January 16, 2014

Did Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand say something sexist about woman's essential "nature"?

That was my impression from reading this item in The Atlantic titled "A Female Senator Explains Why Uptalk Is Part of Women's 'Nature.'"

But I took the time to listen to the full video here, to get the full quotes, including improving the accuracy of the transcription of what was quoted in The Atlantic — which seemed too eager to enthuse over Gillibrand, calling her "a refreshing departure from feminism," which sounded like partisan claptrap to me. If a Democrat says something that would be called sexist if a Republican said it, it's my business to call bullshit.

But I really don't care about how The Atlantic presented it. Let me present it accurately, with full-length quotes. This matters, because there's so much pressure both to acknowledge gender difference and to deny it, and Gillbrand spoke with some courage and cogency.

First, at about 22:00, the issue is how to get girls to go into STEM majors, rather than the "helping professions" (which is supposedly important because it might boost women's income). Gillibrand becomes charmingly quite animated describing her son, at age 5, playing with a toy train, "building transportation networks," while his female friend Sadie put little people next to the trains and invented stories about where all the people were going. This gets laughs of approval from the audience.
"Oftentimes women and girls focus on people, on relationships, on communities, on collaborative activities. It's almost how we're naturally wired, more often than not. And boys, more often than not, are wired to want to build, to build things that go fast, to build things that go high. That's what little boys do. And so, it's not surprising that a lot of boys will go into math, science, engineering, because those are the tools they need to build, build all the things they dream of flying and riding and driving."
The audience laughs with delight. There's warmth and connection in this very common parental acknowledgement that boys are boys and girls are girls... at least their boys and girls really are. Somehow, when the topic is one's own child — especially where there's pride that your boy turned out to exemplify boyishness or your girl turned out to exemplify girlishness — all the abstract commitment to equality of the sexes flies out the window. But that makes Gillibrand seem nonideological and grounded in reality, and her connection to the audience is palpable.

She continues:
"So the goal for educators is to teach that young girl, you know, if you're really good at math, but if you stick with math, or you stick with science and engineering, you could figure out how to have clean air, clean water for your community so your cousin's asthma is not as bad. A little girl in that situation will say, 'Oh, I would love to do that,' because she could then put her mind around solving a problem about a community or person that she loves. And so, that's all you have to do to a young girl."
It's a big old stereotype that girls care about people, and I don't really believe that you could lure such girl stereotypes into STEM majors by explaining that science and technology are used to benefit people. If these stereotypical girls want to interact with other human beings, why not let them do just that? And why think that the boys who want to "build things" only want fly and ride and drive those things? Maybe boys want to make things because it's their way of showing love for other people. Why portray them as self-involved and why not also portray girls as having a selfish interest in activities that entail being around other people if that's what they want?

Maybe if Kirsten Gillibrand sat down with me for a few hours and we talked about all of this, she'd make complete sense. She's a politician, and she needs to boil it down into a form that's reasonably simple and palatable. In trying to do that, she might have gotten into trouble here. I don't know.

Later, Gillibrand receives a question from the audience, and this is the part that's highlighted at that Atlantic item. This happens at about 30:00 in the video, where a man — and I assume Gillibrand really thought this guy was annoying and a waste of her time — wants to know what can be done about "uptalk" (that is, ending a declarative sentence so it sounds like a question).

Gillibrand pauses for a long time before beginning:
"The interesting thing about women is we often are very collaborative in nature. We generally prefer to be well-liked. We like for people around us to be happy."
The interviewer jokes: "What's wrong with you?" She continues, with some glee:
"It's what we do. We are happy people, and we like everyone to be happy around us. It's some skills we learn often as being mothers and daughters, that we are the ones who feed everyone at the table. We are the ones that make sure our kids are happy and healthy. It's the kind of work we typically do."
Notice that this isn't about what is innate. It's about what is learned in particular roles that often fall to women. (There's no discussion — not that there is time — of the men who step up and take responsibility for family happiness and for cooking the family meals.)
"And so, there's this issue of likeability. So, for a lot of young women..."
Note that she says "a lot," not "all."
"... they want to be well-liked. And so, they may often feel insecure, that if they're too aggressive or too pushy, too declarative, they won't be well-liked."
Wanting to be well-liked is a central human struggle. It affects men and women, perhaps women more than men, but it's fair to say that a woman who doesn't put effort into being nice is likely to be judged by many people to fall short of an expectation that women, specifically, are supposed to be nice, caring, empathetic. Men can be adjudged assholes, but the line where a woman crosses over into bitchdom is closer than the line where a man is an asshole. 
"And so, I encourage the women that work for me to be authoritative, to state their opinions, to hold their ground. And if they want to do it in a nice way, God bless them. I prefer to work in a nice way too."
Come on! Give the lady credit for some political savoir faire. She's looking for an elegant exit. She folksily mentions God
"But they have to know that they are responsible — for their job, for their opinions, for what they have to do — and I try to encourage women that work for me to add that professional veneer, that there's a certain standard of professionalism that is required for success in business in general, and so to meet those standards, you have to speak less like a young girl and more like a young aspiring woman, more professional. So you just work at it. But it’s part of our nature, and it's not a bad part of our nature, it's just part of our nature. And sometimes you have to learn skills."
Nature. It's real. Should she be raked over the coals for saying there's something called "Our Nature"? A Republican would be burnt at the stake!

