Other Voices: How Social Scientists See Women’s Lib

Radical battlers for women's rights have always roused strong reactions in scientists and social critics. Among the eminent minds of the past, John Stuart Mill considered feminists the vanguard of humanity while Horace Walpole dubbed them "hyenas in petticoats." Now that female emancipation is half-realized, contemporary thinkers polarize more benignly. At one extreme are sympathetic critics who bless many of the aims and ideas of the women's liberation movement but not all its tactics. At the other are amused or exasperated foes who contend that the ladies just don't know what they are talking about.

In the friendlier group are several prominent social scientists, including anthropologist Margaret Mead and sociologist David Riesman. Miss Mead believes that many traits we call masculine and feminine are merely inherited stereotypes. Like spokesmen for women's lib, she proposes that men share child-rearing and domestic chores and that women be encouraged to learn aggressive, masculine pursuits. Riesman thinks that the movement will become very important during the '70s. "The situation of women has improved in all sectors," he says, "and improvement, as always, leads to heightened expectations." And Mirra Komarovsky, the woman sociologist who edited "Blu Collar Marriage," sees some of the changes women's lib seeks as not only desirable but inevitable. "As the number of working married women keeps rising," she points out, "families will be smaller and many women will have their second and last child by 30. With a life expectancy of 74, they'll have a lot before them. We'll have to redefine the sexes' roles, giving them more symmetry."

Neurotic? Dr. Judd Marmor, an eminent Los Angeles psychiatrist, also believes the movement will catch on and warns against dismissing the protesters as neurotic. "Women throughout history have become sensitized to the inequities of a male-oriented society," he says. "Many have been sisters in a family where the brother got the better of it--the brother got to go to college, though the girl was brighter. Is she neurotic or justifiably angry?"

Where many social scientists part company with the women's lib theoreticians is on the question of whether or not there are innate male and female qualities. Morton Hunt, perhaps the most knowledgeable lay writer on sex roles, believes the movement has not done its homework. "The karate experts would like us to believe that physical differences between the sexes are merely a matter of different life styles," he says. "But there has never been a culture of women that was as tall or strong as men. Either these women haven't read their biology or they discredit it because it doesn't fit their arguments."

Similarly, many scientists dismiss the liberationists' call for the abolition of sex-role distinctions as naïve and ignorant. The University of Wisconsin's Dr. Harry Harlow, famous for his experiments with primates in mother-child bonds and male-female differences, denies that girls play with dolls only because their parents encourage them to. "I have no argument with women who would change discriminatory laws or want careers," Harlow says. "But there are basic, biological male-female differences. Males are aggressive, females are passive--though females are tougher."

Eleanor Maccoby, a specialist in child development at Stanford University, echoes the same theme. Like many experts in psychology and anthropology today, she believes that males and females have innate physical temperamental differences, with some overlapping rather than strict, all-or-nothing distribution between the sexes. Mrs. Maccoby stresses that in all cultures known to scientists, baby boys are more restless, active and prone to tantrums than baby girls. Mothers, she adds, may have a stronger attachment to their children than men do--a difference that is biological, not conditioned. "The women's liberation movement asks, 'Can't men respond the same way to babies'?" she notes. "The fact is, we don't know."

Feminist attack son marriage, mothering and traditional maternalism also draw string professional criticism. "Extreme feminists shouldn't undertake to become mothers," says Dr. Abram Kardiner, former head of the department of psychiatry at Columbia University. "You can't pay anyone to love your child. The monogamous family is the perfect environment for child development, for the incubation of feelings. I think you're dealing with dynamite when you toy with it." Kardiner believes the extremists are irrationally motivated. "From what I've seen of the liberationists, their most conspicuous feature is self-hatred," he says. "I see tremendous vituperativeness and lack of feeling. They think it's a curse to be female and have exaggerated opinions about the merits of being a male."

Alternatives: The fact that a woman has won a high position in a "male" profession does not necessarily mean that she shares a liberationist perspective. Dr. Mary Calderone, a physician distinguished for her work in sex education, flatly states: "I think the American woman is liberated enough, and I'd rather spend my energies doing what I'm doing than worrying about the women's liberation movement. It creates resistance to problems that were on the way to being solved, because the women in it are militant, unpleasant and unfeminine."

The scientists who chide women's lib and minimize its social importance are not far from being "sexist"--at least, in the women's lib sense of the term. They are for equal opportunity, freedom and pay for both sexes, but they refuse to concede that the female lot is so desperate as to require revolutionary redress. "The extremists set up a pair of false alternatives between learning to be sweet or aggressive," says Miss Komarovsky. "We need women who are more courageous and more warm, more giving and more secure." And Morton Hunt concludes: "Most middle class men don't think of women as stupid, lowly or dumb. The women's lib extremists make such an issue of hatred for men, marriage and mothering that they don't offer women liberation at all--just a way of cutting off many things that are gratifying to many women. Women have multiple desires, and a complex answer is better than a simple answer."