I just read a Thought Catalog article called “Men and Women are Naturally Different—Why Do We Keep Fighting About it?”. I feel really strongly about this. As a woman, I know the sexes are “different” in that their bodies are different. Women get pregnant, and men don’t. Okay, fine. That’s true.
But whenever you get into “the sexes are just different” territory beyond that, I cringe. It’s because those differences are really vague, there are always a TON of exceptions (I’m a girl! I’m not nurturing! I don’t even like kids! WTF!); and most of those “differences” are ways to explain how women are inferior.
And some of those “inferior” qualities are very subtle; sometimes they don’t sound like inferiorities. Like, “Women are more nurturing and compassionate!” “Women are less aggressive!” “Women are more in touch with their emotions!” Sometimes they even sound like compliments. But women always get the qualities that are ultimately weaker. The recent Thought Catalog article on this, the one I’m responding to, goes out of its way to use shouty capitals to denigrate the men’s stereotype: that they’re brave and strong and fight saber-toothed tigers–but who would most people rather be? The superhero who’s brave and strong and can take on a big scary beast (no offense to sabertooths)? Or the person sitting around the campfire, shelling the peas, missing the excitement?
Some women want to be out there hunting. And some men don’t want to even get near a sabertooth. Both are full members of their gender who should be allowed not to be considered exceptions, or denigrated for what people see as their “difference” from the accepted norms.
The other problem is that these assumed qualities women are assigned are often used as weapons against us. In the past, men sometimes justified denying women the vote because they were too sweet, weak, and compassionate to participate in hard-headed politics. You had to be a man to vote. In some conservative religious societies (I don’t belong to one but some people in my close family do), a “complementarian” vision of marriage–where the man of the house is the “head”–is justified because women are seen as sweeter, more emotional, more nurturing, and better suited to taking care of the kids than having a job outside the home or calling the shots inside. They are used to explaining why men are better suited to leadership everywhere, from the church to the workplace to the home.
And that doesn’t occur just in conservative religious cultures. A tiny fraction of business and political leaders in the US are women. This is because women face subtle biases everywhere–in secular, even liberal workplaces–that say they are less suited for leadership and work than men. These “men and women are just different” stereotypes carry baggage that harms women and holds us back.
SOME women might be nurturing and love taking care of kids–that’s fine. Some women fit the stereotype. But that doesn’t mean those women can’t also fight sabertooth tigers or run a business. And not all women want the kind of life that stereotype says we’re best suited for. But because so many people believe that stereotype, either consciously or unconsciously, more of us have to fight to stay out of that box.
And SOME men might be naturally aggressive leaders and fighters. That’s true too. But not all men are, and some feel forced into playing roles they aren’t comfortable with either. Although I would say that from my perspective, it seems men often get the benefit of the stereotype (people assume they’re strong, capable, and powerful), which is better than the detrimental assumption that they’re too weak and too emotional to function.
Some people say that women are strong because they have to go through childbirth—which is painful and horrible. I couldn’t agree more that childbirth is an ordeal, unless you get an epidural, and maybe even if you do (confession: I’ve never gone through childbirth). They use this to say that the women’s stereotypes don’t discount women’s strength. There are two things wrong with this. First, many women will never go through childbirth, because we don’t want kids or can’t have them. Does that make us less strong? And second, it’s about motherhood—and there is so much soft sexism around motherhood (we’re nurturing! We’re emotional! Better suited to childcare than a life outside the home! Better let the man lead!) that tying women’s strengths around that is just one more negative stereotype.
I’m not saying being a mom is bad or women who want to be one are weak—far from it. But I am saying that elevating motherhood as the source of all women’s strength is a subtle form of sexism that puts down women without kids as well as women with kids. Being a mom is great. Being a woman is great, regardless of your motherhood status. And being a person is great, regardless of your genitalia.
Ultimately, I think the way to stop men and women from “fighting”—as the article I read exhorts us to do—isn’t to acknowledge our differences. It’s to look past perceived stereotypes and generalities about difference and focus on what we have in common.