Feminism and genetics

5 May

Seventies feminists, and progressives in general, were pretty clueless on genetics. They had to be, to attack male supremacism with the necessary force. In any case the pendulum was still arcing outwards from the horrors of a philistine geneticism painfully recent (Nazis) or still with us (South Africa). Nature  was out, nurture in.

Those feminists then had babies: agonised debate on whether this was a sell-out settled often as not by raging hormones. They gave their boys dolls, their girls meccano sets. The rest is history; a discovery that human nature is not entirely a social construct. This did not roll back the victories of feminism – we have not returned to the horrors of the fifties – but did  create space for a more mature inquiry into sex and gender. The blunt call, again a necessary phase, to enchained womanhood to challenge men on every front – ‘anything they do, we do better’ – gave way to a subtler message. Demands for level playing fields have not been dropped (or fully achieved) but are now augmented by assertions of ‘feminine’ strengths; for instance the claim that the mothering role has boardroom currency in an ego driven, reckless corporate world.

Such claims are themselves prone to overstatement. To assert, as some did, that with more women at the top of the banking world the 2008 crash could have been averted is as gross a misreading of capitalism as Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics was of genetics. The broader point stands though. Few feminists now say women must compete in every area of human activity. Rather, the emphasis is on (a) remaining areas of blatant injustice, from male violence to indirect as well as direct job discrimination and (b) securing recognition for historically downplayed ‘feminine’ strengths and virtues.

Consciously or not the many women and a few men who contributed to this enlightened shift had their task made easier by the promotion of greater genetic understanding by such progressive scientists as Richard Dawkins.

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