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TRINITY Magazine 2006 | Q&A with Caryl Rivers ’59

Caryl Rivers ’59

You have some award-winning books in your dossier. What originally sparked your interest in studying gender difference (or sameness)?
I had noticed with alarm that for women, there were ominous signs that their past strides in breaking down workplace barriers were eroding. Biological determinism has returned—in new guises—arguing that women are not meant, by nature or by their psyches, for achievement. Gender difference myths are being used on a variety of fronts to “prove” that women should be confined to jobs that use their special “relational” abilities, that women’s brains are not designed for leadership, and that they “cheerfully choose” low-paying jobs. We hear that even when they do get good jobs, the smartest women reject them for home and hearth. The media has embraced this narrative with gusto; the danger is that these ideas are seeping into law and public policy as well.

Do you describe yourself as a “feminist?”  A “liberal?”
Yes. Both, proudly.

Who was your greatest female influence?
My mother, who was the first woman lawyer at the prestigious Washington law firm Covington and Burling. She got her break during World War II when all the men went off to war. In those days, unfortunately, women had few supports. When the war ended, she knew she couldn’t work the 70 hours plus required to make partner, since my brother was a baby, so she left the firm. But she was able to inspire me and to tell me that women could, indeed, make it “out there.”

How did your time at Trinty influence your feelings regarding women in the workforce?
Trinity took women seriously. We were expected to be as smart and as accomplished as men, and to set our sights high. This was true even in a time that was generally pretty “retro” as far as women at work were concerned. Trinity was rowing against the tide.

Was there anyone specific, at Trinity, who influenced your feelings on women’s roles or the lack thereof?
Sr. Joan Bland, my history professor, taught me to use the frame of history to see patterns in current events, and Sr. Margaret Claydon encouraged my writing efforts.

You’ve worked with Rosalind Barnett on three past books. How did the idea for Same Difference develop?
It grew out of our research for our book She Works, He Works, based on a major study of dual-earner couples. We kept stumbling across books, magazine cover stories and TV soundbites hyping “Difference” myths that we knew did not mesh with actual science. It wasn’t hard to see the harm they were doing.

Here’s an example. Simon-Baron Cohen, in his book The Essential Difference, claims that male brains are “systemizing” brains, good for mastery of hunting and tracking, trading, achieving and maintaining power, gaining expertise, tolerating solitude, using aggression and taking on leadership roles. The advantages of the female brain? Making friends, mothering, gossip, and “reading” your partner. Interesting how all the leadership roles in society require the male brain, while the female brain lends itself only to the domestic arena. The science on which this is based has been debunked by critics, but it is cited all the time in the media.

What research expertise or perspective do you bring to this book, and how does this contrast or compliment Barnett’s expertise?
My special area is media, and I track the way pseudoscience turns into media “fact.” Roz has the ability to sift through scientific papers to sort out the good science from the bad.

Spoil the ending for us; what is your finding or moral of the book?
Don’t let pseudo-scientific myths of gender difference dim your aspirations—or those of your children.

Did you originally set out to debunk the myths of Michael Gurian, Sylvia Ann Hewlett, and John Gray, or was that simply a welcome surprise?
Those writers were indeed in our sights. We were especially concerned about John Gray, because he is so popular. But recent research points out that his book is one of the worst in terms of real science. Gray tells women that they must always be loving “Venusians.” They must never get angry at their husbands, never criticize, never make suggestions about what he should or should not do, should leave him alone when he is being surly or withdraws (that’s just a guy thing) and never make demands that he get more involved in child care. In fact, she should never make any demands  at all. That’s a prescription for either depression or repressed rage. As for Michael Gurian, he actually suggests that only about 20 percent of women have the “bridge brains” that males have, making them able to succeed at math and science. This is nonsense. There is no such thing as a “bridge brain.”

What message would you like to convey to all of the “women are from Mars” believers?
I’d say “Look around.” Are all the men you know insensitive louts who can’t express feelings, can’t bond with children and are hyper-aggressive? Are all the women you know passive little doormats who want to talk about their feelings night and day, can’t take risks and have no ability to lead? All men and all women are not stamped out from little cookie cutters. So many factors other than gender determine who we are.

What surprised you the most from the research you did on stereotypes for Same Difference?
How pervasive stereotypes are. I was astonished to discover that when women take a math test and are told beforehand that women aren’t generally good at math, they score much lower than men. But when they are not told anything, they score just as well as men, on average. (The same goes for African Americans.) We internalize others’ expectations of us to an amazing degree.

Did some of the stereotypes you investigated turn out to be surprisingly correct (generally)?
There are almost always grains of truth in many stereotypes. It may indeed be true that in many workplaces, women are less inclined to speak up, or take credit. But is this due to sex, or power? There’s a lot of research showing that in any group of people, the people with the most power speak more and are more assertive, whether they are male or female. Do you think Condolezza Rice’s junior male aides interrupt her a lot?  I don’t think so.

Do you have any daughters?  How has your research affected your interaction with her?
My daughter is an actor who specializes in classic stage roles—especially Shakespeare.  (And this was a kid who sat under the table for the first week in nursery school!) My research confirmed what my mother had always said to me—basically,  “Be all that you can be.” I tried to give that message to my daughter.

You wrote in The Boston Parents’ Paper, “The single-sex classroom that is set up in an ‘essentialist’ fashion, seeing girls as too fragile and ‘relational’ to be competitive, will not prepare them for the real world.” Tell me how attending a single-sex college influenced your feelings in regard to this.
Trinity was the polar opposite of the “essentialist classroom.” Nobody told us we were fragile little “relational” flowers who could only learn in groups where nobody challenged us. The same was the case with schools like Smith, Wellesley etc. The single-sex women’s colleges succeeded because they treated women as the intellectual equals of men, not because they coddled them. Going to Trinity made me realize the benefits of a rigorous education, one that was not tailored to some mystical idea of women.

Do you think there should be single-sex schools for girls and single-sex colleges for women?
It’s good to have many kinds of schools. If single-sex schools are not “essentialist” and not sexist, they can be wonderful places. But California set up a group of single sex schools in its public schools and they failed to promote academic achievement, the Ford Foundation reported. Gender doesn’t matter that much—what matters is class size, resources, quality of teachers, parent motivation and many other factors.

Are you working on another book we can look forward to reading?
Several. One will draw on our gender research and will be aimed at parents, unlike Same Difference, which was designed for a general adult audience. I also am working on a book on women’s images in the news media—and on a new novel, to be set in the mid-sixties. Working title: Mercy Girls.

What is on your reading table right now?
The New New Journalism, by Robert Boynton,  Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bait and Switch and Philip Roths’s  The Plot Against America.

Lastly, what predictions can you leave us with?  How will the roles of women have changed by the year 2025?  Will we see a woman president in the next 20 years?
I think we will continue to take three steps forward and one step back. Despite all the rhetoric about “family values, ” the U.S. has many fewer programs for children and families than does most of the rest of the industrialized world. We have little paid maternity or paternity leave, no paid family leave, no universal pre-school, little job sharing or decent part time work, no universal health care. We lack a whole range of programs that other nations have. This is despite the fact that worry over child care is the number one source of stress for working couples, men and women alike. This is a major challenge—making the workplace family-friendly and using resources to help families, not stress them out more.

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