January 20, 2005
Mother Nature, she's a single woman too

A Catholic blogger recently wrote an anti-contraception post, which led a commenter to accuse him of thinking women are "reproductive cattle." Now, since Mr. Eric Williams is new to me I have no idea of what his opinion of women actually is, and as readers know, I'm not Catholic, have no problem with birth control and am ambivalent about abortion. Still, there's something about the commenter's attitude, which I've encountered a lot from various people, that irritates me. It's this idea that women NEED these modern medical technologies in order to be something other than livestock. Yeah yeah, in our society people have a right to avail themselves of technologies that are available, but that's not really a gendered right. The obvious reason why so many women are so terrified of losing their right to abortion is that they're afraid their equality with men will go with it.

But what does this say about women's inherent worth? It makes it seem like our equality is an artifice, make-believe almost, the way high heels make us seem like we're as tall as men without actually being so. That if we were stranded on an island like the Bounty mutineers and had to build a society from scratch without our weapons of self-determination, we'd just have to throw up our hands and accept male rule.

This actually is another reason why the theology of nature interests me: for those of us interested in women's equality, nature often seems like the enemy. There's a faction of eco-pagan feminists out there, but in the more conventional career-oriented feminism in which I've lived, there's this unspoken feeling that nature screwed us. It made us smaller and weaker than men, it makes us get pregnant and nurse, and if it were up to nature we'd do nothing else all our adult lives. Little wonder, I suppose, that worshipping God as Creator has always been the hardest part for me.

It's certainly true that when I look at societies that are closer to nature than we are, it's clear how gender roles get formed in certain ways. I was thinking about this just last Saturday when I went with some church folks to help out at a Habitat for Humanity site. For much of the day, we filled in various holes and depressions around the lot with dirt. Whenever we did this, I noticed an entirely spontaneous gender division of labor developed: the men shoveled and hauled the dirt, the women spread it and tamped it down. I tried a bit of shoveling myself, but without the male shoulders I wore out quickly. That isn't much in itself, but I can imagine how day after day, task after task, that sort of experience would yield a somewhat different attitude towards gender than working in an office.

Still, there's a long way between saying that the sexes are naturally better suited to certain roles, and having one actually dominate the other. One encouraging datum for nature's side of things is that while going back to pre-industrial agrarian societies finds the sexes a lot more stratified, going even farther back to hunter-gatherer societies finds the genders rather more equal. Not perfectly so, but it does imply that some "traditional" values are themselves products of human artifice.

I don't mean to say that it should make no difference to women (and men) if medical technologies are available or not. Obviously, there are a lot of modern technologies that people need and depend on. It just bothers me how many women seem to have wrapped their identity and value around abilities that are basically external to them. I think that any concept that values women for who we are would have to account for what we naturally cannot do, as well as what we can.

Posted by Camassia at January 20, 2005 06:01 PM | TrackBack

I've always found it interesting that the story of the Fall in Genesis seems to say that male oppression of women only became a reality after sin entered the world, along with difficult toil to survive. In Eden work was limited to tilling and keeping the garden, which would seem to allow for greater equailty of tasks.

Now, I'm not one for reading the creation story literally, but it does seem to suggest a kind of primal equality like you ascribe to hunter-gatherer societies.

You could argue (and some do - Jacques Ellul for one) that technology is itself a sign of a fallen world. In which case the equality of men and women must be understood as rooted in a much deeper reality.

Posted by: Lee on January 21, 2005 06:07 AM

You know, Camassia, every time I read a post here I get more and more impressed (and sometimes befuzzled). You're a really smart person! And more than that, you refuse to accept neat, settled categories. These last three posts are really stretching my brain.

Posted by: Elliot on January 21, 2005 08:39 AM

Seems to me we solve problems of gender relations, race, etc by simply treating every person as an individual.

Generalizing people into categories, the opposite approach, always fails to one degree or another when applied to someone we know, so we must assume that it's invalid in general.

There are differences between men and women, of course. But what does that mean in reality? Many women have cleaned my clock in long-distance runs, and some are obviously a hell of a lot smarter than I am. Some are stronger, tougher, and meaner. So, I take quite a risk if I consider women in general to be weaker, meeker, and kinder.

By the way, I've linked to you, and I'll be back! (Sorry, Gropmeister.)

Posted by: Tom Carter on January 21, 2005 10:16 AM

Thanks, guys. I don't want to over-romanticize hunter-gatherers, since I don't see the evidence for these neopagan claims that the stone age was a feminist paradise. But it has occurred to me before that the first 10 chapters of Genesis are a kind of super-compressed history of the Middle East from the prehistory to the Bronze Age, with humanity moving from hunting-gathering to tilling the soil to building cities, a sin precipitating each move. The fact that Revelation envisions a "city of God" implies that it's not a total loss, but there is this sense of a heavy price for the gains.

