The Difference: Growing Up Female in America Part I
VTR Date: March 4, 1997
Columnist Judy Mann discusses her eye-opening book and growing up in America.
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GUEST: Judy Mann
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And I know it’s a rather limited, certainly a rather distressing point to make when one is already in his seventies, but I’m afraid I’ve never been sufficiently involved with matters relating to gender, except perhaps when Margaret Mead or Deborah Tannen or Gloria Steinem or Betty Friedan or Nan Keohane or Helen Gurley Brown have been my guests here on The Open Mind over the past four decades. After all, my parents had sons only, my brother has sons only, I have sons only, my sons have sons only. But now I’ve met a lovely lady whose book, The Difference: Growing Up Female in America, has focused my attention on gender as nothing has before.
Judy Mann is the prizewinning Washington Post columnist who for many years now has written about women, families, politics and gender conflicts, covering the Women’s Movement with skill and insight as a working mother.
Now Warner Books has brought out a paperback edition of The Difference, newly subtitling it: Discovering The Hidden Ways We Silence Girls: Finding Alternatives That Can Give Them A Voice. Deborah Tannen says, “This important book, written from the head and the heart, is eye-opening and very special.” Larry King says that, “Judy Mann gives us a new understanding of the opposite sex that both sexes will appreciate. Four stars.”
Well, of course, I’m not very good at counting stars, but I want to ask my guest today about this “opposite sex” business. How are we so opposite, Judy?
MANN: Well, we’re much less different, I think, than most of us think we are. One of the things that I was so struck by in doing the research for the book is that the experts who’ve looked at this from a lot of different angles, a lot of different fields, seem to feel that the biggest difference is in our reproductive systems, men have more upper-body strength, they tend to be taller than women. But basically, in all the other ways, we are much more similar to each other than we are opposite. And I think one of the things that I’ve tried to do in my work is to find some ways of looking at this question of the two different genders in ways that are a little bit less inflammatory than what we had before.
HEFFNER: What do you mean, “inflammatory?”
MANN: Well, instead of putting one against the other, and saying that one is better than the other, I’ve tried to see ways in which we are similar, I’ve tried to look at the ways in which we were culturally acclimated to behave in one way or another, and I’ve tried to see ways where there can be some common grounds, where men and women can begin a much better kind of dialogue with each other as to what we want out of our marriages, what we want out of our homes and our communities and our lives.
HEFFNER: Well, I was going to say to you, “Why”; and then you say, “So that we can have better lives together, the two sexes.
HEFFNER: Does this mean that the concept of difference has been a divisive factor in our long history?
MANN: Well, I think what’s happened most recently in terms of the modern Women’s Movement is that the enemies of women’s liberation took the idea of women wanting to be equal to men and transformed it into we wanted to be the same as men. And I think that has twisted the whole conversation. Women don’t want to be the same as men; we want to have the same opportunities, we want to have the same kind of political clout, I think, that men have, we want to be able to earn the same kinds of salaries. But we don’t want to look like men, we don’t want to dress like men, we don’t want to reproduce like men. And I think this is where the conversation sort of went haywire with this big lie. We want to be equal, and that’s different from the same.
HEFFNER: You say, “The big lie.” I come back to it again. That’s a rather pejorative statement. It presumes there was some purposefulness in our assumptions about the differences between men and women.
MANN: I think that there was some very intentional activity that went on in terms of trying to define the Women’s Movement in a way that was going to be damaging to it. I think that this thrust came from the political establishment, in this country certainly, which was completely run by men, and I think it also came from the religious establishments, which are certainly still all run by men. And they are protecting, you know, a very rigid system that’s gone on for a couple of thousand years now at least, in which men dominate every single institution, and women play second fiddle.
HEFFNER: You say “religious institutions.” And I know from reading The Difference that you feel very strongly about that.
MANN: I do. I think this is one of the areas where the Women’s Movement has not paid enough attention. And I didn’t realize until I got into this how very important religions are to societies. They really are the soul of every culture. And if you have a religion that says that authority derives only from men, you automatically, every woman, has less authority than every man. And that’s what we have here.
HEFFNER: What inroads do you think can be made? What inroads have been made?
MANN: I think there’s been some wonderful scholarship that’s been done by female theology professors at places like Harvard and Princeton who have looked back into some of the early texts of Christianity and sort of picked them apart to see what really was the role of women. And they have found, for example, that Mary Magdalene played a very, very important role in the discipleship of the historical Jesus. She was arguably his most favorite disciple. Well, once you say that and once you believe that, then this whole business of only the men were disciples and therefore only men can be priests, that falls on its face.
