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Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience

June 2014, Vol. 26, No. 6, Pages 1324-1326
(doi: 10.1162/jocn_a_00628)
@ 2014 Massachusetts Institute of Technology
“It Is Hardly News that Women Are Oppressed”: Sexism, Activism, and Charlie
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I first met Charlie in 1961 when I was a teaching assistant in the Department of Psychology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). This was a rather odd position for me because I was in my second year of graduate school in the department of experimental psychology at Harvard. This arrangement, however, illustrates the kind of discrimination against women in experimental psychology during the early 1960s (as well as earlier and later). I will briefly outline why I was working at MIT to contrast the attitudes and behaviors of the Harvard faculty with Charlie's kindness and support of women.

Sexism was particularly virulent at Harvard. There were, of course, no female faculty members and only two female postdoctoral fellows during the six years I studied there. The first week I arrived, Richard Herrnstein, the director of the graduate program, called a meeting of the first-year graduate students and announced that only one in two men were expected to obtain their PhD and only one of four women. I do not know if the percentages were correct. However, in an examination of PhD recipients during the time the program existed as a separate department (1951–1973), 99 men received their PhD and only 14 women.

These figures might help explain why I was supervising a very large class in introductory psychology at MIT. The Harvard department had been founded by E. G. Boring, who, like his mentor Titchener, did not believe that women should be experimental psychologists (Furumoto, 1988). Boring did not believe that women could survive the grueling 80-hr week prescribed for scholarly success at Harvard. Men who survived the very difficult first-year curriculum were routinely offered research assistantships with one or another of the faculty members. Because they did not believe that women would go on to do productive scholarship and enhance their mentors' reputations, women were not offered research positions. When I passed my first year's classes and requested financial aid, they “solved” the problem by making an arrangement with Hans-Lukas Teuber who was starting a neuroscience-focused psychology program at MIT and did not yet have enough graduate students to help with the undergraduate program. I still do not know who paid for this, but I got my tuition and a stipend as well. It proved to be an opportunity to get to know and work with Charlie.

Professor Teuber was very supportive when I told him I was interested in physiological psychology and introduced me to Charlie and Steve Chorover, who were studying the frontal cortex of monkeys at that time. They allowed me to assist in operations and taught me how to use stereotaxic devices. When I decided to do some research in a related area, the only animals available in the Harvard laboratory were pigeons and rats. Charlie and Steve believed that the caudate nucleus of lower mammals had some of the functions of the frontal cortex in primates so I began to examine the effect of caudate nucleus lesions on the ability of rats to make rapid temporal and spatial shifts. This allowed me to use sophisticated operant conditioning techniques available in Skinner's lab. Harvard did not have any objection to this combination of physiological psych and operant conditioning, and Charlie became my more or less official advisor.

The transition to official thesis advisor was made easy because Charlie joined the Harvard experimental psychology program as an assistant professor in 1964. I tried to convince him not to do so because I believed he would be incompatible with its sexist and politically conservative faculty. By the time I was finishing up my doctoral dissertation in 1966, Charlie and Dick Herrnstein (another member of my doctoral committee because of the operant techniques I used) were barely on speaking terms. Some of you may remember Herrnstein as the coauthor of The Bell Curve, which argued that intelligence was genetically determined and underlay social class as well as racial differences (Herrnstein & Murray, 1973, 1994). Charlie was very opposed to such social Darwinist theories and later opposed Herrnstein's giving a lecture at Princeton.

On the basis of the autobiography that Charlie wrote for the American Psychologist when he received APA's gold medal for achievement in science (Gross, 2005), some might argue that Charlie's progressive beliefs were related to his father's progressive politics. Ironically, Herrnstein came from a very similar background. He used to tell students about his father carrying him on his shoulders during May Day parades in New York City. But the two men did not get along, and I had to relay communications about my thesis. As you might expect, it was not a pleasant thesis defense. I may have only survived because of the sexist assumption of the department that having suddenly married a few weeks before my defense, “I had other things on my mind.”

Charlie continued to support me, and I did get a tenure track position at Hofstra University, which had no laboratory facilities for physiological research and no intention of spending money to develop one. Unlike most of the men at Harvard, I had never received any informal instruction on how to write grants or introductions to potential senior collaborators. During the period of social unrest of the mid 1960s and early 1970s I also found myself drawn into civil rights and anti-Vietnam War activities as well as feminism. With a colleague at Hofstra who had been trained in verbal learning, I began to publish social psychological studies examining racism and sexism. I kept Charlie informed about my shifting interests, and he remained supportive, although it became more difficult for him to write letters of recommendation.

Because I had not yet officially abandoned physiological psychology, I decided to join Division 6 (Comparative and Physiological Psychology) shortly after I joined APA in 1972. To my surprise, the division turned down my application as well as that of Mary Brown Parlee, who had worked with Richard Held and received her PhD from MIT at about the same time I had received mine. The official reason was that neither of us had published in the area although we had given papers at conferences. Charlie was appalled especially because there was nothing in the division's by-laws requiring professional publications for simple membership.

Charlie introduced me to Ethel Tobach—a renowned comparative psychologist and tireless social activist. They managed to convince the division to grant us membership. As you might expect, the division had a low percentage of female members (about 15%) at the time we applied. Ethel Tobach has told me recently that she met Charlie because they worked together to force Division 6 to live up to its by-laws and accept Mary Parlee and me as members. Soon after this, Ethel and Charlie collaborated on a book entitled, The four horsemen: Racism, sexism, militarism, and social Darwinism (Tobach, Gianutsos, Topoff, & Gross, 1974). An earlier version was presented at the New York Academy of Sciences in 1972.

