The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Defining Female Identity: Motherhood, Not Mayhem

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

America’s military leaders are moving fast to put women into all combat units, justifying this radical move with feminist theorizing premised on the complete plasticity of female identity. Those who advance such theorizing argue that women are as naturally aggressive and violent as men. Female shock troops will fight just as effectively as their male counterparts—if given the right training and conditioning. Harmonious with feminist ideology, this line of thinking (not coincidentally) subverts the gender complementarity that helps sustain marriage and family life. But such thinking receives no support from a study of aggression among women recently completed by psychologist Anne Campbell of Durham University. Durham’s study concludes that female biology primes wo-
men for maternal nurturance, not for lethal violence.

To be sure, Campbell acknowledges that some American women do commit acts of violent assault. Official crime statistics indicate that 33% of those arrested for simple assault in the United States are female; 24% of those arrested for aggravated assault are female. What is more, the number of women arrested for simple assault rose 24% between 1996 and 2005.

But when Campbell examines self-report data, she concludes that police have arrested more women for simple assault in recent years because of “changes in police practice rather than girls’ behavior.” Further analysis establishes that “male-to-female ratio for assault has remained remarkably stable over time.” Campbell further points out that “the gender gap is considerably greater for aggravated than simple assault, reflecting girls’ less injurious behaviour and their lower likelihood of using weapons.”

Nor is this gender gap in violence an American peculiarity. Campbell stresses that “everywhere and at every historical period, physical aggression between women is less frequent and less severe than between young men. As the dangerousness of the aggressive act increases, so does the magnitude of the sex difference.” It therefore does not surprise Campbell that international crime statistics show that 97% of the same-sex homicides committed around the world are committed by men.

And behind the persistent gender gap in aggression, Campbell discerns the working of fundamental biology. “Aggression,” she reasons, “involves the possibility of injury and death and their consequences on reproductive success are not equal for men and women. For women, with their limited variance in fecundity, child survival plays a critical role in their ultimate reproductive success.” Surveying a range of anthropological and demographic research, Campbell adduces evidence that “a mother’s death has uniformly detrimental effects on her children’s chances of survival,” especially during “the early years of the child’s life.” In sharp contrast, a number of studies have concluded that “the loss of a father had substantially less effect” on his children’s chances of survival.

Campbell freely acknowledges “the contemporary evidence that fathers improve their children’s educational and social life chances.” But she still argues that, at least as an influence determining whether a child survives, “paternal care is facultative rather than obligatory in our species and that a father’s death can be compensated for by help from grandmothers (especially maternal grandmothers) and older siblings.”

Since a mother’s death so often mean’s a child’s death also, Campbell regards it as biologically adaptive that “women are more fearful than men.” She points to a sizable body of evidence substantiating this gender difference in fearfulness, “visible in childhood” and clearly manifest in “international surveys . . . [of] sex differences in the reported intensity and duration of fear in adults.” Researchers find that women react with “a stronger startle response” than do men when exposed to a loud noise when viewing “fear-inducing pictures.” Similarly, social scientists report that “women orient away from (rather than toward) threat and with greater intensity than men do.” After all, a fear that moves a mother away from danger will usually protect that mother’s children.

Against the belief that cultural conditioning accounts for women’s distinctive vulnerability to fear, Campbell adduces evidence that the gender gap in fear persists even when researchers statistically compensate for differences in gender-role attitudes. “While social and cultural expectations about gender are important,” Campbell remarks, “it appears they cannot fully explain sex differences in self-reported emotional experience.”

Though she admits the evidence is “not yet conclusive,” Campbell suggests that the “lower threshold to fear” found among women reflects “heightened amygdala reactivity to threatening stimuli” in female brains, so that women “register fear more strongly via anterior cingulate activity” than do men. This neurochemistry all serves women’s compelling biological “need to avoid escalated aggression if [they] are to ensure the survival of infants.”

Of course, when a society becomes so culturally disordered that fertility falls well below minimal replacement levels, few restraints will remain to prevent political and military leaders from ignoring those features of female biology that protect infants. Only feminist ideologues, however, can suppose that those gender-blind leaders are defending the long-term well-being of the species.

(Anne Campbell, “The Evolutionary Psychology of Women’s Aggression,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences 368.1631[5 December 2013]: 20130078, Web.)