The Rational Man & the Emotional Woman: Questioning the Myths that So Often Define Us

Posted on May 4th, by Elizabeth Debold in Uncategorized. Comments Off on The Rational Man & the Emotional Woman: Questioning the Myths that So Often Define Us

In all species where there is a male and female, “except the bear and leopard,” Aristotle wrote, “the females are less spirited than the males. The females are softer and more mischievous.” Continuing, he asserts that, “Woman is more compassionate than man, more tearful, but at the same time more jealous, more apt to scold, more shameless, more prone to despondency, more deceptive. The male is more courageous and ready to help.”

There you have it, 2300 years ago: women are emotional, and, as he notes elsewhere, men are rational.

While Aristotle is often the whipping boy of feminists who accuse him of institutionalizing male supremacy in the Western philosophical canon, I don’t blame him. In a warrior culture in which might made right, males were stronger, which automatically meant better. Believing in the superiority of his culture—as we are all wont to do—Aristotle saw in it the expression of a natural order. The female, according to Aristotle, was an inferior derivative of the male for very straightforward and practical reasons. She wasn’t really fit for battle. So, in terms of the values of his times, I have no complaint with Aristotle. In fact, I find his view that male and female constitute strong and weak versions of one thing more potentially workable than the common idea that women and men are species from different planets.

This brings me to my point: Why is it that the emotional woman and rational man are still foundational to female and male identity? At this point in the twenty-first century, we espouse a belief in gender equity at the same time that we believe in fundamental differences between women and men that echo Aristotle. What makes for fascinating ancient history is a disaster in our contemporary culture. I’m not arguing that men and women are the same, or that they should be the same. Equity doesn’t mean equality in the sense of “sameness.” But the blanket categorization of male/female, men/women within a polarity of rational/emotional—which implicitly means “irrational”—is the problem. As we work to create a culture in which women and men are both responsible for caring and creating, aligning with either rationality or emotionality as core to one’s sense of maleness or femaleness is both misguided and self-defeating. This belief is hard to uproot in ourselves and in our culture, because for several thousand years at least, our philosophy, science, and psychology have asserted the truth of this fundamental difference. But is it actually true? A look at the evidence suggests that, ironically, the belief itself may lean toward the irrational.

The notion that women are the more emotional sex has burrowed into our individual and collective psyches for millennia. A 2001 Gallup poll of US adults found that an astounding ninety percent believed that the word “emotional” applied more often to women. As Habermas says, culture is made up of shared intersubjective agreements that form the core assumptions that we have about self, other, and reality. These agreements are not conscious, yet they are encoded in language, enacted in the way we inhabit our bodies, and shared through habit and custom. The word for extremely emotional, “hysterical,” comes from the Greek word for “womb.” If you think of a man who is “effeminate,” this term, too, suggests emotionality. [in Deutsche?] Who we are is shaped by these agreements, and we all agree that women are emotional.

I am taking the time and space to emphasize the depth of the polarization of reason/emotion along gender lines because this idea constructs our identities, our deeply felt sense of self. In our egalitarian niche, one would think that declaring women as emotional rather than rational would be absurd, yet rather than change this cultural belief, today women’s emotionality is often considered a sign of women’s unique strength. Amongst many progressives, particularly those who are spiritually minded, the ills of Modernity and scientific materialism (environmental destruction, resource depletion, human alienation and exploitation) are blamed on a so-called masculine leadership and a narrow-minded, bottom-line-oriented reason. Simultaneously, the belief that women possess greater “emotional intelligence” is often seen as the antidote, thus making emotion “more human” and valued than reason. Yet this flip in value of male-reason and female-emotion simply keeps the same polarity in place. At this point, whether viewed negatively as irrational or positively as more sensitive, the connection between female and emotional is deeply engrained in our social discourse and fully embodied in women themselves.

Now let’s establish some basics: females and males are physiologically different and have different hormonal profiles. The hypothalamus, which produces hormones, is slightly larger in males. After puberty, females cry more often than males do, between four and five times as much per month. Adult women—but not prepubescent girls—have more anxiety disorders, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorders than adult males. But what is the source of women’s greater emotionality? “Raging hormones” is often the answer: women’s menstrual cycle. Pre-Menstrual Syndrome (PMS) supposedly makes women more emotional and, therefore, irrational. Oddly enough, however, PMS doesn’t exist among women outside the West, although it’s not understood why. Moreover, researchers have not found easy correlations, let alone causal relationship, between women’s hormone cycles and their emotional responses. The reason that girls become more often depressed and anxious as they enter adolescence has more to do with their cognitive awareness of the overwhelming expectations of being a teen girl. As a researcher in the Netherlands in the 1990s concluded, “The general idea that women are more emotional than men tells us more about Western sex stereotypes than about women’s actual emotions.”

