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The voracious pursuit of knowledge, wisdom, and truth is one of the noblest human aspirations. Though it may be a common human practice to eschew facts in certain situations in favor of emotional impulses, it is imperative, especially for intellectuals, to always consider everything rationally, examine every statement, question everything, and never assume anything unless it has been supported with considerable evidence. Such is the only way to securely obtain the truth. This idea, that everything must be considered rationally, is predominant throughout David Stove’s essay “The Intellectual Capacity of Women.
” But as much as Stove’s apparent affinity for this maxim of rationality permeates the essay, the rhetoric within the essay itself seems to ignore that maxim completely. Stove makes blind error after blind error, stumbling with maladroit incompetence through the rocky terrain of his preposterous arguments. “The Intellectual Capacity of Women” attempts to make the argument that women are intellectually inferior to men, an argument which cannot be effectively made simply because it is not true.
Stove’s main strategy in writing this essay seems to be to make bold statements, and then qualify the bold statements by acknowledging the flaws that he knows his opponents will find in them, and then never effectively address those flaws, or attempt to address those flaws by making still more bold statements with still more flaws. For example, at first he claims that the evidence for the inferior intellectual capacity of women is that they have consistently performed worse than men intellectually throughout human history.
He then acknowledges the glaring flaw in this claim-that intellectual capacity does not require intellectual performance-and then addresses it by claiming that “equality-theorists” (his name for anyone who believes that men and women are of generally equal intellectual capacity) need to prove that there has been some kind of “interfering factor” preventing women from reaching the intellectual levels that men have consistently reached throughout human history.
But when Stove asks us “equality-theorists” to prove that there have been such interfering factors throughout human history, he exposes the enormous, gaping hole in his entire argument: that all over the world, through the entirety of human history, the vast majority of human societies have been patriarchal, and women have been subjugated such that they have been unable to pursue intellectual tasks. Intellectual work has been considered throughout history to be only suitable for men, and women have always had a non-intellectual role that they were socially obligated to follow. In ancient Greece, for example, women were restricted at all times to the gynaikon, the women’s quarters, where they would weave clothes, nurse children, and take care of the house (Hemingway). Thousands of years after ancient Greece, the situation for women did not change significantly. Very recently, intellectual opportunities for women have gradually been increasing, in developed societies at least. But even in 1963, the psychologist and feminist Betty Friedan found it necessary to illuminate in her seminal book The Feminine Mystique the ways wherein women were intellectually and otherwise repressed by societal gender roles (Britannica). Stove claims that women’s inferior intellectual performance has been displayed throughout human history under “the widest variety of circumstances,” but actually, human history has not included a wide variety of circumstances in the case of women’s rights and patriarchy. Civilizations from ancient Greece to the modern era have in nearly all cases been uniformly patriarchal. The modern developed world is the only society that has genuinely strived for (without having yet quite achieved) true gender equality. Stove completely ignores this historical intellectual repression of women, and that is one of the most flagrant errors in his logic.
Eventually, Stove does bring up the possibility that there could have been an interfering factor throughout human history that kept women from performing intellectually. He expresses doubt about whether such interfering factors could have existed for all these thousands of years. Finally, he spews out a series of statements so historically inaccurate that it is difficult not to wonder whether he has even glanced at a single history book at any point during his entire life. He claims that women have experienced a “variety of physical and social circumstances” that is “as great as the variety which is possible for any class of persons” and that women have had so many opportunities to take on different occupations that if “you name it, some women have been it.” While it’s true that most conceivable occupations have probably at some point been performed by at least one woman, societies have always had gender roles that kept the average woman from being involved in any intellectual occupation, or often from any occupation at all. For example, Stove states that at certain points in history, female priests have existed. However, this fact does not undermine at all the fact that women have in most cases been actively excluded from religious leadership and have instead been constrained to much lower positions, like that of the nun. Even today, such religions as Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Mormonism, and Southern Baptism still deliberately keep women out of the priesthood (Robinson). Stove completely ignores all of the blatant sexism that has kept women from exercising their intellectual capacity throughout history and justifies himself by saying that women, during certain distinct and rare points in history, have wiggled themselves into all sorts of occupations. Stove ignores all of this overwhelmingly obvious historical evidence of the intellectual repression of women, even though it easily refutes all of his arguments.
