Recognizing that opinions (even ours at Mother Jones) are heated on this topic, we sent an electronic version of Katherine Dunn’s essay to a few spots on the Internet to find out what others thought. You can join the discussion: send e-mail to email@example.com, and for more on-line activity info, send mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dunn makes valid points about the strength and fierceness of women. However, the idea that viciousness necessarily equates to better survival rates on an evolutionary time span may not be correct. Those who are meek and gentle will not necessarily die first. Often, those who cooperate to find pacific solutions will do better than those who take an immediate fighting stance. In the search to prove that all women are not limp-wristed, passive victims, Dunn may be suggesting that only the model of a ferocious and aggressive woman is valuable.
While I agree that women can be as aggressive as men, and that at times a woman needs to be, I do not agree that inherently we are the same in this area.
When I had my son 14 years ago, I was determined to raise him to have the best traits of both sexes. Much to my dismay, and amazement, I saw from very early on that there were inherent aggressive traits and a lack of more nurturing traits. I really tried–I gave him stuffed animals, figuring that, unlike dolls, they are kind of gender neutral. He would fling them across the room. Not interested. When I gave him a truck, he was mesmerized.
I persevered, but at best, 14 years later, I have a son who can be both very aggressive and very nurturing. I suspect women need to be encouraged to be more aggressive, just as I felt my son needed encouragement to be more nurturing.
author of “Single Mothers by Choice”
New York, N.Y.
I can’t, for the life of me, see why we should be in the least bit surprised that some women enjoy physical combat. Neither can I see why we should be surprised that some men don’t. Katherine Dunn is simply getting evidence for what should never have been in doubt anyway.
In my experience as a sergeant in the Canadian armed forces, I have met and trained women who are more than equal to men in terms of combat. The most lethal shot in my Basic Training was a woman, perhaps 5 foot 1 inch in height. When she turned around on the submachine gun firing range with a loaded SMG after someone called her name, most of us had the good sense to hit the dirt. I still am highly doubtful of the recent studies quoted, which claim that women batter men as often as men batter women. This does not match my life experience, or that of the men and women that I have known.
I take issue with Dunn’s assertion that domestic violence is perpetrated by women as often as it is by men, at least when we focus on violence among adults. Let’s get real–anyone who has worked on a domestic violence hot line, as a shelter volunteer, or in the legal system, knows that men batter women much more often than women batter men. Furthermore, men cause more frequent and more severe injuries than women do. In six years of handling abuse cases and working with abuse victims, I had only one client who was a male abused by his female partner, compared to hundreds of women clients who were abused by men.
I have just read a response to this article, which attacks its research. Having read all the materials to which Dunn refers, I can vouch for the integrity of her sources, and her interpretation of them. The facts are there, and have been there for a long time, but there is no doubt that they have been suppressed. Those who have published have suffered: Some have received threats, others have been denied jobs, others have had their reputations slandered
Quite simply, Dunn is dead-on. And anyone who is honest and works in the violence/family violence research ghetto knows it. If feminism is about realizing women’s potential, it should recognize women’s potential to be dangerous.
Mary Ritter, researcher Cultural Studies Department
Trent University, Petersborough, OntarioMRITTER@TrentU.ca
I am doing a paper for my law journal about evidentiary rulings in cases where battered children use battered women’s syndrome analogies, most specifically the Menendez case. In that household, according to evidence presented by the defense and not refuted by the prosecution, the mother was violent to her husband (in both self-defense and aggression) and very violent to her children, using things like pans, knives, brooms, belts, death threats, and fists to show her aggression. A number of commentators, some of whom seem to have not seen any of the testimony, ask “Why the mother?” as if it is impossible to conceive that kids could feel so threatened by their mother that they actually believe she poses a threat to their lives.
I have seen comments regarding the Menendez case that note that even if she was abusive, she was (fill in the blank, please): 1) still their mother, and should be respected; 2) the person who gave birth to them; 3) a woman, so how could she pose any threat to them?; 4) an absolute victim with no free will who was overpowered by her husband; or 5) only abusive to them because her husband was abusive to her, too. I find all these contentions laced with a tinge of disregard for the nature and structure of family violence, because it is obvious that, at least in the home, and at least towards the kids, the mother, the person who is supposed to protect and love, can be as dangerous as the father.
Heidi Howard, law student
I believe some women can be more aggressive than some men; I myself am much more prone to aggressive verbal and even, sometimes, physical ploys when I see myself as not being taken seriously or as seriously insulted. My husband has a small scar on his forearm that provides ample proof of female rage moving suddenly into violence. But even as I would identify myself as a ferocious feminist probably more motivated by outrage than by any other single factor, I do not equate, as Katherine Dunn appears to, female aggression with female violence. They are quite different.
For me the question is not “Are women as aggressive and violent as males?”–of course they can be, and sometimes are. But the twoa–ggression and violence–are not synonymous. Nor do I believe that simply admitting [that] women [are] as likely to become victimizers as men provides an argument to empower women in this weird rationale Dunn proposes.
I [also] find it remarkable in an essay more or less embracing the naturalness of female hostility and violence [that] Dunn would select Lorena Bobbitt as an example of someone who should have paid time in jail for having the courage to do what few women have done–strike back at the “root” of the problem–the almighty phallus.
Kate Orland Bere
My belief is that women’s equality will move our society to an understanding of the range of human experience and away from the gender stereotypes that have crippled so many for so many years. I fear that such articles, instead of being perceived as options for women, will become prescriptions and descriptions of “typical” women. Prescriptive behavior, whether for passivity or strength, nonviolence or war, victimization or self-defense, denies humanity.
Women–and men–are all capable of the full range of human emotion, action, belief, activity. Assigning narrow gender roles, or reassigning equally narrow roles to each gender according to fashion, denies the unique humanity of each person so crippled.
Margaret Lark Russell
Great article. Only one comment: Why did female boxer Dallas Malloy sue for separate male and female matches? This seems to contradict the “just as fierce” argument. Wouldn’t the nondiscriminatory action have placed men and women against each other? That is, no distinction based on gender.
Although I found Dunn’s discussion of the issues quite thorough and thoughtful, I think the example of a woman boxer was the wrong point of departure. Having written a biography of Mike Tyson, I feel I understand both boxers and boxing. Tyson certainly was motivated by aggression but also by fear. The two mixed in the ring and fed each other in complex ways and enabled him to both win fights and, in one case, also lose. Sugar Ray Leonard, however, was never driven by aggression. Nor was Ali. In any event, the forces that make people boxers and drive them in the ring go far beyond mere aggression.
Montieth M. Illingworth
Sherman Oaks, Calif.