively, and have thereby become a safe target for the general venting of spleen, diffuse rage and other sinister emotions. Obnoxious children torture flies, not bears or lions or tigers. It doesn't matter to these children that the flies might be wholly innocent of any wrong-doing.

So one solution to misogyny and similar maladies might be to fight back: Be a bear or lion! Roar! Or if you prefer to be a fly, at least crap on the misogynists' dinner plates.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

A Re-Post: Why, Despite Everything, Humans Should be Given a Second Chance

(This is a very old post, from 2004.)

This is meant to be a happy post, to keep my dear readers reading rather than running away in disgust at the gloom and doom I usually radiate. So here is my list of wonderful things that humans have created:

1. Chocolate. True, the ingredients are from nature, but people invented the formula for chocolate. It is food for goddesses and anyone else sane. It is said to contain chemical ingredients similar to those that are unleashed when one falls in love. It should be called 'the little orgasm', and it should be declared the national food of all countries. Eating chocolate is good for you, researchers have established (too lazy to find the link now but this is true). The only bad thing about chocolate is something called 'white chocolate'. It is an imposter and should be shunned. The best, absolutely the best chocolate is a home-made truffle. I make a mean chocolate truffle.

2. Buttons, zippers and safety pins; all things to hold us together. Nothing else has come close to these nifty inventions, not therapies or antidepressants, not even velcro (which sticks too much). Where would we be without these helpers? Imagine Bush trying to march looking militant while his toga disintegrates all around him. Sorry, maybe you don't want to imagine that.

3. Vermeer's paintings, especially his blue tones. They are a good substitute for illegal drugs.

4. Dickinson's poetry; so innocent that it covers the most obscene with equal surety.

5. Taj Mahal. Though I've never been there, so this is provisional. But based on the pictures I've seen it is an eternal ode to love.

6. The ancient South American feather murals. I want one!

7. A little medieval wooden head of Christ in a tiny rural church somewhere in Scandinavia.

8. Physicians Without Borders.

9. Blogs.

10. Emergency Rooms, for reasons that to me are obvious.

11. Pesto, another food for goddesses, and freezable!

12. French kissing, though only by people who know what they're doing.

13. Siberian throat-singing, because it is so inexplicable, and sounds to me like an attempt to French-kiss oneself.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Reading THE HANDMAID'S TALE: III (by res ipsa)

In the previous Handmaid's Tale post, a commenter wrote:
Anybody who would even have to ask if the book was "anti-feminist" needs a feminism 101 primer.
So, what would a "Feminism 101" primer look like?

A Re-Post: Nathan's Famous. Ida? Not So Much

You may have eaten Nathan's Famous hot dogs. The 'Nathan' in the name was the founder of the firm, Nathan Handwerker, a young Polish immigrant who began selling hot dogs in 1916 (or perhaps 1913) in Coney Island, New York. The rest is history, or so one might think. From the Nathan's Famous website:

Politicians, show-business personalities, and sports celebrities are often seen and photographed munching Nathan's dogs, and heard singing its praises. Barbra Streisand, actually had Nathan's hot dogs delivered to London, England for a private party. A trip to Nathan's was the focus of a Seinfeld episode created by comedian Jerry Seinfeld. More recently, the ex-mayor of New York City Rudy Giuliani declared Nathan's the "World's best hot dog." Shortly after that, Nathan Handwerker was named to the city's top 100- joining the ranks of Joe Namath, Irving Berlin, Andrew Carnegie, Joe DiMaggio and others. Even Jacqueline Kennedy loved Nathan's dogs, and served them at the White House. In his final last will and testament, actor Walter Mathau requested Nathan's hot dogs to be served at his funeral – they were! The point is Nathan's is not just a hot dog, it has history and it is Americana!

Last year there were over 360 million Nathan's Famous Hot Dogs sold! Today, Nathan's is sold and enjoyed in all 50 States and sold at over 20,000 food service and retail outlets.

I have a paper place mat from Nathan's. Here's what the place mat says:

That summer, at Feltman's German Beer Garden - the very first frankfurter restaurant - two young Polish immigrants named Nathan Handwerker and Ida Greenwald first met. Ida was a waitress, and Nathan was a roll slicer. Well, one night Ida caught Nathan's eye and it turned out to be a match in, well, hot dog heaven.

