Q: Why don’t women need watches?
A: There’s a clock on the stove.
The old joke is a sure-fire way for a guy to earn a jab in the arm from his girlfriend. In the public realm, however, questions of gender are no laughing matter. With his 2004 book Taking Sex Differences Seriously, UVA politics professor Steven Rhoads waded into the increasingly frothy debate over sex and gender. And though he doesn’t go so far as to say a woman’s place is in the kitchen, many of his female colleagues say that in a society where women still earn 76 cents for every dollar a man earns, his conclusions step perilously close to that punchline. And they’re not amused.
Rhoads, 66, is a rising star of the conservative movement, but he would tell you he’s the real feminist out there, not women who advocate for their sisters’ professional advancement and greater earning power. He argues that the differences between men and women can be explained in biological terms—that hormones drive men to prefer competition and breadwinning and women to prefer nurturing relationships and housekeeping. What’s more, this biological explanation should underpin America’s public policy and cultural practice, Rhoads says.
Indeed, as the title of Rhoads’ book suggests, sex differences are something people take very seriously these days, especially in the academy. Just ask Larry Summers. The former president of Harvard, who resigned last month, stirred up a furor in January 2005 when he alluded to the very ideas Rhoads presents in his book. Summers suggested that the dearth of women in science and engineering might be explained by their inherent dislike of math—as opposed to, say, tenure practices or gender-based childhood influences. He was met by protests and a vote of “no confidence” from Harvard faculty.
Rhoads shakes his head at Summers’ fate, calling him “one of the most talented scholars in the world.”
“He was a Harvard professor at 28. He was Clinton’s Treasury Secretary. He was no right-winger. If you ask most biologists, they would agree with what he was saying.”
Closer to home, Rhoads’ sociology colleagues Bradford Wilcox and Steven Nock have been all over the national media with their study of 5,000 married couples. Their conclusion: Women’s happiness with their marriage has nothing to do with their own earning power or their husbands’ willingness to assume an equal share of the domestic drudgery. Rather, women, nurturant souls that they are, feel best about their home lives if their husbands are loving and attentive. Betty Friedan must be rolling in her fresh grave.
Here’s the idea that Rhoads wants America to take seriously: The so-called traditional family model (or is that the traditional American middle-class family model?), namely a man at work and a woman at home caring for children, is deeply rooted in human biology. By arguing that this arrangement is principally a social construction and therefore subject to change, feminism has actually done a disservice to women, says Rhoads. “In my most reckless moments,” he says, “I like to say that androgynous feminism is misogynist.”
Rhoads is not hostile to women, he insists: “I want women and men to have happier lives. If I’m right—and I think I am—we’re never going to make women the same as men. I always feel like I’m defending women.”
American culture, especially on college campuses, puts too much pressure on women to have careers, Rhoads says, and that’s wrong. “All the time, I hear from my female students that they really feel ashamed to say that when they get married, they just want to stay home,” he says. “We should give renewed respect to those women.”
By turning feminism on its head, “defending” the right of women to not earn their own money, Rhoads is a hero of the new conservatism. He’s been a guest on NPR and the “Today” show, and his words are frequently quoted in The New York Times. With as many as 70 percent of mothers ages 25 to 34 in the workforce, by some estimates, some women can be forgiven for wishing Rhoads would just face reality about the new working woman, shut up and go away. “Oh, no,” sighed one UVA professor of women’s studies when called to comment on Rhoads’ work. “He gets too much publicity already.”
Father knows best
Steven Rhoads says he didn’t set out to be a culture warrior. He was born in Abington, Pennsylvania, in 1939. He graduated from Princeton in 1961, then served in the Navy. He earned a Ph.D. in government from Cornell University in 1972, and he has taught political and economic theory at UVA ever since. In the meantime he’s consulted for the City of Charlottesville, the State of Virginia, the Federal Aviation Administration and the U.S. Office of Management and Budget.
While working on his 1994 book Incomparable Worth: Pay Equity Meets the Market, Rhoads concluded that men tend to earn more than women “because things that men do well, like math and spatial relationships, are more in demand in a modern economy. There’s something different about men and women that lead them to take different career paths.”
