In Wash. Post essay, Charlotte Allen's purported "evidence" that women are the "dumber sex" doesn't hold up


In an essay that appeared in The Washington Post's Sunday Outlook section, Charlotte Allen claimed or suggested that women are the "weaker sex," the "stupid sex," the "dumber sex," and "inferior[]." To make her argument, Allen offered contradictions, factual inaccuracies, faulty logic, and "evidence" that does not, in fact, support the notion that women are "dumber."

Throughout her March 2 essay, which ran on the front page of The Washington Post's Sunday Outlook section, Independent Women's Forum contributor Charlotte Allen suggested or directly stated that women are the "weaker sex," the "stupid sex," the "dumber sex," and "inferior[]." Allen wrote: "I am perfectly willing to admit that I myself am a classic case of female mental deficiencies." But her purported "evidence" does not, in fact, support the notion that women are "dumber." Allen asserted that "several of the supposed misogynist myths about female inferiority have been proven true." However, the only myths for which she purported to provide evidence are the ideas that women are "worse drivers than men" and that "women are the dumber sex." Moreover, Allen's essay was rife with contradictions, factual inaccuracies, and faulty logic, undermining her conclusion that "way down deep, [women in general] are ... kind of dim."

Allen began her essay with a reference to an Agence France-Presse article that reported that, at a rally for Sen. Barack Obama, "[Obama] did not flinch when women screamed as he was in mid-sentence and even broke off once to answer a female's cry of 'I love you, Obama!' with a reassuring 'I love you back.' " Allen wrote, "Women screamed?" and later added:

I can't help it, but reading about such episodes of screaming, gushing and swooning makes me wonder whether women -- I should say, "we women," of course -- aren't the weaker sex after all. Or even the stupid sex, our brains permanently occluded by random emotions, psychosomatic flailings and distraction by the superficial. Women "are only children of a larger growth," wrote the 18th-century Earl of Chesterfield. Could he have been right?

According to the Politico, the Post's Outlook editor, John Pomfret, said that Allen's essay was intended to be "tongue-in-cheek" but admitted, "It's not the first time in opinion journalism that something has fallen flat." In a March 5 chat about the essay, Allen said, "I'm not sure whether I'd characterize the piece as satire, but I'd certainly characterize it as humor: my poking fun at the dumb things my sex does." Also, in his March 3 "Media Backtalk" discussion, media critic Howard Kurtz said of Allen's essay, "It was in yesterday's Outlook section, and was opinion. Not my opinion, but the writer's opinion." Kurtz, however, ignored the contradictions and factual errors in Allen's essay.

"[W]omen were falling for [Obama] literally"

Referring to the Agence France-Presse article, Allen wrote:

"Women 'Falling for Obama,' " the story's headline read. Elsewhere around the country, women were falling for the presidential candidate literally. Connecticut radio talk show host Jim Vicevich has counted five separate instances in which women fainted at Obama rallies since last September. And I thought such fainting was supposed to be a relic of the sexist past, when patriarchs forced their wives and daughters to lace themselves into corsets that cut off their oxygen.

But commentators have noted that fainting is a common occurrence at campaign events and that conditions at political events cause physical discomfort. On the February 18 edition of Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor, former senior White House adviser Karl Rove told Bill O'Reilly that he has "been to a lot of presidential rallies" and that "[i]n almost every rally, somebody faints." People have reportedly fainted at events for Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and John McCain as well. A photographer familiar with political events said, "There are always people that faint. ... When somebody has to stand at one spot, at a view up front of their candidate, and they wait hours upon hours with no water, no food, it's expected and understandable." During the chat, a reader wrote: "People faint at huge rallies all the time. Usually it's attributed to heat, fatigue, etc. You are the one who make this important by assuming it's not heat exhaustion but 'mass hysteria [emphasis in original].' " Allen responded: "Heat exhaustion? One of the faints occurred in Maryland in February."

Clinton "has wept on the campaign trail"

Referring to Clinton, Allen wrote, "She has wept on the campaign trail, even though everyone knows that tears are the last refuge of losers." However, Allen cited no incident of Clinton weeping during the Democratic primary campaign. There have been two widely publicized incidents in which Clinton became emotional, but none in which she "wept." At a January 7 campaign event in Portsmouth, N.H., Clinton's voice broke as she talked about why she is seeking the presidency. During a February 4 event in New Haven, Connecticut, as she visited the Yale Child Study Center, where she had worked during law school, Clinton said, "I said I would not tear up."

Clinton is not in fact the only candidate to have shown emotion on the 2008 presidential campaign trail. A December 16, 2007, Politico article, headlined "Mitt wept when church ended discrimination," reported: "Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney said on NBC's 'Meet the Press' today that he wept with relief when the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the Mormon church, announced a 1978 revelation that the priesthood would no longer be denied to persons of African descent. Romney's eyes appeared to fill with tears as he discussed the emotional subject during a high-stakes appearance." Further, a February 17 Associated Press article reported, "Mitt Romney's eyes filled with tears today as the Republican presidential contender recalled watching the casket of a soldier killed in Iraq return to the United States and imagined if it were one of his five sons."

