“It’s not about gender.”

The underside of a loggerhead sea turtle

Loggerhead sea turtle. Credit: Upendra Kanda

Sea turtles (superfamily Chelonioidea) are found in all of the world’s oceans except the Arctic. They spend the majority of their lives in the sea, but females return to shore to lay eggs. All seven surviving species of sea turtle are on the endangered species list. Like many marine animals, they are threatened by oil spills, pollution, and fishing (they are often accidentally caught in nets). They are also in danger of poaching, as their meat, shells, and even their flippers are sold in some countries.

Sea turtles are also threatened by climate change. Because they use shorelines as nesting areas, rising sea levels may destroy those habitats, and the extreme weather brought by climate change may decimate their nests and eggs. Further, as global temperatures rise, so does the temperature of the sand in which sea turtle eggs are laid. Studies suggest that higher sand temperatures can have devastating effects on eggs and hatchlings, causing more female offspring, more deformities, more deaths of eggs and hatchlings.

Whooping Crane

Whooping Crane

The Whooping Crane (Grus americana) is an endangered bird native to North America. Before Europeans colonized the continent, there were probably over 10,000 of them. By 1938, that number was down to 15 due to hunting and habitat destruction. Thanks to a sustained and expensive conservation effort, the population has now recovered to about 382. However, during the past two years, five Whooping Cranes have been illegally shot.

Imagine you’re a biologist specializing in sea turtles and the effects of global warming on them. You’re well aware that there are many species adversely affected by global warming, and even more species adversely affected by human activity in general. For instance, many species of birds are threatened by power lines, skyscrapers, and other things that they can accidentally fly into and die. This obviously isn’t an issue for sea turtles. But sea turtles and global warming is what interests you and what you’ve decided to study.

Now imagine that every single time you write a paper or give a talk or submit a grant proposal about sea turtles and global warming, someone–probably a climate change denialist–shows up to be like “Yeah well it’s not a climate change thing! Many other species are affected by human activity! Why don’t you focus on those? Why don’t you talk about manatees? Why don’t you talk about Whooping Cranes?”

You probably know where I’m going with this, right?

Men and women (and those who identify as neither) are all harmed by the patriarchal society we have created. Nobody–or very few lucky individuals, perhaps–wins this game. Everyone is screwed by gender roles. Everyone faces denial and victim-blaming if they report sexual harassment or assault. Everyone is threatened by bullying and exclusion if they step outside of their roles.

But men and women are not always harmed in the exact same ways or by the exact same facets of the system.

When I wrote about street harassment a few weeks back, a bunch of people showed up to inform me that this is “not about gender.” Men get harassed on the street too. Anyone can be harassed. Anyone can be subject to unwanted, creepy, objectifying, humiliating sexual attention. This is true.

But the dynamics play out in different ways. Because it happens more to women than to men, the cumulative effects–the fear and self-objectification and distrust–are different. Because so many women are socialized believing that their looks are all that matters, it’s different. Because so many men are socialized believing that they must want sex all of the time, it’s different. Because women are so much more likely to be sexually assaulted, it’s different. Because men are more likely to have learned how to fight back and defend themselves, it’s different.

It’s different.

Gender is undeniably a way in which we organize our social world. So it makes sense that gender could also be an important lens through which to analyze society and social interactions. Most things, in fact, are gendered in some way. Yesterday in my psychology of gender class, the professor noted that housework is a gendered phenomenon, unlike, say, walking into a bookstore. When most people picture housework, they probably picture a woman doing it–or, at least, they picture men and women doing different types of housework (cooking/laundry/dishes versus yardwork/plumbing/painting). Walking into a bookstore, on the other hand, is something you can easily picture either a man or a woman doing.

But what about after they walk in? Which sections of the bookstore do they go to? Which books do they buy? Do they read those books alone in the armchair or on the subway, or do they read them in a book club?

Gender is a useful and fascinating lens to use, but it is only one of many. You could also use race, or class, or nationality, or any number of other social distinctions. Many social phenomena are racialized or…classified? There has to be a word for that.

Even with these, of course, people will show up bloviating about how “we’re all human” and “seeing race makes you the racist” and “everyone has problems” and “it’s not about gender.”

If you take these claims in good faith, you might assume that people who say this just don’t care very much about examining social divisions and inequalities and would prefer to look at problems facing everyone. Even then, however, the problems that face everyone don’t face everyone equally.

