Today, we ask what little girls are made of. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
All right, little girls
aren't made of sugar and spice and everything nice.
But tell me: are little boys and little girls made
differently? That question goes back beyond
Aristotle. Aristotle himself simply said that women
The more formal Aristotelian view was that men are
hot and dry. Women are cold and moist. The sun is
male. The moon is female. Galen's idea that women
are just imperfect men lasted until the 17th
century. Then modern experimental science changed
the way we asked the question. We began looking for
scientific ways to set women aside from men.
Historian Lhonda Schiebinger shows us that the
focus, oddly enough, was not on genitalia. It was
on skeletons. Skeletons seemed to be God-given
patterns that define us. And they have no
genitalia. By 1730 anatomists, who'd once ignored
female cadavers, caught the beat of the rationalist
drum. We replaced all that talk about heat and cold
Fine drawings of female skeletons appeared. Most
showed the differences correctly -- then
exaggerated them slightly. Rib cages were just a
little too narrow -- hips, a little too wide. Marie
Thiroux d'Arconville was an anatomist who used a
male pseudonym. She drew a female skeleton in 1759.
Her model had worn tight corsets in life, so its
rib cage was far too narrow.
By 1790 another wind blew through the male/female
argument. It was the rising worship of nature. We
turned to arguments over what was natural. The new
catchword "complementarity" appeared. Men and women
complement each other. Women are like this -- men
are like that. But they nest together like Yin and
Yang. Women breed while men fight. It is the
Women writers, who now had a foothold in the life
of the mind, used the idea. They said, sure we have
a natural role, and thought is part of it. But
philosophers like Kant and Rousseau didn't see
anything natural in that. Anatomists, with their
wide-hipped skeletons, had said: "The destiny of
woman is to have children and nourish them." That,
said Rousseau, is woman's natural role -- a role
that's complementary to man.
The other day this all came back in new clothing. A
woman told me about new data. It seems that less
cartilage separates women's left and right brains.
The hasty conclusion is that women do better
bicameral thinking -- that they're more intuitive
than men. The data hint that women are different.
And the difference complements men according to the
old stereotypes. Pseudoscience has found one more
way to say women are different and, being
different, are less than men. I doubt it, of
course. I doubt it very much.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds