What’s nature got to do with it?

15 February 2008

Men and women can be equal, but are not. That is something you hear often. And the reason for this? It makes sense. Reading Varsity’s debate section in last week’s paper, I found myself initially intrigued and then appalled. Yes, I was one of those “filling with righteous derision” at Joe Hunter’s analysis of the “root causes” of sexual inequality in society.

I feel the need to clarify from the outset that I do not believe in herbal remedies and I do wear bras, often nice ones that I wouldn’t dream of burning. I am not a man-hater and I am most certainly not ashamed of being a woman.

Mr Hunter focuses on the impossibility of sexual equality as a result of our physical differences, which make men and women “fundamentally different at about the most basic level.” Women are naturally inclined towards passivity and men to aggression. This all sounds far too simplistic for my liking.

The definition of equality that Mr Hunter himself provides us with requires “possessing a like degree of a quality or attribute.” Personally I can think of many qualities that men and women share, starting with intelligence, sensitivity, laughter, and the capacity to love. Is Mr Hunter suggesting that these profound points of equality are of no relevance because we do not have the same bodily appendages?

He tells us that modern, enlightened females are still naturally inclined to passivity in their contact with the opposite sex. In my view there is a socially bred tradition of female passivity in human interaction, stemming from the historical value of sexual modesty in women, often associated with western culture, but this is an attitude manifestly in decline. “Push The Button” may portray young women as grossly dependent on the opposite sex as a pro-active force in their lives, but “Shape”, another song by the Sugababes paints quite a different picture. “A girl’s got more to do than be the way you think a woman should. I’m taking it into my own hands, in this man’s land I can understand why I’m taking command.”

Indeed, I would say that a pro-active attitude to life is becoming the defining characteristic of our generation of young females carving out their own path in life. Female entrepreneurship is a trend that is experiencing exponential growth, with female millionaires set to outnumber males by 2020. The leader of the most powerful nation in the world next year may well be a woman. Are women who assume the “hunter-gatherer” role then violating their intrinsic natures?

A particularly disturbing comment in this piece was Mr Hunter’s professed wish for “human beings who are fully conscious of what they are.” The implication being that my feminine physical characteristics predetermine the nature of my existence, that I should be aware of my gender as a guiding force within my life. How exactly am I supposed to go about doing this? What essentially makes me a woman? How does he wish me to show this awareness of my gender? Is our gender defined by the historical trend of female oppression, and is this therefore the context within which we should operate?

If Mr Hunter is going to present us with a caricature of a Feminist, I can present my own anecdote of male chauvinism in the form of a teacher of my own. He was an older man who had worked at a public school for far too long and who, when a young woman of sound academic ability expressed her wish to become a journalist, snidely retorted, “maybe a weather girl but nothing more.”

Whilst Mr Hunter cites his ghastly teacher’s view that equality will only be reached when men also give birth or neither sex has to, he fails to notice that they share the same essential view, that social equality can only come with physical equality. She says that equality can be reached when men carry children, he says that equality is unachievable because they cannot.

To say that social gender inequality is born out of physical differences is like arguing that racism stems fundamentally from the fact that human beings differ in skin pigmentation. It is not. Its source lies in a simple human desire for domination, that tyrannical urge within us all that flourishes only when an equal is suppressed.

As Virginia Woolf writes, sexism does not come from some innate hatred of women by men and a need to suppress the hated “other”, but rather from a desire by men to dominate, and the need to reaffirm their own inherent superiority.

In the words of Simone de Beauvoir “on ne naît pas femme, on le devient,” one is not born a woman, but becomes one. Whilst there may be truth in Mr Hunter’s assertion that physical and evolutionary factors may have aided the formation of rigidly conceived gender roles in the past, I see no reason why these should be perpetuated on the grounds of nature. Indeed, in my view, it is social conditioning of both sexes that crams every human being neatly into a gender box.

Gender stereotyping affects and damages a large cross section of society, except the seemingly lucky few whose individual natures perfectly mould to the demands of their gender.

It is somewhat indicative of a primitivism and ignorance in society that all that is female is instantly associated with maternal gentleness on the plus side and unfettered emotion on the negative.

Equally, masculinity, as David Brown pointed out in his rebuttal, should not conjure chest-beating, testosterone-induced aggression.

I suggest we move on from stereotyping. It is a method by which the unintelligent crudely attempt to understand people, by simplifying them and ultimately limiting them. When we sculpt ourselves to fit the various criteria imposed by “masculinity” or “femininity” we simplify ourselves, and no matter what may be said neither sex is simple. Are women from Venus and men from Mars? Absolutely not. We’re from the same planet, we just look a little bit different on it.

Caroline Organ is a 1st year MML student.