Tom, I don't think it completely solves all matters of gender to treat everyone as an individual. Obviously with things like shoveling dirt and running races there's an overlap of male and female abilities, but the roles in reproduction are rigid and uncrossable. Either you're the one who gets pregnant or the one who does the impregnating. I think a lot of the reason why feminists have tended to view control over pregnancy as so important is the feeling that if we keep getting pregnant, it will keep pushing aside those non-gender-related abilities that will let us be neutrally evaluated in the way you propose. (I've ranted elsewhere about the concept of a "neutral" person that is really a male person, and I think that applies here, but that's a long story unto itself.)

Posted by: Camassia on January 21, 2005 11:16 AM

Sorry to nit-pick here, but:

The reason you got worn out from shoveling has nothing to do with the size of your deltoids, and everything to do with how often you use your upper body. If you are not used to doing any lifting, then you'll wear out sooner...regardless of sex.

And I mention this because it has a bearing on what women are "allowed" to do. It has a bearing on what career choices women ultimately make, as they grow in a world that supposedly has feminist influences, but still sends a powerful message--"you can't do that, you're a girl!" from birth onward. Female "weakness" is a self-fulfilling prophecy. I'm not a very tall or very large person, but I can still lift a lot of weight. Still, I have to prove myself to every new guy on the construction site....and this, after damn near seventeen years. It wears thin. I'm gettin' to the age where I don't wanna have to prove myself to the wet-behind-the-ears apprentices, y'know?

It's been my belief, based on experience, that the less sex-segregation, the better. It's hard to develop bogus beliefs about gendered abilities when you've had a full range of experiences.

The sexes are not naturally suited to different jobs. Women just learn early on that we supposedly have our "natural" talents in certain areas, and not in others. So, we magically develop talents for the areas we've been culturally shifted into. The heaviest burden women lift is carrying the internalized sexism of our inherent "weakness"...whether for heavy-lifting, math, visual-spatial ability, logic, focus, cool-thinking....whatever. Shrug that burden off, and suddenly you'll find yourself with the abilities you were told you didn't have.

It's not nature that's the enemy, it's nurture. Nature gave the women at the Habitat House strong muscles; nurture told those women that strong muscles weren't "feminine" enough, or that they didn't have "real" muscles. So they didn't use them...and continued not using them until their strength resembled the cultural standard and not the one they were born with.

Posted by: La Lubu on January 21, 2005 02:05 PM

Look, I'm sure if a female bodybuilder showed up she could have beaten the tar out of all of us. But it's absurd to claim that men have no natural advantage in upper-body strength. Why do male pro golfers drive a dozen yards longer than female pro golfers, on the average? Not because they work harder at it. All the top pros work hard.

I don't think this means women shouldn't play golf, or do construction, or whatever. I'm just saying that if there's a job that values excellence in some area where men have a greater capacity to excel, then it's inevitable that the people who are best at it will mostly be men. And that in itself acts as a deterrent to women participating in it. If the PGA and LPGA Tours were integrated, and Annika Sorenstam became just a middling pro in the general tour, I can't imagine as many little girls would want to follow in her footsteps.

Anyway, my point about physical strength wasn't that we need to re-introduce job segregation. I was just saying that I could see how that sort of thing developed. And anyway, the main point I was making wasn't about strength but reproduction, about which there is a very clear gender difference. It seems to me that the reproductive-control technologies that feminists have made so central to the cause are not some enhancement of natural female ability, but a tacit admission that this natural difference from men is a weakness that needs to be "fixed." There are other reasons to want to limit your reproduction, of course, but I think that's the reason why it's become a specifically feminist issue.

Posted by: Camassia on January 21, 2005 03:52 PM

I appreciate you're coming back and explaining further, Camassia.

But I have to stress again that women tend to ignore or limit their abilities and choices because of cultural, not physical reasons. I mean, if you saw me just wearing a T-shirt and blue jeans, you probably wouldn't think I could throw a generator in the back of the pickup by myself...but I can. I'm not a big, butch bodybuilder. The average woman ought to be able to do it. She can't because she believes she can't, and has acted on that belief all her life until her muscles atrophied.

I mean, when I was a kid in the seventies, it was common for teachers to ask the boys for help with large books or film projectors. Even in the first grade, teachers would say, "I need some strong boys to take these books down to the library". Now, there is no biological reason for six and seven year old boys to be "stronger" than girls of that age. The teachers did this to boost the ego of boys. Yet, what were the girls learning? They were learning that they didn't have the physical ability to carry books down to the library! Self-fulfilling prophecy.

