Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

All hail women!

An article in a recent TIME magazine (“The last Politicians”, by Jay Newton-Small; TIME, October 28, 2013, pp46-50) has brought home to me, once again, how different women are from men, and what a pity it is that they, our human “sisters”, have not remained in the social leadership positions that, according to several accounts, they occupied in hunter-gatherer communities antedating the advent of agricultural societies, about 10 000 years ago.

I recall a 1986 book (Beyond Power, Abacus, London) by American feminist Marilyn French in which she argued that it was high time to move “beyond power”, that is, power in the sense of tackling each and every problem and task at hand with some kind of coercive force, as if this were always the only way to do it — if not by physical force, then its industrial technological extension.

It was time to turn to other “models” for social action, she argued, such as mutually enjoyable sex, because in the latter there is no hierarchy, no subjugation, but a free exchange of what each partner can contribute to optimal pleasure. This is very different from “patriarchal sex”, of course, where men gain pleasure from various modes of subordinating women, and — even worse — many women are “trained” (subjectivised) to enjoy sex only to the degree that they are submissive.

Imagine a society structured along the lines proposed by French — no hierarchical ordering along social, gender or racial lines, but a society structured in terms of mutuality or reciprocity, with each giving according to her or his ability and receiving from others what they, in turn, can contribute. I know, I know — it’s a pipe-dream. Or is it? Could we not work towards it incrementally? This seems to be what female American lawmakers are in the process of doing, and it resonates with French’s remark (p546), that women are increasingly being appointed as managers because of their flair for cooperative (instead of hierarchically imposed) “solutions”, in this way promoting a (characteristically feminine) facility for coordinating business tasks.

The TIME article in question may therefore seem less surprising to anyone familiar with the contrasting dynamic between the members of an all-women’s group, on the one hand, and those of an all-male group (think all-male clubs), on the other. It appears that the (by now notorious) recent logjam in American politics, which led to a temporary shut-down of the federal government and brought the United States perilously close to defaulting on its loan-obligations (with all the global economic fallout that it would have precipitated), was broken or loosened up as a result of the efforts of about 20 bipartisan women in the US Senate.

In a nutshell, while the men in this august body, who had recalcitrantly dug in their heels and were bickering with no end in sight for the uncompromising stand-off, the women senators had been conferring and negotiating — horse-trading, in Americanese — behind the scenes: at evening meetings, lunches and informal dinners. The reason? If they had to wait for the men to get over themselves and their precious “party principles” (read: male pugnacity), the unpaid, forced leave of large numbers of federal government employees would have continued indefinitely, and the US may have had to face the dire consequences of defaulting, because male Capitol Hill politicians could not, or would not, give a little here, take a little there, and come to a compromise in the process.

In effect the women senators have taught the men a lesson, which the latter have not publicly acknowledged, of course — that would be an unconscionable infra dig for them (instead, they hijacked the initiative taken by the women). But Newton-Small’s reconstruction of the events — behind the scenes as well as in public — leaves one in no doubt that all credit should go to the women, who bargained out of the public eye, and once they had reached a compromise between Republicans and Democrats of the fairer (and evidently wiser) sex, brought the matter to the Senate, from where it developed further, until an agreement was eventually reached, to the relief of America and the entire world — because, if Uncle Sam sneezes, the world catches a cold.

Leaving aside the question, whether America deserves such concentrated world attention, when their politicians — or at least, their male politicians — keep acting like spoilt brats, instead of responsible national legislators and leaders, something else seems to demand attention here. Why were women capable of engineering what seemed to many nothing short of a miracle, where the men had repeatedly failed?

The answer has to do with the developmental history of the human species. And what better guide in this field than Leonard Shlain, that inimitable neurologist turned philosopher, who has given us an eminently readable account of the evolutionary basis of fundamental cerebral differences between men and women in his monumental book, The Alphabet Versus the Goddess (Penguin Arkana 1998), and on whose work I have written before in this forum, see “Images, language, women and patriarchy” and “Blood, iron, sex and time”.

While all “functionally normal” humans of both sexes are able, contrary to stereotyping prejudices, to perform analytical, logical, conceptually abstract tasks, on the one hand, as well as holistic, synthetic, concrete, iconically oriented tasks, on the other, because of being endowed with similar cerebral-cortical capacities, nature has nevertheless also equipped them with remarkably divergent capacities in this domain.

For example, Shlain points to the distinctive tasks that women have had to perform over millions of years, dating back to hominid hunter-gatherer communities, which have furnished them with correlatively distinctive neurological predispositions. The latter are of great benefit to them in certain areas of human cultural practice, such as nurturing and caring, but also art and architecture, as well as coordinating human activities (recall French’s observation, that women display a superior capacity to think and act holistically).

This is not surprising, if one considers that in women, the corpus callosum — a connecting “bridge” of neuronal fibres between the right and the left lobes of the human brain — contains in excess of 30% more connecting neurons than in men, so that there is a greater integration between these two hemispheres (p23). (Again — this does not mean that men cannot do the kind of neural integration that comes more readily for women.)

Keeping in mind what neurologists call “lateralisation” (specialisation of each of the brain’s hemispheres) in humans, this means that right-brain functions — such as holistic, particularistic, image-based thinking, synthesis and affectivity (including empathy as the affective capacity to identify oneself in terms of feeling with someone or something else) — are more readily integrated with left-brain functions such as abstraction, analysis, universalisation, conceptualisation and numeracy by women than by men.

Needless to say, this has important implications for women’s “natural” aptitude (which is always filtered through cultural practices) to perform both cognitive, holistically integrative, as well as affect-based, socially integrative tasks, together with the more analytical tasks (breaking down iconic syntheses into smaller units) required in many contexts, including that of political negotiation.

In the light of Shlain’s (and French’s) work in this regard the “miracle” performed by women senators, despite being vastly outnumbered by their male colleagues in the US Senate, seems less of a miracle than the gentle force of feminine aptitude finally working its “good magic”. I, for one, applaud this, and look forward to a growing diffusion of such feminine talent in contemporary society, the on-going violence being perpetrated against them notwithstanding. All Hail Women! Men should cherish them, celebrate them, treasure them for the truly wonderful beings they are: the best thing that ever happened to men. I pity the poor bastards who have not realised this.

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