They soon married and in 1916, on the advice of two singing waiters named Jimmy Durante and Eddie Cantor, they plunked down their entire $300 life savings on their very own frankfurter stand.

Note the presence of Ida Greenwald in this story. She is mentioned on the Nathan's Famous website, too:

Nathan's Famous was founded by a Polish immigrant, Nathan Handwerker, and his is truly an authentic "only in America story." He started his business in 1916 with a small hot dog stand in Coney Island, New York. He sold hot dogs that were manufactured based on a recipe developed by his wife, Ida.

The place mat elaborates:

Ida provided Nathan her grandmother's secret recipe and Nathan added good old fashioned American value, selling the country's newest favorite food for just a nickel - half the price of the competition.

It is hard not to see this story as the way women are often written out of history, not necessarily from some vile motives but just because women in general are invisible. That Nathan Handwerker was named to New York City's top 100 is deserved. But was Ida Greenwald also named so? The hot dog recipe, after all, was not Nathan's but Ida's. Or Ida's grandmother's.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

This Post Has Nothing to do With Feminism II (by res ipsa)

The non-feminism/gardening/groundhog post generated a lively discussion, so maybe I should stick to that topic?

I don't have a lot of gardening experience. My grandfather and mother had vegetable gardens, and their tomatoes, zucchini, and eggplant were plump and plentiful. Growing up, I did only as much gardening as my parents' required in the name of chores. Now I find myself with access to a garden -- both flowers and shrubs (indigenous and ornamental) and vegetables. With respect to the former, I'm doing okay. I'm learning when things needs to be watered, weeded, fertilized, and/or pruned and when they need to be left alone. With respect to the vegetables, I am not having as much luck. Said gardens are in the northeast, on the coastal plain, in a state known for its turnpike, its bully (and not in the Theodore Roosevelt sense) governor, and its tomatoes.

Last year: my basil and parsley (which I put in pots) grew nicely; my tomatoes, not at all; my zucchini bore one flower and no fruit; my beans were plentiful.

This year: the basil (in a pot, again) is up, but the leaves are tiny; the parsley (potted again) didn't come up at all; the tomatoes came up, but they are stunted; and the zucchini has multiple flowers, but no fruit. The beans exist merely at the pleasure of the groundhogs.

Shouldn't I be up to my ears in zucchini right now?

What I did right (I think): not put the stuff in the ground until May 15th. Last year, I started the plants inside on March 15th and put the seedlings in the ground on April 15th. Big mistake. There was a cold snap and freezing temperatures overnight in late April. The quick-thinking and ingenious GC ran outside and upended little jars over the plants (i.e., making little terrariums) and managed to save the crops, but I think the overall too-early planting made growing everything a little harder.

What I did wrong (I think): not turn over the soil thoroughly enough when I did finally put the stuff in the ground. Everything may be a little too tamped down. I also failed to build a fence high (and/or deep) enough to bar the aforementioned visitors. Finally, I forgot -- even though it was sitting right in front of my face -- to mix some compost into the soil I failed to turn over. (Okay, so basically I screwed up everything save the timing this year).

Gardening seems to be a lot about vision and revision and trial and error. Plant A takes hold and does fine, until you discover that runoff from the gutters pools at its base and soaks it a little too often. Plant B works well in the sun, until said sun blazes relentlessly for twenty days straight and the leaves begin to burn. Plant C looked great when I put it in the ground five years ago, but since then, it's been overrun by the neighboring hostas and no one can see it anymore. Moving the hostas is out of the question (there are too many of them), and so Plant C is looking for a home.

This is how obsessions are born.

P.S. With regard to hydrangeas ...Last fall I pruned one all the way (to within 6" of the ground!) because my much-more-experienced pal pronounced it "leggy". This year, it came back like gangbusters -- it's big, full, and the leaves are lush and gorgeous -- but no flowers. Is this typical?

A Re-Post: The Stereotype Threat. Priming Gender.