However, no matter how well-intentioned these people are, what they’re doing (purposefully or otherwise) is supporting the status quo, in which these distinctions are kept invisible and treated as irrelevant–a practice that only serves those in power.

Gender is an analytic framework that interests me, so I use it. As a woman, I use this framework from a woman’s perspective; it’s not my place to speak about men’s experiences. (Plenty of writers, by the way, use this framework from a man’s perspective, such as Ally Fogg and Figleaf.)

The point of the opening analogy, by the way, was not to compare men or women to animals or to suggest that women are like sea turtles or men are like Whooping Cranes or even that human threats to animals are like patriarchy (although perhaps you could view it that way)*. It was only to show that sometimes, it’s useful to look at an issue through a particular lens–for instance, examining threats to sea turtles by looking at climate change. Both sea turtles and Whooping Cranes are harmed by human activity, such as poaching and habitat destruction. But if we had to pretend for the sake of argument that climate change does not exist and that all animals are equally in danger and that humans screw over all animals, we would miss a vital point about sea turtle eggs and warmer temperatures.

And, by the way, nobody would accuse a sea turtle expert of not caring about Whooping Cranes or of actively hating Whooping Cranes simply because they happen to be more interested in studying sea turtles. Nobody would accuse a biologist who studies climate change of not caring about poaching simply because they’re more interested in how animals are harmed by climate change.

So no, I don’t have to talk about men every time I talk about women. I don’t have to pretend that there are no differences in how men and women are affected by things. As far as I’m concerned, it is about gender–and about race, and about class, and about everything else–and feel-good platitudes about how “we’re all the same species” only have the effect of hiding these important phenomena.

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*Analogies Are Imperfect™, so please don’t derail the comments with discussions of the weaknesses of this particular analogy.

[#wiscfi liveblog] Sexism and Religion: Can the Knot Be Untied?

The WiS2 conference logo.

I’m finally up and watching Katha Pollitt speak! Pollitt is a poet (say that five times fast) and a columnist for The Nation.

10:10: I chose the topic of my talk today because I didn’t know the answer: can religion be disentangled from the misogyny in its texts and its practices. I asked a random selection of people what they thought. My cousin Wendy (an observant Jew) said no. My daughter, a militant atheist since kindergarten, also said no.

The world’s religions are all deeply shaped by patriarchal ideas of a woman’s place. For some, that extends even into the next world. For Mormons, men in the afterlife can have many wives, but a woman can only enter the afterlife if her husband calls her by her “secret name,” which only he knows. Also, she will be perpetually pregnant in the afterlife to produce people to populate her husband’s planet, because he gets a planet after he dies!

In the Islamic afterlife, men also get a bunch of wives. Meanwhile, in Christianity, men and women are supposedly equal before god. But regardless of whether or not that’s true, the society Christianity establishes on earth is not egalitarian at all. (See: St. Paul on women.)

There are no female prophets in the bible, no female founders of a major new faith (except Christian Science), very few female religious leaders with independent power. To find a woman-centered religion, you have to go back to prehistory, and we don’t even know much about those religions. In any case, men are quite capable of worshipping a female god (i.e. Athena) while repressing women.

10:16: What about the bible? It’s full of misogyny, of attempts to control women’s sexuality (evidenced by the obsession with prostitutes).

The atheist in me wants to answer my question with a resounding “no.” The subordination of women has historically been one of the main purposes of religion. It’s the rulebook of patriarchy.

Today, priests and rabbis tend to talk in terms of complementarianism: men and women are equal; they’re just different!

Up until 100 years ago, there was none of this separate-but-equal stuff. Women’s sexuality was considered dangerous and potentially polluting. Today, though, you’d have a hard time finding a rabbi who’d say that the reasoning behind the menstrual taboo in Judaism is just that menstruation is disgusting. Instead, they say that the ritual bath “honors” women and is empowering and whatnot.

10:19: Orthodox Jews claim that men refusing to shake women’s hands has nothing to do with women being taboo; it’s just about “modesty” and “respect.” “We just think the sexes shouldn’t be so quick to touch each other.” They’re reframed it as no longer about a specific resistance to women, but a general thing.

When American Muslim women talk about why they wear the hijab, they invoke it as a simple of religious identity, not as something to keep men from being lustful. Some Muslim women choose to start wearing it even though their mothers didn’t. After 9/11, some well-meaning liberals suggested that non-Muslim women wear the hijab in solidarity with Muslim women who were being harassed. My suggestion was, maybe men should wear the headscarf. That did not go over well.

