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Drawing Lines Between Men and Women
Your experiences of fruitful division
Welcome back from the Other Feminisms summer vacation. I’ve been using this time to 1) move, 2) start a new job, and 3) make it out of the first trimester with our second daughter (due in February). I’ll be returning to our usual schedule of a post from me on Mondays, and a discussion roundup of your comments on Thursdays.
I’m very grateful for the support of 50+ of you who have chosen to subscribe and make it possible for me to say no to some freelancing in order to say yes to this project.
My thanks also to the Abigail Adams Institute, which has helped support Other Feminisms through a grant for the year.
Back in July, I asked you two questions:
What distinctions between men and women are most important to your sense of yourself as a man or a woman?
How do you test ontological claims about what makes a man or a woman, to make sure they’re true and not tainted by sexism?
Magdalen offered some distinctions that have been fruitful to her, while still settling clear limits on what follows from those differences:
Some ways I find it helpful think about men and women being different are the following: that women's bodies are a more profound witness to the interdependence of human life; that women embody change as they move through the phases of maiden, mother, and crone, while men embody constancy as their bodies remain relatively unchanged throughout their lives. I'm mostly happy for these ideas to live in a fuzzy space where they are justified by the fact that the bodily experiences of humans are an integral part of who we are.
I am, however, incredibly skeptical that a rule or law can ever be justified by an ontological claim about gender. In a world without perfect information, it can be necessary for a rule to reflect an average experience, such as requiring men to register for the draft and not women. But a philosophical or theological justification that hinges on such an ontological claim has a much higher bar to overcome. It cannot make an argument that the rule is right for most women: the rule must be just for all women, even those whose particular attributes are more similar to those of men.
I’ve certainly been someone to run up sharply against claims that are true of the average woman, but not true of me. Many of the commenters who spoke in more ontological terms spoke in terms of capacities available to each gender, while leaving open a range of ways people might respond to that capacity.
Outside the comments on the post, I was struck by the comment of my friend K_____ on twitter, when she talked about the challenges her toddler faces as someone who is big for his age.
He is larger and stronger than a typical child, but not fundamentally different developmentally. His mind and emotions need greater attention to help him to care for a body that is more powerful than he has the restraint and experience to steward appropriately.
And this seems to be true for many men as well. They are on average stronger and larger, and face the particular challenge to learn to use their strength well and to figure out how to extend it to serve others.
Even men who are not themselves notably strong enjoy a different kind of strength in a world that is shaped by sexism. They can find it easier to navigate the world and have to decide how to responsibly use that privilege to care for others.
Chai pushed back on the premise of the question, saying that she didn’t see distinctions that were large enough to be worth emphasizing:
I've been enjoying your essays, but I have to say that I honestly don't think this is a helpful question. The distinctions that I see between men and women in my life—and I'm the mother of a grown son, as well as the wife of a dear husband—are little more than physical: they're taller and stronger than I am, so they can reach the high shelves or carry the heavy groceries. Otherwise, there is very little difference between us. I may be more prone to becoming tearful, but neither of them is in any way out of touch with their emotions. They are both tender, caring human beings, as well as very intelligent ones. They're far more mathematically inclined than I am, but I've known too many women who excel in math and science to want to categorize those qualities as "male." I think the question is unhelpful because it focuses attention on what so often divides us, but men as well as women can be—and should be—caring, tender, and true, just as women are able to express all the good qualities that have been traditionally associated with men, such as courage and strength. My husband was every bit as good a parent to our son as I was; no task was beneath him, and none was ever carried out in anything but a loving way. (Actually, he was much better than I was at that--he's far more patient than I am. But I don't think that's a gender difference, just a failing of mine.) And our son, I know, will do the same for his wife and children when it's his turn. Society does make it hard to be female in many ways, but I haven't seen any inherent differences between men and women when men choose not to act as if there are.
I was impressed by the quality of your comments, particularly when you disagreed strongly with each other (and me!) and stayed engaged with each other. This is a topic I’d like to return to, and I’d love to know what you’d like to delve deeper into when it next comes up.
One topic that’s on my mind is the place of single-sex spaces—sometimes a refuge, sometimes exclusionary. I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts.