Sunday, August 18, 2013

Larry Summers, Stephen Leacock, and Women

Below is a letter to Mr. Stephen Leacock, a Canadian writer, humorist, and academic, who died in 1944.
Dear Mr. Leacock:
Recently, I had the pleasure of reading your 1922 book, My Discovery of England. As it would no doubt not surprise you, I found it amusing, even though some of it is a bit dated from my vantage point in the early 21st century.
Your book does not strictly limit itself to England but makes room for some of your favorite notions. You might have wanted to constrain yourself on some of these, especially if you cared to appeal to readers some ninety years in the future, about whom, though, you probably did not give much thought. But your passages on the aptitudes and appropriate education of women, which begin as a criticism of Oxford University’s policy of admitting women but quickly become more general, are really over the top.
I should point out in this connection that an American, Mr. Lawrence H. Summers, currently very much alive and a sometimes academic, found himself in a heap of trouble when he made remarks more than eight years ago about the underrepresentation of women in the science and engineering professions. He was at the time President of Harvard University, but found his tenure in that position cut short the following year, owing in part to these remarks. Mr. Summers is an economist and is hoping to become head of the U.S. central bank, but his remarks on women in the sciences are still remembered, especially by those who would prefer someone else for the job.
While you apparently did not harbor ambitions to be head of the Bank of Canada, content with your career as a famous humorist, writer, and professor of Political Economy and Chair of the Department of Economics and Political Science at McGill University, there is some superficial similarity between you and Mr. Summers. I would not want to stretch it too far. Your sense of humor – I think it would not insult Mr. Summers to say – is vastly different and more developed than his. I do believe, though, that you both rightly share a high regard for your own abilities.
Further, I suppose 1922 was a much different time than 2005 when Mr. Summers made his remarks, in particular with respect to what we now call “political correctness.” Still, your remarks about women, which go way beyond anything Mr. Summers said, have the ability to grate.
For his part, Mr. Summers hypothesized that the curve representing the distribution of native abilities in the hard sciences is somewhat fatter at the very high end for men than for women. He did not say that the average women had less ability than the average man. He makes clear that he is “talking about people who are three and a half, four standard deviations above the mean in the one in 5,000, one in 10,000 class. Even small differences in the standard deviation will translate into very large differences in the available pool…” Now whether or not there are such differences in the far-out tails of the distributions of certain intellectual abilities between the populations of men and women is highly debatable, as Mr. Summers was quickly made to realize. He even seemed to have an inkling he was headed for trouble. From the transcript of the event, at the conclusion of Mr. Summers’ remarks, there was this exchange between him and the moderator:
Q: Well, I don't want to take up much time because I know other people have questions, so, first of all I'd like to say thank you for your input. It's very interesting – I noticed it's being recorded so I hope that we'll be able to have a copy of it. That would be nice.
LHS: We'll see. (LAUGHTER)
But Mr. Leacock, in your book, you are talking about averages, not far-out tails. In fact, you dismiss the exceptional woman as irrelevant. Let me quote you:

