Today, I want to tackle a thorny topic that I believe lies at the very heart of gender relations in our society. It is an issue that is wrestled with on many different fronts, from every possible angle, and continues to complicate the entire question of male versus female.
That question is: are men and women fundamentally the same, but have been polarized into different behaviors and tendencies by sexist social rules, or are they fundamentally different?
I consider myself a “feminist,” in that I believe we should all have equal opportunity and should be judged individually, rather than automatically be assumed to have the character traits and abilities stereotypically associated with the groups we were born into, be it race, gender, or anything else. A century ago, women couldn’t vote, hold many jobs, or expect the same pay for the same work. Many women fought very hard to change this, and I deeply respect their work.
Most people don’t want to return to the world as it was a century ago, and most are horrified by what’s going on in Afghanistan, for example, where girls are shot in the head for attending school. Yet, “feminist” remains a dirty word to many. Why?
Is it because feminists are assumed to hate men? I don’t feel that way at all. After all, I am a heterosexual married woman with one baby already and another on the way (not that homosexual, single, or childless women hate men). I’ve had countless male friends and rarely have a beef with any of them. I’m not saying that there have never been any feminists who hated men, but these are extremists who aren’t representative of the group at large… There are always extremists in every group whose beliefs don’t represent a general consensus.
Maybe it’s because some people feel that feminism intends to obliterate all gender differences, eradicate gender identity entirely and confuse all the ways in which men and women relate to one another.
It doesn’t make much sense, does it? How can a group be charged with both hating men as well as wanting to not recognize any differences between men and women at all? Yet these questions are relevant to how many women hope to achieve equal opportunity. Do we propose that we are all essentially the same, and should be treated as such? Or do we propose that men and women are different, but that those differences are all valid, necessary, and should be treated with equal respect?
The problem is, as we all learned in the civil rights struggle, that separate-but-equal rarely ends up being equal. In many ways, the civil rights struggle is more straightforward, because black men and white men are biologically the same apart from differences in melatonin production from evolving in different latitudes. Everything else is likely due to different economic opportunities, upbringing, social constructs, and individual differences.
But between men and women, we have hormonal differences, general biological differences, and, perhaps the most obvious, different biological roles in producing offspring. We also have massive social constructs and differences in upbringing that confuse the issue, making it very difficult to sort out what differences are natural, what differences are artificial, and what differences are natural but greatly exaggerated by social constructs.
The problem with recognizing differences is that so many of them have historically been used to rationalize short-changing women. For example, women who have worked hard and successfully completed higher education are passed over for jobs and promotions because employers don’t want to waste resources training employees just to have them get pregnant and quit, or at least be less available. Or people argue that women can’t be president and have their fingers on the nuclear bomb trigger button because, you know, hormones.
Or more insidiously, they are used to justify double standards. If men have a higher sex drive, then they can wildly indulge in all kinds of kinky sex with multiple partners and it’s just natural, whereas women are always expected to be in control of their sexuality (if their sexuality is recognized at all), or else be considered amoral sluts. Or, since women are considered naturally maternal, they are expected to always be perfect, patient, self-sacrificing mothers by default, whereas men who who show any interest in or have a sense of responsibility for, their kids are considered heroes.
The list is endless, and when so many differences have been used as justification for screwing women over, it’s no wonder that so many women want to deny that differences exist at all, or at least that those differences apply to them specifically.
Another problem with recognizing those difference is assuming they apply to everyone. But this is clearly untrue. For example, men are taller on average than women, but that doesn’t mean every man is taller than every woman.
Yet the flip side, where no differences are recognized, comes with a host of its own problems. First, since men historically had the advantage, most women claim to be more like the traditional blueprint of men. This will, by default, turn traditional male qualities into the desirable ideal, putting women at a disadvantage. For example, if you say women are physically stronger than men, then you are putting a high value on physical strength. In most cases, it won’t be true. But why place such a high value on it in the first place? Upper body strength is handy in some situations, but hardly a great measure of overall competence. If it were, we should be holding arm-wrestling contests to determine the next president, or just hand it over to a gorilla, who is stronger than any human.
