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Battle of the Sexes Revisited
A rival psychological theory of the culture war
There’s a lot of data in what I’ve written here, so in the interests of time and simplicity I’m going to highlight the point up front, which is: the defining cultural and political faultline of our era is the one between Men and Women. It rarely declares itself as such, and it may be more accurate to say the line is between “characteristically masculine and feminine” but I’ll get into that nuance further below.
The main inspiration for this is this recent Richard Hanania essay, “a psychological theory of the culture war”. The more I thought about the points raised, the more the Sex-difference angle seemed not just an important thing but the most important thing.
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In the sections below I’m going to go through the consistent difference between men and women on cultural issues and how that feeds into to the priorities of political parties; how that is reinforced through a male/ female education gap, and how average differences in expression between the sexes means this will lead to institutions behaving differently depending on who populates them.
Since the USA is patient zero for cultural changes, I’ve erred on the side of using American stats to illustrate my points.
If you just want to read a summary, fair enough, just skip all that and go to section 4.
Women as a key drivers of social liberalism
On every issue that has become a socio-cultural hot potato over the last 5-10 years, women are disporportionately found on the culturally liberal side. Where those views are also associated with a mainstream political party, women are more likely to vote for that party.
Below are the first polls/ surveys I came across for each issue. In some cases the effect size is small but the cumulative effect and pattern is clear. Not every possible issue is included, but enough to give you a taste.
Women show greater levels of support for BLM.
In this comprehensive poll on public attitudes in the UK to Trans issues, women are more likely than men to support transgender rights across every one of the 20-something issues polled.
This poll on Asylum carried out in Ireland around the time of the Syrian refugee crisis found that in each of the 10 measures polled women were more likely to take the more pro-asylum stance. That includes being more likely to say that incoming asylum seekers should not be vetted by police and that increased numbers of asylum seekers would not lead to more crime.
Women in developed nations are more likely to consider climate change a serious problem, be concerned it will harm them personally, and say that major lifestyle changes are needed to solve the problem.
Women are more likely to support speech restictions and Hate Crime laws, to believe the range of things considered hate crimes should be expanded, and to believe that current laws do not permit hate speech.
Women are more likely to believe that Covid restrictions were a good idea and less likely to believe they were a mistake.
Some figures on how this has influenced membership of major parties over the last few years:
Men Vs Women in the democratic party: “As has been the case for more than two decades of Pew Research Center surveys, women are significantly more likely than men to associate with the Democratic Party.”
Labour Vs Conservative in the UK: “Conservative and Labour support has become more and more divided by gender over time… From 2015 onwards, women have been supporting Labour in higher numbers than men by ever larger margins.”
Education as a proxy for the growing power and influence of women in public life
Education itself is often cited as being the key driver of political polarisation in part because growing partisanship in western countries maps better on to education levels than it does to most other factors.
Here is a representative recent article from New York magazine on this topic, in which the author states:
“…since blue America’s journalists, politicians, and activists are overwhelmingly college graduates, highly educated liberals exert disproportionate influence over their party’s actions and identity. Therefore, as the Democrats’ well-credentialed wing has swelled, the party’s image and ideological positioning have grown more reflective of the professional class’s distinct tastes — and thus less appealing to the electorate’s working-class majority.”
This point is phrased it in class terms, but this could also be understood as being about Sex differences. The story of the increase in the number of people being educated, and the increase in the importance of education is fundamentally a story about women. Education has disproportionately uplifted women into the ranks of the “well-credentialed”. If “professional class” as used in this article as a synonym for “educated”, then it is also increasingly synonymous with “women”, as is “highly educated liberal”.
The stats on this are well known but just to refresh your memory on support for this claim (all of this data taken from this Atlantic article):
American colleges enrol 6 women for every four men.
Women have earned bachelor’s degrees than men every year since the mid-eighties.
In 1970 men were 57% of US college students. This was the year Title XI, which prohibited sex-based discrimination in schools, was introduced. In 2021 women comprised 59% of students, meaning the relative imbalance is worse than it was the year Title XI was introduced.
Additionally Pew reports that women are more likely to finish college than men, and increasingly so.
The impact is especially felt in intellectual life, The Discourse and in institutions with an interpretative role, because it is in related disciplines that the success of women is most pronounced.
The American Academy of Arts and Sciences notes that “Women have received a majority of bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English since at least 1966. Women have accounted for two-thirds of the degree recipients at the master’s level since the early 1980s and at the bachelor’s level for as long as these data have been collected.”
67% of people who have a journalism degree are female and more than 60% of creative writing degrees have been earned by women every year since 1980
In Psychology “Female graduate students in psychology outnumber males by approximately three to one and have done so for more than a decade.
