Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Gender roles and feminism.

I had some friends express an interest in what I think about gender roles, and why I don't consider myself a feminist. Feminism is supposed to be about the pursuit of equality between men and women. I believe in adopting a view of the equal worth of men and women, not necessarily equal rights in every possible sense. I don't think it's possible for us ever to be satisfied that men and women have reached a condition of equality. We can have specific kinds of equality, and there are cases where feminists pursue male-female equality where I agree (for example, the right have control of what goes into or comes out of one's body, or the same voting rights). However, I think that the biological differences between the sexes mean that we have different (and complementary) needs, and that it means we have different roles to play. We should be regarded as puzzle pieces which fit together, not identical units of asexual humanity who should be treated exactly the same way.

If someone were to ask the question "What is the opposite of equality?" some feminists would answer "hierarchy". Another answer is "diversity." Diversity is a fact of life, and male female diversity is one instance of this. I see gender as how a particular society has dealt with the differences between men and women which exist no matter what the culture does or says. I can agree that there are serious problems with particular features of gender roles as they appear in particular societies. Gender is a changeable thing, but (for the foreseeable future at least) sex is here to stay. As long as we have sexes, expectations of what men and women are or can be will come along with that. I think the relevant question is "How can the gender roles which we have take the healthiest form?" The whole thing should add up to an equitable relationship, but not necessarily equality in every detail, including the area of rights.

Now, at this point, a feminist like Christina Hoff Sommers could say that what I've said could potentially be compatible with what she calls "equity feminism" rather than "gender feminism." I respect what she's trying to do, and I wish her further success in spreading her ideas, but that doesn't work for me. The very name "feminism" signifies a primary concern for female interests, which is not what feminism is supposed to be about. It's supposed to be about fairness. If I were going to have a primary concern for males or females it's going to be for the group I'm a part of. That would make me a "masculist", something I would also reject for the same reason.

I think that whatever form gender roles take, we should try to accommodate people who aren't going to fit well into them. If we explicitly accept the universality (and potential flexibility) of gender roles, we could do a better job of accommodating those of us who don't fit well into the ones we have. Otherwise, I think we're in denial. Speaking personally, I feel as though I don't fit well either with the traditional roles we used to accept, or with the invisible and conflicting sets of expectations for men many people pretend they don't have.  

8 comments:

mindfullymotheringtwo said...

"I believe in adopting a view of the equal worth of men and women, not necessarily equal rights in every possible sense."

I'd like to know precisely which rights you do not believe both men and women (and all those who fall outside of those gender identities) should equally have.

"If we explicitly accept the universality (and potential flexibility) of gender roles, we could do a better job of accommodating those of us who don't fit well into the ones we have. "

I think one of your points, if I'm reading this post correctly, is that gender rolls exist, we all fill them in one way or another, but society as a whole needs to be flexible and accepting of those who don't fill the prescribed rolls or wish to fill those rolls or who fight them - I agree with this statement, and if this is your overall perspective, we see eye-to-eye on this idea.

"The very name "feminism" signifies a primary concern for female interests, which is not what feminism is supposed to be about. It's supposed to be about fairness. If I were going to have a primary concern for males or females it's going to be for the group I'm a part of. That would make me a "masculist", something I would also reject for the same reason. "

This is where I think, time and time again, you fall short of understanding and adequately expressing understanding through your writing.

You have to understand what oppression is to understand why it is necessary for women to advocate for women rights and treatment, LGBT (and all "others") to advocate for equal rights and treatment, disabled people to advocate for equal rights and treatment, black people to advocate for equal rights and treatment, and all POC to advocate for equal rights and treatment. And for most people, they can not understand oppression they have not experienced.

As a white male, you already automatically have equal rights and treatment without ever having to experience the same systemic disadvantages being a woman, a person of color, gay, or any "other" experience just for being who they are. I'm sure you have had experiences that left you feeling discriminated against for unjust reasons, imagine that experience times every day of your life. Without groups of people coming together and saying enough is enough, we'd still be living in a time when only white men had rights and equal treatment - except even then, poor white men were treated as less.

So, if you don't want to put any energy, thought, time, effort, or what-ever into advocating for women, POC, disabled people, poor people or anyone else that doesn't fit into white middle class male, that is up to you. The very least you can do is not discount the importance in our history and current lives these groups of people have played in shaping equality and continue to play as we still have a long way to go.

I am not going to hold that against you, John, if you don't want to participate, but I hope you don't hold it against me (or others) that I will always in what every way I am able, participate in supporting and strive to understand the underdog in every situation.

Because, yes, in our culture, if you are not a white, able-bodied, middle-class male right off the bat, you have something to prove to somebody. And that is pretty fucked-up in my book.

John said...

"I'd like to know precisely which rights you do not believe both men and women (and all those who fall outside of those gender identities) should equally have."

I don't know. I don't have strong views any more about what rights people should or should not have in a general sense, and this applies to the issue of what rights men and women should have also. I tend to think more in terms of there being advantages and disadvantages to different kinds of arrangements, and sometimes I can come up with a preference from that. This is becoming harder for me to do as time goes on. I don't have much of a precise list of political demands which I make on whatever the relevant political community is (town, city, state, nation, etc.) If you ask me whether men and women should have different sets of rights in a specific issue, I can tell you what I think. Even then, I might find it hard to take a position, because I often can't help but see some down side to it. Much like what I said about gender, I think rights are pretty culturally arbitrary, but every society has them.

