Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Of Men and Menses

(by DG - guest writer):

Gordon Liddy gained notoriety in the Nixon administration for the famous burglary of the Democratic National Headquarters in the Watergate Complex, approximately 37 years ago, right around this time of year. That resulted in his imprisonment as a felon. Liddy recently spoke disparagingly on his radio show about the nomination of Judge Sotomayor. Mr. Liddy, a proponent of right wing conservative views, expressed very dire concerns over the quality of the decisions Judge Sotomayor might make while menstruating. Given Liddy's multiple violations of the law in the past, I find his expressed concern for our legal system disingenuous at best. His offensive comments are self-serving; Sotomayor doesn't share Liddy's political views. I haven't been able to find any similar observations from Liddy when Sandra Day O'Connor was a Supreme Court nominee. Liddy's statement was not only ignorant, it was appallingly crass.

I do not know the status of Judge Sotomayor's reproductive organs, I do not want to know. Nor do I wish to know the reproductive health details of any of the current Supreme Court Justices, serving or retired. My disinterest is two-fold, that those matters of are of a personal nature that should remain private; and that those matters have no bearing whatsoever on how they perform their public, civic duties on the bench. In her very selectively quoted speech, "A Latina Justice's Voice", in a part not widely quoted, Supreme Court nominee Sotomayor speaks in praise of the writings of Judge Miriam Cederbaum:"Now Judge Cedarbaum expresses concern with any analysis of women and presumably again(st*) people of color on the bench, which begins and presumably ends with the conclusion that women or minorities are different from men generally. She sees danger in presuming that judging should be gender or anything else based. She rightly points out that the perception of the differences between men and women is what led to many paternalistic laws and to the denial to women of the right to vote because we were described then "as not capable of reasoning or thinking logically" but instead of "acting intuitively." I am quoting adjectives that were bandied around famously during the suffragettes' movement."

Mr.Liddy would appear to be affirming the premise of those antiquated, disgraced paternalistic laws: that women should not be allowed the same civil rights as men, such as voting or public service. Those views assert women are inferior to men, because they are different. After a cursory look, I can find no indication that Liddy is personally acquainted with Sotomayor, so his fears about her judgement and menstruation must be an assumption, a generality, not based on either fact or experience. It could not be based on any behavior from the bench that Sotomayor has or has not done that was attributed to menstruating, because no one knows such intimate information. Unless Liddy gets an opportunity to interview Sotomayor, I doubt any member of the media will venture to ask such personal questions.

I would encourage readers from across the spectrum of political thought to read, in full, a very funny satiric essay written some 38 years ago by one of the feminist founders of Ms. magazine, Gloria Steinem. Before her role as one of the founders of Ms. Magazine, Ms. Steinem worked as a journalist, including a stint as a Playboy Bunny for an expose, a detail offered as background to the essay.
I found the essay on the internet; it is widely available. The essay, "If Men Could Menstruate", was written in 1971. It was published in Ms. Magazine, coincidentally during the term of President Richard Millhouse Nixon, in whose service Mr. Liddy committed the felonies of burglary, conspiracy and illegal wiretapping. The following quotes from the essay summarize the premise:

"..the characteristics of the powerful, whatever they may be, are thought to be better than the characteristics of the powerless - and logic has nothing to do with it.

What would happen, for instance, if suddenly, magically, men could menstruate and women could not?

The answer is clear - menstruation would become an enviable, boast-worthy, masculine event:
             Men would brag about how long and how much.

Boys would mark the onset of menses, that longed-for proof of manhood, with religious ritual and stag parties."

The second quote from Ms. Steinem's essay:

"Military men, right-wing politicians, and religious fundamentalists would cite menstruation ("men-struation") as proof that only men could serve in the Army ("you have to give blood to take blood"), occupy political office ("can women be aggressive without that steadfast cycle governed by the planet Mars?"), be priest and ministers ("how could a woman give her blood for our sins?") or rabbis ("without the monthly loss of impurities, women remain unclean")."

Mr. Liddy appears to be operating under the assumptions that all women are adversely affected by normal hormonal functions associated with estrus, to such a degree that women in positions of power or authority, such as Supreme Court Justices, are incapable of effectively, efficiently, and appropriately carrying out the duties of those positions.

Presumably, Mr. Liddy sees no difficulties affecting job performance due to the presence of the equivalent male hormones in men, such as testosterone, despite the large degree to which testosterone levels fluctuate in individuals, over time as a function of aging, and in response to environmental stimuli. Healthy adult men and women naturally produce testosterone, an anabolic steroid, but the amounts produced by males are approximately 50 times greater than the amounts produced by females. Testosterone has long been associated with aggression, hostility, dominancy, and stress response, attention and memory, spatial ability, and key cognitive functions, even cognitive decline and risk of dementias such as Alzheimer's.

