The BBC is running a “special series” called “Health Gap.” Its focus is “women’s health and wellbeing” and it aims to highlight how “men and women experience the medical system – and their own health – in starkly different ways.” It is clearly a series aimed at feminists — topics include “Why Doctors Dismiss Women’s Pain,” “The Case For Renaming Women’s Body Parts,” and “The Mystery Of The Pelvic Floor” — and it seeks to expose the ways in which women are discriminated against in the medical system. In light of that, the most recent article in the series is somewhat startling. It’s called “How The Menstrual Cycle Changes Women’s Brains — For The Better,” and its premise relies on a big feminist no-no: that men and women are different.
The article is clearly trying to debunk the negative connotations of “that time of the month” by illuminating research that shows the positive effects of female hormones. But, in doing so, the article provides ample proof that sex — i.e. what genitalia you have — and gender — i.e. how you feel about whether you’re male or female — are inextricably linked.
But this connection is something that many modern feminists adamantly deny. The idea that “gender is a social construct” is one of the baseline assumptions of current feminist ideology. For example, if having a girl body doesn’t make it inherently more likely that you will have better social skills and more pronounced nurturing instincts than a boy, then it becomes “biased” to offer a little girl a doll to play with instead of a truck. If the body you have doesn’t determine a general set of inherent traits, then assuming that it does would render all notions of gender difference a “construct.” The only problem is, that’s categorically untrue. In fact, your body actually determines your inherent traits.
According to the BBC article, scientists have been studying women’s menstrual cycles since the 1930s in an attempt to “understand the ways in which men and women are different – and why.” The research has led to many interesting discoveries all pointing to the idea that the differences in male and female bodies lead to differences in priorities, needs, strengths, and interests. In other words, the biology of the body you are born with causes the kinds of behaviors that are associated with the sex of that body.
In one of the studies highlighted in the BBC article, Pauline Maki, a psychologist at the University of Illinois, Chicago, sought to determine how estrogen levels affect women’s abilities throughout the course of their menstrual cycle. The researchers found that “During days when the participants had more female hormones in their systems, they were significantly worse at the things men are usually good at (like spatial awareness) and much better at the things women tend to have an edge in (such as the ability to come up with new words).” In other words, their female bodies — in this case, the estrogen produced in their ovaries — caused these women to behave like… women.
Estrogen affects the brain in two key areas. The hippocampus, which helps store memories, gets bigger the more estrogen is in a woman’s body. “Evidence is mounting that the hippocampus is vital to social abilities,” explains the BBC article, which could be why women are better, in general, at interpersonal communication than men. The amygdala, which processes emotions, is also boosted by estrogen, allowing women to experience heightened empathy and social skills.
The fact that men’s and women’s brains are different in important ways is no secret in the world of science, — as much as modern feminists might wish it were. The BBC is using all this information to prove that menstruation is not a “curse” and a woman’s cycle has a lot of positive effects. But that’s not all it proves. It also proves that a woman’s body chemistry causes her to be better than men at things that women are “traditionally” good at. And that means that gender isn’t a social construct.
None of this is to say that there isn’t nuance and variation or that socialization doesn’t play a role in human development. Plenty of girls enjoy playing with trucks, plenty of men have excellent social skills. But it is to say that the “traditional” or “stereotypical” ideas about masculinity and femininity aren’t a function of an oppressive patriarchy — they’re a function of biology. Men and women are different. Deal with it.