Do women and men have different brains?After two centuries of arguing that men's and women's brains are really not so different, feminists like Burkett are very suspicious of this "I was born with a female brain" stuff. Burkett believes that our brains are shaped much less by some inborn gendered paradigm and much more by experience, and she is very reluctant to award the label of "woman" to someone who has lived a life of male privilege.
Back when Lawrence H. Summers was president of Harvard and suggested that they did, the reaction was swift and merciless. Pundits branded him sexist. Faculty members deemed him a troglodyte. Alumni withheld donations.
But when Bruce Jenner said much the same thing in an April interview with Diane Sawyer, he was lionized for his bravery, even for his progressivism.
“My brain is much more female than it is male,” he told her, explaining how he knew that he was transgender.
This was the prelude to a new photo spread and interview in Vanity Fair that offered us a glimpse into Caitlyn Jenner’s idea of a woman: a cleavage-boosting corset, sultry poses, thick mascara and the prospect of regular “girls’ nights” of banter about hair and makeup. Ms. Jenner was greeted with even more thunderous applause. ESPN announced it would give Ms. Jenner an award for courage. President Obama also praised her. Not to be outdone, Chelsea Manning hopped on Ms. Jenner’s gender train on Twitter, gushing, “I am so much more aware of my emotions; much more sensitive emotionally (and physically).”
A part of me winced.
I have fought for many of my 68 years against efforts to put women — our brains, our hearts, our bodies, even our moods — into tidy boxes, to reduce us to hoary stereotypes. Suddenly, I find that many of the people I think of as being on my side — people who proudly call themselves progressive and fervently support the human need for self-determination — are buying into the notion that minor differences in male and female brains lead to major forks in the road and that some sort of gendered destiny is encoded in us.
That’s the kind of nonsense that was used to repress women for centuries. But the desire to support people like Ms. Jenner and their journey toward their truest selves has strangely and unwittingly brought it back.
My sister, a professor at a women's college, has also expressed concern about the way transgender issues are muddying the feminist program, turning attention back to who has what body parts and away from the insistence that your gender is not your destiny.
Scanning the anthropological literature, you can see that many societies have recognized people who do not identify with the bodies they were born in. In some places (certain Siberian and American Indian tribes) people of mixed-up gender are according a special spiritual status. So there is nothing new about the idea of trans identities. But the current explosion of interest makes me nervous. We live in a world where anything can become a fad, including things that seem psychologically fundamental. Consider "recovered memories" of child sexual abuse, or multiple personality disorder. Those things may exist, just as people with transgender identities may exist, but for a brief period they both raced through the population, claiming thousands of victims. Right now to be transgender is in some circles the coolest thing, and who knows how many people will embrace it at least partly for that reason, and then come to regret it? I do not subscribe to a binary male/female notion of the brain, any more than I subscribe to a binary gay/straight notion of the brain. So far as I can see, all psychological traits exist on a continuum. I make no claim to know the shape of the curve, but it strikes me as perfectly possible that people in the middle far outnumber those who truly could never be happy with the bodies they were born in. Does anyone know what would be the right advice to give such people? I doubt it. Shouldn't this make us careful?
I am not interested in telling Caitlyn Jenner or anyone else how to live, but I refuse to get heavily invested in this debate, because I think we are already paying quite enough attention to it.