This is the sixth post in my series about the science of sex differences, and the first one not really about gender differences which some argue to be innate and unalterable sex differences.

Instead, this post discusses the consequences of gender stereotypes, both correct ones (in the sense of averages) and incorrect ones, on the actual performance of girls and women in various tests, in schools and colleges and at work. Studies of sex differences have an impact on sex stereotypes, as we all know. Those sex stereotypes, in turn, can affect the ability of a person to perform as well as she or he can. The way this happens is through something called stereotype threats.

Wikipedia defines the stereotype threat as follows:

Stereotype threat is when a person who belongs to a group that has a negative stereotype attached to it subconsciously conforms to the negative stereotype by performing a task to a lesser degree than they would otherwise.
It turns out that stereotype threats can be created quite rapidly. All it may take is a test-giver's initial announcement that a particular subgroup in general fares poorly/well on that particular test. Stereotype threats exist or can be created about race or ethnicity, and it is quite possible to create a stereotype threat which affects men/boys rather than women/girls, as was shown in my post about three-dimensional mental rotation.

The important word in the above definition is "subconsciously." Cordelia Fine reports on the many ways this priming happens in the context of gender (Delusions of Gender, pp. 7-8):
Some psychologists refer to whatever self is in current use -- the particular self-concept chosen from the multitudes -- as the active self. As the name implies, this is no passive, sloblike entity that idles unchanging day after day, week after week. Rather, the active self is a dynamic chameleon, changing from moment to moment in response to its social environment. Of course, the mind can only make use of what is available -- and for each of us certain portions of the self-concept come more easily to hand than do others. But in all of us, a rather large portion of the Wardrobe of Self is taken up with the stereotypical costumes of the many social identities each person has (New Yorker, father, Hispanic American, vet, squash player, man). Who you are at a particular moment -- which part of your self-concept is active -- turns out to be very sensitive to context. While sometimes your active self will be personal and idiosyncratic, at other times the context will bring one of your social identities hurtling towards the active self for use. With a particular social identity in place, it would not be surprising if self-perception became more stereotypical as a result. In line with this idea, gender seems to have exactly this effect.
In short, if something reminds a woman of her gender while she is undertaking a task in which women are regarded as less capable, her own negative gender stereotypes might be activated.

Why would this matter? Activating stereotype threats may cause physiological stress reactions, reduce working memory capacity or even create a disruptive mental overload. Or to give you an example, when you work into a math exam room and someone yells at you "Hey, token tits!", not only might you have trouble settling down and focusing on your exam paper because of your overt anger, but your subconscious self may also be busy filling up your working memory with stereotype crap while pumping up your blood pressure to cope with the threats in the situation.

Some researchers argue that it's the very activity of trying to repress the negative stereotypes that causes the lower performance of individuals once the stereotype threat has been activated. Some part of the person's brain has to battle the stereotypes, to keep them submerged, and this battle consumes energy which is then not available for thinking about the questions in the test.

Finally, an activated stereotype threat may change the test-taker's attention from a focus on seeking success to a focus of failure-prevention. The latter approach means being cautious, conservative and careful. Astonishingly enough, this behavior would also produce the thinner tails of many female test score distributions, something I discussed in the previous post.

The dampening effect of gender stereotype threats on women's and certain minorities' test performance is now well known from many studies. Stereotype threats exert an independent effect on the performance of the members of the group with negative stereotypes. Though not all individuals are equally susceptible to, say, gender stereotypes, their impact is enough to affect the average performance women and girls in various tests. Cordelia Fine, in Delusions of Gender, discusses many such findings in the first three chapters.

She also points out that stereotype threats are not only elicited by formal testing situations with gender or racial priming. Women who work in male-dominated fields may face stereotype threats on an almost routine basis, especially if they are the lone women in their departments, the ones who have to "represent" the whole female sex in various arguments, the ones whose whole behavior is interpreted as proof of "what women can't do." To the extent such stereotype threats are long-term, they may even explain why some women leave fields such as engineering after a while. It gets tiring to have your blood pressure rise or your working memory decrease because of "disruptive mental loads", as Wikipedia describes the effects of gender priming.