"Clinton's nearly all-female staff"

Allen wrote, "Then there's Clinton's nearly all-female staff, chosen for loyalty rather than, say, brains or political savvy." In fact, Clinton's staff is not "nearly all-female." According to an October 24, 2007, comparison of presidential campaign staffs on The Huffington Post, the Clinton campaign was described as "balanced, but favor[ing] women." The website reported that of the "Top 20 paid staff" in Clinton's campaign, 12 were women, and of the 14 "senior staff," eight were women.

"[N]o man watches 'Grey's Anatomy' unless his girlfriend forces him to"

Allen wrote, "I swear no man watches [ABC's] 'Grey's Anatomy' unless his girlfriend forces him to." However, upon the show's premiere in 2005, New York Times reporter Kate Aurthur wrote, "When you parse its ratings, 'Grey's Anatomy' underscores one of the real lessons of the current season, a month before the fall schedule is set: men will watch shows with a female lead." Additionally, MSNBC contributor Brian Bellmont reported last year that "more than 6.4 million men tune in each week" to watch Grey's Anatomy.

"No man contracts nebulous diseases ... such as Morgellons"

Allen wrote: "No man contracts nebulous diseases whose existence is disputed by many if not all doctors, such as Morgellons (where you feel bugs crawling around under your skin). At least no man I know." In fact, The Washington Post Magazine reported that men, as well as women, have registered with the Morgellons Research Foundation. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently stated: "The suffering that many people associate with this condition is best addressed by a careful, objective scientific analysis. Considering the complexity of this condition, we believe that a measured and thorough approach offers the best chance for finding useful answers. To learn more about this condition, CDC is conducting an epidemiologic investigation."

"Women really are worse drivers than men"

Allen wrote:

Depressing as it is, several of the supposed misogynist myths about female inferiority have been proven true. Women really are worse drivers than men, for example. A study published in 1998 by the Johns Hopkins schools of medicine and public health revealed that women clocked 5.7 auto accidents per million miles driven, in contrast to men's 5.1, even though men drive about 74 percent more miles a year than women. The only good news was that women tended to take fewer driving risks than men, so their crashes were only a third as likely to be fatal.

Allen cited a 1998 Johns Hopkins study to support her assertion that women "really are worse drivers than men." But the study does not say that. It does not draw conclusions about members of which gender are better drivers on average. Allen used the study's findings to reach a conclusion -- not articulated in the study itself -- that having more but less-serious accidents indicates women are worse drivers than men, who are three times as likely as women to be involved in fatal crashes. (According to the study, crashes involving men were nearly twice as likely to be fatal as crashes involving women.) Moreover, she cited the statistic that men drive 74 percent more miles a year than women, as though it reinforces her own baseless conclusion about the relative driving ability of women and men. It does not. The statistics provided -- 5.7 auto accidents for women and 5.1 for men -- control for the difference in the number of miles men and women drive. During the March 5 Washington Post chat about her essay, Allen was asked about the fact that the study found that women's accidents are less likely to be fatal:

Appleton, Wis.: Could you please explain in greater depth your argument that women are worse drivers than men (because they get in more accidents), if their accidents are less likely to be fatal? Dying seems to be a better sign of a bad driver than a dented fender ...

Charlotte Allen: Hard to say: Both, unless not the driver's fault, are signs of bad driving. I don't see how getting into lots of little accidents makes a group better drivers than getting into fewer but worse accidents.

Allen also wrote in her essay:

Those statistics were reinforced by a study released by the University of London in January showing that women and gay men perform more poorly than heterosexual men at tasks involving navigation and spatial awareness, both crucial to good driving.

In fact, the University of East London study, titled "Sexual Orientation-Related Differences in Allocentric Spatial Memory Tasks" and published in the January 2008 edition of the journal Hippocampus, did not address driving ability. Participants in the study, using computers, had to navigate out of a "virtual pool." According to the study, "In brief, participants were simply instructed that they would find themselves in a virtual pool which they had to escape from as quickly as possible by swimming (using keyboard arrow keys) to a hidden platform using extra-pool cues (icons) for guidance." A second task "required participants to traverse 8 'arms' extending from a circular junction, four of which contained rewards and four which did not" and "to retrieve all four rewards as quickly as possible by 'walking' up the arms." Notably, the report (registration and purchase required) cited research finding that "[m]ales outperform females, on average, on tests of place learning and navigation whereas females outperform males, on average, on tests of spatial location memory where object-to-place binding is salient." The report further found that "heterosexual males started faster on both tasks and maintained this advantage throughout the learning trials. ... Importantly, in both tasks we found group differences in terms of latency but none in terms of distances traveled. This also suggests that heterosexual man may be equally efficient to the other groups in the navigation but simply travel faster through both tasks (that is, sexual orientation may affect swim speed to find the hidden target but not necessarily what spatial knowledge is acquired)."

