Do you care about “gender roles”? You know, where “women do housework” and “men open jars” and that kind of thing. No, it doesn’t have to be that blatant, but is this something you give thought to?
Should men and women be socially indistinguishable except for individual competence? Should all individuals be expected to conform to certain stereotypes? Who makes these generalizations and why?
Gender roles intrigue me. Nearly every society has them, and there is significant overlap. Feminism, egalitarianism, and other modern forces for equality have done a great deal to bring traditional gender roles into question, and with good reason. Here’s an overview from wikipedia. However, even in the present age, there are concrete differences between the genders, and this should affect the way we think.
First off, more important than gender is humanity. Men and women are humans first. We are all people. We all want “what we like” and avoid pain and all that. As we examine these differences, remember I’m not calling into question anyone’s personhood.
But people do have different starting points. Some people are mentally retarded (one of my siblings among them), while some are clearly smarter than average (another of my siblings). Setting aside “social” differences, and focusing purely on objective physical trends, some of these differences are physical. People can be stronger or weaker, more or less prone to fatigue or disease.
Finally, some of these physical differences are gender linked. Again, setting aside the edge cases, there is one clear obvious and fundamental difference between men and women. Women can bear children (and exclusively care for them for the first year or so of life), and men can not. This forms the foundation of my theory of gender roles. It is a core physical difference, and one which many secondary characteristics support and reinforce. But let’s ignore those secondary features for now.
A woman in the “state of nature” without technology, supplements, or artificial aid, can bear and raise a child all by herself. A man can not. Even after birth, a man requires extraordinary effort and technological support to feed an infant. Nearly every woman is naturally equipped, physically, for the task of bearing and caring for young children.
A man in the “state of nature” will never need to care for a child. It is impossible for a man to become pregnant, or to nurse infants once they are born. With this freedom, a man can commit his efforts to dangerous endeavors in hazardous environments, without fear of injuring defenseless and valuable children. The man is thus naturally equipped, physically, for the task of defense and dangerous effort.
Nearly every “traditional” gender role nucleates around this difference. Men care for women, and women care for children. This is not because women can not work, or because men can not be nurturing, but because it is an extremely efficient division of labor. Around this core difference many conventions have arisen. Women tend to stay in a safe and defensible location for the safety of the children under her care, and accumulate goods and stores of food. Thus women cook, clean, and care for a house. Men tend to attempt risky tasks, and gather other men to help with these endeavors. Thus men engage in business, warfare, and have a job. These general roles flow clearly from the core physical differentiation between the genders.
You are free to derive other sets of roles. However, any theory of gender must account for the fundamental differences between the genders.
Now, does this mean that all men must take mortal risks, and all women must be barefoot and pregnant? By no means! This is a general pattern that populations will fall into by mere and clear economy, but it is not restrictive. If a woman wishes to forgo childbearing and take on masculine roles, that is well and good. But she will (in general) be competing out of her physical specialty. The Amazons famously cut off one breast to become better archers. This is the level of dedication that a real “career woman” must be prepared to put forth. Likewise if a man wishes to care for children and infants, and take on feminine roles, that is also well and good. But he will (in general) be competing out of his physical specialty. Men are famously scrutinized when applying for babysitting and child-care roles. This level of suspicion is natural, and a “domestic dad” must be willing to put up with it.
I have completely ignored the economies of scale that arise from gender role fixation, and the many benefits it has both to individuals and groups. I have also completely ignored the many secondary and tertiary differences between men and women, and their various effects. Suffice to say this is a complex issue with complex implications. However, the fundamental implications are obvious.
And whatever the societal gender roles, we must keep in mind that the clear differences between men and women do not erase our common humanity. When taking applications for jobs or caregivers, we should examine (to the best degree that is possible) the individual skills and background, not the stereotypes. When dealing with individuals, deal with their thoughts, ideas, actions, words, and ability, not their gender, age, race, or creed. The specific overrides the general.