The fundamental trouble is that men and women are different creatures, with different minds and different aptitudes and different paths in life. There is no need to raise here the question of which is superior and which is inferior (though I think, the Lord help me, I know the answer to that too). The point lies in the fact that they are different.
But the mad passion for equality has masked this obvious fact. When women began to demand, quite rightly, a share in higher education, they took for granted that they wanted the same curriculum as the men. They never stopped to ask whether their aptitudes were not in various directions higher and better than those of the men, and whether it might not be better for their sex to cultivate the things which were best suited to their minds. Let me be more explicit. In all that goes with physical and mathematical science, women, on the average, are far below the standard of men. There are, of course, exceptions. But they prove nothing. It is no use to quote to me the case of some brilliant girl who stood first in physics at Cornell. That's nothing. There is an elephant in the zoo that can count up to ten, yet I refuse to reckon myself his inferior.
And you keep on going, digging a deeper hole for yourself, at least as far as posterity is concerned:
The careers of the men and women who go to college together are necessarily different, and the preparation is all aimed at the man's career. The men are going to be lawyers, doctors, engineers, business men, and politicians. And the women are not.
There is no use pretending about it. It may sound an awful thing to say, but the women are going to be married. That is, and always has been, their career; and, what is more, they know it; and even at college, while they are studying algebra and political economy, they have their eye on it sideways all the time. The plain fact is that, after a girl has spent four years of her time and a great deal of her parents' money in equipping herself for a career that she is never going to have, the wretched creature goes and gets married, and in a few years she has forgotten which is the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle, and she doesn't care. She has much better things to think of.
Mr. Summers also addressed this issue, but in a somewhat different way, and does not draw your conclusion that there should therefore be a difference in the curriculum offered to men and to women. Here is part of what he said:
…I've had the opportunity to discuss questions like this with chief executive officers at major corporations, the managing partners of large law firms, the directors of prominent teaching hospitals, and with the leaders of other prominent professional service organizations, as well as with colleagues in higher education. In all of those groups, the story is fundamentally the same. Twenty or twenty-five years ago, we started to see very substantial increases in the number of women who were in graduate school in this field. Now the people who went to graduate school when that started are forty, forty-five, fifty years old. If you look at the top cohort in our activity, it is not only nothing like fifty-fifty, it is nothing like what we thought it was when we started having a third of the women, a third of the law school class being female, twenty or twenty-five years ago. And the relatively few women who are in the highest ranking places are disproportionately either unmarried or without children, with the emphasis differing depending on just who you talk to. And that is a reality that is present and that one has exactly the same conversation in almost any high-powered profession. What does one make of that? I think it is hard-and again, I am speaking completely descriptively and non-normatively-to say that there are many professions and many activities, and the most prestigious activities in our society expect of people who are going to rise to leadership positions in their forties near total commitments to their work. They expect a large number of hours in the office, they expect a flexibility of schedules to respond to contingency, they expect a continuity of effort through the life cycle, and they expect – and this is harder to measure – but they expect that the mind is always working on the problems that are in the job, even when the job is not taking place…
Part of the difference, of course, is that Mr. Summers is speaking about the people who get to the top of their professions and you are talking about averages. But you really get into trouble when you discuss what is most appropriate for women. What were you thinking? If you were around today, you would have noticed great changes in the role of women in society. You would not have lasted, much less reached, the pinnacle of the Department of Economics and Political Science at McGill University if you were still writing such things. Fortunately, for this book, the issue of women suffrage for federal elections in Canada had already been settled, though women had to wait until 1940 to vote in Quebec provincial elections. You wisely forgo discussion of this issue, though you are said to have opposed women suffrage.
Nonetheless, I did enjoy your book, filled as it with wry and pointed observations. Your political outlook could probably be characterized as socially and economically conservative, sprinkled with some libertarianism. While I would agree with your attitude towards prohibition, some of the other things you propound as obvious may seem less so to many of us today. Your aversion to government intervention of interference in the economy (“bring back the profiteer”) is a case in point. Perhaps, as you experienced the 1930s, your ideas about the proper role of government in the economy evolved. Not being an expert on the evolution of your ideas, I do not know.
Also, I daresay, you seem to have the notion that societies are fixed. It is this view of a static society that seems to cramp your imagination. Philosophical conservatives have a point when they say that much of human nature is fixed, but this inclines them too much toward a pessimistic and fatalistic view.  Societies are dynamic. We can debate whether the American civil rights leader of the mid twentieth century, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was mostly correct when he said (the statement may not have been original): “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” But what is irrefutable is that societies are dynamic, and what seemed impossible at one point in time may become considered normal at some future point. Sometimes it does not even take that long. Look at the evolution of attitudes toward same-sex marriage in many western industrial countries.
It is, though, your views on women which are the most shocking. They marred the otherwise enjoyable experience of reading your book.
                                                                        Sincerely yours,

                                                                        Norman Carleton                                                                                         


  1. A real eye-opener! To say that I spent 5 years attending classes in Leacock Building back in the 90s without knowing any of this. And now I learn about it through my favorite former DC insider. Keep up the great work!

    PS: Adelard Godbout is IMO the most underrated former head of a Canadian province. Nice touch including a word about Quebec's delay in allowing women suffrage.

    1. Thank you for your nice comment. It was just by chance that I started reading Stephen Leacock's book on England and found it interesting enough to finish it. I was then motivated to do a bit of research and write this post.