This attitude affects the way academics are taught to young women....less is expected of them in math and hard science. It's hard to battle stereotypes that have been ingrained at such an early age.

And I think this plays into your original point...about the reliance on technology like birth control. How can it not? We're constantly sent the message "this is the way it is" about our abilities....why wouldn't it be considered easier to reach for a crutch rather than change the culture? If your sisters in the shovel line think that they can't lift a shovelful of dirt (even though it is quite likely that their great-grandmothers heaved dirt and did other hard labor all day), they certainly aren't going to believe that they have the power to change the culture in a way that would be beneficial to them, regarding birth control, child care, health care, etc.

"Biology is destiny"....remember that one? What does it mean?

Posted by: La Lubu on January 22, 2005 07:08 AM

As much as I hate to say it, because I think we need to approach each individual on his or her merits and that we are all equal in the eyes of God and should be treated precisely equal in the eyes of the law, I think that there's a decent argument that equality between the sexes, at least as the norm rather than as isolated examples, IS a product to a certain extent of modern society. That, to me, does not make it less worthwhile in any way.

What is the effect of no medicine, high infant mortality rates (requiring a high number of pregnancies), a high number of deaths in child birth, and the need humans have for intensive care in their early years (particluarly while breastfeeding)? Given those three things, it doesn't surpise me that primitive societies might focus women's roles on child birthing and rearing. Indeed, without contraception or medicine, to invest years in educating one's self as a woman may well require forswearing relationships that could get you pregnant. I don't have statistics, and would like to see some, but I do believe that I want my daughters to have full control over their reproductive freedom.

I'm not sure I'd see this as making "nature" the enemy, any more than "nature" is the enemy by means of plagues, earthquakes, etc. I, after all, could be out getting gored by boars, mauled by bears, backslapping other grunting brutes on the back over my latest kill, and then dying of gangrene after getting a cut on my toe. Whoopee. Both technology and feminism have liberated men as well as women from constricting roles and other things that suck.

Posted by: A Progressive Christian on January 22, 2005 12:50 PM

I've joked at times that if I were a creationist, I'd spend too much time being mad at God to worship him. And sex hasn't even become a concern for me yet.

Still, there's a lot of wisdom in what you write. It's necessary to un-pathologize womanhood, biology, reproduction--but when every month means reliance on medical technology, in the form of painkillers at least, just to stay sane, how can I not pathologize that?

Posted by: Emily on January 22, 2005 06:12 PM

It's ironic that relations between the sexes may have become more "stratified" in "agrarian societies" when it's likely women who invented, or discovered, agriculture -- when the seeds of the grasses they gathered dropped and began to grow close to home. In fact, if there were ever goddess-worshipping societies they may have been the very earliest agrarian societies, growing out of that discovery. In South Pacific slash-and-burn agricultural societies I've read about, men do the heavy work of clearing the fields, and women do the planting. It's probably the invention of the heavy iron plow that made agricultural societies male-dominated.

I continue to tiresomely repeat my contention that the equality that really matters is spiritual equality; that some women aspire to be soldiers and boxers and fire"men," occupations for which most women are not physically built, because they want to prove that they equally possess courage and honor and endurance, which are highly valued spiritual qualities. The sexes differ in body and in that middle term, soul, but they are equals and in fact alike in spirit.

Posted by: amba on January 24, 2005 06:27 AM

"Now, since Mr. Eric Williams is new to me I have no idea of what his opinion of women actually is"

I'm not a chauvenist pig (or at least I try hard to be). I consider women equal. However, to me, that does mean eveything a man can do a woman can do just as well any more than everything a woman can do a man can do just as well. Equal doesn't have to mean identical or interchangeable.

My idea of a real feminist is someone like Susan B. Anthony. I don't have much respect for so-called feminists whose idea of equality for women includes looking and acting like men. Real feminists respect those aspects of womanhood that make them different from men.

Posted by: Funky Dung on January 24, 2005 11:42 AM

What is "looking and acting like men?"

I mean, other than some hard-core lesbian bars that cater to butches and the femmes who love them, where on earth are you going to find women who "look and act like men?"

The answer: you're not. You're just going to find women who, by virtue of not adhering to the standard of the viewer, are going to be told that they are "acting like men". What nonsense.

In other words, Funky Dung, why is it when I tell folks that I love to cook, I get kudos (especially from men, who almost never fail to segue into a "thank God! I thought there weren't any women who liked to cook anymore!" side note); yet if I say that I also enjoy mountain biking and martial arts, they start questioning my sexuality? Isn't that silly? Why am I a "real woman" when I have long hair (like now), yet when I get tired of it and have it cropped (usually during a hot summer) I magically lose my "real woman" credentials?

