Sometimes, I deliberately read books I suspect I will disagree with.

Why would any sane person do this to themselves? Two reasons: it’s important to know what arguments the ‘other side’ are using and it’s important to check the validity of these arguments. After all, you could be wrong. If so, better to know it and change your opinions. And if you’re right? You’ve had the opportunity to remind yourself why you hold the opinions you do. So it’s a win-win situation (unless you are my husband and thereby occasionally subjected to minor outbursts of impotent rage along the lines of “this is utterly offensive drivel!!”)

I was struck by the bold title, promising to explain ‘Why Men Don’t Iron’. (Mine does. I’ve seen him do it too, so he isn’t sending it out.) The cover reinforces this implicit sexism with an image of the quintessential fifties housewife, hair carefully coiffed, nails and lips painted a ravishing red, carefully cradling a stack of freshly laundered towels. She looks neat, calm, ready to please. I find it telling that the only praise the authors could find to stick on the back cover is from the Daily Mail (‘provocative’).

What’s it about?

According to co-authors Anne and Bill Moir, men are suffering in modern life. Their suffering is attributable to ‘efforts to close the gender gap and the increasing feminization of society, of food, and education … [all of which are] detrimental to men’.

Claiming to draw on the ‘most recent research’ (not the most accurate?), they insist that men and women act and think differently due to their biological differences. Accordingly, they state that the idea of gender as a purely social construct is incorrect and set out to prove the vital difference sex makes by exploring its effect on men and women’s brains in the worlds of education, food, work, home life and, um, sex.

What’s it like?

Awful. Unless, perhaps, you read the Daily Mail and agree wholeheartedly with everything in it.

Essentially, they suggest that trying to make society more female-friendly, which could seem rational since women make up 50% of the human race, is Bad For Men and we should stop trying. Immediately. Also, homophobia isn’t a real thing, gay men should stop making straight men feel uncomfortable and women need to stop being so damn cheap to employ because it’s dragging men’s pay down. Preferably, women would stop taking men’s jobs altogether – especially in traditionally male industries. Really, they need to get back into the kitchen – how dare they want to share the cooking burden? – and stop risking the health of their family by force-feeding men diet food. Don’t they know that Men need Man Fuel? Also, babies are for girls. Unisex baby-change rooms are daft because ‘most men would rather the baby stayed filthy than be seen using [one] … Fathers are not mothers’.

‘There is, perhaps, nothing quite so pathetic as the well-meaning attempts of the western democracies to integrate women into their military forces.’

I’m not exaggerating. The book sometimes feels like a tirade against women, which isn’t helped by the cute habit Moir and Moir have of slipping in a bit of dialogue. Each dialogue consists of Bill teaching Ann something (usually something contrary to established beliefs) and Ann endorsing things Bill says (ditto). This is cringe-worthy, but their attitude towards people who don’t share their convictions is truly appalling. (Post-modern academics are compared to Neo-Nazis.)

Underneath the stunningly rude tone, there are occasional semi-valid nuggets of insight. Take this gem:

‘There is, perhaps, nothing quite so pathetic as the well-meaning attempts of the western democracies to integrate women into their military forces. If an enemy wanted…to weaken the armies, navies and air forces of the West, it could do no better than to encourage more women to enlist for combat positions…’

The Moirs go on to explain that as women tend to be naturally more cautious, typically possessing higher cortisone levels than men, deploying them in a role where bravery is paramount may not be wise. By the time they get to this point, though, readers may already be incredulous, and the authors don’t help by stating that ‘Women join up in the name of equal opportunity and ‘human rights”.  Surely, most women who sign up will do so for the same reasons as most men? But I suppose I’m forgetting about those incredibly powerful biological differences that drive us all…

If you’re a feminist and want to get really, really angry – read this.

Of course, this is (popular) science, so it must all be true. Each chapter is supported by a wealth of references to papers, books and newspaper articles. Many of these look quite learned but as a lay reader it is not possible to know how accurately the Moirs are relating the findings of original studies, or how reliable the studies were. I have some doubts as a result of the chapter on food. The authors write about organic farming in a very circumscribed way and, as an informed reader on the topic, I could see the gaping holes in their arguments, which made me wonder what holes I wasn’t spotting in the rest of the book.

Final thoughts

If you’re a feminist and want to get really, really angry – read this. If you’re genuinely interested in the nature / nurture debate in relation to the behaviour of the sexes, you may find this a useful starting point if you can skim over the insistentence on biology as king, but I imagine there are more balanced books on this subject.

The prevailing tone of extremism and provocation may succeed in keeping readers reading (I was utterly hooked) but it isn’t actually a great strategy if you genuinely want to convince people that your ideas have merit.

I actually did read this with an open mind. Science tells us that there are important differences between the sexes and it is clear that these have effects on men and women’s behaviour. However, just as Moir and Moir deplore those who wish to reduce all gender differences to social conditioning, their book is facile and infantile in its insistence on sex differences not just as the cause of everything but as a cause we must bow down to. If men are bored by ironing, tough. The world has evolved and humans must evolve with it.

Of course, I have to vote for greater equality: I’m a woman and, if these pages are to be believed, biology is destiny, so I’m naturally a conciliatory peacemaker.

What do you think?

‘Why Men Don’t Iron’
Anne & Bill Moir
1999, HarperCollins, paperback