Scientists and psychologists in other areas have long questioned the aims and findings of evolutionary psychologists and researchers in related fields. Applying the laws of evolutionary biology to the human psyche has its detractors. Evolutionary psychology is by no means an uncontentious player in the field.
Even so, articles appear again and again, authoritatively telling us ("us" often meaning women) of the newest findings about motherhood and women's roles in society. One such recent article is "Femina Sapiens in the Nursery" by Kay Hymowitz in City Journal (Autumn 2009).
Hymowitz's article is more balanced than many I have seen and brings in reference to neuroscience, primatology, and genetics, but for all its discussion of the complex frontal cortex of women and their rightful place running the state department, Hymowitz leaves the overall impression that women are driven by hormones which are tanatmount to a "maternal instinct." And although she claims that she believes the answer to the question of female identity is a mystery, the article itself leaves far less room for it.
The article's subtitle - "The conflict between parenting and career is hardwired in the female brain" - doesn't really relay the thrust of Hymowitz's argument. She acknowledges that women have a role to play in society, other than the mothering role, because of the overall development of the frontal cortex in humans generally. Women, like men, have developed the abilities necessary for careers. But a conflict will result because women have an even more primordial hardwiring to be mothers.
Feminists have long questioned the findings of evolutionary psychologists, especially as one of the main areas of investigation has to do with sexuality, mating, and offspring. Hymowitz believes that many findings of evolutionary psychologists will force feminists to admit defeat:.
Especially galling to feminists has been the field of evolutionary psychology, which proposes that evolution has fundamentally shaped human sexual and reproductive behavior—behavior that often seems to conform to the worst stereotypes.
I think that Hymowitz understands neither feminists nor the limits of the data she promotes.
Hymowitz offers two recent stories in the news about mothers who found it difficult to either stop breastfeeding or return to work, leaving a young child. Her first example:
Consider a recent article by Hanna Rosin in The Atlantic. Rosin finds that nursing her infant is holding her back from the work she enjoys, despite her plan for a fully egalitarian marriage... She combs through research on the health benefits of breast-feeding for babies and makes a convincing case that they aren’t as strong as experts have insisted. So does she quit nursing? She does not—even though, she admits, “I’m not really sure why.”Why does Rosin continue? According to Hymowitz, it is because she has mammary glands. Isn't this begging the question? She has mammary glands which allow her to feed her infant, so she continues to use them because she has them!
The other story is by Katie Roiphe who describes an “'addiction to her newborn baby that left her indifferent to work."
Hymowitz ignores much in both stories. First, both Rosin and Roiphe are writers/journalists, and the first rule for a good story is to have conflict. I'm not saying that the stories aren't true, just that they are stories to be published and to compel readers - perhaps not the best examples.
Second, Hymowitz and others who make these arguments ignore the numbers of women who do not feel this conflict, or do not want or have children at all. She also ignores the data regarding women who neglect and/or abuse their children. She assumes the model of the nuclear family also, ignoring other arrangements in which mothers hand off the care of their infants to wet nurses and nannies. She also does not factor in the common social pressure to breastfeed or stay home with young children that many mothers feel, nor does she discuss the fact that many women would be reluctant to be full-time mothers, workers, and homemakers.
Finally, she ignores another compelling argument. While it is true that feminists "consider sexual identity a “social construct,” a human—or, to be more precise, a male—invention," it is not true that they deny that the females of the species carry and give birth to the offspring or have the equipment with which to feed them. Feminists, scientists, philosophers, psychologists, post-modernists, to name a few, do, however, question how much these facts influence identity, sexual or otherwise. So it is not to say that oxytocin has no influence on women, nor is it to deny that oxytocin may be the hormonal name for the "maternal instinct," rather it is to say that this hormone may not shape female behaviour to the extent that some would believe or wish.
The impetus to define women predominantly as mothers has been around for millenia; such a definition serves the patriarchal status quo. It is always interesting to trace the ways in which the claim is argued and supported, changing over centuries as human understanding of what it is to be human changes and as science and technology give us new tools with which to frame the hypothesis.
Women will be mothers; women will love and be connected to their children; women will find it difficult to leave their children and return to work. No argument from me and no judgement about women's choices. Women will also choose not to have children, will choose careers, will have children and regret it, or refuse to breastfeed.
Hymowitz asks "In the struggle for equality between the sexes, it keeps coming down to motherhood, doesn’t it?" My answer to that is a definite, "No, it doesn't!" My regret is over how many people wish it were so.
Kay S. Hymowitz is a contributing editor of City Journal and the William E. Simon Fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Her latest book is Marriage and Caste in America.
I would like to invite Kay Hymowitz to my soiree.