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July Gild Book Club Review: Delusions of Gender

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We introduced the Gild Book Club at the beginning of the month along with our first selection: Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine.  I am excited to be coming back together at the end of what feels like the shortest month on record to dive into our takeaways! For those that didn't read the book, never fear. This isn't a place to come for spoilers, only our thoughts and some probing questions. There is NO shame for not finishing the book in time in this book club!

Our Book Club recap posts will always take the same format, and will include: a short summary, our thoughts and key takeaways, and some questions for you (that can be used whether you have read the book in full or whether you are just starting it.) 

Summary:

Delusions of Gender is broken up into three parts: "'Half-Changed World,' Half-Changed Minds," "Neurosexism," and "Recycling Gender." 

In "'Half-Changed World', Half-Changed Minds," Fine does not mince words or hold back sarcastic humor as she takes on the notion that men and women are hard-wired from utero to think differently, feel differently, and innately want different things. She uses the same tone to pick apart books with familiar titles such as Men Are From Mars, Women are From Venus as she does neuroscientists that, in Fine's view, want to be seen as brave heroes that are willing to risk being called sexist in order to "prove" scientific brain differences between the sexes. Perhaps the most compelling chapter to come from this section of the book is Chapter 8: "Gender Equality 2.0?" Fine defines Gender Equality 2.0 as a "revised version of equality in which men and women are not equal, but equally free to express their essentially different natures." Fine, of course, does not accept this "truth," and spends the chapter debunking this idea again and again. Furthermore, she provides example after example of how societally constructed these "essentially different natures" actually are, making the reader question (as is her highest intent) whether there are any differences at all. 

In "Recycling Gender," Fine focuses on the role of the highly-gendered society in which children develop. She introduces us via sociological studies to parents who "tried gender neutral parenting that just didn't work." Many of the parents cited in these studies that there are simply innate biological differences between their male and female children. Fine, of course, is eloquent in her evidence that these parents did not practice gender-neutral parenting, but only believed that they did. This section peels apart the layers of how intensely difficult it is for people, especially children, to stray from their "gender codes," which are so intertwined with our society that they are, in essence, impossible to untangle from our daily lives. 

Our Thoughts:

When we introduced the idea of Gild Book Club, we described books as a means to 'educate, entertain, and make us think more deeply on the topics we care about." While I think that most of the concepts and arguments from Delusions of Gender are essential truths, I think that this one may have fallen too much into the "educate" category for me to get truly engrossed. You will notice that I did not include the "Neuroscience" section in my summary above. Now, for the confession portion of this blog post: I could not really get into it, and skimmed a LOT of it, so that I could skip ahead to the parts I was more interested in. For many of you, "Neuroscience" will be the most titillating section of the book, but for me, just a little too academic. 

As a new parent, I could NOT wait to get into the third section of the book, "Recycling Gender." Before having a baby, I chose not to find out the sex. Yes, I wanted a surprise, but my main reason for foregoing that portion of the ultrasound was because I did not want the sex of my baby to dictate how I (or others) would imagine their personality to be. As someone with a passion for gender and all of the ways it impacts our society, I may be more sensitive to this than most. But I simply wanted to put off thinking of my baby as a "girl" or a "boy" as long as I possibly could. Once the baby came, I knew that there were pieces of gender that are so engrained in my head that I would never even attempt "gender neutral parenting." For those short months before she arrived, Louise was not a "boy" or a "girl"– she was just a baby. A baby without a gender does not have strong socially constructed gender norms to align to, and a baby without a gender does not fall into any categories. If I felt it was truly possible, I would keep Louise in a genderless world forever so that she does not have to surmount the barriers that women face in their careers. But I don't. 

What I appreciate most about this book is Fine's respect for the incredibly hard work that children have cut out for them from birth. First, they must figure out the gender codes for "boy" and "girl," categories that society is (literally) banking on them to fall into from utero. Then, once children crack these codes, they must quickly fall in line to enforce them, for fear of being ostracized or seen as different from "normal."

My favorite chapter of the entire book is Chapter 19: "Gender Detectives." The experiment that Fine challenges her readers to undertake in the first chapter of this book is powerful, especially for any new moms. She asks her readers to visit ten children's clothing stores and ask a salesperson at each for assistance in picking out an outfit for a "newborn." She then asks us to count how many times we are asked, "Is it a boy or a girl?" As someone who recently had a baby, I did not feel the need to undertake this experiment. I knew the validity in my core, because I had never answered the same question as many times in a short period as I did that one throughout my pregnancy. Many (very well-loved, and well-meaning) people in our lives chose not to purchase any clothing for the baby without knowing the gender. To many people, that feels too risky. 

It is probably clear by now that I personally consider the strict rules for dressing babies according to their gender unnecessary. At 8 months old, I sometimes buy Louise clothes from the "Boys" section, but if I am being honest, I generally don't because for whatever reason, society has dictated that boy clothes be covered with trucks and sports, two things I could not be less interested in. This viewpoint highly aligned with the content in the last section of this book, but even if yours does not, I would challenge you to read it. Even if you skip the entire first and second sections, read this (shortest) one.

It is my belief that even the most ingrained societal norms should be questioned from time to time if we ever want to see true change take place. What more important norms could there be than those constructed for children? Who has more potential to change the world? 

Questions to Consider:

As promised, we will leave you, dear reader, with a few questions to consider. Reading the book is NOT a requirement for thinking on these questions, as these are not questions about this text itself, but rather, the questions that this text left lingering for me after I finished. If you are so inclined, leave a comment to tell us your answers or thoughts! 

  • As recently as the early 1900s, scientists cited differences (see also: flaws) in the female brain that made them less qualified to vote than men. Even knowing this (and many other) times throughout history that science has been proven wrong, was it or is it hard for you to question "scientific truths" about gender? Why or why not?
  • Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, an academic that Fine repeatedly debunks, wrote: "The female brain is predominantly hard-wired for empathy. The male brain is predominantly hard-wired for understanding and building systems." What examples from your life can you identify that "proves" this statement wrong? Who do you know that does not fall within these "norms"?
  • What memories do you have, if any, of yourself or your children's gender being enforced by external factors? For this question, think of "external" as something outside of your own home or family unit. 

Thanks for reading with us (or reading about our reading), everyone!