Why can’t we all agree that the sexes are different, the differences won’t go away, and denial and suppression aren’t the answer?
People talk about confronting stereotypes and so on, but the evident effect of the push for equality is that girls get girlier and guys more guyish. A variety of findings support that view. One minor example: the worldwide masculine advantage in geometrical thinking (e.g., navigating by direction and distance instead of relying on landmarks) is greater in places like Norway than places like Pakistan.
But the differences between the sexes are more a matter of patterns than particular qualities, so a list of specifics would probably understate them. The women I’ve known with qualities or interests that seem masculine—physical adventurousness, social obtuseness, impulse to collect and classify, fascination with mathematics, cryptanalysis, or maps, childhood aspiration to be a prize fighter (that last one was my mom)—have not seemed at all masculine in overall outlook and manner.
People would be happier if customs and attitudes recognized these differences. Men and women have to get along; it’s bad for them and worse for their children if they don’t, but they don’t understand each other. Since that’s so, why not rely on the sort of accumulated experience that normally gets summed up in culture and cultural standards?
Settled standards give people something of their own, and provide a system of cooperation and mutual reliance that generally works. They can shift somewhat over time, or be varied in particular cases by private deals, but constant zero-based re-negotiation invites bad conduct and breakdown of the relationship. It means you have to keep a cool head, hold the other party at arm’s length, and be ready to walk.
That’s not a plan for happiness together. It’s especially bad for vulnerable people.
I’d add that the mutual suspicion engendered by lack of settled standards is no fun. Shakespeare found the comedy of the sexes—their quirks and silliness, by themselves and with each other—hilarious. That’s why his cross-dressing episodes are so entertaining: he was ringing changes on themes that everybody already found amusing. Wouldn’t we enjoy life and each other more if we could follow him on the point?
But these are just my views. Many people don’t agree, including a great many intelligent women. Or their feelings are very mixed—they don’t deny the sexes are different, but any assertion regarding particular differences feels oppressive to them. Even very sensible women can get annoyed by something that seems as harmless as Matt Walsh’s reference in his recent documentary What is a Woman? to the differing ways young boys and girls act at parties or the feminine habit of asking husbands to open jars.
So what’s going on? Why the acute discomfort with what has always been a normal, necessary, and even enjoyable part of life?
Part of it, I think, is that on the whole women are more concerned about social relationships and expectations—and therefore more compliant. But they’re also more anarchic, perhaps because they’re less likely to think in terms of impersonal functional systems. The result is that they’re more likely to feel compelled to submit to others’ expectations, but also more likely to feel them as an imposition or even violation.
If true, that can’t be new. So what’s special about today that makes sex distinctions such a sore point? The key, I think, can be inferred from a comment on Amy Welborn’s (very interesting) review of Walsh’s documentary:
Stereotypes are suffocating, and yet when you erase procreation, you have to reach for some other project. Motherhood and fatherhood, Christ and his Church, abiding forms of love that bear fruit have been rejected—leaving a gargantuan vacuum … Now the children who have run the contraception gauntlet are tossed a pastiche of cultural tropes to choose from, a DIY kit for personhood.
Things work better if they have a function that matters. Then you know what they’re about, so they won’t feel arbitrary and oppressive. And there won’t be purity spirals—standards that become endlessly more weird and demanding because they have to do with something that seems important, but it’s not clear why.
Traditional communities with a stable social order don’t find eccentricities threatening. So traditionally if a woman could muster enough feminine virtues to run her household and look after her children, people wouldn’t complain if she liked to hunt or didn’t care for lace. And if there was a special situation and she went out and took care of things women usually weren’t required to look after—like Judith, Joan of Arc, or Molly Pitcher—people found her heroic.
Similarly, if a man was ready to support and protect his wife, children, and community, dealing with unpleasantness and taking physical risks if necessary, and did his duty reasonably competently, he didn’t have to act like an oaf or talk about sports and mortgages for people to know he was a man. He could take an interest in opera, ballet, and poetry if he wanted to.
So why have sex distinctions become non-functional?
One reason is that economics now rules everything. People work in offices instead of homes and family businesses. Machinery has done away with the need for physical strength, and the growth of bureaucracy has increased the demand for patient, meticulous rule-followers. At the same time, modern medicine has reduced death rates and provided contraception and abortion.
Put it together and there’s less for women to do at home, more for them to do in the formal workforce, and less need to distinguish them from men.
Even so, sex roles still have acute practical importance. Family remains basic to a satisfying life for almost everyone, and the family is based on stable male-female unions for procreation and rearing children. That requires a stable agreement on what each party can expect from the other. The sexes have different patterns of thought, feeling, and behavior, and different relationships to children, so it seems evident that complementary socially supported sex roles are the way to go.
It’s hard for me to see that as oppressive. We are all inevitably subject to social expectations. It doesn’t increase freedom for the expectations to be exactly the same for both sexes, ignoring their differing situation and tendencies and the reality that people won’t really have the same expectations, anyway.
But that’s what’s demanded. We’re denying human nature, and the result is that the sexes don’t trust each other, men don’t grow up because there’s no masculine ideal to grow into, and women are at a loss for what to do, and are plagued by unstated demands with no evident purpose, limits, or settled content.
How’d we get in this position? A basic cause is that we live in a world that all social powers are trying to turn into a huge industrial process. So, we are pushed to become interchangeable graded economic resources motivated by career and consumer goods.
We’re being made into cogs, a role that is supposedly liberating. Education inducts us into a public rationality that has become the logic of the machine, so the more educated we are the more we accept that. We think it’s a simple reality. Women mostly don’t think mechanically, so they’re not entirely happy with it, but they’re deeply affected by expectations. Hence the conflicts. We’re all educated to see ourselves as asexual cogs, but women are also expected to be women—whatever that now means.
