Gender is one of those things that everyone seems to have an opinion on. Whether they believe in natural differences between men and women or that it is culturally, physically, or theologically defined, it is a strong subject bound to get people heated.
Before I put out my recent thoughts, it should be noted that nearly all social scientists acknowledge a difference between sex and gender. The sex of a person is his or her biological makeup (I understand that there are some born between male or female both physically and psychologically, but for this post let male/female, his/her encompass everything in between). Sex includes the bodily characteristics. Gender on the other hand encompasses the socially defined distinctions that, depending on the culture, are split into the roles or characteristics that females or males ought to embody.
My opinions and thoughts here will likely offend both those who think that gender roles are natural and those that think that there should be no gender distinctions at all. I will look at biological, cultural, and historical reasons for why gender roles are the way they are and how they ‘should’ be.
Men and women are generally different. I think this is something that can be agreed on. Physically we have different bodies. Other than the obvious differences, there are different chromosomes and hormones that typically are given to one gender over another. The body and the brain of males and females tend to function differently.
Before you think I am using this point to say that men and women should act differently because they are different, let me clarify that I am not. I am saying that men and women are inclined to act one way over another. Men are more likely drawn toward being aggressive because of the amount of testosterone in their bodies. This does not mean that “men are more aggressive than women”, simply men are inclined to be more aggressive and that thousands of years of culture building have put men into this role, because of their bodily make-up. Before I expand on this, let me also clarify that there are always exceptions to every rule. There are men who are born with bodies that do not produce as much testosterone and there are men whose bodies produce more than average. This is what can make the appropriation of gender roles so dangerous and this is the main point I will be making.
Throughout history all societies have been trying to survive. The core of every society of all time has been to set up themselves to survive. The cultural adjustments and societal shifts that have occurred over however many years of human existence have firstly been focused on survival. There are many, many factors that come into play here and personally I tend to believe that humanity is bigger than biological and evolutionary purposes (to fall in line with filmmaker Terrance Malick’s work, I like to believe the way of grace can be chosen over the way of nature). Nonetheless, getting food and surviving the elements are the main adaptations that societies make. (To my theologically minded folk here who would argue that it is not survival, but God’s will and guidance that has formed and shaped society, please understand that much of the social structure by which you abide is built because of people choosing to live or act in a certain way. It is fine to attribute this as being a divine will, but then you must also admit that God is shaping different peoples according to their natural surroundings which sounds a lot like the basic principle of survival.)
In order to have the best chance of surviving, men were typically chosen to go out and hunt the food or to do the hard labor. As discussed above, men’s bodies are more capable of doing physically strenuous work, because of the way they are physically made. This also included things like doing battle, another sometimes important key to survival. The men tended to do the harder physical labor.
In hunter-gatherer societies -which some may view as the most basic of societies-, men do the big game hunting while women do most of the gathering. Though the hunting seems important, it is actually the women who bring in most of the food; the society’s survival is dependent on them bringing in enough. In these societies, men and women are seen as equal. There is no hierarchy in their relationships or at all (they have no leader). The way that they adapted to survive is what affected their perception of one another.
In one of my classes we read an article where something interesting happened as certain hunter-gatherers brushed up against outside cultures where gender was seen quite differently. In these outside societies men were the primary providers. When these outside societies began to take over hunter-gatherers, they put the men in the same roles as their own men were in. With this change, women lost their equal status with men. Men became seen as being more of a leader of the household, with women having secondary status. With this change in status, women became targeted for abuse, particularly of a sexual nature. However, in another hunter-gatherer society under similar circumstances, where women were allowed to maintain a similar role, there was no abuse and the genders were generally seen as equal.
Men and women were given certain roles because they were physiologically more suited to do one thing over another. This helped society to function better. Problems occur when certain roles begin to be seen as better than others. In the aforementioned example a dichotomy began to form -one that still exists today- that placed provision ahead of household work. This seems to have lead to the oppression of one gender by another and the thought that one role was better than the other.
Before some of you crucify me for concluding that men are just made to provide because they’re stronger and women are made to stay at home because they’re more emotional (if someone has a study on this that would be great), that’s not what I’m saying. In some cases -like the hunter-gatherers above- women actually do more of the providing, but are not as well suited to hunt as men (though some I’m certain would be better). This is simply a case of men who tend to be one way and women who tend to be another and the role those tendencies have played have suited their societies over time. These tendencies and roles have been corrupted to involve oppression and the abuse of women.
Today in our non-agrarian societies these roles have continued. There is a notion that men should remain the provider and women the nurturer of the home. However, hardly any of the work done is difficult physical labor. We have continued to apply these roles in a way that is bound to something that is not at all our reality anymore. Women are perfectly capable of running businesses, being doctors, lawyers, engineers, etc… There should be nothing keeping them from competing at the highest levels of any occupation, and if there is (as there seems to be), then it is likely an ingrained systematic sexism that is latched onto gender roles that do not really apply anymore.
Men and women are generally different. It’s true. But the way we have applied and ingrained these differences have been hurtful, abusive, and oppressive. Our modern world shouldn’t keep the gender roles that were useful for ancestors. Men and women will likely always have some sort of difference within particular cultures. Unless science can make us gender neutral, we socially and culturally will have a hard time getting rid of all gender distinctions. We will always live up to some sort of standard of being a man or woman. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Being a man is wonderful. Being a woman is wonderful.
Forcing people to live up to some sort of standard of man or woman is where we tend to get out of line. It is these strict expectations that cause individuals to feel as if they are not worthwhile. Perhaps, rather than trying to get people to become the best man or woman, we should try to get people to become their best. We should discover who they are as unique individuals, getting them in line with their personal passionate pursuits.
This might sound like post-modernist mumbo jumbo. And maybe it is. But I don’t think that we need to worry about preserving gender roles. They will preserve themselves as culture interacts and adapts.
I do think we need to preserve people. Fragile, broken people. The easily damaged and dismayed. The lost and confused. The human experience is no cake walk. Comfort for the soul is more precious than gold.