Thus, Allen's evidence that women are worse drivers than men amounts to a study that does not judge whether women are worse drivers and a study designed to examine the relationship between spatial learning and sexual orientation that found that heterosexual men outperform women in one aspect and acknowledged past research finding that women outperform men in another.

"The theory that women are the dumber sex ... is amply supported by neurological and standardized-testing evidence"

Allen wrote:

The theory that women are the dumber sex -- or at least the sex that gets into more car accidents -- is amply supported by neurological and standardized-testing evidence. Men's and women's brains not only look different, but men's brains are bigger than women's (even adjusting for men's generally bigger body size). The important difference is in the parietal cortex, which is associated with space perception. Visuospatial skills, the capacity to rotate three-dimensional objects in the mind, at which men tend to excel over women, are in turn related to a capacity for abstract thinking and reasoning, the grounding for mathematics, science and philosophy. While the two sexes seem to have the same IQ on average (although even here, at least one recent study gives males a slight edge), there are proportionally more men than women at the extremes of very, very smart and very, very stupid.

The myth that "women are the dumber sex" is not, in fact, "amply supported by neurological and standardized-testing evidence." Even if men have bigger brains relative to body size than women (and some say that there is a difference unaccounted for by body height, while Discover magazine said in 1993 that "[d]ividing brain size by body weight often leaves women with a higher ratio (larger brain per body weight)"), according to National Institutes of Health Director Elias A. Zerhouni, "Studies of brains have taught us that people with higher IQs do not have larger brains." In other words, even if men have bigger brains, brain size does not correlate with intelligence. Zerhouni said that differences in intelligence "may be in the way the brain develops." Indeed, in research on brain development published in the March 2006 journal Nature, NIH researchers reported that "intelligence is related to dynamic properties of cortical maturation." The researchers further reported -- contrary to Allen's argument that "women are the dumber sex" -- that "[t]he intelligence groups did not differ significantly in handedness or gender composition."

Allen further asserted, "While the two sexes seem to have the same IQ on average (although even here, at least one recent study gives males a slight edge), there are proportionally more men than women at the extremes of very, very smart and very, very stupid." Assuming that her claim about variance is correct, it does not in any way support her overall premise that "women are the dumber sex." Moreover, while Allen did not cite the recent study that purportedly "gives males a slight edge" in IQ, a November 2005 Nature article critical of one such study noted "a consensus of more than 50 years' standing, that the only sex difference in IQ is a possible slightly greater variance among males."

The "number of women" employed as "tax accountants" "will always lag behind the number of men"

Allen wrote:

I am perfectly willing to admit that I myself am a classic case of female mental deficiencies. I can't add 2 and 2 (well, I can, but then what?). I don't even know how many pairs of shoes I own. I have coasted through life and academia on the basis of an excellent memory and superior verbal skills, two areas where, researchers agree, women consistently outpace men. (An evolutionary just-so story explains this facility of ours: Back in hunter-gatherer days, men were the hunters and needed to calculate spear trajectories, while women were the gatherers and needed to remember where the berries were.) I don't mind recognizing and accepting that the women in history I admire most -- Sappho, Hildegard of Bingen, Elizabeth I, George Eliot, Margaret Thatcher -- were brilliant outliers.

The same goes for female fighter pilots, architects, tax accountants, chemical engineers, Supreme Court justices and brain surgeons. Yes, they can do their jobs and do them well, and I don't think anyone should put obstacles in their paths. I predict that over the long run, however, even with all the special mentoring and role-modeling the 21st century can provide, the number of women in these fields will always lag behind the number of men, for good reason.

In fact, according to 2006 data published in the Census Bureau's Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2008, a greater percentage of women than men are employed in "Business and financial operations occupations" and as "Accountants and auditors," "Budget analysts," "Tax examiners, collectors, and revenue agents," and "Tax preparers."


Total Employed

Female (%)

Business and financial operations occupations



Wholesale and retail buyers, except farm products



Purchasing agents, except wholesale, retail, and farm products



Claims adjusters, appraisers, examiners, and investigators



Compliance officers, except agriculture, construction, health and safety, and transportation



Cost estimators



Human resources, training, and labor relations specialists



Management analysts



Accountants and auditors



Appraisers and assessors of real estate



Budget analysts



Financial analysts



Personal financial advisors



Insurance underwriters



Loan counselors and officers



Tax examiners, collectors, and revenue agents



Tax preparers



Posted In
Diversity & Discrimination, Gender
The Washington Post
Charlotte Allen
We've changed our commenting system to Disqus.
Instructions for signing up and claiming your comment history are located here.
Updated rules for commenting are here.