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Testing Claims about Gender for Truth
What dividing lines between men and women are important to you?
I’ve contributed to a little symposium at Public Discourse on differing opinions about the dividing line(s) between men and women. My mini-essay starts with sympathy for people who approach these discussions with skepticism:
Women are not born, but rather become, skeptics of ontological claims about gender. Long before a girl is old enough to encounter the phrase “gender essentialism,” she has encountered enough false claims about what lines exist between men and women to be chary of conceding there is any essential difference.
Women in toxic purity cultures hear that they are living stumbling blocks for their male friends. Women in toxic promiscuity cultures hear that they can only understand their own bodies and desires through experimentation, and that any natural reluctance is prudery that must be desensitized and overcome. Women are told that their bodies are a problem—too prone to fertility—which they have to keep in careful check. Women are told that their bodies are a problem—too prone to effluvia—and that they must find a way to wean their child rather than inconvenience their employer.
Every woman has had the experience of being told that something about her womanhood is a problem for others, one that it’s her job to ameliorate. Many women have been told that there is something essential to being a woman that she lacks.
I myself grew up with a reflexive suspicion of anyone trying to draw a strong distinction between men and women. It usually turned out to be a way to deny women something that men enjoyed. A legacy of sexism means that no one can hear a pitch on gender differences from a blank start.
But what I’ve also grown suspicious of is a semi-neutrality that doesn’t leave room for women to navigate the world as women, rather than just as humans.
Race-blind policies can perpetuate structural racism, even in the absence of active bias. Sex-neutral policies can ask women to contort themselves to fit into a “neutral” model that is a lot more comfortable for men than women.
As I conclude my symposium entry:
Men and women are united in being dependent, rational animals. But the shape of our dependencies varies with our genders and other markers of our identities.
Women are marked by our capacity to be vulnerable in particular ways—especially our ability to sustain life (and for that new life to upend our own). Men often find that their own moments of vulnerability are anticipated and cushioned by a society that is built to suit male norms, while women find that their own needs are treated as inconvenient or strange. No one, man or woman, is an isolated individual, but women experience the falseness of the ideal of autonomy more vividly than men.
The pressure women face is our spur to reject a fully buffered, independent self. Our particular vulnerabilities and capacities have never been fully buffered, so we have the most obvious benefit from rejecting this limited view of the self. But for men, too, a return to a porous, vulnerable, interdependent self is an invitation to full self-gift. Each sex has different capacities, equal in dignity, which achieve their fullest expression when we are not siloed off from one another and from reality.
You can read my full essay at Public Discourse, and I’d love to hear from you on what distinctions between men and women have been genuinely helpful for you.
There are some distinctions (“Men tend to be taller than women”) which are descriptively true, while not saying something about whether every man is taller than every woman, and not being particularly interesting or core to identity.
Erika Bachiochi (another contributor to the symposium) identifies our reproductive asymmetries as more crucial to who we are. Men and women can both become parents, and they both have duties to their child. But we are differently tied to the children we engender. Bachiochi writes for The Atlantic:
As the Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe would articulate the concept two decades later, “While men retain the right to sexual and reproductive autonomy, restrictions on abortion deny that autonomy to women.”
But abortion restrictions do not deny sexual and reproductive autonomy to women; reality does. While pregnant, a woman is carrying a new and vulnerable human being within her. Unlike a biological father, a pregnant woman cannot just walk away; to approach the desired autonomy of the child-abandoning man, a pregnant woman must engage in a life-destroying act.
As Bachiochi sees it, neither mother nor father has the right to abandon a child, but the mother is more intimately tied to her duty, while the father is bound more loosely (in a practical, not an ethical sense).