Oddly enough, stereotype threats may be more powerful when they are subtle. Subtle reminders might pass our conscious brain and dive straight into the subconsciousness, whereas we might spot and question coarser stereotypes.

And resisting the stereotype threat doesn't really work, at least if the resistance takes place during the test itself.

This is quite dismal, right? The reason I write about it is that gender stereotypes are created, and the findings from various studies about sex differences certainly contribute to that creation!

To the extent those findings are flawed or biased, to the extent similarity studies are not published and to the extent popularizers let fly with any study which seems to prove the existence of gender differences as innate and unchangeable, it is to that extent that new and possibly false stereotype threats are created.

Thus, bad research in the field of sex differences may have real world consequences. Indeed, if bad research changes the gender stereotypes sufficiently, the new changed stereotype threat could alter reality to match the flawed initial findings!

It is for this reason that any study of sex differences should be carefully scrutinized and even more carefully popularized.

The current practice is the very opposite of that. ANY real or imaginary sex difference is instantaneously plastered over newspapers and web pages, with hyperbolic summaries of the research findings. Indeed, that would be the very way to manufacture stereotype threats if they didn't already exist.
This post is largely based on Cordelia Fine's Delusions of Gender, chapters 2 and 3.

Sexual Resentment and the Conservative Attack on Women

by NYMary

(Sorry for the silence: was supposed to have been posting for the last week, but just got back into reliable connection on the weekend.)

This week on Alternet, Amanda Marcotte assembled a handful of known facts to explain, as she says, why Sean Hannity is so mad that you're having sex. Not that you're having abortions, or that you got raped, or that you use birth control that they must now pay for: no, you're just having sex, and that's enough.
Here’s five ways conservative attacks on sexuality have grown more radical in the past year alone:

1. Turning contraception into a political issue.
2. Making sexual resentment a right-wing trope.
3. Race- and class-baiting the sex lives of others.
4. Suggesting rape is fair punishment for sexually active women.
5. Ramping up hysteria about abortion.

Read the whole thing, for sure.

Marcotte is clear here that the attack on sex is an attack on women: after all, we bewombed, benighted souls are obviously the ones who require public reprobation from the likes of Hannity and Limbaugh to see our true natures--voraciously sexual, we seek to delay, I dunno, Aeneas and the like from the manly purpose of building civilizations because we go out in public without our burqas. And sometimes, we have sex without wanting a baby. And sometimes even with people we aren't married to!

I was particularly taken with the jealousy argument Marcotte makes in argument #2. I mean, all her points are good, but this one is an angle I had just not really thought about before. Marcotte says:
Sean Hannity is really the master of this one, routinely invoking the specter of some young thing getting naked with men who aren’t in his audience, in order to make his audience resentful, and ready to take it out on women as a group. On the February 23 edition of his show, Hannity said, “I’m pro-choice in this sense: If you choose to get in the back seat of a car with somebody; if you choose to make out with them; if you choose to grab, grope and fondle; if you choose to take one article of clothing off after another...guess what? You made a series of choices.” He made sex, which your average American has more than twice a week, sound like some subterranean and strange activity that ordinary people turn their noses up to, and like it’s a criminal offense requiring the loss of freedom, at least for women. ... It’s just a matter of time before he comes right out and says that if he or his viewers aren’t getting sex at home, no one else should be, either.

Hannity might be partly playing on a generational thing here: his audience generally aged out of sex in cars well before the heyday of the Dodge Dart (but they loves them some insured Viagra!): I'm not that old, but the idea of having sex in a car now just seems logistically complicated. Nevertheless, I wouldn't deny such awkward encounters to anyone else, provided they're consensual, natch.

In any case, I'm not sure much of what Marcotte is saying here is news to anyone paying attention to these issues, but sometimes it's good to collect all the insults into one pile and call them what they are.

(cross-posted at WhiskeyFire)

Monday, August 15, 2011

Gloria: In Her Own Words (by res ipsa)

Here is a trailer for "Gloria: In Her Own Words", a new documentary about Gloria Steinem which airs for the first time on HBO tonight at 9 PM. Going to try to watch at a friend's, but if I don't manage to see it and you do, tell us what you think in comments. Also, for more in her own words, Gloria Steinem has an official web site.