He spent the better part of a decade investigating what that “something” could be.
Rhoads spent lots of time in a small room in the basement of his home in Earlysville, where he lives and raised three sons with his wife, Diana, an English professor at Hampden-Sydney College. In Steven and Diana’s recently remodeled house, sunlight and Blue Ridge vistas pour into rooms decorated with oil portraits. Downstairs, where the exercise equipment has been appropriately confined, Diana has hung a collage of family pictures: summers at Lake Tahoe; a surprise party Steven threw for Diana; Steven with his brothers and sisters sprawled on a couch in 1971.
The room Rhoads calls “my place” has the feel of a man’s last refuge in a house ruled by the woman’s touch; where another man might preserve his deer head trophy and foosball table, Rhoads keeps precariously tall stacks of articles and shelves of books on myriad topics, mostly gender. Rhoads knows mountains of research on the psychology, chemical biology and preferences of girls, but he’s never actually raised one.
His UVA class called “Sex Differences: Biology, Culture, Politics and Policy” sounds like a mouthful. Indeed, topics include sexual harassment, working women, hooking up, women’s prisons, marital happiness, divorce and more, with a reading list ranging from The Washington Post to The Weekly Standard—what Fox News would call “fair and balanced.” The syllabus promises the class will “explore sex and gender differences and similarities from a variety of perspectives but with an emphasis on biological and evolutionary explanations. The success of the course will be heavily dependent on thoughtful class discussion.”
The discussion is so popular that Rhoads asks students to send notes in an effort to weed out those who just want to butt heads. One year, he says, there was a group of “Neanderthals and women’s studies majors” whose arguments got so hot that “they would swear at each other. The women were sometimes in tears,” he says.
Maybe Rhoads didn’t set out to be a hero in the conservative culture wars, but ideological combat is clearly his passion. Off the top of his head, Rhoads can tell you (and he will) a plethora of gender-related facts such as the percentage of women in short-term relationships who find the sex satisfying (7) compared to married women who find the same (41 percent). His 266-page Taking Sex Differences Seriously requires 95 additional pages to list all his cited sources. The book is published by Encounter Books alongside titles like Darwinian Fairytales and Red Star Over Hollywood; the company’s president, Roger Kimball, also publishes The New Criterion for highbrow conservatives.
While critics question the scientific credibility of a book written by a professor of politics, Rhoads says his ambition is to feed a change in American culture.
“There’s a whole ideology out there that goes against people’s feelings. It’s based on nothing,” he says. The whole thing may be an academic pissing match, “but my academic point agrees with the regular Joes.”
Rhoads is looking for scientific proof that will determine, once and for all, what types of human behaviors are “natural.” At the end of his book, nature ends up looking like a 1950s television show. “In a way,” he says, “what was so bad about Ozzie and Harriet?”
You’ve come a long way, baby
Amy Nichols-Belo, a fourth-year graduate student in cultural anthropology at UVA, describes herself as a “third-wave” feminist. “We recognize the achievements of women, and we call attention to the inequalities, without attacking men,” Nichols-Belo says.
The only thing wrong with Ozzie and Harriet, she says, is Rhoads’ insistence that such an arrangement is “natural.”
“There’s all kinds of non-Western examples that contradict that,” she says. Some Native American cultures, for example, believe that humans have three sexes, not two. Some Argentinean cultures don’t look at anatomy when assigning gender, but make distinctions based on whether a person penetrates or is penetrated in sexual congress.
“There are so many examples of cultures doing sex differently. To start with this assumption that there are two fixed sexes ignores a lot of evidence from outside the West,” she says.
Rhoads disagrees. He says his research has convinced him that across cultures there are basically two kinds of women and one kind of man. The male hormone testosterone makes men competitive, promiscuous and inclined to prefer hard-driving careers and predatory sex. Most women, in contrast, lack testosterone and therefore prefer personal relationships and nurturing babies.
Rhoads says that a minority of women, however, have been exposed to testosterone in utero. These are the career-driven women who have pushed what Rhoads calls “androgynous feminism,” the idea that differences between men and women are the social constructs of patriarchal culture.
