Wednesday 23 April 2014

Why can't a woman be more like a man?

 Either Truth slaying the dragon of Feminism or merely a suitable image for St George's Day which has nothing to do with the rest of the post...

When I were a lad, I read rather a lot of second wave feminism. I'm not sure this was always a positive thing for my psycho-sexual development. It's quite hard (for example) for a male adolescent to know what to do with such as the following except shriek loudly, hide in a darkened room and await death: 

There is no way out of the practice of sexuality except out...we know of no exception to male supremacist sex...We name orgasm as the epistemological mark of the sexual, and we therefore criticise it too, as oppressive to women.

(From the collective, Women Against Sex, quote in Mottier's Sexuality, p69.)

One thing that did stick in my mind with perhaps more positive results was de Beauvoir's characterization of women as 'The Other' to men's 'The One': in essence, the claim that women only have meaning by reference to the central case of humanity, men.

This observation struck me twice recently. First, there is the current worry in the debate on Scottish Independence about why women are less inclined to support it than men, evidenced (for example) in last night's BBC documentary. There are better and worse versions of this 'worry'. The worse ones tend to look for some dysfunction in women's psychology. (If I understood Margo MacDonald's contribution to the documentary, it's a result of Scottish women's having the narrow cultural horizons of Maw Broon.) The better ones tend to suggest particular strengths such as a scepticism about political promises. But both share a common framing of the problem in terms of its being about women: I look forward to a BBC documentary about why men are disproportionately in favour of Independence, with contributors speculating about whether it is because they are all feckless, irrational drunks or whether it is because they are more in touch with their emotions than women. There is an assumption here, more or less explicit, that the normal case is that of men, and that women's differences from this norm need an explanation.

The second occasion for thought was that of a Guardian Comment is Free article on adolescent girls' being damaged by bad romantic relationships. This is apparently because, for girls,

[r]omantic relationships are particularly important components of girls' identities and are, therefore, strongly related to how they feel about themselves – good or bad.

Boys, Soller said, don't exhibit the same negative emotions because they don't identify themselves according to their relationships. They identify themselves by their interests – including sports and extracurricular activities. So when their romantic relationships aren't what they envisioned, it doesn't feel like as much like a personal failing.

The lesson of the study? Quit teaching girls to define themselves by their romantic relationships.

Note that the problem is assumed to be that girls don't have the indifference of boys to romantic relationships and the solution is that they should become like boys.

What we have in both the case of women and Independence and women and relationships is a refusal of modern culture to accept that men and women are different and equal. If they are equal, the thought goes, they must be the same. (And then, forgetting de Beauvoir, the unconscious drive is to define that sameness in terms of men, with any divergence from it being regarded as an exception to be explained and even 'cured'.) An approach which accepted male/female differences and was comfortable with admitting them would start, not by assuming that women were getting it wrong in some way, but asking what it is that they might be spotting which men don't.

One of the reasons why there is a suspicion of such an approach is that it is often linked to fairly crass articulations of those differences. For example, whatever might be said at a deeper theological level of von Balthasar's summarizing of female/male differences as that between the passive and the active, it is hard to resist the thought that, at an everyday level, it would leave any male who took it seriously woefully unprepared to deal with real women. But there is no need for such crassness. For example, to take Jill Filopovic's Guardian article again:

There's nothing wrong with valuing the relationships in your life, romantic and not. For most of us, our relationships are at least one key to our happiness. But happiness is different from identity, and girls grow up not seeing relationships as potential value-adds to an already-rich life, but as the defining factor of that life. Of course they're devastated every time one goes sideways.

Now, I think this is simply rubbish. My relationship to my wife (and the resultant relationships to my children) is the defining factor of my life. When I met her, she was far more aware of the centrality of marriage to a life than I was: she had, as a woman, noticed something about life that I hadn't. That doesn't mean to say that she, or the hapless adolescents of Filopovic's article, didn't have a lot of nonsense in their heads about relationships as well. For example, I have no doubt that any sensible parent would be telling her adolescent daughters that getting romantically involved so young is a stupid idea and, at that age, they should be concentrating on their education. Moreover, no account of marriage as fundamental to an adult human identity can be separated from the even more fundamental truth of identity that you will sometimes find yourself crucified: that you may find your heart broken by abandonment, death, childlessness etc etc. Or the other fundamental truth that such brokenness can be redeemed by a focus on our supernatural end of the Beatific Vision of God (and which may, eg, involve a call to celibacy). But to note that adolescent girls have an inadequate understanding of relationships is not to dismiss their sensibility in favour of a male one which ignores relationships altogether. Instead of inviting women to become men, we should be inviting them to become wiser women. And instead of assuming that the particular sensibility of men is the norm, we should invite men to become wiser, not least in taking seriously the thought that women will notice things that men don't.

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