Men aren’t happy about the cog-in-the-machine business either, for their own reasons. But they don’t talk about these issues as much, and space is limited, so I won’t go into their perspective.
To resolve the situation, we need to understand what it is, surround ourselves with different expectations that recognize the whole of human reality, and start living differently. And to do that we will need to accept nature and culture as guides, which won’t happen unless we see them as oriented toward something higher and better than the human will. By being men and women, we have to see ourselves as participating in something good that leads somewhere.
Put it all together, and Catholics have yet another reason to strengthen religious commitment and community. Mainstream society no longer offers people a satisfying way of life. We have what’s needed to do better.
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The author writes: “People work in offices instead of homes and family businesses.” I’ve long thought that the preference should be a ‘return to the land’ to earn a living. Granted, it’s not possible for all but an agrarian-oriented culture is preferable to the rush to the city that characterized the late 19th c. until present – mainly due to massive immigration.
I volunteer at a local Catholic college. I got to know a student there who hailed from a family that owned a farm in Canada. The parents met some years back when they were both students at this same Catholic college – she from the upper mid-west and he from Canada. This student left college after two years because, as he explained it to me,: 1. He didn’t want to accumulate too much debt; 2. He was planning to eventually return to the farm in Canada to earn his living; 3. He had found at the college what he came looking for – a woman to marry. His brother (also a student at this same college) tells me that his brother, now back in Canada, is now engaged to be married. There is something stabilizing about working the land (it also helps to be an orthodox Catholic). The culture war between the sexes doesn’t get played out there so much, there’s not the rapacious desire to consume and collect as much “stuff” as you can, and what financial foundation you build for yourself is based on hard work and the team work of family and not because you landed one of those make-believe jobs in the big cities.
“Put it together and there’s less for women to do at home, more for them to do in the formal workforce, and less need to distinguish them from men.”
How did we get there? “Other schooling” has a lot to do with it, and I include Catholic schools (diocesan or “independent,” it does not matter) in that.
“Other schools” usurp the primary function of the parents–raising and educating their children, in many cases also feeding them breakfast, lunch, and after school snack. In some cases providing “medical” care at on-site clinics.
Unless one is homeschooling, there is quite a bit less to do at home, and it can be a very lonely, dull place once the littest child has gone off to Kindergarten. I am not surprised women are only having one or two children.
Two key phrases: “…the growth of bureaucracy has increased the demand for patient, meticulous rule-followers;” and “…we are pushed to become interchangeable graded economic resources motivated by career and consumer goods.”
On the FIRST point, the early 20th-century sociologist Max Weber contrasted the fading “charismatic” leader with the rationalized (and lobotomized!) bureaucrat of the coming modern world and, in his distress, ended up for a few years in a protected environment reading only bird books. Part of his incapacitating dilemma is that he—like us—denied any grounding in metaphysics.
On the SECOND point, Consumerism is a diabolical threat to “human nature” (what’s that?), in addition to the complex natural ecology underpinning our commercial and political economy.
Overall, much of what is needed is a cultural redirection from ever-expanding Manifest Destiny to some understanding, also, of the Tragedy of the Commons (1833, popularized in 1968 by Garret Hardin: the collapse of a resource like grazing lands when individuals add one or two too-many sheep). The high-stakes bet, so far, is that technocracy, and now a STEM-dominated society, can always outrun the fact that while God and human appetites are infinite, spaceship earth is not.
Maybe Weber was the first “none,” having remarked that, “I find myself neither antireligious nor irreligious;” but, also this: “not summer’s bloom lies ahead of us, but rather a polar night of icy darkness and hardness.” So, all-pervasive rationalism, and its opposite in emotionalist/ psychiatric outbursts of all sorts…now both compete for our technocratic, “interchangeable,” homogeneous (e.g., now homosexual?) and boring universe.
But as for our still inborn but endangered difference/complementarity between binary men and women…real diversity! ”Vive la difference!”
Informative, interesting commentary on a major moral issue I have to reread. My contribution if I may is the spiritual. We are more than masculine feminine biologically, and the influences of parents, culture, a myriad of potentially influencing experiences. Masculine and Feminine are inherently spiritual.
What reinforces our gender is the spiritual life, that is Christianity specifically Catholicism which frees us to follow our natural desires [appetites in philosophy] rather than experiment in a false vision of freedom as occur today and continues to spread.
James Kalb’s identification of more girlyish girls and ‘macho'[?] guys is a form of thankful resistance to the moral disorder. There are persons who individually despite apparent religious beliefs who choose to follow their nature opposite sex attraction. Remember that the Blessed Virgin Mary is most feminine in appearance and affectation. The Apostle was a man’s man, someone for us guys [priests especially] to look up to.
Additionally as alluded to regarding our Blessed Mother, we retain our naturally ordained masculine feminine traits in heaven. Men are perceived and relate as men, women as women. God does eliminate what was ordained as inherent to our nature and specific human personality.
Masculine and feminine are beautifully created elements of each individual person. It’s this spiritually inherent designation by God, of which many are unaware and consequently disregarded to the detriment of our knowledge and identity of who we are as integrated emotive, intellectual, and spiritual persons.
Edit? – “God does not eliminate what was ordained as inherent ….. “
Said positively, God retains [our masculine features as well as a woman’s feminine features] what within our nature was ordained when created. Whether on Earth or in His heavenly kingdom. Even the moral transformation of a man in this world does not change his nature.
“Man, know thyself!” “Man, to thyself be true!” As the GREEKS said!
When one denies one’s own nature, what is there left that could be true?