HEFFNER: But if you use an historical argument — and that’s what we’re doing — aren’t you likely to come a’cropper with that too, that you’re likely to find only just so much support if you use a historical argument?
MANN: I agree with you. And I think that historical argument has to be blended with arguments that are based in morality and ethics and the reality of what we need. I think most cultures sort of figure out what they need to do to survive, and then they martial the arguments and behaviors that are going to enable them to survive. In this particular case, we live in a democracy. We believe everybody should have equal opportunity and equal rights. This should mean that women should have equal opportunity and equal rights within our religious institutions as well as our political and economic and educational institutions. And this is, I think we can ground this argument very well in that. But if we can also martial an historical argument that Mary Magdalene was the historical Jesus’s favorite disciple, then we give it a base that is very hard to argue with.
HEFFNER: Well, I wouldn’t argue with you on that. And by that I mean I wouldn’t argue about the historical base. But it seems to me that it’s like the concept of viability: that somehow or other you can get caught and be hung up to dry with that notion. But we’ll come back to that.
Let me come back to this business again about your title: The Difference. You say scholars essentially agree that the difference is one of reproductive organs, techniques, etcetera. Why have we seemingly always assumed, or why do so many people assume in our time, that there are many, many, many other inevitable differences?
MANN: What seems to happen is that we have an idea, and it is clearly really hardwired into our minds now, about what is the proper role of men and what is the proper role of women and what they should be. So that the minute a parent finds out that the child they’re going to bear is either a girl or a boy, they begin to fix these expectations and these behaviors on this particular infant. You see it with a parent will walk into a room, for example, carrying a baby. And if it’s a little boy, he’s likely to be pointed outwards. And that’s sort of a metaphor for a live of adventure. If it’s a little girl, they’re likely to be holding it like this, sort of faced inward and cuddling; the life of caretaking and dependency. And these signals are reinforced thousands of times for the first few years of a child’s life, and then, by the time a child is six years old, he or she is really fixed in her behavior. And we, you know, we program boys and girls and men and women in very, very different ways. And then we say, at the end, “See how different they are. It’s got to be biology.” In fact, it’s a mixture of biology and a huge amount of environmental input.
HEFFNER: And the purpose of that environmental input is what? Let’s set aside for a moment the matter of control. There must be some social, cultural purposes served.
MANN: Well, if you have women in nurturing and caretaking positions, you are taking advantage of some of the strength that women bring to the mix. And I think what we have to do is begin to understand the complimentary qualities that each of us bring to this mix. I don’t in any way denigrate the caretaking and nurturing functions that women bring to it. They’re necessary. They’re vital to the survival of the species and the group. But I think… I have problems, and I think a lot of feminists have problems, although they may not phrase it quite this way, is we use the term “caretaker” and conceive of women as caretakers, and that’s a very, kind of dependent thing. I would rather think in terms of women as providers. We can nurture; but we also, particularly now in modern times, are providing for our families in very significant ways: financially, through food, through shelter, and all the things that we provide for our children.
HEFFNER: It sounds to me as though you need to go on further if you’re going to somehow or other say — and what’s this example you use of bringing an infant into the room — a girl child is held close and cuddled; a boy child is held out. Sort of, here is a leader, here is one who will move forward. Would you be unsympathetic to the notion that this is a very positive combination of socializations that leads to a better society, that they lead to a better society?
MANN: I’m sympathetic to the notion of trying to develop these qualities in both people. I see men…
HEFFNER: The leadership and the nurturing?
MANN: That’s right. That’s right. And I think the leadership of women is going to be one of the things that people are going to be looking at very, very carefully now and in the future. Because some of the strengths that women bring to leadership are really quite, quite critical. Integrated thinking is one of the things that seems to be developed in women more so than it is in a lot of men. And in the kind of complicated world that we have now, where information is flowing in sort of circuits rather than up and down, that kind of integrated thinking is very, very useful. But in terms of the, for example, the way we are within our families, I think it’s very important to develop sons who know how to raise children, and I think it’s important to develop daughters who know how to take leadership roles within a corporation. Because both of them are going to be working.