See, as far as I'm concerned, my giving birth and breastfeeding for almost two years have already given me all the "real woman" trump cards I need, LOL! But on the other hand, while I try to keep a sense of humor about the subject, the same ol' joke isn't funny anymore.

Unlike amba believes, I didn't choose my career to prove anything, or wave a big banner for feminism....I enjoy the work, and the "man-sized" paycheck is also a plus. Being able to pay my bills really rocks! When it comes to avocations, whether I'm an even split between "male" and "female" activities, or lean slightly towards the "male" end is a matter of perspective.

Susan B. Anthony would have thought me horrid....I live in blue jeans, and she thought women who wore slacks were just terrible!! Morally deficient, even. Most people in the U.S. today do not share her view, which just goes to show you how arbitrary the categories of "masculine" and "feminine" can be. It wasn't that long ago that it was thought a college education would make a woman's ovaries dry up and disappear.

I find contemporary attitudes towards women in nontradtitional employment, or towards women who have "male" hobbies (why, with half of the folks studying martial arts in the U.S. being women, is it still considered a "male" domain?!), cut from the same fraying cloth. Someday, we will all laugh at the idea that folks should have had their opportunities channeled by anatomy, instead of ability and heart.

Posted by: La Lubu on January 24, 2005 05:11 PM

Perhaps I should clarify. Wearing certain clothes and having certain hobbies because you like them is not the same as doing those and otehr things simply because men do it. A woman should have to dress in a power suit (complete with shoulder pads) just to make it in business. Women shouldn't feel that they have to hold certain jobs in order to be treated eqaully and fairly. Women shouldn't equate promiscuity with sexual equality. Just because some men are selfish, inconsiderate slobs, doesn't mean women should follow suit.

Anyhow, I applaud you for being a mother and a breast-feeder. I don't think you're a lesbian because you like mountain biking and martial arts. I don't have a problem with short hair, either.

It seems you think I'm opposed to some mythical manish woman that doesn't exist. Likewise, you go on about things I never said or implied. You have mistaken me for either Ward Cleaver or Jim Anderson.

Posted by: Funky Dung on January 24, 2005 05:50 PM

typo: should NOT have to dress in a power suit

Posted by: Funky Dung on January 24, 2005 05:51 PM

Glad you clarified, Funky Dung!

See, I don't think women should have to dress up in padded shoulders to make it in business, either! Nor do I think that women with big shoulders should have to hunker down or starve themselves. I don't personally know any woman who chose a particular career or avocation in order to clench her teeth and prove some ostensibly feminist point...do you? I mean, I just can't see such a strategy working for that person for very long.

Meanwhile, although you don't hold those stereotypes you've referred to, I have had those charges levelled at me, and trust me....no one watching me either enter or leave a room is going to mistake me for being a man. Stevie Wonder could tell I'm not a man, LOL!

And this does have the effect of artificially limiting the choices women make. Some women are afraid of being called a "lesbian", or "mannish" or whatever the stereotype du jour is. There are many stereotypes of the female construction worker: dyke, slut, golddigger, manhater. I've been doing this since I was twenty-one, and I've heard them all. The typical female construction worker? A hetero single mom. We just haven't made the stereotype, nor will we. Stereotypes are all about insulting and discouraging.

See....that's what bothers me about the charge "acts like a man"...it's so vague, yet effective. Many women don't want to check their gender at the door when exploring opportunities their grandmother didn't have.

I'm the same woman I was before having a child...yet my motherhood has given me a strange credibility on the jobsite amongst the Neanderthal set. The same guys who would never see me, just an image they had in their mind, now think "oh...she's doing this because she has a kid." Doing it because I enjoy the work is apparently unthinkable. Sigh.

I was lucky; I had feminist parents who 'inoculated' me against that sort of intimidation. I just want other women to feel free enough to make their choices, even if they go against the grain, as mine did. Having that foundation makes a difference. I've had too many women my age or older come up to me in public, when I'm in my Carharrts and hardhat, and say, "wow! I wish I did what you do! I wanted to when I was young, but didn't have the guts." The guts to do the work? No. The guts to go against the grain. To be themselves despite the name-calling and questioning, the ridicule of even their own family members. That's sad.

And like I said, someday, this will not be. But we're not there yet. Think of this example: in Saudi Arabia, I would be thought of as both mannish and whorish for driving a car. Here, the chauffering "soccer mom" is a staple of every subdivision, and she is quintessentially feminine. Same driving, different perception.

Posted by: La Lubu on January 25, 2005 05:46 AM
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