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  • Reinventing the Sexes: The Biomedical Construction of Femininity and Masculinity
  • Thomas W. Laqueur
Marianne van den Wijngaard. Reinventing the Sexes: The Biomedical Construction of Femininity and Masculinity. Race, Gender, and Science series. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997. x + 171 pp. Ill. $29.95 (cloth), $12.95 (paperbound).

Enormous scholarly energy in the humanities and social sciences, and a wide range of political and broadly cultural energies as well, have been expended over the past three decades in an effort to disengage gender (behavior that is characterized as masculine or feminine) from sex (the biological foundation of male and female that is supposedly timeless and objective), and to disrupt the very idea of “normality” in the arena of sexuality. Sex, the argument goes, does not dictate gender, nor is it a normative, dimorphic characteristic that needs to be corrected in so-called intersexuals so that a particular genital configuration lines up perfectly with socially prescribed masculine or feminine behavior. These behaviors are not, of course, independent of biology—we exist, after all, in our bodies—but nor are they deeply embedded in it.

In this beautifully detailed account, a Dutch biologist and feminist, equally adept at cultural studies of science and developmental endocrinology, first documents the scientific passion for studying sexual difference in general: about 130 articles per year in 1967, and more than 500 in 1984. She then explains how, beginning in 1959, organization theory—the study of how hormones cause the embryonic unisex brain to differentiate into a male or female brain, which in turn accounts for masculine or feminine behavior in the mature animal or human—swept the field and has maintained its hegemony until the present despite the challenges of feminism, a new generation of women researchers, and the publication of a considerable body of critical evidence. Articles on sex differences in brain development, the product of the research program based on the new paradigm, multiplied even faster during the same period: from eight per year to almost a hundred.

The triumph of organization theory is extraordinary: hormones had not been expected to play a prenatal role in organizing how an individual responds to the world. Its success, in Wijngaard’s view, depended less on experimental triumphs than on various aspects of the sociology of the relevant sciences and their history: the new paradigm provided a theoretical basis for workers who had begun experimenting on the behavioral effects of hormones; it unified psychological and neurological research and afforded psychologists the prestige of the biomedical [End Page 546] sciences; it appropriated the older assumption of reproductive endocrinology that there were distinct male and female gonadal hormones—androgens and estrogens—which were the determinants of maleness and femaleness more generally; and it served as ammunition in the culture wars raging outside the laboratory around the old nature/nurture debate about sexual biology and social behavior.

Women in the laboratory changed the terms of organization theory but did not shake its fundamental assumption: the fixing of sex in the embryonic brain. No longer was the question simply how the embryonic male secreted androgens so as to masculinize his otherwise undifferentiated brain—a dualistic model—but rather how male and female hormones affected behavior in both sexes. But still, work that tended to blur dimorphic distinctions—research, for example, on the very different and distinct effects of estrogen and progestins, both female hormones, in producing behavior that could be characterized as either masculine or feminine—was discounted.

Wijngaard argues, in what is perhaps the most original part of the book, that the tenacity of the organization theory model is not due to the failure of feminist criticism of its methodology or fundamental assumptions, nor to the absence of negative evidence, but to its institutional embeddedness. Networks of knowledge are its bulwark: physicians who run clinics that sort out aberrant biology and behavior, journalists who thrive on reports that still another biological marker of difference has been found, scientists sitting on peer review panels whose own research programs are predicated on a dualism firmly etched in the developing brain. The social demands and images of masculinity and femininity thus affect the cognitive development of science via practitioners with an interest...

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pp. 546-547
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