36 comments:

rhhardin said...

Math is hard, in particular Bayes theorem, to women.

EDH said...

The interesting thing about women is that we are often collaborative in nature....We generally prefer to be well-liked... and we like for people around us to be happy. These are some skills we learn being mothers and daughters: We feed everyone at the table, try to make everyone happy.... It’s part of our nature.

Which is fine, if you're spending your own money.

Paddy O said...

shorter version: women are tribal.

Michael K said...

It sounds like all the "workshop" classes in any modern graduate program. Except math and physics, of course.

mccullough said...

The Reggie White school of stereotypes

Paddy O said...

"try to make everyone happy"

in other words, indecisive and wishy-washy?

amielalune said...

Funny. It's the men (at least the ones who are fathers) in our family who just want everyone to be happy all the time (and if someone's not, by golly, they think it's their obligation to fix it for us.) The women are mostly more practical and know that's not possible.

traditionalguy said...

The central role of hospitality given by providing common meals that satisfy the guests invited is a basic building block of communal life.

The notion that men cannot do that as well as women is false. Men are lazy when they have a servant staff , as are women when they have a servant staff.

The title of best gossiping at common events usually goes to the women and is probably the origin of the NSA.

{See Downton Abbey, and see Bill Bryson.s book," At Home."}

rehajm said...

Right.

Women are better teachers and instructors because they are instinctively nurturing.

Women are superior at investing because they are more risk averse.

Women make superior leaders due to their collaborative nature.

Some more bullshit stereotypes to add to the pile.

MnMark said...

All of the sweet and nice things about women are just part of their nature. But anything about them that seems weak or inferior to men is purely a social construction.

DanTheMan said...

AA, you need an "Althouse Rule" tag.

jacksonjay said...


The saying goes: "If Mama ain't happy, ain't nobody happy!"

Besides, women don't have the power to be sexist!

Illuninati said...

Althouse said:
"Outright sexism about woman's essential "nature," from Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand."

Is telling the truth sexist? Hopefully most women are by nature concerned about other people. I'm not sure it is correct but hopefully it is true. Whether it is true for a majority of women or not, the sexist part is to imply that every woman is the same.

Ann Althouse said...

""Outright sexism about woman's essential "nature," from Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand.""

Hey, that was in an earlier draft. How did you see that?

Ann Althouse said...

I'd better be careful…

Or paranoid!

Illuninati said...

"Hey, that was in an earlier draft. How did you see that?"

I don't know.

mccullough said...

Althouse,

your earlier draft was published. The post is much longer now.

Ann Althouse said...

"your earlier draft was published. The post is much longer now."

Well, hell! I don't think I hit publish.

I need to be more careful..

But I don't really care if you see drafts. I almost always dash off posts and publish them, then reread and tweak, usually with Meade's help.

Illuninati said...

I'm glad you left that statement in. It was interesting.

Bruce Hayden said...

And, on the other hand, men provide most of the patentable inventions, and esp. the lucrative ones, in this country. Add to that, that without a father figure in their households, their kids much more often than the general public, end up in prison or on public welfare.

EMD said...

We are happy people, and we like everyone to be happy around us.

Clinical depression largely strikes women.

m stone said...

AA: "I don't really believe that you could lure such girl stereotypes into STEM majors by explaining that science and technology are used to benefit people."

Well said; I agree.

As to the use of uptalk, communication studies people like to say that women often use it innately as a sign of submission in verbal interactions. Often cultural, probably an archetype that still remains even with feminist seizing-ground mentality. It's not really an attempt at collaboration as she says.

wildswan said...

Somebody has to make a home if there's going to be a family. Making a home is not housekeeping, not cooking, not decorating, not being there after school - not any one of these things and not even all of them put together. And it doesn't have to be a woman who makes the home and it doesn't have to be just one of the partners who does it.
Whoever does it understands that it takes a lot of work and does that work. There - that's non-sexist.

Sam L. said...

If "uptalk" is part of women's nature, how come it's only recently come into usage?

campy said...

