The Mind of a Feminist

Hard Sciences

A new book by Siri Hustvedt offers challenging ways to understand how misogyny became so deeply embedded in our culture. 


Since the presidential inauguration (and, really, throughout the entire Trump-Clinton contest), the mainstream media have presented numerous perspectives on contemporary feminism, focusing on issues social, economic, and biological. During just one week in February, Amanda Hess wrote about the multiplicity within the women’s movement for The New York Times Magazine; Jia Tolentino wrote about Jessa Crispin’s new book, Why I Am Not a Feminist, for The New Yorker; and a Los Angeles Times op-ed by Debra W. Soh asked whether gender feminists and transgender activists are undermining science.

Among all these voices, the novelist, essayist, scholar, and veritable Renaissance woman Siri Hustvedt presents an alternate version of feminism and the feminist critique in her new book, A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women: Essays on Art, Sex, and the Mind. With arguments that span the humanities, neuroscience, and psychiatry, she offers challenging ways to understand how misogyny became so deeply embedded in our culture and how we (or, at least, practitioners in those fields) can begin to combat it. Her book is composed of three different sections: “A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women,” “The Delusions of Certainty,” and “What Are We?” (Many of these essays have been previously published or given as lectures.) The diversity of sources and topics underscores the interdisciplinary approach that Hustvedt advocates so enthusiastically; indeed, she blames our narrow modes of thinking for many of the problems in contemporary society that her book addresses.

If the book’s title is a bit misleading, though, its cover image is even more so. Depicting layers of torn paper placed to resemble a vagina, the picture suggests something much racier than what A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women actually delivers: an intricate, often very academic synthesis of philosophical, neurological, and psychiatric opinions on human nature, with some essays on art and the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard rounding it out. Hustvedt’s primary concern is the relationship between the mind and the body; her book examines the myriad theories that attempt to explain the connections between biology and conscious experience. For the most part, it isn’t about a woman looking at men looking at women, but rather about a woman looking at men looking at the mind. And in a way, the collection isn’t explicitly about feminism at all.

Also, the “sex” to which the subtitle refers is less the act itself than the way that science has treated people with different bodies—within research and in hospitals, across spans of history—and how that continues to nourish a foundational bias for our society. In the introduction, Hustvedt asks: “Why are the sciences regarded as hard and masculine and the arts and the humanities as soft and feminine? And why is hard usually perceived as so much better than soft?” There’s a tempting claim to be made about male potency here, but Hustvedt doesn’t quite go there. Eventually, she discusses how even Aristotle established arbitrary distinctions between the masculine and the feminine. For Aristotle, she writes, “men were warm and dry; women, moist and cold. Warm and dry was naturally better. Metaphors may be basic, but tracing a historical trope back to its origin is by no means simple. Nevertheless, these divisions organized around masculine and feminine run deep in the culture and are often unconscious.”

To mine those depths, Hustvedt champions a new appreciation for the humanities, which question even the most “hardened” scientific ideas, and examines the ways that unfounded dichotomies regarding masculinity and femininity have proved insidious since ancient times. As in the Aristotle example above, she emphasizes the way that language reinforces our ideas about men and women, and about which human pursuits belong to each. She also makes a strong case for why scientists should have a better grounding in the humanities: because a facility with writing and the ability to accurately and vividly convey findings ought to be crucial parts of a researcher’s work.

Within neuroscience, she targets the rigidity, in particular, of the idea that the mind is a computer. She criticizes the work of Steven Pinker, a Harvard professor and the author of best-selling books on science, including How the Mind Works. Pinker often refers to the mind as a “neural computer” and asserts that it processes information in distinct “modules” responsible for specific tasks. Hustvedt rejects this impersonal and oversimplified model. She even undermines his choice of title: “Despite huge strides in brain science in the last half century…we do not know how it works,” she writes. According to Hustvedt, dismissing lived experience and as-yet-undiscovered connections between different parts of the brain are major flaws in Pinker’s work. This brand of mechanized thinking, however, has been one reason that scientists continue to undertake artificial-intelligence projects—if the brain is a simple modular machine, the thinking goes, then shouldn’t we be able to replicate it? The many dead ends that this research has encountered, Hustvedt asserts, suggest otherwise.

What’s more, she argues that a mechanistic theory of neuroscience, indeed of human behavior, leaves the way open for misogyny, because it strives for a kind of procreation that is the province of machines, not bodies. “Is this womb envy, as it has sometimes been called, a masculine fantasy of self-reproduction without women?” Hustvedt asks. “Technology will liberate men from their dependency on and fear of women.” Her version of misogyny, here and elsewhere, manifests itself not in overt violence against women but in the rejection of them. In the book, Hustvedt counters this by advocating a greater visibility for women: She honors a forgotten scientist and underappreciated female novelists, as well as the “feminine” values typically dismissed by scientists and even the problems attributed more intuitively to women than to men (such as hysteria). She also raises questions about the placement of women in works of art and the way we’re conditioned to see women in images.

What’s missing, throughout the volume, is an assessment of cultural difference. Hustvedt writes predominantly about Western philosophers, scientists, and cultural productions, using them to generalize about the larger world. The reader might wonder how thought and practice in Eastern or indigenous societies compare, and what this says about what is—or isn’t—culturally ingrained. There isn’t any discussion, either, of how the misogyny Hustvedt highlights interacts with other forms of oppression (racism or homophobia, for example). Certainly, its effects vary across separate demographics, not just the individual experiences she invokes.