Charlie's chapter was entitled, “Biology and pop-biology: Sex and sexism,” and its first sentence “It is hardly news that women are oppressed” is part of the title of this article (Gross, 1974, p. 69). The next sentence pointed out that “women as a class are abused, exploited, discriminated against, and generally put down.” He then provided a list of statistics showing that women were paid much less than men, were hardly represented in the professions, and were relegated to clerical and service jobs. His description of legal, economic, and educational discrimination as well as the use of women by the media to sell virtually everything is indistinguishable from feminist critiques of the time. What is unusual is that the chapter was written by a man who had already embarked on an eminent career in neuroscience.

Charlie drew on evidence from comparative and physiological psychology to debunk the idea that women's inferiority to men was based on sex differences in biology. He listed a series of biological myths about female inferiority and then debunked them. These included the idea that, among primates, dominance and leadership are male traits. He described a number of primate species where such gender differences do not exist. He argued for consideration of environmental influences and pointed out that male dominance was greatest among those species that lived on the ground rather than in the trees. He concluded this section by asking whether we really want to take the Hamadryas baboon as our social and ethical model.

He next went on to question data arguing that male bonding in primates was a unique evolutionary development that made men more suitable for political leadership and that women are unsuitable for leadership positions because of mood shifts based on the menstrual cycle. He described conflicting data in both areas and noted the absence of research on what is now known as “jet lag” as well as on circadian rhythms in both sexes.

Finally, he discussed the evidence for a genetic basis for masculine and feminine characteristics. The original studies on biologically anomalous humans by John Money that emphasized the role of the environment have proved to be incorrect. It is, of course, impossible to separate humans from the awareness of their own genitalia. Current literature emphasizes that the sexes form two extensively overlapping distributions in virtually all behaviors. Unfortunately, they also show that many psychologists prefer to look at sex differences rather than at sex similarities. We are not as free from sexist biases as Charlie's earlier remarks promised we could be.

Many feminist psychologists have discussed issues involving the biological bases of sex and gender. It is important to remember, however, how many years ago this chapter was written and that it was written by an eminent man in the field. There was still little theoretical and empirical work that questioned sexist views about sex differences. Charlie cited the current scientific literature as well as a paper that is considered the first important paper in feminist psychology published only few years before the discussion at the New York Academy of Sciences that helped generate both his chapter and the book as a whole (Weisstein, 1968). Because the book was not in Charlie's primary area of expertise nor could it be expected to enhance his scientific reputation, I regard the chapter as a form of social activism as well as a scholarly contribution to the field.

As indicated earlier, Charlie was prepared to take action when he believed that organized psychology was being unfair to women. He took on APA's Division of Comparative and Physiological Psychology privately but made a much more public disclosure when he published a letter to the editor of the American Psychologist in response to an article on the history of an organization of experimental psychologists called “The Psychological Round Table,” which explicitly excluded women from membership in the organization (Benjamin, 1977). Although it was much more secretive, the organization was similar to the Society of Experimental Psychology, which also excluded women except that Psychological Round Table members had to leave at age 40 so that only “cutting edge” research would be presented at their annual meeting. In his letter, Charlie described the organization's meetings in the 1960s as secretive, elitist yet intellectually banal, and thoroughly scatological (Gross, 1977). He characterized the slides accompanying its most important invited lecture as pornography closer to that found in Hustler than in Penthouse.

Charlie went on to state that, in the late 1960s, he and many of his friends stopped attending meetings because of the sexist, antidemocratic, and secretive nature of the organization. They never succeeded in communicating their concerns to the leaders of the organization. In 1974, he attended a meeting (with Naomi Weisstein) to raise these issues again. He reported that there had been some changes, and a few women were in attendance. Another “improvement” was that male genitalia were now included among the slides of women's bodies for the main lecture. But the changes were quite limited.

It is not clear whether the Psychological Round Table still exists, although they were meeting in the 1990s. The Society of Experimental Psychology still exists and has always been more public. However, a photo from the SEP archives of attendees at the 1997 meeting still shows only one woman in attendance (see

One might wonder why Charlie's exposure of a small organization of self-appointed “best and brightest” was important. In addition to the exclusion and denigration of women, Charlie pointed out that the members of the organization were in positions of power and were able to support each other in obtaining grants, publications, and career advancement. These opportunities might not have been available to most male psychologists, but they were most definitely withheld from women psychologists no matter how good their research was. The secrecy that the organization maintained for many years has made it difficult to show the impact on the field of their covert use of power.

Charlie's personal and professional support of women is less well known than his contributions to cognitive neuroscience. I think it is interesting that some of his female students who came of age in the 1960s left neuroscience for research on women and gender (although Weisstein [1977]) made important contributions to the field before she became chronically ill). Mary Parlee wrote many articles debunking the menstrual cycle as a source of women's inferiority (Parlee, 1973), and I wrote an article entitled “Toward a redefinition of sex and gender” that was published in the American Psychologist in 1979 that has frequently been described as a pioneering effort to analyze the causality of so-called sex differences (Unger, 1979). Weisstein was a founder of the Association for Women in Psychology, and both Parlee and I have been president of the Society for Women in Psychology (Division 35 of APA).

Charlie has never held my change of fields against me. He has been a rare model of male feminism when some think that it is a contradiction in terms. I am proud to have been his first doctoral student and proud to participate in this celebration of his life and tremendous contributions to the field.

Reprint requests should be sent to Rhoda K. Unger, Women's Studies Research Center, Brandeis University, or via e-mail: