Popular Science Monthly/Volume 4/November 1873/Psychology of the Sexes

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PSYCHOLOGY OF THE SEXES.[1]
By HERBERT SPENCER.

ONE further instance of the need for psychological inquiries as guides to sociological conclusions may be named—an instance of quite a different kind, but one no less relevant to questions of the time. I refer to the comparative psychology of the sexes. Women, as well as men, are units in a society, and tend by their natures to give that society certain traits of structure and action. Hence the question, Are the mental natures of men and women the same? is an important one to the sociologist. If they are, an increase of feminine influence is not likely to affect the social type in a marked manner. If they are not, the social type will inevitably be changed by increase of feminine influence.

That men and women are mentally alike, is as untrue as that they are alike bodily. Just as certainly as they have physical differences which are related to the respective parts they play in the maintenance of the race, so certainly have they psychical differences, similarly related to their respective shares in the rearing and protection of offspring. To suppose that along with the unlikenesses between their parental activities there do not go unlikenesses of mental faculties, is to suppose that here alone in all Nature there is no adjustment of special powers to special functions.[2]

Two classes of differences exist between the psychical, as between the physical, structures of men and women, which are both determined by this same fundamental need — adaptation to the paternal and maternal duties. The first set of differences is that which results from a somewhat earlier arrest of individual evolution in women than in men, necessitated by the reservation of vital power to meet the cost of reproduction. Whereas, in man, individual evolution continues until the physiological cost of self-maintenance very nearly balances what nutrition supplies, in woman, an arrest of individual development takes place while there is yet a considerable margin of nutrition: otherwise there could be no offspring. Hence the fact that girls come earlier to maturity than boys. Hence, too, the chief contrasts in bodily form: the masculine figure being distinguished from the feminine by the greater relative sizes of the parts which carry on external actions and entail physiological cost—the limbs, and those thoracic viscera which their activity immediately taxes. And hence, too, the physiological truth that, throughout their lives, but especially during the child-bearing age, women exhale smaller quantities of carbonic acid, relatively to their weights, than men do; showing that the evolution of energy is relatively less as well as absolutely less. This rather earlier cessation of individual evolution thus necessitated, showing itself in a rather smaller growth of the nervo-muscular system, so that both the limbs which act and the brain which makes them act are somewhat less, has two results on the mind. The mental manifestations have somewhat less of general power or massiveness; and beyond this there is a perceptible falling short in those two faculties, intellectual and emotional, which are the latest products of human evolution—the power of abstract reasoning and that most abstract of the emotions, the sentiment of justice—the sentiment which regulates conduct irrespective of personal attachments and the likes or dislikes felt for individuals.[3]

After this quantitative mental distinction, which becomes incidentally qualitative by telling most upon the most recent and most complex faculties, there come the qualitative mental distinctions consequent on the relations of men and women to their children and to one another. Though the parental instinct, which, considered in its essential nature, is a love of the helpless, is common to the two; yet it is obviously not identical in the two. That the particular form of it which responds to infantine helplessness is more dominant in-women than in men, cannot be questioned. In man the instinct is not so habitually excited by the very helpless, but has a more generalized relation to all the relatively weak who are dependent upon him. Doubtless, along with this more specialized instinct in women, there go special aptitudes for dealing with infantine life an adapted power of intuition and a fit adjustment of behavior. That there is here a mental specialization, joined with the bodily specialization, is undeniable; and this mental specialization, though primarily related to the rearing of offspring, affects in some degree the conduct at large.

The remaining qualitative distinctions between the minds of men and women are those which have grown out of their mutual relation as stronger and weaker. If we trace the genesis of human character, by considering the conditions of existence through which the human race passed in early barbaric times and during civilization, we shall see that the weaker sex has naturally acquired certain mental traits by its dealings with the stronger. In the course of the struggles for existence among wild tribes, those tribes survived in which the men were not only powerful and courageous, but aggressive, unscrupulous, intensely egoistic. Necessarily, then, the men of the conquering races which gave origin to the civilized races, were men in whom the brutal characteristics were dominant; and necessarily the women of such races, having to deal with brutal men, prospered in proportion as they possessed, or acquired, fit adjustments of nature. How were women, unable by strength to hold their own, otherwise enabled to hold their own? Several mental traits helped them to do this.