To explain his ill-supported arguments, Stove devotes a fair amount of time in his essay to the analogies he has contrived. For example, he uses a “coin-flipping” analogy to explain his argument concerning women’s intellectual performance throughout human history, expounding on how, if you flip a coin and it lands on heads 530 times out of 1000, you should be inclined to believe that the coin is biased toward heads. Similarly, he claims, because men have historically performed better intellectually than women, it can be inferred that men are intellectually superior. For those who enjoy a good analogy, as Stove does, I present an analogy of my own to explain the way in which Stove’s argument fails. Imagine two flower gardens, one full of pink flowers and the other full of yellow flowers. Both gardens have the same amount of space, and approximately the same number of flowers. But the yellow flowers are placed under a wooden roof so that they get only a sliver of sunlight during only some parts of the day, and are never watered; whereas the pink flowers get plenty of sunlight, and are watered every day. Now imagine that the flowers continue to live like this, except the owner moves them around, placing them in different locations with different climates, but all the while giving the pink flowers water and sunlight and giving the yellow flowers neither of those. In this situation, the yellow flowers would, of course, wither and die. It would be ridiculous to claim that the yellow flowers are inherently inferior to the pink flowers because the pink flowers have done consistently better “in a wide variety of circumstances.” The circumstances were clearly not at all varied enough because, in every circumstance, the yellow flowers were abused while the pink flowers were cultivated.
Stove comes even closer to addressing his own enormous historical blunders later on in the essay, but it appears that he is so blinded by his own raging misogyny that he cannot comprehend the idea of patriarchy. He notices the virulent patriarchal repression of women’s involvement in intellectual studies, but he calls the various manifestations of this repression “anecdotes: women were prevented from exercising their intellectual capacity by this obstacle in Confucian China, by the other obstacle in seventeenth-century France, etc.” Stove apparently sees every instance of the intellectual repression of women as a discrete phenomenon, an isolated incident, not as part of a historical trend. Presumably, Stove would also see my examples pertaining to ancient Greek women and The Feminine Mystique as “anecdotes” as well. No matter how many examples Stove hears of women being intentionally refused permission to engage in intellectual activity, he will reject them all as anecdotes. But what is history other than a meticulous collection of anecdotes? Human history has so many “anecdotes” about men restricting the intellectual activity of women that they are no longer anecdotes. Anecdotes that show the same thing happening a great number of times are not anecdotes, but historical trends. In addition, by dismissing this historical evidence of patriarchal oppression as anecdotal, Stove contradicts his own arguments. If the innumerable historical examples of the intellectual repression of women are invalid because they are nothing more than anecdotes, then surely Stove’s own examples of women not intellectually performing as well as men are just as anecdotal and just as invalid. Stove’s denunciation of what he calls “anecdotes” is essentially a denunciation of all historical trends, and yet historical trends are the very foundation of the argument Stove himself uses. The obvious self-contradictions in Stove’s arguments would be laughable were they not so saddening.
Stove also makes consistent use of very underhanded rhetorical dirty tricks that the careful reader will detect and most likely find appalling. For one thing, Stove makes liberal use of his own skewed terminology to cast his opponents in a bad light. As mentioned before, he calls anyone who disagrees with him an “equality-theorist,” implying that our belief in the equality of intellectual capacity between men and women is simply a made-up theory. He also frequently calls us “irrational and compares our belief in the equality of intellectual capacity between men and women to a “religion.” These ad hominem attacks are shameless and only succeed in making Stove appear less credible. But one of the most disgusting, intelligence insulting tricks Stove uses is when he creates something called a “bundle.” He brings up the “equality-theorists’ argument that patriarchal oppression has taken place throughout history, but he phrases it this way: he says that equality-theorists claim that “the main interfering factor [keeping women from exercising their intellectual capacity] has been the aggressiveness, sexual exclusiveness, and superior cunning of males.” It is true that the aggressiveness and sexual exclusiveness of males have resulted in patriarchal oppression which has inhibited the exercise of women’s intellectual capacity. But who ever said that men have “superior cunning”? No “equality-theorist” would ever make such a claim, because, as Stove immediately points out, “to ascribe superior cunning to males is to contradict the very intellectual equality for which (the equality-theorist] contends.” Stove’s rhetoric here is so grotesquely flawed that I hesitate to even call it rhetoric. He bundles together those three qualities-aggressiveness, sexual exclusiveness, and superior cunning-and claims that “equality-theorists” are attributing all three of them at once to men. The first two of these qualities, aggressiveness and sexual exclusiveness, truly are phenomena that contribute to the trend of patriarchal opppression. But the third, “superior cunning,” is a preposterous claim that no “equality-theorist” would ever make, but one that obviously supports Stove’s own argument. By bundling his ideas with those of the “equality theorists,” Stove creates a repulsive rhetorical ploy that makes it look like he is debunking the “equality-theorists” argument, although he has actually proven nothing.