10:23: You can historicize away and reinterpret away anything that doesn’t fit modern liberal values. Some Muslim feminists argue that everything objectionable in the Koran is applicable only to Mohammed’s time, and everything good in it is inherently true.

“I don’t know what the difference between a skeptic and an atheist is…” [audience groans] The question is, why did god put his word in such a way that, up until the day before yesterday, it was understood for certain that it meant a certain thing, but now we claim that it was all misinterpreted? In terms of literary criticism, this is interesting, but people actually try to dictate their lives and social policy by their holy books.

God could’ve given the Ten Commandment to Miriam and said, “Thou must have equality between men and women.” But he didn’t. He spent four of the commandments demanding that he be worshipped. Somehow, he sounded exactly like the patriarchal society in which he was made up. But “God didn’t have to write like an old, cranky Jewish patriarch.”

So feminist theologians have their work cut out for them.

10:28: People today are hungry for a Christianity that is woman-positive and sex-positive. That’s why The Da Vinci Code, a terrible book, was such a huge success. We like the idea that the church was originally an egalitarian place and that this history was erased by sexists. This requires a lot of historical revisionism.

For instance, Mary and Miriam were fairly marginal figures in the bible, but some try to elevate them to mean more than they actually did.

10:30: Christianity still has its obsession with virginity and hostility to sex. This probably originally made it stand out as a religion. But you can’t derive our contemporary sex-positive gay-friendly culture from the New Testament. But some theologians try to do it anyway.

Atheists get mad when it looks like the goalposts are constantly moving. Now you say there’s nothing wrong with women wearing pants. That’s not what you were saying when you were burning Joan of Arc at the stake.

But in reality the goalposts have always been moving. When Europe was ruled by kings and queens, the Church underwrote monarchy and Jesus was described as the “king of kings.”

Religion changes when society changes. Well, maybe 50 years after society changes.

That process only looks dishonest if you think religion is a set of fixed rules and decisions. That’s how many of us atheists tend to see it. But you can also see it sociologically: it’s not really about the proper analysis of texts, it’s a social practice that reflects the society in which it is practiced. As society changes, people sift through the grab-bag of religion and pick out the bits that make sense.

Religions themselves don’t put it like that. They have to make it seem like there’s a direct line going back to the beginning, because that’s where their authority comes from.

This constant rewriting of history while never admitting what’s happening is how religions claim moral weight and power.

Some people believe that Judaism is inherently socialist, that Jesus was a pacifist, that Mohammed was a feminist, and that we need to get back to this original vision. But others believe that the “original vision” is that it’s okay to cut thieves’ hands off.

The bible used to be cited as a justification for slavery and Southern Baptism was invented to justify it. But nobody nowadays claims that the bible justifies slavery and we should really get back to that. Witchcraft was always condemned with the bible, but Pagans believe that witches are actually considered good in the bible. In any case, most people in the West don’t believe in witches, so nobody really cares.

10:36: The modernization theory would predict that, as human society progresses, people abandon religion or it becomes a shadow of itself. But reactionary religious movements are gaining strength while resisting modern roles for women. We see this in many faiths around the world. Does this prove the modernization theory wrong? Does it prove that the knot cannot be untied?

I’m still fond of the modernization theory. I see reactionary movements as a testament to the lack of modernity.

Fundamentalism is a vehicle for patriarchy, but that doesn’t mean that if people dump religion they will become feminists. The French revolution was made by men of the Enlightenment who were hostile than religion, but it did nothing for women’s rights. In fact, they were slightly worse-off legally. Ditto for the Soviet Union and Communist China. When the Soviets wanted to increase the birth rate, abortion was outlawed.

You can be good without god, and you can be sexist without god. We’ve seen plenty of secular justifications for inequality–evolutionary psychology, for instance.

10:40: When we do have gender equality, religion will be reinterpreted to support it. The bible will be said to have always supported feminism.

10:43: Religion is comforting to some women because it gives them a measure of power. For instance, a wife has to be her husband’s helpmeet, but in return the husband has to come home at a reasonable time at night.

The knot between sexism and religion will be untied when feminism becomes the norm, but religion will get all the credit.

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Previous talks:

Intro

Faith-based Pseudoscience (Panel)

How Feminism Makes Us Better Skeptics (Amanda Marcotte)

The Mattering Map: Religion, Humanism, and Moral Progress (Rebecca Goldstein)

Women Leaving Religion (Panel)