HEFFNER: But if you take that phrase, “integrative thinking,” where does it come from? Is that part of the difference that you write about that supposedly was limited to sexual matters, if not limited absolutely, by-and-large limited?
MANN: I think that is more something that is developed environmentally rather than something that’s biologically developed. Little girls very, very early on are raised to think and to be sensitive to things right around them in their environment, to the other little girls that they play with, to be very sensitive to what their parents want, particularly what their mother wants, what their early teachers want. So they are sort of programmed to think in terms of what they do and the impact it’s going to have on the little circle of people around them. Little boys are not developed and programmed to think that way. They think in terms of a much more hierarchical, “I’m up/down” kind of thing. So they’re not so sensitive to the impact of their actions on other people. And that’s what I mean by integrated thinking. Little girls automatically begin thinking about this. And that makes them much more capable later on of thinking about the impact of their actions on a whole variety of things that might be around them.
HEFFNER: You have two sons and a daughter. And you note that it was Katherine who, in a sense, stimulated you to do the research and write the book. And the … the new title, or subtitle for your book is very interesting, because you move from the earlier title that you’re emphasizing, “The Difference,” to “The Difference: Discovering the Hidden Ways We Silence Girls: Finding Alternatives that Can Give Them a Vote.” When you write that we silence girls, are you referring here to our political system? To our religious system? What? Speak out.
MANN: Every single system that we have in place now does in one way or another either silence girls or make them feel like they ‘re second best. We certainly see what happens in the classrooms. Little boys take over the classrooms, they shout out, and little girls are left there, you know, with their hands raised to answer a question. And sometimes they get called on, and sometimes they don’t get called on. And this happens all the way through the public-school system. And then they get into college, and they talk even less. We know, for example, that once girls are interrupted in a classroom discussion, they won’t jump back in and grab the discussion back. So that the silencing goes on for, depending on how much school time a girl has, twelve years, or another four years. So that, by the time they get into the workplace, they’re not nearly as equipped to lead a meeting or to express their thoughts in a meeting about what a company should do or an institution should do. One of the things that I did in the course of researching this book that I did quite accidentally, but it turned out to be very, very important: I interviewed Katherine and two of her best friends, Jenny and Julia, over a two-year period, and tape-recorded what they had to say about a whole variety of things. And this business of interviewing them and talking to them… You know, when you’re interviewing somebody you’re listening very, very closely, and you’re making that person feel that what she has to say is terribly important. I gave that feeling to Katherine. And, as I say, it was quite, you know, I just happened upon this. I didn’t intend to do it. And as a result, she has this sense that what she has to say is valuable, it’s important, it’s worthwhile, and I’m paying attention. And she’s carried that with her out into the world now.
HEFFNER: When Nan Keohane, who was then still president of Wellesley College (she’s now president of Duke University), when Nan was here, she spoke about the importance of a young woman having some single-sex education along the way. And you obviously feel that way very strongly.
MANN: The single-sex girls’ schools are the one place where girls are getting the very best education that they can possibly get. They are at the center of every single decision. They don’t have to share the limelight with boys. The school is developed in order to produce the strongest, best leaders, and bring the most out of the girls. And I think there’s an awful lot that the public school systems can learn from these girls’ schools.
HEFFNER: Now, Judy, tell me, is this because your emphasis upon the importance of this shift, this change, is this because you feel that a little more than half our population is, in a sense, disfranchised [sic], or is it because you feel that a more important half of our population does not have the opportunity to make its voice heard? Do you feel that in important areas, war and peace, good and bad, that women have more to contribute? And, if you say yes, then I’m going to say to you, “But I thought there weren’t such differences.”
MANN: I came out of the Civil Rights Movement, so the whole business of fairness and equal opportunity is something that’s a bedrock value for me. So when I, my first answer is going to be: Half of the population is not getting the same opportunity. I just finished reading a book called The Cost of Being Female, and they put it at 30 cents on every dollar. I mean, the wage gap is the most easily measured thing that we’re seeing. But I also think, on top of that, that when we don’t have women in the positions where they can maximize their contribution, we’re really losing a lot. We’ve seen, for example, we women getting into universities and teaching and being able to do world-class research in anthropology and archaeology and religion, for example, they’re dredging up an awful lot of very new, very interesting material that would’ve been buried without that feminist scholarship.
HEFFNER: Yes, but the question I ask is whether this is because, having been freed, having been liberated, having been given equal opportunity, is this because they bring something unique, something different? Or is it a function of the mathematics of the business? We’re taking more than half our population and putting it to free and productive work.