Another problem with not recognizing differences is that women are made to suffer a huge burden for the differences that exist. When we, say, fight workplace discrimination by saying we never want to have children, what happens when we do? We have to have children for the species to survive (not all of us, of course, but at least some). We endure a great physical strain, facing many biological dangers and discomforts, in order to do so. This is beneficial and necessary for everyone, yet it gets turned into an individual burden that becomes “our problem” when we don’t collectively fight for accommodations of this fact.
A couple years ago, a bill was drafted that would allow pregnant working women to keep their jobs but would protect them from activities that were incompatible with their pregnant condition. They couldn’t be expected to lift heavy weights, for instance. So, women wanted to be able to maintain employment but as part of the Americans with Disabilities Act, be protected temporarily from dangerous activities during their pregnancy. The bill failed. Not only that, but there wan an outcry against women demanding “special treatment,” or expecting accommodations for what was “a choice, not a disability.” People made vicious comments about how women wanted taxpayers to pay for them having “not kept their legs shut.”
So, is it fair that women shoulder the biological burden of pregnancy, which benefits everyone, and be forced into unemployment and federal assistance, where they will then undoubtedly be deemed slutty welfare mothers, suckling at the taxpayer tit? It is one of the many dangers of NOT recognizing biological differences.
Perhaps if we recognized and respected these differences as a society, we would have decent, federally-funded daycare, or other social services that benefit our society as a whole.
Whenever I hear another woman say (and I often do) that she’s not like other women, she’s different, it makes me cringe. She will typically say something like, “I don’t like shopping and gossiping like other women. I like sports and action movies.” It ends up being a reinforcement of all the tired stereotypes and becomes another vote that men are generally “better.” Maybe she would do better to realize that since she is a woman who doesn’t like shopping… All women aren’t therefor obsessed with shopping. We are all unique individuals.
Finally, I think the problem that comes from not recognizing gender differences is that it is ineffective. Because as long as women are held in lower esteem, anything associated with them will also be held in lower esteem. It doesn’t really matter what it is. Women can say they don’t like dresses and makeup, for example, but in Ancient Greece and Rome, men wore dresses, without stigma. Sure, they were called “togas,” but they were dresses. In the 18th century, European men wore makeup.
Similarly, some women pride themselves on not being able to cook, associating it with old stereotypes of domestic goddess duties. Yet Japanese sushi chefs and French chefs are held in very high esteem. How many mafia movies are out there with a scene of some tough guy preparing a giant bowl of pasta for his cronies?
My point is not that women should or shouldn’t wear dresses, or should or shouldn’t cook, but rather that if women are held to be less desirable than men, then anything associated with them is also deemed less desirable, even when the same activities are respected when men do them. So focusing on the minutiae is a dead-end, when we should instead be focusing on respecting women as a group.
How significant are the differences and how many of them are natural? I don’t have a clue. I do know that when I was pregnant, the first question everyone asked was whether I was having a boy or girl, and the conversation became very stereotypical once I answered. I know that when I carry around my infant girl, everyone comments immediately on how pretty she is, and how much trouble she will give me in high school. I’m not saying any of this is at all malicious, just that before my daughter has had a chance to develop herself as an individual, people have made already many assumptions about who she is.
I don’t propose that we try to eradicate differences, but instead make them less restrictive. If my daughter likes a pink shirt, she can have it. If she likes a toy train, she can also have it. Maybe we should be focusing more on opening up the entire human experience for everyone to enjoy, and let people be who they want to be.
We can legislate equal opportunity on paper, but it’s more difficult to change social expectations. I read about a disturbing psychological experience a few years back. In it, they videotaped employees in a shop and had people rate the competence of the employees. The same set and script was used in all of the clips, but some involved male employees, some female, and some had black employees. The script and set were always the same, but the audience have lower competence ratings to the female and black employees than the white male employees. And when the employees were black, the audience also rated the store as “dirtier” or “less tidy.”
I’m sure the audience thought they were being objective , yet they rated black and female employees differently, even when every other factor was kept consistent.
I believe our job, as a society, is to work at eradicating these underlying assumptions that place one group above another… To respect everyone individually while understanding that we do not stand alone in this world. We do not belong on opposing teams.