This is a post for Karla, who donated to help send me to this year’s Women in Secularism conference. She asked me to address the following argument.
Let’s start with this premise: “An important goal of feminism is to eliminate unequal treatment based on gender.” Seems unarguable.
Except that there are two interpretations of that premise, and they’re incompatible. Let’s call them Position 1 and Position 2. By way of explanation, here’s a short article. It argues that although feminist parents often discourage their daughters from wearing pink, they should not do so, because it perpetuates the idea that girly colors, and by extension girly things, are inferior.
Position 1 thinks this article makes a good point. We don’t denigrate boys for dressing up like soldiers, so why should we denigrate girls for dressing up like princesses? That’s treating maleness as superior to femaleness, which is unequal, which is not OK according to our premise. By the same token: Movie studios and publishers ghettoize chick flicks and chick lit; that’s unequal treatment. The nurturing professions (childcare, nursing, social work, etc.) earn lower salaries just because they’re predominantly filled by women; that’s unequal treatment. Women are often denied tenure or a partnership because they’re unable to put in enough facetime because they shoulder a disproportionate share of the housework and childcare; that’s unequal treatment. We should work to overcome these biases against femaleness: we should review more chick lit in mainstream publications, we should pay daycare workers more, we should provide equal opportunities to women on the mommy track.
Position 2 thinks this article misses the point completely. The problem is not that we’re biased against girly colors; the problem is that there ARE girly colors. There should be just as many boys as girls wearing pink or any other color. There should be just as many men as women writing novels about relationships, and just as many women as men writing about novels about war. There should be just as many male as female nurses, and just as many female as male firefighters. There should be just as many male as female stay-at-home parents, and men and women should share housework and childcare equally. When there are no longer male and female colors, male and female professions, male and female roles in relationships, only then will we have attained equality. We should encourage women to embrace traditionally male attributes (a lot of progress has been made here) and we should encourage men to embrace traditionally female attributes (almost no progress has been made here).
Position 1 and Position 2 are not compatible. Position 1 takes male and female roles for granted; Position 2 wants to eliminate them.
If the positions aren’t compatible, then they can’t both be correct. Assuming one of them is correct, which is it, and why? Or can they be reconciled after all?
I agree with your premise. In general, I agree with Position 1 as you’ve stated it here. I have some quibbles about your suggestion on how the “mommy track” be treated, but they’re small and that’s another post (which is, in fact, about half written).
I think Position 2 is something of a misunderstanding of a different argument. That argument is about choice and about the freedom of our choices. Currently, many people point to male and female representation in various fields as the core reason for income inequality between genders. It isn’t, but again, that’s another post. From there, they extrapolate that the core reason for income inequality is choice, as everyone has a choice of what field they go into, and therefore, income inequality based on gender is not a problem we have to solve.
In response, feminists point out that choices are not always freely made, that is, made without constraints. When we look, we find constraints on the interests of boys and girls from infancy onward. Those constraints take the form of gendered clothing and toys, parental approval or disapproval (up to and including abuse) of gendered behavior, straightforward statements of what “boys do” and “girls do” from peers, biased perceptions of aptitude from teachers and employers, and sexual harassment and discrimination up to and including assault of those perceived to be gender nonconforming.
When we look at all those constraints, and listen to people whose choices have been affected by them, or those who had to deal with them in order to achieve their goals, it becomes very reasonable to point the segregation in today’s world and say that things would not look this way if we removed those constraints. We can look at how various groups have changed demographics in the last few decades as the restraints have been reduced to tell us that we’re right about that.
Does that mean that precise equality in numbers would rule the day if we removed all constraints? No. Continued inequality along with continued evidence of bias tells us we still have problems to fix, but it doesn’t tell us that the two are perfectly linked. Lack of bias is the goal, not equality of numbers. We pay attention to equal numbers because they’re a decent proxy for how well we’re addressing bias now, but they may not always be in the future, particularly as the amount of bias in our society decreases.
All that said, I see no incompatibility between Position 1 and Position 2. In fact, I see Position 1 as a necessary step toward Position 2.
I understand how the confusion arises, though. Position 1 deals with how we manage in the here and now of a society that is highly gendered. Because that is its primary concern, it’s using the language of the here and now. The reality behind the language is not as gendered as the language would lead you to believe, however. When we talk about “chick flicks”, we’re talking about films that–at the extreme–still found a quarter of their audience in men and boys. When we talk about the “mommy track”, about one in ten of those people we’re talking about are men. The names of the phenomena are feminine. The groups involved are much less so.
That means that when we say we shouldn’t allow the world to denigrate romance films or stay-at-home parents, we’re not talking about a problem that affects people or doesn’t based on their gender. We’re talking about a problem that is associated more with women by our society, though it actually affects people of any gender.
Nor do we only care about it because these issues are used to denigrate women. We also care about it because these issues are used to denigrate non-gender-conforming men, as well as trans and genderqueer people. You note that we haven’t come nearly as far in opening up the full range of human behavior to men as we have to women. This is quite true, and part of the reason that this has been difficult is this “woman = bad; man = good” dichotomy.
Women who transgress by adopting “masculine” gender presentation or interests are punished for that transgression, frequently by some form of sexual harassment. They face microaggressions in the form of questioning their ability and suggestions that their “real” interests should lie elsewhere. However, because “masculine” is coded as “good”, women who transgress are seen as doing something worthwhile. The risks they take are explicable, sometimes even grudgingly admired.
Men who transgress by adopting “feminine” gender presentation or interests also face punishment and microaggressions, but they don’t get the benefit of having their transgressions viewed as reasonable. They are seen as tainting their masculinity with undesirable femininity. For that, they often face stricter punishments. Where a young girl may have “boy” toys taken away from her if she’s caught playing with them, a young boy who plays with dolls may face having “the sissy beaten out of him”. He is sullied by transgression in a way a girl is not, and he faces a stricter punishment because of it. When we look at hate violence statistics, we find transgender women (women identified male at birth)–people who most strongly challenge male gender norms–to face among the highest rates of murder (pdf).
Position 2 doesn’t contradict Position 1. Position 2, when properly viewed as a shorthand for eliminating the bias that prevents people from following their own interests regardless of gender, requires that we eliminate the bias against “feminine” interests and activities. Until we do that, men and others identified male at birth cannot safely, much less comfortably, pursue interests that are currently identified as feminine. In this respect, they’re even less free than women.