Friday, May 15, 2015

On The Importance Of Gender Roles And Hysterical Silly Little Bitches

Kerr's Ladies Football Club in 1921I come late to the realisation that my marriage does not meet the standards promulgated by our friends in Mothers and Fathers Matter.

I could forgive their focus on child rearing as the sine qua non of marriage. True, it devalues my childless union. The respect afforded to my parents' marriage is also diminished; their days raising children are now complete. Mothers and Fathers Matter's slurs against marriages that start or continue outside the formative years of progeny are softened by an occasional pleasantry of inclusion, a nod towards my capacity to pass on my genetic code, a formalised affirmation that, although not of the same kind, a technicality allows us to claim to be of the same category as those marriages Mothers and Fathers Matter choose to affirm.

I can no longer even claim this consolation of second class marriage. It seems my wife and I have run afoul of another condition. Let's look at articles written by some of their founders:
"Importance of gender differences in marriage is a matter of common sense... [same sex marriage] is based on a proposition that gender does not matter. But if we take the time to look around, observe and listen, it clearly matters." Prof Ray Kinsella

"[same sex marriage] proponents ... insist that two men can do the job of a mum and a dad just as well, as can two women. This means they deny the importance of sexual complementarity." - David Quinn
"Mothers and fathers bring distinctive gifts to parenting. They tend to show their love, and to provide strength and comfort, in different ways.

Our instinct is to say that there are very real and important differences between men and women and it really does matter whether one is born male or female." Dr Rik Van Nieuwenhove et al 
Emphasis mine in all cases. There is a common thread in these articles - that, solely by virtue of their gender, men and women have unique, distinct traits that are important to a child's upbringing and it is in society's best interests to ensure only marriages which provide the entire gamut of these otherwise inaccessible traits earn state recognition.

It is here I learn that my marriage is not counted as such by Mothers And Fathers Matter. My wife taught me how to drive. I have abandoned teaching her how to iron and instead do her ironing for her. Despite my best efforts she's still better on the farm than I. None of these characteristics are based on our genders. The closest we have ever come to gender specific roles in our relationship is a brief yet binding discussion on the ideal placement of the toilet seat.

By our failure to yet sire heirs or bring gender specific traits to our relationship my wife and I have a marriage that is unrecognisable when compared to the definition offered by Mothers and Fathers Matter. I'm sure you share my interest in finding out what their supposedly gender linked traits might be. And Mothers and Fathers Matter seem well placed to tell us - they boast an advisory committee of psychologists, Theologians, and philosophers, yet seem remarkably reticent to expend ink on the matter. One spokesperson claims that women instinctively know they are best placed to be carers, and that ignoring this innate knowledge leads to feelings of conflict should they choose to return to work. Let us be polite and merely call this claim unevidenced. It is remarkable to me that this group wants our constitutional understanding of marriage to be based on their understanding of innate and essential gender roles yet seem incapable of sharing with us what these roles are.

This confusion was diminished somewhat when I read the words of Mothers and Fathers Matter's spokesperson, Kate Bopp, who discussed the family pictured in no posters adorning some of the nation's lampposts. (For those that missed it, they recently disavowed the no campaign's approach and endorsed a yes vote.) Bopp's choice of adjectives to describe the event are noteworthy: in two short sentences she used 'hysterical', 'silly', 'little', and 'bitch'.

Are these the unique and important gender roles we wish to inculcate in our sons and daughters? Do we here see in these words the peculiar and essential traits that must be reinforced throughout a child's development? 'Hysterical' and 'Bitch' are terms we use to demean and dismiss women. 'Silly'  and 'Little' are often their accompaniments as society expends its energies to thwart the ambition of women (and indeed men) who push the boundaries of the gender roles Mothers and Fathers Matter feel warrant constitutional protection.

That said we cannot ignore the vacuum in which we operate. Mothers and Fathers Matter sees the electorate as unworthy of knowing the essential gender roles they wish be forced upon children. We can but speculate. It is not unreasonable to feel that the shroud of secrecy would hardly be draped over a positive concept, but still: what is the most charitable reading?

I'm fortunate that my office recently arranged a talk by Binna Kandola. He and his wife are psychologists and authors of 'The Invention Of Difference', a fascinating, disturbing, and yet hopeful look at prescriptive gender roles throughout history. Do buy it. I had been of the impression that society was on a reasonably positive upward swing - that over the millenia we'd graduated from truly awful to slightly less awful in reliable enough increments.

Then I learned that we had more tradeswomen in 12th century Switzerland than we now have in the United States. That women's soccer reached its height of popularity in 1920. That on-site childcare facilities and equal pay legislation were in force in the UK a century ago.

What I found especially pertinent was how inaccurate positive gender stereotypes are and what damage they can cause. It's worth a long quote:
"If gender stereotypes are made up of positive attributes, then what's the problem? It would appear that the stereotypes we hold support the valuing of difference. But although the same associated with women are positive in the abstract, they are not those that are valued or deemed necessary in a business context - and especially not in a leadership role. Many of the traits stereotypically associated with women are not those stereotypically associated with leadership or male gender type roles. How many leaders do you hear described primarily as warm and caring? As such, while on the surface positive stereotypes attached to women appear to be compliments, they can and do hinder women's career progression. Studying over 600 letters of recommendation for academic positions over an eight-year period, researchers found that letters of recommendation were written differently for men and women. The letters for women were described with stereotypical feminine qualities (communal, i.e. more socially oriented and people-focused) whereas those for men were described with stereotypical masculine qualities (agentic, i.e. getting things done and task-focused). Furthermore, communal traits were inversely related to hiring decisions regardless of gender.

... describing a woman as warm but omitting anything about her competence will lead to negative inferences about her competence. Although the same is true for men, the damage to them is less severe. Describing men as competent but omitting anything about their warmth will do less harm, since it is competence that is valued when it comes to progression in organisations.


Stereotypes lead to expectations about how a man and woman will perform in certain roles. When a woman is being considered for a role in an area traditionally seen as male, say a leadership position, the stereotypical traits she is thought to possess (empathy, kindness and so on) are compared to the stereotypical traits associated with leadership (such as assertiveness and decisiveness). Because the leadership prototype is constructed on stereotypically male traits, when a woman is matched against the prototype the expectation is that she will fall short, whereas a man will be evaluated favourably."
What potential have we squandered over the centuries by insisting on a 'correct' way of being a woman or a man? What would happen if we abandoned this grand social project to restrict half our population? What leaders, what scientists, and what history changers have we lost to the desire to constrict ambitions to the narrow confines of these stereotypes?

Mothers and Fathers Matter want gender roles to form the bedrock of our constitutional understanding of marriage. I'd ask them their opinion, but they'd probably just call me a hysterical, silly, little bitch.


Linda said...

In my opinion, playing the gender roles is not stereotyping. We are born to fulfill these roles by nature and we would be at lost if we try reversing them.

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