In proposing that differences between women and men are largely social, sociologists have challenged ideas such as those which suggest that men’s social dominance is justified because they are physically stronger. Ideas about what sort of physical tasks women and men are suited for

differ from one culture to another, suggesting that it is not the physical differences themselves, but the social significance attached to them that determines what women and men do. As Margaret Mead (1962/1950) famously observed: different cultures may have different ideas about what tasks women and men should do, but in all cultures whatever men do is considered more valuable. So in many African cultures women do most of the heavy carrying and other hard labour, but this is thought less important than the lighter tasks men typically perform (Oakley, 1972: 141). How different tasks are valued is important in determining how resources are allocated. Therefore if men’s tasks are thought more valu­able, then men are more likely to get what they need to grow big and strong. Women’s lack of power and prestige has often meant they get, or are expected to take, less food than men (Whitehead, 1994). Perhaps if women had been eating the same quantity and quality of food as men over the last several centuries, sex differences in stature and strength would be all but non-existent. Also, the differences that do exist vary. Some women are stronger than some men; and there are different kinds of strength. There are short feats of strength such as lifting heavy weights, or there is having stamina to keep going under trying physical conditions such as the endurance of pain.

Different types of strength might have different levels of importance in different social conditions, and many accounts of how women and men differ look back to prehistory for explanations. Rather tired old arguments suggest that in early societies the kind of strength men supposedly had was essential in doing the heavy work — especially hunting — needed for people to survive and develop as humans (Washburn and Lancaster, 1968). But this ignored the importance of women’s work to community survival. Feminist anthropologists of the 1970s, building on Margaret Mead’s work of the 1940s, disputed that men are universally stronger, and were critical of claims that human groups have depended on brute strength for survival. Sally Slocum (1975), for example, questioned arguments that hunter-gatherer societies relied on the masculine strength needed for hunting wild animals to eat. She pointed out that those societies got most of their diet from the food gathered by women. Gathering was a constant and physically demanding task, and for most women this task was combined with bearing and caring for children. In some cases women also hunted small animals. In short, it seems clear that women have not simply depended on men (and male strength) for their survival, as has often been stated. While these stories are helpful in trying to understand sex differences, they are often based on guesses about the past made by looking at small traditional societies now. But these societies are not completely untouched by change and the modern world, so the guesses may be inaccurate. There may be discontinuities

with the past that disappear if we try to see history as a smooth forward progression.

The search for some origin from which current differences between women and men emerged tends to hark back to a mythic state of nature in which differences between women and men were somehow untouched by social forces. This is a fruitless search because the defin­ing feature of humanity is some form of social organization. Humans not only adapt to their environment but adapt their environment to live; they build dwellings, they cut down trees. People continue to adapt their environment and adapt to it, sometimes in fairly haphazard ways. As social change has accelerated there is not always time for our bodies to evolve to meet current needs. In technological societies, for example, brute physical strength is not (if it ever was) crucial to survival. In fact, social attitudes to physical sex differences are also struggling to keep up with new scientific developments in areas such as reproductive technology, genetic engineering and cybernetics (see Haraway, 1985).

If physical differences between women and men are as uncertain and blurred as it now appears, what can be said about arguments that differences in men and women’s bodies affect how they think? Scientists (usually men) over the centuries have tried to show that there are significant biologically based differences in intelligence between the sexes. But what the differences are and what they mean are open to interpretation (Oakley, 1972: 79—98). Some nineteenth century Britons thought that women’s reproductive systems made them unfit for serious intellectual activity. Supporters of this view argued that women should not be admitted to universities because the mental strain would make them infertile (Delamont, 1978). There have also been disputes about the relative importance of slight differences in brain size and ways of using different parts of the brain. Whether there are differences and whether they are significant continues to be debated. Nineteenth century scien­tists argued that the smaller size of women’s brains compared to men’s meant that women were ‘naturally’ intellectually inferior. Then it was pointed out that women were usually smaller and lighter than men; in relation to their body size women’s brains were on average actually bigger than men’s. At this point most male scientists then decided that maybe smaller brains were better! They also began to look at other differences in brains, which might prove what they wanted to prove — that men were smarter than women. Whatever they found they tended to interpret in ways favourable to men (Figes, 1978/1970: 126; Schiebinger, 1989). But even if there are physical differences in brains are there really significant differences in how women and men think and, if so, how do these come about?