Reflecting on “Functionalism, Darwinism, and the Psychology of Women” 40 Years Later

The August 2016 issue of Feminism & Psychology features a special focus section looking back at Stephanie Shield’s seminal “Functionalism, Darwinism, and the Psychology of Women” some 40 years on. Full details on the pieces that make up this special section follow below.

Special Focus: “Functionalism, Darwinism, and the psychology of women” forty years on: reflections, implications and empirical work
I. Special Focus: Revisiting “the woman question”
Lisa Lazard, Hale Bolak Boratav, and Helen Clegg

II. “Functionalism, Darwinism, and the Psychology of Women” as critical feminist history of psychology: Discourse communities and citation practices
Shayna Fox Lee, Alexandra Rutherford, and Michael Pettit

III. Historical significance of Shields’ 1975 essay: A brief commentary on four major contributions
Rhoda Unger and Andrea L Dottolo

This article argues that Shields’ work demonstrated that it is impossible to practice value-free science. And, despite the efforts of many feminist psychologists who have argued that the question of sex differences is someone else’s question, biological theories about the differences between women and men are still popular and influential today. This paper will call attention to four areas of scholarship produced by second-wave feminist psychologists who were inspired by Shields’ work: (1) rediscovery of the work of first-wave feminist psychologists, (2) discussion of the impossibility of value-free research on sex differences, (3) introduction of new categories of analysis such as “gender” and reframing research based on these new categories, and (4) addition of more value-laden categories to sex such as race, social class, and sexuality and using intersectionality theory to design new avenues of research.

IV. Has the psychology of women stopped playing handmaiden to social values?
Alice H Eagly

V. An examination of women’s professional visibility in cognitive psychology
Jyotsna Vaid and Lisa Geraci

Mainstream psychological research has been characterized as androcentric in its construction of males as the norm. Does an androcentric bias also characterize the professional visibility of psychologists? We examined this issue for cognitive psychology, where the gender distribution in doctoral degrees has been roughly equal for several decades. Our investigation revealed that, across all indicators surveyed, male cognitive psychologists are more visible than their female counterparts: they are over-represented in professional society governance, as editors-in-chief of leading journals in the field, as Fellows in professional societies, and as recipients of prestigious senior level awards. Taken together, our findings indicate that a gender parity in doctoral degrees in cognitive psychology does not translate into a parity in professional visibility. We discuss a variety of potential reasons for the observed gender gap and suggest that, without attention to gendered structures of status and power, as noted by Shields, existing gender hierarchies may persist and be reproduced.

VI. Feminist psychology – poststructuralism, class and maternal subjectivities: Where are we and where should we go next?
Bridgette Rickett

VII. Moving toward integrative feminist evolutionary behavioral sciences
Justin R Garcia and Leslie L Heywood

There is a long history of mostly antagonist interactions between feminist and evolutionary scholarship in the behavioral sciences. However, recent theoretical and empirical advances have highlighted that “nature” and “nurture” are not mutually exclusive, or even divorceable, levels of explanation. New developments in evolutionary theory, articulated under the name of “the extended synthesis,” show significant promise for integrating feminist and evolutionary approaches to the study of human behavior. The extended synthesis provides feminist inquiry and research an expanded ground on which to enter the conversation, such as with the inclusion of “fast” evolution – the idea that genetic and epigenetic (environmentally influenced gene expression) traits can change within a generation – which demonstrates that there has in fact been evolutionary time to (adaptively) alter behavior and physiology. This integration has the potential to lead to new research paradigms that bridge the old divide between “nature” and “nurture”, resulting in transdisciplinary frameworks that show the interaction effects between each. Feminism and feminist psychology will be more complete descriptors and analyzers of human behavior in this model, and crucial interaction effects historically ignored by both the sciences and humanities may now receive due consideration.

VIII. Captured in terminology: Sex, sex categories, and sex differences
Daphna Joel

Swayed by the clear distinction between male and female genitalia, the question of how far these categories extend into human biology has attracted humans for centuries. This question is sometimes being framed as whether the effects of sex are restricted to the genital organs or penetrate the entire organism. Here I argue that the two questions are not equivalent and that whereas the answer to the question, how far sex penetrates the body, is – deep down to the level of every cell, the answer to the question, how far the categories, “male” and “female”, do, is – probably nowhere beyond the genitals. That the two questions are often used interchangeably reflects the prevailing conceptualization of sex as a dichotomous system or process that exerts profound effects on other systems (e.g., the brain), leading to sexual dimorphism (i.e., two forms, male versus female) also of these systems. Here I discuss the question of whether the effects of sex result in dimorphic systems, focusing on the case of sex effects on the brain. I show that although there are sex/gender differences in brain and behavior, humans and human brains are comprised of highly variable ‘mosaics’ of features, some more prevalent in females, others more prevalent in males.

IX. Brains, variability, and inheritance: The relevance of Shields (1975) in 21st century times
Peter Hegarty

X. Functionalism, Darwinism, and intersectionality: Using an intersectional perspective to reveal the appropriation of science to support the status quo
Stephanie A Shields

Why should anyone care about long-dead 19th-century scientists’ thoughts about the differences between women and men? And what does such a paper have to say to our contemporary concerns? I believe that knowledge of this history is invaluable to the health and progress of feminist psychology. This history, when viewed through an intersectional lens, can give us insight into the complex way in which values can constrict research questions and methods, can narrow and oversimplify what counts as “data,” and can be used as a regressive instrument to shore up the sociocultural status quo. In this paper I first briefly review the context in which “Functionalism, Darwinism, and the Psychology of Women” (hereinafter Functionalism/Darwinism) was written. Then I examine what the addition of an intersectionality perspective to that work adds to our understanding of the history of the psychology of women and gender. I focus on the intersection of gender and race (and briefly touch on social class) because these were critical to 19th-century scientific justifications for existing status and power relations.

About Jacy Young

Jacy Young is a professor at Quest University Canada. A critical feminist psychologist and historian of psychology, she is committed to critical pedagogy and public engagement with feminist psychology and the history of the discipline.