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What Divides the Sexes?
Your answers to Sr. Prudence Allen
I’m travelling this week, and moving next week—and I imagine many of you have busy Augusts, too. So, I’ll post once each week, on Wednesday, offering round ups of some of our recent conversations.
And, if you’re on twitter, I’m starting a poetry tanda (details here) for people who like the way twitter sparks shared conversations, but would prefer them to be about poetry, rather than algorithm-chosen controversies.
I’ve been reading the third volume of Sr. Prudence Allen’s The Concept of Woman, and I was struck by the way she broke down the question of “How are men and women different?” into four subquestions. These aren’t necessarily the questions Sr. Prudence thinks are central, but they are the ones that dominated Greek philosophy and shaped much of the thinking that followed.
Metaphysics: Are male and female the opposite, contrary, or the same?
Philosophy of Nature: Does a woman’s or man’s contribution to generation have consequences for her or his respective identity?
Wisdom: Do women and men have the same or different capacities for thinking, and are they wise by knowing the same or different things?
Virtue: Are women and men good by doing the same things or different things?
I offered a sketch of my own answers and asked you about your own answers to these questions. I also asked which questions (if any) you felt got at something important, and what was left out of this framework.
Jerden wrote in response :
I don't think there are distinct "masculine" and "feminine" virtues—men and women are likely to express "courage" or "compassion" in different ways, but it's not like there's only one way for a man or for a woman to be virtuous, so we'd expect variation. I'd even say that the virtues that don't come naturally to us could actually be the most important to cultivate—I think there are plenty of men who could benefit themselves and others by being more nurturing, kinder and more humble!
There are other groupings where it’s helpful to talk about what a virtue looks like in the life of members of that group. Seniors in college faces different challenges to temperance than seniors in assisted living, even though both groups are called to that virtue. Soldiers have different challenges to courage than seven-year-olds (even though both have to call upon that virtue frequently).
The follow up question is how the virtues tend to be required differently of men and women, and I’m looking forward to more from Sr. Prudence on that front.
Mary posed an additional question:
How do you distinguish what is absolute vs what is not, without reducing people to sexual body parts? Besides body parts, is there anything exclusive to men or exclusive to women?
And Magdalen proposed an answer:
There's a difference in identity between men and women that is a result of biology, but cannot be reduced back to it. That my identity has been molded in ways by having a female body, knowing that I can get pregnant, experiencing a monthly cycle, that won't be undone when I eventually lose these bodily capabilities.
And there are exceptions to some of these capacities, but the experience of infertility is different for men and women. A man does not miss the chance to be pregnant. The smaller physical divergences are also experienced differently—there are men and women who are 5’11” and ones who are 5’2”, but their experiences of these heights will be very different.