The Radical Notion

Encouraging women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism, and become lesbians

Feminist Book Review: The Mismeasure of Woman October 5, 2008

So, I just finished this book I’ve been reading for a while: The Mismeasure of Woman: Why Women Are Not The Better Sex, The Inferior Sex, Or The Opposite Sex, by Carol Tavris.

The title is, I believe, a play on words as Stephen Jay Gould published a book called “The Mismeasure of Man”, a critique of the belief that all differences in society between different classes, races, sexes, etc. arose from purely biological factors. The allusion is apt, as Tavris’ book is largely concerned with debunking the biologically deterministic view that men are from Mars, and women are from Venus, or that women are gentle nurturers and men are fierce warriors, or [insert outdated and reductionist stereotype here].

Tavris is a social psychologist, which puts her in a good position to analyze society and cultural beliefs. The book’s main premise is that men and women are much more alike than we are different, and that any differences are exaggerated and framed in a way that is positive for men and negative for women. However, she does much more than just debunk the whole “men are good at math, and women are better at reading” trope; she analyzes many different aeas of society and exposes the sexism inherent in each one: medicine, psychology, sexuality, political, and more. She mentions many current differences in the experiences of men and women in this country, but points out how they are societally-influenced, rather than biologically determined.

I think this summary doesn’t do much justice to the book, but I would recommend it very highly for anyone interested in feminism, gender differences, or modern society. It’s also good for somebody who is not very “up” on the whole lingo of feminism or talking about gender, as Tavris does a good job of explaining her assertions without assuming that the reader has taken 45 Women’s Studies classes. It could be a good way to help someone “see the light”, feminism-wise, as it provides innumerable, indisputable examples of how sexist our society is, while at the same time being very fair-minded and mentioning ways in which sexism is also harmful to men (yes, it is! Feminists don’t actually hate men, you know).

My main complaint about the book is that it was published in 1992, and thus not very up-to-date on several issues. That is, most of what Tavris asserts is still applicable today, but in several subjects more studies have been conducted, progress has been made or ground has been lost, and new things have been invented that would have been worthy of analysis. So, for example, Tavris says that the U.S. is the country with highest incidence of Cesarean section, which may have been true in 1992, but today we’re dwarfed by Brazil (though we still have a rate higher than any other developed country). I would also loved to have read Tavris’ thoughts on more contemporary matters such as the current presidential race, the invention of emergency contraception, or the progressive decrease of abortion availability in the country. But one can’t have everything (Tavris has published several books since this one, but I haven’t read any of them yet and so I don’t know if she touches on any of these issues in them).

In short: read the book. Buy it here, check it out from the library, borrow it from a friend (if you know me in person, I’d be happy to lend it to you). It’s a must-read for anyone who – well, I said it up there. Go read it. Now.

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