            This “general idea” is a source of women’s identity—believed by women themselves. In a study addressing the question whether women are more emotional than men, a group of US researchers asked male and female university students for one week to record their emotions related to their social interactions. Men and women reported no difference in their actual emotions at the time of the interactions: the range and frequency of feelings was the same. When asked to recall what happened at a later point, differences emerged. The young women saw themselves as more emotionally expressive and focused more on their emotional experience than the young men did—which may well have been so. We, as a culture, expect and allow women to be emotionally expressive in ways that it is frowned upon for men. The researchers suggested that the women’s self-concept, rooted in the cultural belief of women’s greater emotionality, effected the way that they recalled their experience. In other words, if girls grow up in a context in which women’s emotionality is what defines being a woman, then they will interpret their experience through this belief.

What about male hormones? How do they relate to our belief in the rational man? With all of the chest-thumping about testosterone, I find it particularly odd that culturally males are considered to be the more rational sex.. But when we think “emotional” and “hormones,” we don’t tend to conjure up a picture of a man even though testosterone is a hormone linked to aggression and dominance behaviors. The power of these shared agreements that culturally construct our identities is that they lead us not to see what would otherwise be obvious: men, clearly, are driven by emotion just as women are. It’s also important not to overgeneralize here, too: testosterone levels are not something that only males have, and are subject to enormous variation and responsive to different social contexts. Men who are responsible for taking care of children, for example, have significantly lower testosterone levels than men who are not. We don’t hear much about the women who, without medical intervention, have higher base levels of testosterone than the average male. The eagerness to prove that polar male-female differences exist and are biologically, rather than culturally, driven leads to sloppy research and to self-images that distort our own perceptions.

Our habit of seeing, expecting, and wanting to find differences that support the rational/emotional gender split too often guides the interpretation of very complicated brain research. There’s…surprisingly little really convincing evidence that there’s a ‘male’ brain hardwired to be good at understanding the world, and a ‘female’ brain hardwired to understand people,” states neuroscientist Cordelia Fine, author of Delusions of Gender. “Our minds are exquisitely socially attuned, and surprisingly sensitive to gender stereotypes.” Even in experiments, when researchers “push gender into the psychological background, men and women’s behavior becomes remarkably similar,” Fine explains. “But when the environment makes gender salient, even subtly,…our thinking, our behavior, the way we perceive others and even our own selves becomes more consistent with gender stereotypes.”

            Neuroscientists like Fine and Pink Brain, Blue Brain author Lise Eliot warn that the enthusiastic mis-reporting about hardwired brain differences creates an environment that perpetuates the rational/emotional gender polarity. This ends up having implications for social policy and education—creating even more of a cultural context that perpetuates these differences. Recently a study with dramatic drawings of wiring differences but actually quite modest and ambiguous results was heralded as definitive proof of the “male” and “female” brain. Almost immediately, a former Forbes and Financial Times editor blogged that this added weight to arguments against quotas “for female participation in corporate management, in universities, and in fundamental science”—why reserve places for women who just don’t have the right stuff? Fine and Eliot note that we fail to notice the tremendous overlap between males and females on virtually every assessment. Moreover, within-sex differences (among males or among females) are often larger than the between-sex differences that compare males and females. At this point in our cultural development—2300 years after Aristotle—organizing our entire society around these categories, Fine argues, is as arbitrary as organizing around left-handed versus right-handed people. Their brains are wired differently, too.

            The polarity of rational man and emotional woman is so ubiquitous that it’s like water to fish. We swim in it. Now we have to figure out how to change the water in the fish tank while we are the fish. It’s daunting, but it’s also possible—if we realize how much we need to get beyond it. The male/female, reason/emotion polarity constructs both our culture and identities and limits what we can think and be. It obscures a whole range of experience from our perception, also making it difficult to see and support each other in ways that run counter to type. We need each other’s full humanity, not half of it. Habits of thinking and relating in terms of polarities are too primitive for the complexity of our lives. Developing our capacity for thinking beyond the binary and our awareness of the depth of self beyond the conditioned mind can change the reality in which we find ourselves. The integration of emotion and reason into higher forms of sensing, perceiving, and understanding point to a potential that we haven’t experienced before—to be humans, who happen to be rather male or female. We might then find ourselves outside the confines of polarity and in a fresh sea of possibility.




Some of the resources:


Aristotle: “the general idea that women are more emotional than men tells us more about Western sex stereotypes than about women’s actual emotions.” emotional dissonance re identity threat


gender differences in affective disorders


US survey: women seen as more emotional


Adolescents—no clear picture of raging hormones


Stress response differences; females can regulate stress

brain study










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