MANN: I think that the way women have been socialized enables them to bring a different way of thinking to the mix. I’m not saying it’s necessarily better or worse, but it is a different kind of thinking. Women…
HEFFNER: But you don’t like the way they’ve been socialized.
MANN: I would prefer they be socialized in a slightly different way, without so much emphasis on the caretaking and the dependency, and a great deal more emphasis on the leadership. But women do treasure connectedness. And I think that… With other people, with ideas. But mostly with other people. And I think that kind of connectedness is the kind of glue that can keep our communities together in ways that we’re not taking advantage of it now. I would also like to see men be socialized to treasure that connectedness and to think more in terms of how their actions impact on other people.
HEFFNER: Okay. Let’s take the word “connectedness.” Is this something that you find to be a function of the socialization, or a function of vive la difference, there is something that is peculiarly connected about women and their genes?
MANN: It may have something to do with brain circuitry. We don’t know. There’s an awful lot about this area of, say, sensitivity, which is at the root of this, that they simply don’t know where it’s coming from. There seems to be a good bit of debate about that. There aren’t any answers. We do know that the brain is a very, very malleable organ. And that the more certain parts of it are used, the better developed they are. And if you don’t use certain parts, they get sloughed off. And this happens within the first three years of life, and it seems to continue to happen throughout our lives. But this is an area that’s being explored, and we don’t have the answer to that.
HEFFNER: A question that came up in the Twenties when we felt that women were going really to enter our political lives, given the vote, etcetera: Do you think that women have made a difference politically, or would make a difference politically? There’s always that thought about, well, women, God bless them, will bring world peace.
MANN: The first wave of women who assumed really important leadership roles behaved like men. Golda Meir, Indira Gandhi. But that’s always the case …
HEFFNER: Smarter than men. Come on.
HEFFNER: And I’m not saying that to be cute. I think that connectedness that you talked about provided a means of, being of … acts being smarter. But go ahead.
MANN: But that first wave of women into any institution, in order to even get in there they had to be the kind of people that men felt comfortable with, that they could share power with. Therefore they’re going to be the kind of people who think and operate, to some extent, the way men do. And we saw that with them. But now we have second waves of women coming along. In Scandinavian countries they have a fair amount of power now in the legislatures. They’re beginning to gain a lot of power in the state legislatures in our country, and to a lesser extent in Congress. But they get involved in subjects on areas of legislation that do impact women and children and their families in a way that men are less likely to. The legislation, for example, to try to prevent these drive-through mastectomies. All of this stuff is coming from women legislators that are being very responsive to a need of their female constituents. A lot of the childcare efforts that have been pushed in different places have come from the efforts of women legislators. So they bring a different area of interest.
HEFFNER: Well, you know, when I was reading the new The Difference, the paperback edition… Where was it, what is the phrase that you use? Oh, one of the chapters: “Is There a Doll in Her Brain?” And then another chapter: “Is There a Truck in His Brain?” Are you saying, in conclusion — although I’m going to ask you to come back to this table, because there’s so much more to talk about here — not, “Are you saying…” Tell me, do you think that maybe… To what degree do you think that there is a doll or a truck?
MANN: The research that I found most interesting on that was done by Sherry Berenbaum out in Chicago. And she took a group of girls who had an enzyme deficiency and they were born with masculinized genitalia. These girls went for the trucks. So there is clearly some hormonal influence there that does tend to guide little boys towards trucks and little girls towards dolls.
HEFFNER: But, of course, we’re not just talking about trucks and dolls; we’re talking about a whole lifetime of choices and experiences.
MANN: That’s right. And I think that one of the things that we need to understand is that thousands and thousands of years ago, men were out, they were riding horses, they were, you know, foraging for food quite far apart from the campsite, whereas women with children had to stay closer to the camp. And we developed different ways of gathering food. That seems to be fairly clear. And I think that may have had something to do with our sense of spacial orientation and our sense of energy.
HEFFNER: Well, as an aggressive male I’m going to ask you to stay where you are so we can do another program. I hope you’ll agree.
MANN: I’d love to.
HEFFNER: Good. Judy Mann, thank you for joining me today on The Open Mind.
MANN: Thank you.
HEFFNER: And thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll also join us again next time. Meanwhile, if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4 in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150.
Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck.”
N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.