We may set down, first, the ability to please, and the concomitant love of approbation. Clearly, other things equal, among women living at the mercy of men, those who succeeded most in pleasing would be the most likely to survive and leave posterity. And (recognizing the predominant descent of qualities on the same side) this, acting on successive generations, tended to establish, as a feminine trait, a special solicitude to be approved, and an aptitude of manner to this end.

Similarly, the wives of merciless savages must, other things equal, have prospered in proportion to their powers of disguising their feelings. Women who betrayed the state of antagonism produced in them by ill-treatment would be less likely to survive and leave offspring than those who concealed their antagonism; and hence, by inheritance and selection, a growth of this trait proportionate to the requirement. In some cases, again, the arts of persuasion enabled women to protect themselves, and by implication their offspring, where, in the absence of such arts, they would have disappeared early, or would have reared fewer children. One further ability may be named as likely to be cultivated and established—the ability to distinguish quickly the passing feelings of those around. In barbarous times, a woman who could, from a movement, tone of voice, or expression of face, instantly detect in her savage husband the passion that was rising, would be likely to escape dangers run into by a woman less skilled in interpreting the natural language of feeling. Hence, from the perpetual exercise of this power, and the survival of those having most of it, we may infer its establishment as a feminine faculty. Ordinarily, this feminine faculty, showing itself in an aptitude for guessing the state of mind through the external signs, ends simply in intuitions formed without assignable reasons; but when, as happens in rare cases, there is joined with it skill in psychological analysis, there results an extremely remarkable ability to interpret the mental states of others. Of this ability we have a living example never hitherto paralleled among women, and in but few, if any, cases exceeded among men.

Of course, it is not asserted that the specialties of mind here described as having been developed in women, by the necessities of defense in their dealings with men, are peculiar to them: in men also they have been developed as aids to defense in their dealings with one another. But the difference is, that, whereas, in their dealings with one another, men depended on these aids only in some measure, women in their dealings with men depended upon them almost wholly—within the domestic circle as well as without it. Hence, in virtue of that partial limitation of heredity by sex, which many facts throughout Nature show us, they have come to be more marked in women than in men.[4]

One further distinctive mental trait in women springs out of the relation of the sexes as adjusted to the welfare of the race. I refer to the effect which the manifestation of power of every kind in men has in determining the attachments of women. That this is a trait inevitably produced will be manifest, on asking what would have happened if women had by preference attached themselves to the weaker men. If the weaker men had habitually left posterity when the stronger did not, a progressive deterioration of the race would have resulted. Clearly, therefore, it has happened (at least since the cessation of marriage by capture or by purchase has allowed feminine choice to play an important part) that, among women unlike in their tastes, those who were fascinated by power, bodily or mental, and who married men able to protect them and their children, were more likely to survive in posterity than women to whom weaker men were pleasing, and whose children were both less efficiently guarded and less capable of self-preservation if they reached maturity. To this admiration for power, caused thus inevitably, is ascribable the fact sometimes commented upon as strange, that women will continue attached to men who use them ill, but whose brutality goes along with power, more than they will continue attached to weaker men who use them well. With this admiration of power, primarily having this function, there goes the admiration of power in general, which is more marked in women than in men, and shows itself both theologically and politically. That the emotion of awe aroused by contemplating whatever suggests transcendent force or capacity, which constitutes religious feeling, is strongest in women, is proved in many ways. We read that among the Greeks the women were more religiously excitable than the men. Sir Rutherford Alcock tells us of the Japanese that "in the temples it is very rare to see any congregation except women and children; the men, at any time, are very few, and those generally of the lower classes." Of the pilgrims to the temple of Juggernaut, it is stated that "at least five-sixths, and often nine-tenths, of them are females." And we are also told of the Sikhs, that the women believe in more gods than the men do. Which facts, coming from different races and times, sufficiently show us that the like fact, familiar to us in Roman Catholic countries, and to some extent at home, is not, as many think, due to the education of women, but has a deeper cause in natural character. And to this same cause is in like manner to be ascribed the greater respect felt by women for all embodiments and symbols of authority, governmental and social.

