January 25, 2005
Nature, nurture, doing and being

The comment thread to the previous post has brought up some interesting points that I've been pondering. La Lubu thinks I'm ceding to much to nature and should pay more attention to the role of nurture.

This reminds me of a realization I came to in college in the middle of one of these nature/nurture debates. I thought, basically I have a choice between saying that male chauvinism is true, and women are such weaklings that the old patriarchal order was correct, or women are so weak-minded that men invented the idea of female inferiority out of whole cloth, and somehow, nearly uniformly the world over, persuaded women to believe untrue things about themselves. I wasn't sure which was actually worse. Nowadays I think it's more complicated than that, but that's also why saying "It's all just culture!" doesn't particularly reassure me.

Progressive Christian made a similar point when he conceded the idea that probably modern technology makes sexual equality possible, but hey, nature is full of nasty things like germs and predatory animals, so who wants to be a slave to it anyway? He has a point, but I like to think that sexual equality is something more profound to our selves and our identities than antibiotics or indoor plumbing. Like I said, it just doesn't seem real if it all depends on technology.

However, I do see how changes in our society, which are not strictly technological, may have made certain gender institutions obselete. Job segregation, for instance. When I think about how that must have formed, I think the most important point is actually how early people used to start their life's work. Nowadays we take 18 years or so to decide what we want to be when we grow up, but before the industrial era most people started their "careers" while still children. So they tended to have their jobs selected for them by factors that were evident from birth, such as their sex and what their parents did.

In such a system, it's easy to see how even small differences between the sexes could lead to the total gendering of jobs. If male hunters, for instance, take home an average of 5% more game than female, that means that there are plenty of great female hunters and bad male ones. But the group as a whole is going to thrive more in the long run if men do all the hunting than if women do it or if they divvy it up equally. Hence that most ancient of sex-role divisions, male hunting and female gathering.

But I don't think that job segregation is really the essence of male chauvinism. As I said in my rundown of gender theories here, the whole yin/yang theory of gender complementarity is oppressive to individuals who don't fit the scheme, but it doesn't inherently place one gender beneath the other. The problem, as Margaret Mead pointed out, is that while different cultures divide the labor in different ways, whatever men are doing always seems to be regarded as more important and prestigious than what women are doing.

That's the main point I was trying to make in the last post: we should be cautious about accepting what our society values as important or worthwhile things to do, because that value system very likely favors men. When I look at the white-collar work world, for instance, I see a system that basically wants people to be sexless worker bees, who don't have personal attachments that interfere with their work. And because men don't get pregnant, I think it's easier for them to pretend to be that. I don't think that's an entirely natural mode to men either, as CEOs who find themselves with divorced wives and estranged children tend to find out. But men have that little edge -- maybe just the little 5% edge that I gave in my hunting example -- but in a highly competitive environment, that's enough.

Of course, what I'm bringing up here is a popular conservative lament: our society doesn't value childbearing, so women feel they have to be like men! That's true, although I would add a couple of important caveats. One, I feel that the male role in our society is disordered as well as the female, in the way it removes a man from his family to the degree it does, so we shouldn't act like restoring the traditional wife/mother role is going to take care of things. I like to say that the breakdown of the family didn't start when women started working outside the home -- it started when men did!

I think it's also worth pointing out that societies that highly valued childbearing -- such as in the Old Testament of the Bible -- also weren't geat shakes for women. I believe that the reason for this is that when you value having a great quantity of children, women are at an even more obvious biological disadvantage than if you value having no children. That is why clans in those societies want as many of their own sons and as many of other people's daughters as possible.

This whole thing reminds me of what that Episcopal priest said: the kingdom of the world values you for what you do, while the kingdom of heaven values you for what you are. And that, I think, is at the root of this whole problem. If you're going to evaluate people by their comparative achievements, women are going to be found wanting a lot of the time. Our big natural gendered ability is getting pregnant, but that's not exactly an "achievement", and there's no way to measure it against anything men can do since they have no remote equivalent. You can keep score of the number of children you have, the amount of money you make, the nations you conquer, and all kinds of things, but how can you score pregnancy? Like the kingdom of heaven itself, it defies scorekeeping. It just is.

Maybe that is where the answer to this dilemma really lies.

Posted by Camassia at January 25, 2005 09:44 AM | TrackBack

The stay-at-home mom has a more important job in raising a soul than a female CEO has in raising profit, since souls are worth more than shareholder returns. But where the problem comes in is not in achievement per se but how to bolster the feeling of achievement in the stay-at-home mom. Society needs to assign greater status to moms, since, like it or not, status is that for which everyone hungers.

Posted by: TSO on January 28, 2005 09:59 PM
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