21 Questions for 2020: #9

#9. Do we still need “women” or “feminine qualities” in this brave new post-gender world? 

For many years I taught an introductory gender studies course in which I divided the semester into thirds and spent equal time focusing on women’s issues, men’s issues, and LGBTQIA issues. The last time I taught it, a few years ago, the students had little patience for talking about the issues of men and women—categories they considered so passé, so last-century. They were excited by the fluidity of gender identity and felt the best path forward for humanity would be gender-neutral, leaving the travails of gender-based discrimination and male privilege behind. 

Gender-neutral rest rooms have sprouted on many college campuses, including mine, but the realities of life in gendered human bodies remain pretty much the same. The same old issues that women have been dealing with for centuries—equal pay for equal work, equal access to leadership roles, freedom from sexual harassment and assault, equal participation in childcare and housework, for starters—are still unresolved. 

I don’t cling to gender identity in any conservative way—I wrote my BA thesis, many years ago, on the trope of androgyny in the novels of Virginia Woolf, and I don’t think men or women are best served by the extremes of gender identity. 

But look closely at today’s “gender-neutral” or “androgynous” type-casting, and what you see is a default towards masculine identity. It seems that the whole idea of gender-neutrality is just another way of eroding respect for women and femininity, yet again. 

So why do I think it’s important to maintain the categories of male and female, masculinity and femininity, when so much harm has been inflicted in their names over the years?

It’s the body, stupid. Sorry, I don’t mean to be crass. But we inhabit bodies that are not the same. 

As far as spirit goes, once we are free of our bodies, I don’t believe sex and gender are relevant. But while we’re here in embodied existence on Earth, just like all other mammals and almost every other life form, we have specialized bodies that are adapted for certain biological tasks. 

Feminist theory shied away from acknowledging this reality, calling it, pejoratively, “essentialism”: the reduction of women to our bodies. In the spirit of “we can do everything men can do” feminist politics, it did not serve us to call attention to our biological differences. 

Nevertheless, such differences persist. Even in a post-gender world, women still menstruate, get pregnant, have babies, and nurse babies. Women, especially young women, are still the primary targets of sexual assault by men. Women have higher amounts of hormones like estrogen and oxytocin, which predispose us, biologically, to be nurturing and relational. 

These basic biological differences affect us at home, in school, in the workplace—in every aspect of our lives. We cannot just wish them away. And more importantly, we should not wish them gone, in some kind of brave new post-gender fantasy.

Human differences are glorious and precious. Imagine how boring the world would be if we were all clones of some genderless, colorless, characterless human. 

Rather than trying to flatten out gender differences, we should be working to cultivate the best in each one of us, elevating the human potential that exists in equal measure in every human embodiment. 

I believe that gender identity is a fluid spectrum, not a static binary opposition. Every human has qualities that we have been socially conditioned to think of as “masculine,” as well as qualities that society has told us are “feminine.” What has happened for too long is that the so-called feminine qualities, like nurturing, collaboration and emotionality, have been considered less valuable than the so-called masculine qualities, like aggression, competition and intellectual prowess. 

We can see what our society values in very stark terms in the national budget. How much do we spend on the military, vs. how much we spend on education and the wellbeing of children? 

Societal decisions like where to put our money are not gender-neutral. Choosing to spend more on weapons and warfare than on parental leave and high-quality day care, not to mention food security and education, have consequences for men and women. The financial pressures most American families endure are not the result of individual choices, but social policy. 

Why are our divorce rates so high? Why are so many women struggling to raise children alone? Why is it so hard for women to succeed professionally in a climate that demands 110% commitment to the job in the child-bearing years?

The answer to these social problems is not to do away with women as a social category. We should be celebrating and supporting women’s remarkable biological ability to give birth and nurture young children. This is not to say we want to return to the days when women were confined to the kitchen and the nursery. Not at all. 

If women got more social support for their role in those critical child-bearing years, as they do in the more advanced countries, we would be able to take our important relational skills into politics and the professions and make every field a warmer, more nurturing place. This would result in a better world not just for women, but for all humanity. 

Social change comes very slowly. We won’t be voting for a woman president in the 2020 U.S. elections. We still have a long way to go to achieve equality. 

For the sake of future generations, not just of humans but of all life on this planet, we must persist in proclaiming the value and worth of the “feminine” qualities of nurturing and collaboration. Let’s honor every human being who embodies these qualities and brings them to a world so badly in need of loving attention. 

On this first International Women’s Day of the 2020s, in the year that commemorates the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in the United States, let’s  celebrate the remarkable resilience and courage of women, worldwide. The crucial fight for gender equality is still very much game on

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2 Comments

  1. Spot on, Jennifer. It is critical that we seek equity and respect in all forms and in all ways in which it has not existed.

    Reply
    • Jennifer Browdy, Ph.D.

       /  March 11, 2020

      Yes indeed! It was discouraging to see all the women candidates for US President be pushed to sidelines. I hope and expect that we’ll get a woman VP this year, and on to the presidency in the next cycle!

      Reply

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