Reminder: See Suzie's Gloria Steinem vs. Playboy post below.

The “Individual Mandate” Struck Down by Court of Appeals (by Skylanda)

Last week another court decision by 11th circuit Court of Appeals came down against a key provision of the health care reform bill: the individual mandate. The individual mandate states the obvious and the somewhat subtle: that all people must buy health insurance of one kind or another. It is a key portion of the health care bill, and it is an unstated fact that if this portion is struck down, the rest of the bill is very close to moot also. And here’s why:

Insurance – as I harp on from time to time – is derived from a common risk pool. If enough people throw in premiums, the pool stays stable with reasonably low premium rates. If the pool shrinks or becomes too fluid, premiums rise – especially if the pool is in less-than-optimal health. There are two kinds of cherry-picking that the insurance industry is subject to, both of which are equally toxic to a healthy population and a sustainable health care system. The first type of cherry-picking is the one we know and love to hate: the subjective picking of patients by insurance companies for who deserves one of their policies. Picking ostensibly healthy patients to sell policies to is not the only means that insurance companies cherry-pick their insurance pool; they also limit coverage of pre-existing conditions, place boundaries on the scope and caps of coverage, and engage in a merciless practice known as “rescission,” cancelling a policy once a person gets sick (a practice made easier by the tight connection between employment and health insurance in the US).

But buyers of insurance have also been known to cherry-pick their own needs; I’ve done it myself. Though it was not my intention or my desire, I opted out of insurance coverage for three years when I was young and healthy and had no particular reason to spend an inordinate amount of time trying to obtain and pay for coverage once I was booted off my parents’ insurance. This phenomenon is a large part of the astronomical rise in premiums today: the exodus of the healthy young class – which pays in but do not typically draw out until much later – is no small part of the destabilized premium pool (there are many other reasons too, notably including record profits on the part of insurance companies). This is hardly the fault of that group of people, most of whom would probably rather have insurance but are more prone to being part of the marginally employed class, but the effect is hard to miss.

The health care reform law sets up a new dynamic: one set of rules nixes out the ability of insurance companies to cherry-pick their customers – pre-existing conditions are out, and they must take anyone who applies. At the same time, the individual mandate states that every person must contribute their share, every month along the way. This is the founding principle of all universal care systems: everyone contributes, everyone has coverage, the pool stabilizes.

But if one leg of this stable table is removed, the whole thing collapses. The only aspect of the law deemed unconstitutional in this latest round was the individual mandate; the rest stands. If this stands, people will literally be able to wait until the day they are diagnosed with cancer, and then obtain insurance immediately without ever having paid into the pool. This may be very handy for patients, but it turns the very idea of insurance on its head.

This is not sustainable. By flipping the traditional cherry-picking to favor the patients’ side without a firm cap on premiums, there is only one result that will occur, and it is extremely predictable: premiums will rise at a rate faster than you have ever seen before. So while it may seem like a fine idea to allow people the option of buying after-the-fact disaster coverage, in fact we will all pay for it in unequal measure: those responsible enough to carry insurance will bear the long-term brunt, those who choose to buy it at the last minute will suddenly realize what premiums of several thousand dollars per month feel like.

The individual mandate is one half of the social contract built into the health care reform act; the mandate to take all comers and end the practices of limiting pre-existing conditions and the like is the other half of the social contract. Without both, the whole thing falls apart. We know this because we live in a system right now where half of this social contract has simply never existed, with the predictable consequence of tens of thousands of deaths per year attributed solely to the lack of insurance coverage.

But this points to what I have always thought was a fatal flaw in the health care reform act to begin with: forcing Americans to buy private (and often for-profit) health insurance never seemed like a good idea. I fundamentally object to the government enacting a law forcing me to buy from Aetna, BlueCross, or United Health – and not because I’m a libertarian (at all), but because I object to being forced to contribute to the private cash generation machinations inherent to modern insurance companies (even the non-profit ones do not exactly act in the public interest). I get to vote on public policy, which is why I’m alright with Medicare, the VA, Medicaid and the like: in the end, these entities are beholden to the American voter. Being forced to buy from a private (especially for-profit) company feels a lot like a violation of basic conflict of interest rules to me, and I can’t really blame the rest of America – for liberal or libertarian reasons – for feeling a similar unease. We’ve all become accustomed to the public pooling of funds that supports roads, schools, and the like, and it takes very little imagination to guess how we might transform that into a public health care system.