Clinical depression largely strikes women.

Diagnosed more, for sure.

Carol said...

Uptalk drives me nuts too, but it really is a characteristic of younger women. I've known plenty of older, competent, take-charge women who didn't talk that way.

Jupiter said...


"And why think that the boys who want to "build things" only want fly and ride and drive those things? Maybe boys want to make things because it's their way of showing love for other people."

Nice try. My son's constructive urge is devoted almost entirely to the creation of US military ships and aircraft. I am trying to explain to him that what's left of the US is not worth dying for. The part east of the Mississippi is not worth a mild hangover. Well, maybe a mild one.

Bruce Hayden said...

Uptalk drives me nuts too, but it really is a characteristic of younger women. I've known plenty of older, competent, take-charge women who didn't talk that way.

You see it in young men too, and I have a 50+ year old brother who does it. Not attractive in men at all.

It is behavior that is designed to get agreement, and not to anger those listening. Which is fine when in a nurturing environment, or when not in a dominant position. But, it fails miserably when you want to show dominance, which is really a necessity when you want to advance in management of almost any sort. Not maybe the dominance display, per se, but elimination of the uptalking.

Was thinking about this a day or two ago, with watching the Eureka series on Netflix. They have a lot of strong female roles there, including the lead protagonist, who at one time ran the GD lab. These women never uptalk, except with their romantic interests, which is part of what makes them credible.

Watched the new deputy Sec of Defense, or whatever her job title really is, today. Highest women in DoD ever. She was the model for the Kelly McGillis role in Top Gun so many years ago. No uptalking there, but a bit more head nodding than I thought advantageous - until my girlfriend pointed out that I do a bit of that too.

Thinking back to my love life over the last 30 years, I can't remember a girlfriend or wife who uptalked (of course, they are in their mid 50s through early 60s now). I think that it was because uptalking indicated indecision and weakness in my mind, and that wasn't what I was looking for.

Hagar said...

A lot of the "fluffy" parts of these kind of discussions are really just pertinent to United States culture and not about innate male or female characteristics.

Ann Althouse said...

"Nice try."

Oh, I'm thinking about things my father did. It's very real, in my life.

Big Mike said...

If a Democrat says something that would be called sexist if a Republican said it, it's my business to call bullshit.

Go get 'em, Professor!

RecChief said...

always has to be somne kind of social engineering with these people.

I don't understand why they want girls to go into STEM careers anyway. The Democrat party is continually trying to close any kind of manufacturing concern where you might find those types of jobs.

Bruce Hayden said...

I don't understand why they want girls to go into STEM careers anyway. The Democrat party is continually trying to close any kind of manufacturing concern where you might find those types of jobs.

Not just the Democratic party - both parties have been pretty well bought and paid for by big international companies when it comes to innovation - they have repeatedly voted to weaken the US patent system when it comes to protecting the inventions of individuals and small and mid sized companies. Another lopsided win in the House for large international companies that have appropriating IP from smaller entities as part of their business plans last week when they passed legislation that makes it much harder to sue for patent infringement.

Still, regardless of how much technology we offshore and then import, STEM in general, and engineering in particular, is one place where graduates today can pretty well assure themselves of good jobs upon graduation. Far better to have a degree in engineering than in, say, gender studies, or even English lit or Religion. Master's degrees in engineering are routinely earning many, if not most, of their recipients 6 figure starting salaries. At a time when many college grads are earning minimum wage.

And, much of STEM appears rapidly to be feminizing, or really, ceasing to be as masculine, with a couple of exceptions - so far (e.g. CS, EE, mining, petroleum). Its where the jobs are, and with young women doing better as undergraduates, it should be no surprise that they are pushing themselves into STEM.

At my kid's recent college graduation, 2/3 of the Summas were young women, and of them, over half had STEM majors. And, an almost identical percentage for the young men. And, their entering mechanical engineering PhD class is almost exactly 50/50. Pretty soon, it will be like law school, where some of the women can't get dates because there are so many of them.

David Davenport said...

At my kid's recent college graduation, 2/3 of the Summas were young women, and of them, over half had STEM majors.

What college is that? And how many Summas were there that year?

And, an almost identical percentage for the young men. And, their entering mechanical engineering PhD class is almost exactly 50/50.

How many peepul is the entering mechanical engineer "PhD class"?

Pretty soon, it will be like law school, where some of the women can't get dates because there are so many of them.

Instapundit says law school enrollments are dwindling.

Kevin said...

Kirsten Gillibrand studied Asian Studies and law and works as a lawyer. How does she know ANYTHING about STEM and what will make for good STEM students?

Hagar said...

As far as I can tell, women civil engineers follow a Larry Summers distribution.