Thus the a priori inference, that fitness for their respective parental functions implies mental differences between the sexes, as it implies bodily differences, is justified; as is also the kindred inference that secondary differences are necessitated by their relations to one another. Those unlikenesses of mind between men and women, which, under the conditions, were to be expected, are the unlikenesses we actually find. That they are fixed in degree, by no means follows: indeed, the contrary follows. Determined as we see they some of them are by adaptation of primitive women's natures to the natures of primitive men, it is inferable that as civilization readjusts men's natures to higher social requirements, there goes on a corresponding readjustment between the natures of men and women, tending in sundry respects to diminish their differences. Especially may we anticipate that those mental peculiarities developed in women, as aids to defense against men in barbarous times, will diminish. It is probable, too, that, though all kinds of power will continue to be attractive to them, the attractiveness of physical strength and the mental attributes that commonly go along with it will decline, while the attributes which conduce to social influence will become more attractive. Further, it is to be anticipated that the higher culture of women, carried on within such limits as shall not unduly tax the physique (and here, by higher culture, I do not mean mere language-learning and an extension of the detestable cramming-system at present in use), will in other ways reduce the contrast. Slowly leading to the result everywhere seen throughout the organic world, of a self-preserving power inversely proportionate to the race-preserving power, it will entail a less early arrest of individual evolution, and a diminution of those mental differences between men and women which the early arrest produces.

Admitting such to be changes which the future will probably see wrought out, we have meanwhile to bear in mind these traits of intellect and feeling which distinguish women, and to take note of them as factors in social phenomena—much more important factors than we commonly suppose. Considering them in the above order, we may note, first, that the love of the helpless, which in her maternal capacity woman displays in a more special form than man, inevitably affects all her thoughts and sentiments; and, this being joined in her with a less developed sentiment of abstract justice, she responds more readily when appeals to pity are made than when appeals are made to equity. In foregoing chapters we have seen how much our social policy disregards the claims of individuals to whatever their efforts purchase, so long as no obvious misery is brought on them by the disregard; but, when individuals suffer in ways conspicuous enough to excite commiseration, they get aid, and often as much aid if their sufferings are caused by themselves as if they are caused by others—often greater aid, indeed. This social policy, to which men tend in an injurious degree, women tend to still more. The maternal instinct delights in yielding benefits apart from deserts; and, being partially excited by whatever shows a feebleness that appeals for help (supposing antagonism has not been aroused), carries into social action this preference of generosity to justice, even more than men do. A further tendency, having the same general direction, results from the aptitude which the feminine intellect has to dwell on the concrete and proximate rather than on the abstract and remote. The representative faculty in women deals quickly and clearly with the personal, the special, and the immediate; but less readily grasps the general and the impersonal. A vivid imagination of simple direct consequences mostly shuts out from her mind the imagination of consequences that are complex and indirect. The respective behaviors of mothers and fathers to children sufficiently exemplify this difference: mothers thinking chiefly of present effects on the conduct of children, and regarding less the distant effects on their characters; while fathers often repress the promptings of their sympathies with a view to ultimate benefits. And this difference between their ways of estimating consequences, affecting their judgments on social affairs as on domestic affairs, makes women err still more than men do in seeking what seems an immediate public good without thought of distant public evils. Once more, we have in women the predominant awe of power and authority, swaying their ideas and sentiments about all institutions. This tends toward the strengthening of governments, political and ecclesiastical. Faith in whatever presents itself with imposing accompaniments is, for the reason above assigned, especially strong in women. Doubt, or criticism, or calling in question of things that are established, is rare among them. Hence in public affairs their influence goes toward the maintenance of controlling agencies, and does not resist the extension of such agencies; rather, in pursuit of immediate promised benefits, it urges on that extension; since the concrete good in view excludes from their thoughts the remote evils of multiplied restraints. Reverencing power more than men do, women, by implication, respect freedom less—freedom, that is, not of the nominal kind, but of that real kind which consists in the ability of each to carry on his own life without hindrance from others, so long as he does not hinder them.

