20th century / Science

Evidence and Reason, My Heroes and Guides: Naomi Weisstein

By Caroline Buckee

One of the most pervasive and damaging myths about the differences between the sexes is that women are fundamentally less rational than men. This stereotype is particularly apparent in the context of science and mathematics; in 2005 the Dean of Harvard University suggested that the current under-representation of females in science and engineering reflects an inherent lack of ability among women ‘at the high end’. Nearly forty years ago, however, a young neuroscientist called Naomi Weisstein changed the face of female psychology, using the scientific method to demonstrate a complete lack of evidence for these types of outdated ideas. Her insightful and rigorous essays uncovered flaws in theories of female psychology at a time when the majority of (male) psychologists openly agreed that a woman’s biology made her ‘destined to bear the offspring of chosen men’. The fact that these lessons appear to have been forgotten, or more likely were never fully accepted in academic establishments such as Harvard, highlights the importance of revisiting Weisstein’s contribution to her field, and places responsibility upon current female scientists to act to change attitudes within their own fields.

Naomi Weisstein

As a neuroscience PhD student at Harvard University in the early 1960s, Weisstein was not allowed to use the scientific equipment because she was a woman, and could not be trusted to use it properly. She was also banned from the library, since women ‘distracted from serious scholarship’. Despite these setbacks, Weisstein graduated top of her class in just three years. More frustrations followed when she was forced to take a junior, non-tenured position at the University of Chicago, where her husband had been hired. Nevertheless, she pioneered new ideas in the field of visual neuroscience, and changed our understanding of the cognitive and neural processes behind vision. Weisstein’s defiance in the face of open discrimination and bullying is not the subject of this article, however, but the background to her faith in the scientific method, and her insistence on applying ‘evidence and reason’ to the field of female psychology and to issues of socially constructed gender roles.

During the 1960s, psychologists and biologists generally believed that the roles of women in society were largely dictated by innate biological urges leading women to ‘want first and foremost to be womanly companions of men and to be mothers’ (Bettelheim). In a tradition started by Freud, psychologists like Bettelheim had for centuries relied upon ‘extensive clinical experience’ to support major theories of psychology and human behaviour. As Weisstein pointed out, clinical experience is a perfectly good basis for formulating a hypothesis, but theories formulated in this way remain entirely speculative in the absence of empirical evidence. In parallel, biologists were studying non-human primates as examples of the ‘natural’ structure of primate societies, and concluded that the aggressive, dominant male and nurturing, submissive female roles were the norm for primates. As a result, the consensus view at the time was that ‘much of a young woman’s identity is already defined in her kind of attractiveness and in the selectivity of her search for the man by whom she wishes to be sought’.

In Psychology Constructs the Female, Weisstein’s central argument against this dogma was that clinical psychologists and psychiatrists generally accepted these theories without any empirical evidence whatsoever, and failed to account for the substantial amount of data showing that human behavior is largely dictated by social expectations, not sex. Thus, the consensus view reflected the ‘fantasy life of the male psychologist’ rather than reality. Weisstein emphasized the importance of scientific concepts such as double blinds and controls during experiments, as well as the need for replication and consistency in experimental outcomes. As an example of the complex role of social expectation on human behavior, Weisstein discussed an experiment where two groups of equivalent subjects were given IQ tests but one group of experimenters were told that their subjects ‘showed great promise’. This group showed a significantly higher average score on the test, despite no real difference in ability. Numerous other studies since have shown similar results, supporting Weisstein’s point that ‘people behave as you expect them to behave’. The fact that females during the 50s and 60s conformed to psychologists’ stereotypes of women ‘wanting to be womanly companions of men’, therefore, was completely uninformative about underlying truths concerning female psychology.

Weisstein also examined the contribution of biologists to the field. Her survey of the literature on non-human primates revealed a systematic bias towards species in which human gender norms are exaggerated, such as baboons, where highly aggressive and dominant males protect and mate with several subdominant females. Studies of species such as gibbons and mandarins, where females and males are monogamous and rear offspring together, were largely absent. Furthermore, she showed that attempts to link inherent differences between males and females to differences in sex hormones were based on fundamentally unscientific samples of non-human species. Weisstein demonstrated that the data showed no systematic relationship between levels of testosterone and aggressiveness, dominance, child-rearing, or hunting ability, for example. More importantly, she argued that comparing human societies with non-human primate societies as a way to understand what is ‘natural’ is in itself of limited scientific value. Her rigorous scientific approach to dismantling stereotypes about female roles and psychology fundamentally changed the way feminists and non-feminists alike thought about these issues.

Interestingly, in 1993 Psychology Constructs the Female was reprinted in a special edition of the journal Feminism and Psychology, and faced criticism from many feminists who condemned science as a masculine enterprise, so flawed and subjective as to be useless. Weisstein rejected these views, however, arguing that the scientific method works even when the scientific establishment is prone to bias and sexism. The concepts of falsifiability and reproducibility, the cornerstones of the scientific method, provide valid and powerful mechanisms for changing ideas. In a response that chastised feminists for hiding behind subjectivism, Weisstein’s impassioned plea for a return to an ‘activist, challenging, badass feminist psychology’ still resonates. Forty years on her message remains relevant, and reminds us that we still have a long way to go.

Erikson. E, Inner and Outer Space: Reflections on Womanhood (1964)
Bettelheim, B, The Commitment Required of a Woman Entering a Scientific Profession in Present-Day American Society, Woman and the Scientific Professions, paper presented at the MIT Symposium on American Women in Science and Engineering. (1965)
Weisstein. N, Kinder, Kuche, Kirche as Scientific Law: Psychology Constructs the Female (1968)
Weisstein. N, Psychology Constructs the Female; or the Fantasy Life of the MalePsychologist (with Some Attention to the Fantasies of his Friends, the Male Biologist and the Male Anthropologist , Feminism Psychology(1993)