Rhoads’ “two kinds of women” theory doesn’t account for the actual experiences of real women, Nichols-Belo says. “There are plenty of feminists who stay at home; there are women who are great nurturers who find that it’s not enough for them. A woman’s idea about what she wants can change over the course of her life.
“The idea that you’re locked into one destiny because of these hormones is such a short-sighted view of human nature,” Nichols-Belo says.
What’s so bad about Mr. Mom?
When Virginia Moran entered UVA in 1970 as the first class of women to enter the school, she says issues of women and work were major concerns. Her class was one of the first generations of American women to seek more opportunities for women beyond Harriet Nelson or Lucy Ricardo.
“Back then, I thought we would have all these issues about women and work sorted out by now,” she says.
As associate director of the UVA Women’s Center, Moran sees the issue as still as thorny as ever.
On September 20, Moran read a story in The New York Times headlined “Many Woman at Elite Colleges Set Career Path to Motherhood” about smart young women who say that despite their talent, what they really want is to make motherhood, not a career, the focus of their lives after graduation.
The article supports many of Rhoads’ arguments. Namely, that young women are much more conflicted about how to balance work and family than men seem to be. Women feel proud of their academic accomplishments, but they also feel—more than men, generally—that a career is not worth long hours away from their children.
Young women who say they’re embracing what Rhoads would call “traditional” gender roles represent a real trend, says Moran. In February, she convened a panel of experts to discuss women’s personal and professional concerns, and Moran added Rhoads to the bill for “inclusiveness.”
“We’re extremely interested in all the points of view, because women have many different points of view,” says Moran.
Rhoads’ presence gave the panel a tinge of “Celebrity Death Match” appeal, and he didn’t disappoint. After a fairly noncontroversial presentation about how even progressive academic parents fall into traditional gender roles, Rhoads stirred up the crowd by saying that the issue will never be resolved until women accept his biological explanation of sex differences: “We’re not going to get any farther on these issues unless we resolve the question of how deep these differences go.”
Not true, says UVA professor Susan Fraiman. She joined the panel to describe her own experience raising a child while also seeking tenure in UVA’s prestigious and competitive English department. Fraiman described how she and her former husband decided to split childcare duties as evenly as possible. “We wanted our son to establish a bond with both of us,” she says. Rhoads says that’s a recipe for unhappiness, but Fraiman says both her husband and son benefited from their time together.
“Women do get a lot of pleasure from nurturing a child. We should pull anatomy away from that pleasure of nurturing,” she says. “There’s no reason biologically that men can’t have that pleasure, too.”
This was a point echoed by another panelist, Jessica DeGroot, who runs a nonprofit called ThirdPath that studies the elusive work-life-family balance.
Whereas Rhoads argues that public policy should reflect a conservative ideal of the “natural,” DeGroot advocates public policy that gives both men and women the freedom to pursue fulfillment outside work. There’s too much emphasis on “climbing” in American culture, DeGroot says, and both women and men are tired of feeling forced to choose between a decent life and a decent salary.
The most progressive companies are ahead of the trend described in the Times article, she says. In the future, more companies will try to lure these high-achieving “dropout” women and their spouses by offering more flexible work schedules that will allow both parents to spend more time with their children. That desire cuts across gender lines, she says. “If you bring men into this conversation, you find that they want a lot of the same things that women want.”
After the panel concluded, Fraiman approached Rhoads and conceded that she agreed with him, “up to a point.” She does not dispute that many men and women—even academics—prefer traditional gender roles. She agrees that anybody with a pair of eyes can see biological differences between men and women. She has a problem, however, with trying to determine the extent to which those biological differences drive a person’s decisions. A key problem with Rhoads’ model is that it works so hard to tell women and men what they ought to do without leaving enough room for individual choices. If conservatives succeed in defining certain behaviors as “natural” and others as “unnatural,” then the society is one more step closer to limiting human freedom.
“The biology argument is the same kind of thing people used to justify slavery and Nazism,” she says. “We should be trying to help people choose options that are best for them, not using biology to put people in a box,” she says.