As factors in social phenomena, these distinctive mental traits of women have ever to be remembered. Women have in all times played a part, and, in modern days, a very notable part, in determining social arrangements. They act both directly and indirectly. Directly, they take a large, if not the larger, share in that ceremonial government which supplements the political and ecclesiastical governments; and as supporters of these other governments, especially the ecclesiastical, their direct aid is by no means unimportant. Indirectly, they act by modifying the opinions and sentiments of men first, in education, when the expression of maternal thoughts and feelings affects the thoughts and feelings of boys, and afterward in domestic and social intercourse, during which the feminine sentiments sway men's public acts, both consciously and unconsciously. Whether it is desirable that the share already taken by women in determining social arrangements and actions should be increased, is a question we will leave undiscussed. Here I am concerned merely to point out that, in the course of a psychological preparation for the study of Sociology, we must include the comparative psychology of the sexes; so that, if any change is made, we may make it knowing what we are doing.

Assent to the general proposition set forth in this chapter does not depend on assent to the particular propositions unfolded in illustrating it. Those who, while pressing forward education, are so certain they know what good education is, that, in an essentially Papal spirit, they wish to force children through their existing school-courses under penalty on parents who resist, will not have their views modified by what has been said. I do not look, either, for any appreciable effect on those who shut out from consideration the reactive influence on moral nature, entailed by the action of a system of intellectual culture which habituates parents to make the public responsible for their children's minds. Nor do I think it likely that many of those who wish to change fundamentally the political status of women will be influenced by the considerations above set forth on the comparative psychology of the sexes. But, without acceptance of these illustrative conclusions, there may be acceptance of the general conclusion, that psychological truths underlie sociological truths, and must therefore be sought by the sociologist. For whether discipline of the intellect does or does not change the emotions; whether national character is or is not progressively adapted to social conditions; whether the minds of men and women are or are not alike—are obviously psychological questions; and either answer to any one of them implies a psychological conclusion. Hence, whoever, on any of these questions, has a conviction to which he would give legislative expression, is basing a sociological belief upon a psychological belief; and cannot deny that the one is true only if the other is true. Having admitted this, he must admit that without preparation in Mental Science there can be no Social Science. For, otherwise, he must assert that the randomly-made and carelessly-grouped observations on Mind, common to all people, are better as guides than observations cautiously collected, critically examined, and generalized in a systematic way.

No one, indeed, who is once led to dwell on the matter, can fail to see how absurd is the supposition that there can be a rational interpretation of men's combined actions, without a previous rational interpretation of those thoughts and feelings by which their individual actions are prompted. Nothing comes out of a society but what originates in the motive of an individual, or in the united similar motives of many individuals, or in the conflict of the united similar motives of some having certain interests with the diverse motives of others whose interests are different. Always the power which initiates a change is feeling, separate or aggregated, guided to its ends by intellect; and not even an approach to an explanation of social phenomena can be made, without the thoughts and sentiments of citizens being recognized as factors. How, then, can there be a true account of social actions without a true account of these thoughts and sentiments? Manifestly, those who ignore Psychology as a preparation for Sociology, can defend their position only by proving that while other groups of phenomena require special study, the phenomena of Mind, in all their variety and intricacy, are best understood without special study; and that knowledge of human nature gained hap-hazard becomes obscure and misleading in proportion as there is added to it knowledge deliberately sought and carefully put together.