If all this seems a bit distant and clinical, Hustvedt also writes about how these issues seep into the popular imagination. For example, she discusses how Pinker’s ideas underlay the assertion by former Harvard University president Larry Summers in 2005 that innate differences between men and women contributed to the latter’s underrepresentation in university science and engineering departments. Similarly, in 2015, a New York Times commenter used Pinker’s research to back up a claim about the male-female gap in tech fields. Hustvedt argues that Pinker’s theories, less firm than they appear, have become damaging truisms and taken on the status of conventional “wisdom” in our society.

Debra W. Soh’s Los Angeles Times op-ed also cites research that Hustvedt dismisses. “Indeed, studies have shown sex differences across a wide variety of cognitive domains, including verbal fluency (the ability to generate many different words starting with a given letter) and mental rotation (the ability to rotate three-dimensional shapes in the mind),” Soh writes. “In one study using functional MRI, women outperformed men on the former, while men outperformed women on the latter.” Soh, who devotes her op-ed to defending the notion of biologically based differences in men’s and women’s brains, argues that the real issue here is that female traits “are seen as inferior and less worthy of respect.”

Hustvedt would agree on the latter point, but her argument is richer and more humorous: “If the success of male literary lights is not due to their superior language skills, perhaps it is rooted in the fact that they are better at rotating their 3-D characters in mental space, seeing them from every possible angle: hanging from the ceiling, suspended sideways, walking on their hands.” She calls these experiments with 3-D object manipulation “a bit desperate,” pointing out that some subsequent studies haven’t found any difference between men’s and women’s scores on the tests, and revealing that women do worse on them when they’re told beforehand that men are better at the task. Stereotypes, not innate abilities (or disabilities), contribute to some of the divergence in scores. “I do not think there is any reason to shun sex differences,” Hustvedt writes, but she impugns the science behind the ones we take for granted. According to her, these divergences are mostly physical and superficial (“beards, breasts, penises, clitorises, vulvas, voice timbre”) and have little bearing on human capability. Yet, she isn’t always entirely convincing.

In a passage about hunter-gatherer societies, she attacks an entomologist’s assertion that women “stay home”—gathering itself is a crucial, active endeavor for the community. But she doesn’t address what leads to this division of labor in the first place or convincingly deny that genetics or sex difference might contribute. Similarly, Hustvedt rejects a 1948 study by biologist Angus Bateman that concluded that in organisms that divided into two sexes, males mated with “undiscriminating eagerness” and females demonstrated “discriminating passivity.” Hustvedt counters the claim by citing studies about diversity in mating practices among different species. Cumulatively, these differences must add up to more than Hustvedt allows.

Hustvedt’s discussion of what constitutes misogyny, limited though it maybe be, also allows her to express what constitutes feminism: Its seed, too, is far deeper in the mind and body than rhetoric or even outward, oppositional political actions. “If we internalize the sexism of the world, and we all do, how can it be escaped?” she asks. Feminism is in part about finding new ways to escape the constraints of language, image, and received scientific wisdom, about embracing lived experience and the body—any body—with all its associations of “femininity, unruly passion, unreason, and chaos.” In contrast to Pinker, Hustvedt fully embraces the complexity of her disciplines. If at times her new volume can be difficult to parse, at least the reader feels assured that she hasn’t dumbed anything down. Where Pinker has oversimplified his ideas to detrimental effect, Hustvedt laudably articulates difficult principles as clearly as she can, embracing areas of ambiguity and uncertainty. Her arguments carefully synthesize the varying viewpoints within neuroscience and emphasize what we still don’t know, despite modern advances—a vast amount, she constantly reminds us.

As Hustvedt points out, history has neglected female scientists as well as women in other fields. She refers frequently to the work of Margaret Cavendish, the 17th-century Duchess of Newcastle, who produced 23 books throughout her lifetime and is just beginning to receive the attention she deserves. A contemporary of the philosophers René Descartes and Thomas Hobbes (who refused to engage her in conversation or correspondence), Cavendish theorized—in opposition to Descartes—that the mind and body are not separate, but exist in dynamic interaction. She opposed Hobbes’s idea that humans are like machines. “Hobbes was a mechanistic materialist, for whom thought could be reduced to brain machinery,” Hustvedt writes. “Reasoning, not memory and imagination, was the avenue to truth…. Cavendish proposed a continuum of thought, from the conceptual to the imaginative.” Hustvedt advocates for a greater embrace of memory and imagination—realms of human experience that are generally coded as feminine.

Expanding on this idea, she observes that men tend to eschew fiction, and fiction written by women in particular. In an early chapter, “No Competition,” she addresses misogyny in the literary world. “The notion that reading and writing are tainted by the feminine has lodged itself deeply in the collective Western psyche,” she argues. The chapter’s title refers to a statement that the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard made during an interview with her. She asked him why, in books that contain hundreds of references to writers, he mentions only one woman—the philosopher Julia Kristeva. Knausgaard quickly replied, “No competition.” Hustvedt didn’t ask him to elaborate, but infers what he meant. In this “tainted” world, she writes, “facing off with a woman, any woman, is necessarily emasculating.” Men in the literary realm, among others, tend therefore to simply ignore them. Hustvedt suggests that Knausgaard, who has written thousands of pages fictionalizing his struggles, is ultimately still scared of his “feminine” vulnerability. She calls on “every single one of us who cares about the novel” to reexamine the prejudices within our reading habits—a new lens that can be applied to many areas of one’s life.

Yet, given his international success, what would motivate Knausgaard, or any other male author, to change his perspective? What about the still-prominent Steven Pinker, or his fans, who seek easily digestible explanations that reinforce a sense of control and certainty about our own mysterious brains? As the conventional wisdom regarding therapy goes: To make any progress, the patient has to want to change. The idea of change might be too soft for 3-D manipulation, but that’s probably for the best.

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