Sexism by Any Other Name…


What irony that I learned of Lawrence Summers’ First Amendment faux pas while surfing the net during a lull in my winter term course, Equality. There’s nothing like a healthy dose of sex essentialism from the leading voice of your own university to make you sorry you didn’t read that Catherine MacKinnon article you were assigned last night.

Though my first reaction to the New York Times piece outlining Summers’, um, “research suggestions,” involved language likely to fail the most forgiving “I know it when I see it” test, my second, more measured reaction was to cringe at the thought that soon well-meaning but misguided feminists would be calling for his resignation. After all, though I couldn’t disagree more with what Summers said, didn’t he have a right to say it? Wasn’t it unfair, nay unwise, to ask a brilliant academic with first-rate credentials, not to mention fundraising power, to resign merely because he suggested the possibility that women might be less scientifically apt than men?

In yet another ironic twist, it took my libertarian boyfriend (whose most passionate avowals of sex equality usually involve ingenious arguments for why it is unfair to exclude men from the all-women Curve athletic clubs) to point out that this was not a free speech issue. If Summers had stood on that stage and announced that perhaps one reason there were fewer black than white CEOs was that black people were lazier than white people – if he had even merely suggested that the topic should be researched – my name would have been at the top of the list of those calling for his immediate resignation. No Plessy-esque, “I’m sorry you took it that way,” apology would have sufficed. So why was I, a self-proclaimed feminist since before I knew what feminism was (and perhaps more impressively, after I knew what it was), suddenly so receptive to the free speech argument?

The reason, I think, is the continuing discomfort that our culture has with identifying and condemning sexism. As MacKinnon pointed out in that article that I finally got around to reading, the sex equality debate has been one in which the concept of difference has been allowed to precede the concept of dominance in such a way as to frame the very debate about what is and is not sexism. In other words, it is sexism to treat men and women differently where they are the same, but is perfectly ok to treat them differently where they are different.

What this reasoning ignores, aside from the role that dominance plays in shaping difference, is that the standard for measuring deviance is a male standard. Women and men do not reach the goal of scientific success at the same rates not because of some mysterious (and as yet unproven) difference in brain functioning, but for a much simpler and more rational reason – because they have different starting points and, in many cases, different ending points. After all, when the people determining the very meaning of scientific success are chiefly men, is it really shocking that they choose career patterns and choices that are traditionally male as their measuring stick? It doesn’t take animus to exclude women; it just takes a myopic vision of what science is and what it can be.

By standing on that podium with the whole of Harvard unwittingly, and in many cases unwillingly, hitched to his star, and giving credence to the most unscientific of explanations for a pervasive, ongoing, and implicitly accepted institutional sexism, Summers showed he suffers from this myopia. Using the Harvard name to offhandedly justify a very real form of the continuing subordination of women in academia with what amounts to a “perhaps they’re just dumber” defense is not a free speech issue but a severe, and perhaps irreparable, dereliction of his duty to stand for all of Harvard’s students.

Thus, I announce my third reaction to the Summers debacle. I believe Summers should immediately resign for the damage he has done to the cause of women’s equality in academia and, more generally, to the reputation of Harvard as a place where discrimination will not be tolerated. Hopefully he will take from this the same lesson that I have: it’s time to start paying attention to Equality.

Tammy Pettinato is a 3L with anger management issues.