But the social contract – everyone contribute, everyone be covered – remains an imperative part of universal health care, as it is in every country where it has been achieved. The likely result of this week’s decision is that the law will be forced to go before the Supreme Court, should the Supreme Court choose to hear it. And with only rudimentary understanding of constitutional law under my belt, I can imagine this could legally go either way. If the individual mandate is struck down, we all go back to square one, maybe with a different or better vision in mind: perhaps one based on our all-American versions of care-taking – Medicare, Medicaid, the VA, the Indian Health Service, and the like – or something new altogether. But always with that same objective in mind: this will only work if we are all in it together.

Cross-posted from my recently relocated and relaunched blog, America, Love It or Heal It.

A Re-Post: The Greater Male Variability Hypothesis

This is the fifth post in my series about the study of sex differences. The previous one discussed the mental rotation test because it's the one most often brought up as an "explanation" for why women are scarcer in science and engineering than men.

This post addresses a more recent argument for the scarcity of women on top everywhere, not just in mathematics, science and engineering! Yes, it's a powerful argument and so neat, because it applies even if women score as well as men on some cognitive test. It even applies if women score higher, on average, than men, because it's based on the extreme tails of the distribution of scores.

Here's a graph of two distributions, taken from Eliot's book Pink Brain. Blue Brain.

One (very informal) way to interpret the picture is to imagine the two mountain shapes as describing the outlines of piles of men and women: The higher a point on a mountain is, the greater the number of either men or women that are described by the score under that point on the horizontal axis. Thus, both men and women score the same on this test, on average, because the two mountain peaks coincide.

But note that the male mountain has thicker tails (the areas to the far right and far left in the picture). This means that more men than women score both high and low in whatever test this picture represents.

Another way of saying the same is that men exhibit greater variability. Their scores are scattered further around the mean value than the scores of women.

Now to the arguments of the essentialists. These go as follows:

It is well known that male animals show greater variability than female animals on all sorts of characteristics. Therefore, male variability in human test results is based on similar reasons and probably something innate. Unfortunately, and with great sadness we must report that women and men cannot be equal on the very top, because more men score in the upper tails of various test distributions and it is those upper tails from which people at the top come from.

Now, that is my summary of the relevant opinions, made clearer by the condensing. But the basic argument, pretty much, is that the generally equal average scores of men and women don't really matter if men are more likely to be found in the upper tails of various distributions.

Besides, that they are also found in the lower tails of those distributions demonstrates how fair all this is to women: They may not end up on top of various careers but neither are they likely to end up as criminals!

Don't believe those last two sentences? Cordelia Fine in Delusions of Gender (p. 179) quotes Lawrence Summers:
It does appear that on many, many different human attributes -- height, weight, propensity for criminality, overall IQ, mathematical ability, scientific ability...there is a difference in the standard deviation and variability [statistical measures of the spread of a population] of a male and a female population. And that is true with respect to attributes that are and are not plausibly culturally determined. If one supposes, as I think is reasonable, that if one is talking about physicists at a top-twenty-five research university...small differences in the standard deviation will translate into very large differences in the available pool.
So beautiful! Though I do wonder with Fine how something like "propensity to NON-criminality" might express itself, I wonder even more about some questions which Summers seems to regard as answered:

Are various tests the same as human attributes?

As men, on average, might take a riskier approach to test-taking, why couldn't that be the reason for the fatter tails of the male distributions? Suppose that men and women have the same average knowledge on some test but that men guess more often than women. Based on how guessing is punished, one possible outcome is exactly the one of fatter tails for the male distributions.

Finally, I wonder if anyone has actually studied whether people on the top of their fields actually scored in the extreme upper tails of some appropriate test earlier in their lives.