Men and Women typically have different personality types, ways of expression and values…
(… though is at the level of averages rather than individuals and there is a great deal of overlap.)
Here is a study from NCBI showing that, of the big 5 personality traits, the difference between men and women is most pronouced in terms of Agreeableness and Neuroticism (both of which women on average test higher for).
In terms of expressing aggression this article from the American Psychological Association notes that:
“…men scored higher on physical aggression, passive aggression and experiences of impulsively dealing with their anger…. Women, on the other hand, were found to be angry longer, more resentful and less likely to express their anger, compared with men… (one expert) found that women used indirect aggression by "writing off" a higher number of people--intending to never speak to them again because of their anger.”
This article describes the differences in how Men and Women bully (with links to a number of supporting studies). It summarises the differences as:
“Females tend to bully other people indirectly or by using relational aggression. This type of bullying usually includes verbal assaults, ostracizing, spreading rumors, and gossiping—the epitome of mean behavior. Moreover, people that engage in relational aggression disguise their bullying and act in more passive-aggressive ways, which makes this type of bullying more difficult to spot… When it comes to bullying behavior, males tend to choose more physically aggressive methods than females.”
Why focus on bullying and aggression rather than something more positive? First because this is funadamentally about conflict. Second if the idea I’m expressing here is correct, then you will be able to see important instutions and their representatives move from expressing power against their enemies in characteristically masculine ways to feminine ones; and people of all sexes seeking status using those forms of aggression as a tactic.
Summary and speculation
Here is my admittedly inaequate attempt to summarise the pattern:
Via a range of processes but most importantly education, Women are becoming more powerful in public and intellectual life, changing the culture of those spheres. Public discourse and legacy institutions (especially ones with an interpretative role) will increasingly express their power in ways we understand as characteristally feminine, and by privileging the political values disproportionatley held by women. The political parties that hold those values will in turn become more female-dominated, both in cultural and membership terms.
This will alienate men, and people whose values and interactive style are more charateristically masculine, creating a mirror effect on the other side of the politcial spectrum and in a smaller number of legacy institutions (smaller because of the importance of education to institutional power). This creates a self-perpetuating cycle of polarisation with the “masculine” and “feminine” parties pushing each other apart. The relationship of social and economic status to education means that institutional power and ability to define what is legitimate opinion will skew toward the “feminine” pole.
Some additional thoughts, throat-clearing etc.
Education and economic freedom are good in and of themselves. But it's not clear to me that the primary beneficiaries of polarisation along Sex lines are women. I’m not a feminist but it seems many parts of the culture war waged from the left (and therefore covered by this process) have been weaponsied by individual men for their own interests, or against women's interests. It’s not a coincidence that many of the sharprest chroniclers of our cultural upheaveals are women.
In many cases the empowerment of women has meant that status-seeking men have a different range of tactics to exploit to acheive power, and at a personality level these new approaches might suit them better than the old ones. The woke guy who turns out to be a rapist is an archetype of our time for a reason.
An additional critique you could level at this theory is just because women are earning more degrees doesn’t mean they are acheiving the most powerful roles in all fields. I think that’s completely fair. No one could look at the upper levels of politics in the US, UK or Ireland (where I’m from) and see a feminist utopia.
But you can have an impact even when you’re not at the top. I would cite the New York Times as an example of a powerful institution whose culture has been altered by it’s ostensibly youngest and least powerful employees, to the point it seems held to ransom by them. Changing what are considered respectable values creates it's own kind of power structure, that people who wish to appear respectable will need to bow to. The toppling of various powerful figures as a result of #Metoo is another example of this.
I may have overstated the case for Men Vs Women being the defining rift of our time, but the framework does have a lot of explanatory power. I can’t have been the only one who felt there was something Male about the Trump phemomenon, and that maleness is not merely a feature of the phenomenon but it’s essence. I can’t be the only person who reads this description of Mean Girl behaviour and notices how it much sounds like the behaviour of Twitter journalists, activists and academics towards their enemies and disfavoured members of their own in-group. The extreme ends of Covid restrictionist enthusisasm and resistance provided some fantastic examples of this process.
My final point is that the Black Death in Europe caused wages to go up and the invention of the printing press caused hundreds of years of religious wars. Good changes can have bad downstream effects and vice versa; small changes can have big downstream effects and vice versa. When they happen at a structural level even unequivocally good changes create an amount of disruption that has to be understood and managed. You can believe what I have described is a just rebalancing, with women attaining the share of power and status and prosperity they were denied in the past, and still accept I have a point. None of what I’ve written needs to be understood as a value judgement.
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