Stove asks the reader a question at one point during the essay: “What would convince you of the inferior intellectual capacity of women?” He goes on to assume that “equality-theorists” would have a great deal of difficulty answering this question, because he assumes that equality theorists simply believe their theory without any evidence whatsoever to support it. Though I can’t speak for other “equality-theorists,” I know that Stove is incorrect in my case; I could potentially be convinced of the inferior intellectual capacity of women, if compelling evidence for such a thing did exist. If Stove were alive today and he asked me what would convince me of the inferior intellectual capacity of women, I would tell him exactly what could convince me. If several neuroscientific studies, written and published by trustworthy, unbiased scientists, found a difference in the structure of the female brain that would cause an inferior intellectual capacity to that of the male brain, then I could be convinced. A 2013 study found that female brains are more suited to multi-tasking while men are better at focusing on one task at a time, but no recent studies have found any neural inferiority or superiority based on gender (Sample). Perhaps if female students consistently did worse than male students by a significant margin in grades and on standardized tests, then I could be convinced. But such is not the case: high school girls receive higher GPAs than high school boys on average, and while it is true that, according to a 2008 study, girls receive lower math standardized test scores than boys in most countries, girls out-perform boys significantly in reading on those same standardized tests in all of the surveyed countries (Sapienza). No scientific evidence has ever been shown that would convince me of male intellectual superiority, so I have no reason to believe in such a doctrine. Stove’s fallacious logic certainly has no chance of convincing me, but I am not as closed-minded as he thinks I am, for I would accept male intellectual superiority if there were credible scientific evidence to support it.
But what would convince Stove that men and women are intellectually equal? Nothing, he says, except “equal intellectual performance, over a long time, and in the widest variety of circumstances.” Scientific studies would not convince Stove of the intellectual equality of men and women because “a person’s testimony should carry no weight or little weight with you, if you are sure or nearly sure that his testimony would have been the same whatever had actually happened.” Stove believes that a psychologist’s or an educator’s study that females and males show equal intellectual performance would not be sufficient proof because, he believes, the psychologists and educators of the world would report that males and females show equal intellectual performance whether such a finding is actually true or not. The irony in this statement is dazzling. Stove himself clearly jumps to the conclusion that men are intellectually superior to women; and yet, here he claims that psychologists and educators jump to the conclusion of equality when they design their studies. Even without considering the irony, the claim that all scientists are looking for equality as a conclusion to their studies is dubious. Stove talks as though the entire scientific world is partaking in a conspiracy to fudge all data so that everyone appears to be intellectually equal. Given the objective, factual nature of science and the dedication of most scientists to upholding that objectivity and pursuing the truth, a conspiracy against truth would not last long in the scientific community. If Stove is doubting the authenticity of the entire world’s scientific community, then he is doubting all of what the human race has learned about the universe through scientific inquiry. In Stove’s words, that would be irrational.
But no matter how committed Stove claims to be to rationality, it is he who reveals himself quite plainly by the end of the essay to be utterly irrational and closed-minded in his beliefs. He declares again that no scientific studies would ever convince him of intellectual equality between men and women, no matter how carefully and credibly they were performed, “if their results were inconsistent with the verdict of ordinary experience.” Stove simply will not give up his argument that women are intellectually inferior to men because they have intellectually performed less throughout history, despite the aforementioned fallacies on which that argument is built and despite any scientific evidence that may contradict it. No logic or rationality will convince him otherwise; so how is it that throughout the essay, he accuses his opponents of irrationality? This essay is riddled with self-contradiction, and the irrationality claim is the most glaring of them all because the essay so emphasizes and claims to value the pursuit of rational, objective truth, when really, at its core, it is nothing but self-imposed dogma.
Now that I have ferociously ripped apart Stove’s arguments and exposed the fallacies, self-contradictions, and rhetorical tricks that lie beneath them, there is one more question that remains unanswered: What is the point? Why do we need to know whether the intellectual capacities of men and women are equal? This knowledge would not be very practical. There would be no specific, applied use for the information, so there are those who would say that it is irrelevant and not worth pursuing. But David Stove believed that the truth is always worth pursuing and, in this singular aspect only, I agree with him. If the intellectual capacity of men actually were scientifically proven to be greater than that of women, or vice versa, I would want that knowledge to be recorded. If the intellectual capacity of people who have unibrows were scientifically proven to be greater than that of people who do not have unibrows, I would also want that to be recorded. Knowledge is an end in itself. The more knowledge the human race can accrue, the better we will be able to understand the world, and therefore, the better we will be able to change the world. Thus, all knowledge is worth pursuing. But David Stove, in “The Intellectual Capacity of Women,” does not advance the pursuit of knowledge. He only advances misogyny and laughably poor rhetoric. The one singular aspect of this essay which should be commended is the willingness to question the prevailing wisdom of the time for the sake of intellectual inquiry, an idea that everyone should consider and take to heart, even if in this case it was executed with horrendous incompetence.
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