John said...

"I think one of your points, if I'm reading this post correctly, is that gender rolls exist, we all fill them in one way or another, but society as a whole needs to be flexible and accepting of those who don't fill the prescribed rolls or wish to fill those rolls or who fight them - I agree with this statement, and if this is your overall perspective, we see eye-to-eye on this idea."

We can't help but have these things, and no matter what they will hurt people who don't fit in, whether we intend to do this or not. What we can do is realize that this is the way things are, and try to find the most appropriate way to deal with the problem.

John said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
John said...

"This is where I think, time and time again, you fall short of understanding and adequately expressing understanding through your writing.

You have to understand what oppression is to understand why it is necessary for women to advocate for women rights and treatment, LGBT (and all 'others') to advocate for equal rights and treatment, disabled people to advocate for equal rights and treatment, black people to advocate for equal rights and treatment, and all POC to advocate for equal rights and treatment. And for most people, they can not understand oppression they have not experienced."

I'm not saying that people who are a part of these groups shouldn't advocate for themselves. I don't expect people not to stand up for those things they see as being in their own interests. I expect everyone to do that, no matter what categories they fit into (even if they are white, male, heterosexual, from the first world, able bodied, etc.) I'm not saying that people who are a part of these groups and who experience directly or experience the historical legacy of racism, sexism, etc. shouldn't notice these things. I'm not saying I don't notice these things, and I am absolutely not saying that I don't care about these people. Some of them are my friends, family, co-workers, neighbors, etc. Of course I care about them. They are a part of my life, or could easily become a part of my life. Those people who I interact with on a regular basis, or who I don't see often and have a deep connection with are the most important people in the world to me. I do and will continue to care about them, no matter what my worldview is like at any particular time. I resent any implication that unless I buy into a particular perspective I don't care about them. I do agree that I can't understand something I haven't experienced in the way someone who has can. What I disagree with is the approach to these things you're explaining here.

John said...

"As a white male, you already automatically have equal rights and treatment without ever having to experience the same systemic disadvantages being a woman, a person of color, gay, or any 'other' experience just for being who they are. I'm sure you have had experiences that left you feeling discriminated against for unjust reasons, imagine that experience times every day of your life. Without groups of people coming together and saying enough is enough, we'd still be living in a time when only white men had rights and equal treatment - except even then, poor white men were treated as less."

Being a white male doesn't mean you automatically experience equal rights and treatment. It can even mean that you can be discriminated against in an attempt to redress discrimination experienced by other groups. For example, affirmative action is something people debate because it's an attempt to help people with a history of being discriminated against by imposing discrimination on people in groups who had previously benefited from it, and might benefit from the attitudes of people involved in hiring for a job or college admission. From various perspectives, it seems obvious that it's either an important necessity or a grave injustice, and I see value in both views of it. People who feel they were not admitted to college or did not get hired because of affirmative action might think or feel that they have been discriminated against for unjust reasons.

I want to stand up for what seems best for myself personally, as well as other whites, males, etc., and I want to look after the interests of other people as well, especially those I have some sort of connection with. It's a matter of weighing out options, and in many cases it takes some serious consideration for me to come to a conclusion. Even then, I often doubt what I'm saying on some level.

John said...

"So, if you don't want to put any energy, thought, time, effort, or what-ever into advocating for women, POC, disabled people, poor people or anyone else that doesn't fit into white middle class male, that is up to you. The very least you can do is not discount the importance in our history and current lives these groups of people have played in shaping equality and continue to play as we still have a long way to go."

I am open to the possibility of advocating for things that benefit any of these groups, and I'll make decisions about that as I see fit. I don't, however, agree with the big picture view you have of them. This post is about why I'm not a feminist, not why I don't care about women. It should be obvious that I do care about women. The suggestion that I don't care about them or people in these various other groups unless I adopt the view which you present feminism as a part of is off base. My concern for women takes a different form than yours. I should also say that how I regard each one of these groups is something I would prefer to evaluate case by case, rather than approaching all of them as one amorphous oppressed class. Their experiences as groups are distinct from one another, just as the experiences of individual people are distinct. This is something that annoys me about the idea of "people of color." American Indians, Latinos/Hispanics, Asians, Black people, etc. all have unique experiences which it's worth approaching in ways that acknowledge their particularity. The POC idea ignores this.

"I am not going to hold that against you, John, if you don't want to participate, but I hope you don't hold it against me (or others) that I will always in what every way I am able, participate in supporting and strive to understand the underdog in every situation."

I want to understand things in general. I often identify with, and interested in, or admire the underdog. This doesn't necessarily lead to taking a particular side in my case. I evaluate and decide. I'm not going to hold it against you that we disagree on things. Diversity in the world of ideas, and throughout most areas of life, is something I accept as a given.

"Because, yes, in our culture, if you are not a white, able-bodied, middle-class male right off the bat, you have something to prove to somebody. And that is pretty fucked-up in my book."

I accept that being white, male, able-bodied, and middle class all have advantages, and that people who do not have these characteristics do not have the advantages associated with them. I agree that this is worth taking into account. I think on some level there are unjustified disadvantages which people who lack these characteristics. On another level, some of this reflects the natural diversity which exists no matter what. To what degree I think one or the other is the case (sometimes both) will vary with the issue at hand.

Unknown said...

"As a white male, you already automatically have equal rights and treatment"

Equal to whom?