  1. Conclusion of chapter on Mental Science and Sociology.
  2. The comparisons ordinarily made between the minds of men and women are faulty in many ways, of which these are the chief: Instead of comparing either the average of women with the average of men, or the élite of women with the élite of men, the common course is to compare the élite of women with the average of men. Much the same erroneous impression results as would result if the relative statures of men and women were judged by putting very tall women side by side with ordinary men. Sundry manifestations of nature in men and women are greatly perverted by existing social conventions upheld by both. There are feelings which, under our predatory régime, with its adapted standard of propriety, it is not considered manly to show; but which, contrariwise, are considered admirable in women. Hence, repressed manifestations in the one case, and exaggerated manifestations in the other; leading to mistaken estimates. The sexual sentiment comes into play to modify the behavior of men and women to one another. Respecting certain parts of their general characters, the only evidence which can be trusted is that furnished by the conduct of men to men, and of women to women, when placed in relations which exclude the personal affections. In comparing the intellectual powers of men and women, no proper distinction is made between receptive faculty and originative faculty. The two are scarcely commensurable; and the receptivity may, and frequently does, exist in high degree where there is but a low degree of originality, or entire absence of it. Perhaps, however, the most serious error usually made in drawing these comparisons is, that of overlooking the limit of normal mental power. Either sex under special stimulations is capable of manifesting powers ordinarily shown only by the other; but we are not to consider the deviations so caused as affording proper measures. Thus, to take an extreme case, the mammæ of men will, under special excitation, yield milk: there are various cases of gynæcomasty on record, and in families, infants whose mothers have died have been thus saved. But this ability to yield milk, which, when exercised, must be at the cost of masculine strength, we do not count among masculine attributes. Similarly, under special discipline, the feminine intellect will yield products higher than the intellects of most men can yield. But we are not to count this as truly feminine if it entails decreased fulfillment of the maternal functions. Only that mental energy is normally feminine which can coexist with the production and nursing of the due number of healthy children. Obviously a power of mind which, if general among the women of a society, would entail disappearance of the society, is a power not to be included in an estimate of the feminine nature as a social factor.
  3. Of course it is to be understood that in this, and in the succeeding statements, reference is made to men and women of the same society, in the same age. If women of a more-evolved race are compared with men of a less-evolved race, the statement will not be true.
  4. As the validity of this group of inferences depends on the occurrence of that partial limitation of heredity of sex here assumed, it may be said that I should furnish proof of its occurrence. Were the place fit, this might be done. I might detail evidence that has been collected showing the much greater liability there is for a parent to bequeath malformations and diseases to children of the same sex, than to those of the opposite sex. I might cite the multitudinous instances of sexual distinctions, as of plumage in birds and coloring in insects, and especially those marvelous ones of dimorphism and polymorphism among females of certain species of Lepidoptera, as necessarily implying (to those who accept the Hypothesis of Evolution) the predominant transmission of traits to descendants of the same sex. It will suffice, however, to instance, as more especially relevant, the cases of sexual distinctions within the human race itself, which have arisen in some varieties and not in others. That in some varieties the men ate bearded, and in others not, may be taken as strong evidence of this partial limitation of heredity; and, perhaps, still stronger evidence is yielded by that peculiarity of feminine, form found in some of the negro races, and especially the Hottentots, which does not distinguish to any such extent the women of other races from the men. There is also the fact, to which Agassiz draws attention, that, among the South American Indians, males and females differ less than they do among the negroes and the higher races; and this reminds us that among European and Eastern nations the men and women differ, both bodily and mentally, not quite in the same ways and to the same degrees, but in somewhat different ways and degrees––a fact which would be inexplicable were there no partial limitation of heredity by sex.