Russell and Duenes

Bland, Androgynous Sameness

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The Supreme Court’s more recent jurisprudence on gender issues mirrors the general societal trend in thinking about men and women. In an 1872 decision (Bradwell v. People of the State of Illinois), one of the justices gave an opinion that is laughable today, stating, among other things, that,

“Man is, or should be, woman’s protector and defender…The constitution of the family organization, which is founded in the divine ordinance, as well as in the nature of things, indicates the domestic sphere as that which properly belongs to the domain and functions of womanhood. The harmony, not to say identity, of interest and views which belong, or should belong, to the family institution is repugnant to the idea of a woman adopting a distinct and independent career from that of her husband…The paramount destiny and mission of woman are to fulfill the noble and benign offices of wife and mother. This is the law of the Creator.”

There certainly are things to object to in the above statement, and no one can doubt the denigration and ill-treatment that women have endured through much of our nation’s history, and in many quarters, continue to endure. My point is not to avoid, nor to develop that particular angle. Rather, I am wont to say that, because that particular angle has been so heavily explored and expounded upon, one can hardly speak even of notions such as “masculinity” and “femininity” today without being thought to engage in “gender stereotyping.” Perhaps, along with the objectionable lines above, there are some things that remain true, and are gloriously pro-woman because they are true. We may like to think about what women have gained by throwing off men as protectors and defenders and relegating “chivalry” to the Dark Ages, but do we stop to think about what’s lost for both women and men? Have we asked ourselves why women who consider it their “paramount destiny and mission” to do well as wives and mothers are too often thought of in negative terms, as perpetuating a stereotype, and what we’ve lost as a result?

I read Justice Ginsburg’s opinion in United States v. Virginia with great interest. In this case, the Supreme Court held that Virginia Military Academy’s desire to continue having an all-male university did not pass constitutional muster. Ginsburg wrote that “the Court has repeatedly recognized that neither federal nor state government acts compatibly with the equal protection principle when a law or official policy denies to women, simply because they are women, full citizenship statute – equal opportunity to aspire, participate in and contribute to society based on their individual talents and capacities.”

But women admitted to VMI do not participate equally, and they don’t do so simply because they are women. Justice Ginsburg admitted that, “it is uncontested that women’s admission would require accommodations, primarily in arranging housing assignments and physical training programs for female cadets.” In other words, not only do women need to be admitted, but they need to have the physical requirements specially tailored to them, thus admitting that there are obvious physical differences between the sexes. This, of course, would be impossible to deny, and Ginsburg does not attempt to deny it. Indeed, GinsburgĀ  goes so far as to say: “‘Inherent differences’ between men and women, we have come to appreciate, remain cause for celebration.” But one should like to know whether there are any other differences between the sexes beyond the mere physical ones. For as soon as you start talking about emotional or psychological or sociological differences, then somehow we’ve gotten into “overbroad generalizations based on sex which are entirely unrelated to any differences between men and women or which demean” their ability. See Michael M. v. Superior Court of Sonoma County, 450 U.S. 464 (1981).

Ginsburg says that a state acts improperly when it excludes women based on “fixed notions concerning the roles and abilities of males and females.” But this is self-refuting, for Justice Ginsburg provides her ruling based on a “fixed notion” concerning male and female roles, namely, that there are no differences or prescriptions as to what roles they ought to live out. For her, some kind of bland sameness seems to be the order of the day. Those who advocate radical, egalitarian notions of gender identity and role force the state to impose such notions on everyone, and they are certainly operating on some basic assumptions about what it means to be male or female in our world today. So we end up with an official policy that, unless the two sexes are thrown together in absolutely every endeavor, women can never have equality. Unless women can do everything that men can, even though VMI must make physical accommodations for women, then women are being “stereotyped.”

But what we get out of this is a blurring of the distinctive qualities of masculinity and femininity that make it a glorious thing that there is, in fact, male and female. We insist on leveling all differences, judging everything by “male” standards, as though only doing what men do makes things fair, and we end up with an androgynizing mush that strips away the beauty and mystery of God’s creation of men and women. This is not to suggest that masculinity and femininity can somehow be reduced to “proper roles.” Nor is it to engage in some broad sweeping limitations on a “woman’s place.” But what has kept me interested in the topic of masculinity and femininity for about twenty years now is what I perceive to be the soul-stultifying effects of all this labeling of sexual distinctives as nothing more than stereotyping and invidious generalizing. On the contrary, something beautiful, captivating, and compelling is at issue in thinking about what it means to be male or female, in considering how the two complement each other. There’s something wondrous about the fact that men and women, though both full human beings in every sense, also have so much “otherness” to them. It’s why we have the songs and the tales and the jokes. It’s why female modesty was thought a virtue for centuries, for there was something to keep enshrouded and protected for a wondrous revealing at the proper time, with the proper man (a virtue which the dissent in Michael M. tosses aside as some kind of stereotype, implying that it’s bogus to think that a young woman’s “chastity was considered particularly precious”). It’s why a wise man could say that one of the things that was too mysterious for him to understand was “the way of a man with a maiden.”

But we’ve done away with all that, banished it from polite conversation, dressed everyone up in jeans, sneakers, and t-shirts, and called it “liberation.” Perhaps it is, of a sort. But perhaps it is also a freedom that leaves us parched and thirsty.



Written by Michael Duenes

October 15, 2012 at 7:32 am

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