An important aspect of the greater male variability hypothesis as an innate explanation of sex differences needs further analysis. That is the need for that greater male variability to be constant. If it varies by, say, countries or over time, then it cannot measure innate variability differences alone (if at all).

Here new research poses problems for the essentialists. From Cordelia Fine's Delusions of Gender (pp. 180-1)
More recently, several very large-scale studies have collected data that offer tests of the Greater Male Variability hypothesis by investigating whether males are inevitably more variable in math performance, and always outnumber females at the high end of ability. The answer, in children at least, is no. In a Science study of over 7 million United States schoolchildren, Janet Hyde and her team found that across grade levels and states, boys were moderately more variable than girls. Yet when they looked at the data from Minnesota state assessments of eleventh graders to see how many boys and girls scored above the 95th and 99th percentile (that is, scored better than 95%, or 99%, of their peers) an interesting pattern emerged. Among white children there were, respectively, about one-and-a-half and two boys for every girl. But among Asian-American kids, the patterns were different. At the 95th percentile boys' advantage was less, and at the 99th percentile there were more girls than boys. Start to look in other countries and you find further evidence that sex differences in variability are, well, variable. Luigi Guiso's cross-cultural Science study also found that, like the gender gap in mean scores, the ratio of males to females at the high end of performance is something that changes from country to country. While in the majority of the forty countries studied there were indeed more boys than girls in the 95th and 99th percentiles, in four countries the ratios were equal or even reversed. (These were Indonesia, the UK, Iceland and Thailand.) Two other large cross-cultural studies of math scores in teenagers have also found that although males are usually more variable, and outnumber girls at the top 5 percent of ability, this is not invariably so: in some countries females are equally or more variable, or are as likely as boys to make it into the 95th percentile.
All this matters for the Greater Male Variability Hypothesis to be taken as an innate one. If such tests truly measured nothing but an innate characteristic then we should find the difference in variability between male and female test-takers identical across different countries.

And over time. Probably the most famous of all studies of greater male variability is the early 1980s study by Camilla Benbow and Julian Stanley. It was based on giving the mathematics SAT test to seventh and eighth graders and then analyzing the top performers in that test.

The results were dramatic (Eliot, Pink Brain. Blue Brain, p.212):
Benbow and Stanley found that within this talented pool, many more boys than girls scored at the highest level on the math SAT exam: a four-to-one ratio for scores above six hundred and a thirteen-to-one ratio for scores above seven hundred. But they made the bigger splash by speculating the high ratio was a consequence not of math education but of "endogenous" or innate, sex differences in mathematical talent. Newsweek seized upon their conclusion with the headline "Do Males Have a Math Gene?" while Time magazine declared, "a new study says that males may be naturally abler [in mathematics] than females."

Such fun. My next post on the sterotype threat explains why headlines like those can actually decrease girls' ability to do well in math tests! But note how those popularizations moved from upper-tail findings to all men and all women just like that!

What came next? In fact, the Benbow-Stanley study has been repeated since the early 1980s. The 2005 repetition found that there were 2.8 boys for each girl in the group which scored over seven hundred. Remember that the numbers were 13 boys to one girl in the early 1980s.

Innate sex differences have not changed in those fifteen-or-so intervening years. Instead, the smaller ratio of super-talented boys-to-girls must be caused by something environmental or cultural, and there is nothing to suggest that the most recent ratio is the lowest possible one.

It seems pretty clear to me that the male upper-tail advantage cannot be regarded as an innate explanation, given the above findings. Whatever may drive the observed gender differences has at least a sizable chunk of environmental causes.

Note, also, that those who advocate the essentialist form of the Greater Male Variability hypothesis rarely discuss what the fatter lower tails in various score distributions might mean for men. It's as if men (as a class) should be content with belonging to the group with the fatter upper tail, even if they themselves happen to fall into the fatter lower tail. Likewise, it's unclear what the practical consequences of scoring in the lower tail might be for men, as compared to women. The debate has focused almost completely on the upper-tail differences.

The main point of this and my previous post on mental rotation is that the phenomena we are speaking about in these two cases clearly can be changed or clearly do change. Thus, they are not stable or impossible to change. Yet that is the way the essentialists use them.