The qualities of testosterone and its effects are far too complex to discuss seriously here in a fair and evenhanded manner; but it would be as ludicrous to take the above mentioned associations with testosterone, and assert that it being present normally in adult men negates their ability to function safely in any capacity, comparable to Mr. Liddy's alarms about menstruation in women like Justice Sotomayor.

ARE there men who have testosterone related difficulties - either too much, or too little? Of course there are, but that does not generalize to all men. ARE there women who suffer from hormone imbalanced difficulties, such as PMS? Of course, but that does not logically extrapolate to women generally either, or to Justice Sotomayor specifically.

There is an interesting study that was done in 2006 by scientists at Cambridge University that is more objective than the opinions of Mr. Liddy on the differences in performance, particularly performance related to stress and risk evaluation. It looks at how the two genders perform differently, involving the monitoring of testosterone and cortisol levels. "Endogenous steroids and financial risk taking on a London trading floor", by J. M. Coates and J. Herbert, is available on the web site of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. For those who don't have the time to wade through it, there are numerous articles on the internet that summarize it in greater detail than I present here.

This study explores the fascinating field of neuroeconomics, measuring the changes in testosterone and cortisol levels of traders on the London stock market, the relationship to profitability and risk assessment, and the correlation to economic events, specifically the response to an exceptionally volatile kind of trading. In brief, the study indicated that too much testosterone destabilizes risk taking and risk evaluation, rather than enhancing it; too much testosterone correlates to underestimating risk; too much cortisol in connection with testosterone correlates to overestimating risk. It would be a mistake to over-reach the conclusions of this one study; the data gathering took place over a relatively brief time, and the numbers of subjects were small. There are other numerous studies that examine the correlation between the physiological aspects of brain, behavior, and hormones, specific to financial activity, and across other activities; I won't presume to present a comprehensive picture here. The point is that there are better, more objective sources than misogynistic stereotypes and 'old wives tales' for recognizing and understanding gender differences.

There ARE very real differences between men and women; it is foolish to assert we are all the same. It is equally stupid to assert that one gender is superior to another, the assertion suffers from the too broad flaw of glittering generalities. Every individual will have distinctly separate positive and negative qualities; we can only be assessed validly as an individual, not generic male or female. Liddy perpetuates superficial, noncritical thinking that is far more dangerous to our society and political institutions than the risks of an individual's gender adversely affecting their judgement.

(From Penigma: The contrast is serious and hilarious - but the final sentence sums it up well. The actions of those interested only in their political dominance, as evidenced by their often shallow and wilfully offensive views does more damage to our democracy than do any perceived differences of gender, race, or and even especially religion. People like Liddy pray upon the lack of interest or time of their followers to seek understanding, and instead play upon hatred and ignorance. That ignorance is the devil's playground, not hormones and certainly not the womb. Thank you for the excellent post (again), DG).


  1. I greatly enjoy your writing, Dog Gone. It is clear, analytical and precise. Unlike many right wing bloggers, your arguments tend to be reasoned and to poke holes in the "arguments" presented by those who would tear this country down instead of build it up.

    I'm not entirely surprised at Mr. Liddy's comments. He, like so many right wing commentators, seem to have gotten their marching orders to oppose a qualified jurist no matter what, and to pick at nits until they do some damage. Of course, what damage they're doing is not to Judge Sotomayor. They are doing damage to their own credibility.

    Are men and women different? Of course they are. Its nonsensical to argue otherwise. Will men and women sometimes have different opinions on a subject just because they are man and woman? Perhaps, but I venture to say that a professional, responsible jurist will not allow her gender (or race, or any other protected status) to give other than a responsible, qualified answer to a legal question posed before her.

    The only comment I would make about your post is that you seem to, in my opinion, be giving Mr. Liddy more attention than he deserves. He's a right wing wacko, and the sooner history sweeps him into its dustbin, the better.

  2. Thank you for the compliment, ToE. I am an admirer of your blog.

    Hopefully Mr. Liddy was not given more attention than he merits. Sadly, from my perspective as a woman, I have met too many men who think the same way.

    The question is, how likely are any of those individuals to read something that challenges their misconceptions?

  3. I'd put the odds at 10%, meaning no more than 1 in 10 of the extremes of either party are willing to challenge their views - but instead prefer echo-chambers so that they can feel comfortable and 'normal' in their extremism.

    Case in point, SiTD, only a handful of those readers venture outside the right-wing blogosphere, and none I know of attempt to engage the 'other side' in meaningful discussion in the manner which you (or I) do, DG.