Are you happy?
“I’m a family-oriented guy,” says Rhoads. “I’m not saying men don’t get pleasure from that. I’m just saying that I get bored taking care of a 1-year-old a lot faster than my wife does.”
Rhoads says men and women would be a lot happier if they took his ideas seriously. College girls would be happier if they eschew casual sex; married women would be happier if they tend to the children instead of a job; men would be happier if women stop nagging them to do the dishes.
“I want to see women and men have happier lives. I want to see families stay together more,” he says. “These are my ideas. I’m not trying to impose them on anyone. But I think that this would make our society better.”
Rhoads may not be trying to impose his ideas on his students, but without a doubt he is connected to a larger conservative movement aiming to do just that. While he argues against a feminism he says puts too much pressure on women to work, he too seems quite concerned with pressuring women to realize what’s best for them.
Start talking to real women, and you find that in some ways, Rhoads is right—many working mothers feel deeply conflicted and often guilty about their situation. Unmarried working women often say they would readily sacrifice their careers to raise children.
But there’s more. “I would like to stop working when I have children,” says one unmarried working woman. “But we’d have to look at his career, and my career… we’d have to look at what we can afford to do.”
It’s perhaps ironic that the conservative ascendancy has produced economic policies that make “traditional” marriages more difficult to achieve in real life. According to the Center for American Progress, the poverty rate in America is 12.5 percent, the highest since 1998. Median incomes have stagnated, while more than 45 million Americans lack health insurance. The average middle-class family is worse off than they were in 2000, and more families are working multiple jobs and assuming record amounts of debt to meet the demands. Tuition and fees for college are soaring, while federal aid programs are being cut.
The argument over whether a “traditional” family is “natural” may never find resolution. But in a conservative world, Ozzie and Harriet seem like more of a fantasy, and less of a real choice, than ever before.
What’s old is NEW again
UVA student’s club for conservative
women goes nationwideWhen Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique in 1963, she gave voice to a generation of women who longed for a chance to live out their dreams beyond a woman’s “traditional” roles as wife and mother. Three years later, Friedan helped found the National Organization for Women (NOW), and penned their original mission statement: “The purpose of NOW is to take action to bring women into full participation in the mainstream of American society…in truly equal partnership with men.”
Now, young conservative women say that Friedan’s feminism has gone too far.
“Feminism is trying to turn women into something they’re not,” says Karin Agness, a UVA senior and founder of NEW—the Network of Enlightened Women. Started as a book club in 2005, NEW is becoming the conservative woman’s NOW. Agness says six other campuses, most recently at the University of Missouri-Columbia, have formed NEW chapters. Agness herself has become something of a celebrity, a target for praise and derision on right- and left-wing blogs, respectively.
“By starting NEW, I’ve been surprised by how we have been stereotyped really quickly,” says Agness, who has been accepted to UVA’s School of Law. “My biggest problem is that every time I say that I want to be a lawyer, people see something hypocritical there.”
Agness feels that feminism has changed. Once, feminists wanted women to have choices; now, she says, feminists try to tell women that careers are more worthwhile than homemaking. Where women were once fighting men for their right to work, now women are fighting other women for their right to stay home. “What women want to do with their ambition is their own choice,” says Agness.
Her feelings crystallized in the summer of 2004, when Agness spent a summer working on Capitol Hill. Upon returning to UVA she looked in vain for a conservative women’s group, so she decided to start her own. She couldn’t even find a conservative woman to be the group’s faculty advisor; eventually she enlisted politics professor Steven Rhoads who has earned a reputation for promoting women’s “natural” need to stay home and raise babies. Since then, NEW has held a campus event honoring the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and most recently challenged The Vagina Monologues, an often graphic feminist play Agness considers degrading to both men and women.
Last month, NEW squared off against the UVA’s Young Democrats in a debate over that play. The issues at hand: Is The Vagina Monologues empowering to women? Is the play an attempt by liberals to “hijack” Valentine’s Day?
If these are the pressing questions for today’s women, Friedan herself would no doubt agree that feminism has taken a very wrong turn, indeed.—John Borgmeyer