My next post will be on the stereotype threat: The reason why making arguments about mental rotation tests or greater male variability in tests as impossible to change (when they are changing) can be hazardous to girls and women. Indeed, it turns out that making arguments about gender differences or ethnic differences in tests can actually create those differences.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Gloria Steinem vs. Playboy (by Suzie)

HBO will debut the documentary
"Gloria: In Her Own Words" at 9 p.m. EDT Monday. I expect archival footage and great quotes, such as this one in the Vancouver Sun:
The hierarchical response has two poles. The very worst men are into sadomasochism, and the very best men are into nostalgia.
Two new shows nostalgic for the sexy fun of the early '60s are "The Playboy Club," which starts Sept. 19 on
NBC, followed by "Pan Am" Sept. 25 on ABC. Barbara and Shannon Kelley write in the Huff Post:
What these two new series have in common is the insistence by their producers that when you eliminate the girdles, the cleavage and the bunny dips, the shows are really about women's empowerment.
I have some hope for "Pan Am." I can see the empowering aspect of flying around the world, but I also recall the harassment and other forms of discrimination that flight attendants have faced. (Here's a timeline, in case you don't know.)

Steinem notes that AMC's acclaimed "Mad Men," also set in the '60s, portrays women with some realism, making it a "net positive." Not so "The Playboy Club," which Matt Roush of TV Guide describes as "a muddled and murky mix of misogyny, music and Chicago mob intrigue ..."

As a journalist in 1963, Steinem went undercover in New York City's Playboy Club and exposed conditions for the waitresses, called Bunnies. She said they were harassed; they had to have pelvic exams and be tested for syphilis; and they didn't always get the wages they had been promised. Steinem told Reuters:
Clearly "The Playboy Club" is not going to be accurate. It was the tackiest place on earth. It was not glamorous at all.
It normalizes a passive/dominant idea of gender. So it normalizes prostitution and male dominance ... I just know that over the years, women have called me and told me horror stories of what they experienced at the Playboy Club and at the Playboy Mansion.
(Btw, print media have reported this quote without the slash mark between passive and dominant. What were they thinking?)

Women who worked at the Playboy Club in Dallas in the '70s and '80s had a reunion last year, and a writer for the Dallas Morning News reveled in the nostalgia. He describes the club's mystique. In the late '70s, if I recall correctly, I went with a friend whose father had a membership. We thought it was all so ridiculous that we danced the equivalent of Monty Python's silly walks. I also enjoyed beating the would-be playboys at electronic trivia games. But I don't expect the TV show to feature that kind of fun.

A Re-Post: All the Fallen Robins

I've been listening to Leonard Cohen's "The Chelsea Hotel", which is about Janis Joplin. Supposedly the two met at the Chelsea Hotel, she gave him head while the limousines were waiting (we are not told if he gave her head), and she spoke to him so sweetly and so strong. The lyrics deserve several listenings from a feminist: the talk about ugliness and beauty and especially the ending where he muses over not loving her the best, not thinking over every fallen robin, but all this with an odd ambiguity.

Janis Joplin died before this song was written. Her life killed her. She was a robin who fell. But then so many artists fall that way. Still, what was that world like for women, the super-hyper-sexualized world of popular music in those days? Especially for a woman who had the divine fire in her shell of nothing special? Who had the job of multi-tasking as sexual objects, cheerleaders AND the creative geniuses? It must have been extremely hard.

That phrase about 'every fallen robin' stuck with me. I think it would not be applied to men who die of drug overdoses or suicides, because they are not small birds. Or chicks.

How dare those arrogant women! (by Suzie)

Last Monday, I quoted from the NYT on the women turning "Porgy and Bess" into a musical that they hope will go to Broadway. They want to modernize the opera, including fleshing out the character of Bess. Since then, Stephen Sondheim has
reacted vehemently to the "arrogance" of the women who dared to make changes in this classic. He called the director condescending in a letter dripping with condescension. Most comments supported his view.

If you think it might be interesting for women to make Bess more than a "plot device," as Audra McDonald puts it, or to have African Americans rework a story about African Americans, originally written by white men, then tell others about this embattled show.

My thanks to Hellianne.