Is there structural gender inequality among human societies? I have learned that the answer to this question is an unequivocal, pervasive “yes.” In most cases, the model of man over woman has led to an incredibly diverse account of horrors committed against women, whether through acts of violence or acts of indifference. Women worldwide are punished for being born female. They are killed. They are raped. They are treated as commodities. They are denied the health treatments and education that would enrich their society. They are kept out of the main work force. They are marginalized within that work force. They are denied humanity and their work is denied value.
These practices are common and widespread. Even in America women struggle in a society that punishes them for fulfilling their biological role as mothers. This paper will discuss the consequences of the gender-driven binds which continue to be placed upon women, including the “masculinization” strategy that women often employ against some of those binds. This paper will argue that the effects of the masculinization strategy cannot be overcome without a call for equity, which necessarily includes a pro-parenting movement in the United States. Finally, I will extend a call to action for the members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, because they have much to lose through indifference and much to gain through action.
Male versus Female: A One-Sided War
Sylviane Agacinski, a French feminist and philosopher, has accurately stated why sex discrimination is so much more pernicious than other forms of discrimination: “This is what has been denied to women: their equal and different humanity” (Agacinski 2001, 15). In other words, fully half of the human race is subjected to marginalization and abuse because it is not like the other half. As Agacinski says, the current social tendency to focus on men naturally reduces women. Historically speaking, “[the] theory of sexual difference leads to a thinking of femininity as privation and a generalized description of the female as a mutilated male” (Agacinski 2001, 30). Nearly all sexual theorists have posited the same model of wholeness/lacking, though they may choose different particular points of lacking. For example, the crux of Freud’s argument is that women lack a penis. As a result of the tendency to focus on men and place them at the center of what is “good” or “natural,” women have been defined by what they lack, because they cannot physically become men.
Rather than focusing on what one sex lacks in comparison to the other, Agacinski argues that the sexes are irreducible, which would remedy this problem. In her words, “Sexual difference is very real, it is a matter of natural, physical givens” (Agacinski 2001, 7). This is a far cry from the current trend, which focuses on “masculine” and “feminine” as a continuum of character descriptions, rather than taking the root origins of “male” and “female” as separate categories. This trend toward homogenizing the sexes is in direct violation of their biological differences and the experiences that naturally follow. As such, this trend violates Agacinski’s concept of mixity and amplifies the problem. Instead of valuing women as women, they are held up against the standard of “masculine” personality traits, and sometimes also the male physical norm.
According to mixity, humankind cannot be represented by a single person or a man or a woman, because any one of those ideals is an inadequate description of the others. Humanity is naturally divided into male and female: humans are mixed, so humankind must be represented by both a man and a woman. However, the mixity of mankind necessarily divides men and women, reducing them to one half of the face of humanity. In doing so, all must cope with Agacinski’s “anguish of mixity,” which is as follows: “…if humanity is mixed, and not single, all individuals are confronted with their own insufficiency and cannot fully claim to be full human beings… There is indeed a lack essential to every human being… [which] stems from being only male or only female” (Agacinski 2001, 39). This means that all beings are incomplete. No individual can be both fully male and fully female; the one cannot be itself and the other.
To members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day saints (LDS), this should not be such a foreign concept, yet it remains so often overlooked that many are confused by the idea of mixity. However, the greatest example of LDS mixity lies in the highest of temple ceremonies: the new and everlasting covenant of marriage. According to Doctrine and Covenants 131:2, no one can be like God without having been sealed to a spouse of the opposite gender. To be more precise, godhood cannot exist without the conjoining of a man and a woman in equal partnership. Why should society not also emulate that pattern?
The sobering answer is that our global society chooses to ignore and disgrace the biology of women. Rather than recognizing that the one (masculinity) is not enough on its own, womanhood and all things tied to it have been marginalized. This has resulted in the separation of productive and reproductive work, meaning wage-earning and child-bearing. As a result of the social belittling of child-related work, many women have begun to see motherhood as a trap with too large a price tag.
This has resulted in the separation between sex and gender in modern society. Sex is about nature or biology: whether one was born with XX chromosomes or XY. Gender is about culture: it is a matter of social definitions as to whether something is masculine or feminine. The shift to gender is problematic because it invalidates the natural differences between men and women. This is a flawed move because men and women are different; looking at something as simple as average body height can show that nature, not culture, differentiates men and women in very specific ways. Surely, men and women are not different in all things, but the shift to gender would overlook any differences that do exist, making it difficult for women to argue for the needs that are not met by following a masculine norm (such as height requirements that once barred a disproportionate number of women from being firefighters) without disrupting society.
The shift to gender is also a flawed approach because it has not been preceded by a redefinition of feminine and masculine traits. As Agacinski points out, “When we claim not to recognize division, we have already opted for one of the two models and, traditionally, chosen the masculine” (Agacinski 2001, 65-66). In other words, we have attempted to redefine “sex” into a character evaluation, but “masculine” traits are the better set. As the next section will show, it is no wonder that women have chosen to masculinize toward androgyny.
From Sex to Gender
In a society that values masculine traits over feminine ones, treating people as individuals (rather than as men or women) leads to androgyny. This is due to what Katherine Jamieson calls the Femininity/Competence bind. In this bind, a woman cannot be both feminine and competent, because the two sets of traits have been defined in opposition to each other. Jamieson puts the social catch-22 in these terms: “…we still confront a bind that expects a woman to be feminine, then offers her a concept of femininity that ensures that as a feminine creature she cannot be mature or decisive” (Jamieson 1995, 120). Making the socially “correct” choice by pursuing her femininity makes her unqualified for wage work and brushes her aside as “just a mother.” Making the “rational” choice by being masculine automatically makes her a lesser being by demanding that she live up to a masculine norm as a female; from the outset, she is biologically disadvantaged. A woman cannot be a "man", though society expects her to do just that.
This mirrors the argument of philosopher Simone De Beauvoir. De Beauvoir’s approach is to free women by having them give up their female identity for a masculine one, so that differences no longer exist between men and women. This approach does more harm than good, however, because it would cause women to deny their nature as females, including a denial of maternity, and thus the female body. This is a denial by which women can never complete; they were born XX, and that cannot be changed. Maintaining the Femininity/Competence bind reaffirms the male-over-female hierarchy by advising women to either give up their role in childbearing or suffer penalties in the workforce. Contrary to De Beauvoir, Agacinski argues that the power of providing descendants has given women great value, and LDS doctrine affirms this stance (Agacinski 2001, 55). The problem is that society does not recognize the value of childrearing in any concrete fashion, which is why acting masculine is the more rational choice of the two.
As economist Nancy Folbre discusses, the main problem of caregiving is the marginalization of providers and their work. As men entered the work force and women were able to stay at home to raise children, wage work was emphasized while housework was devalued. Rather than counting all labor as work, women’s work was ignored in economic measures and taken for granted; this was generally justified under the idea that “what women did was both instinctive and moral, performed for natural and God-given reasons (Folbre 2001, 8). Because women were viewed as naturally altruistic, theirs was a labor of love, so it did not count as real work to the male-centered society, where “real” work was done out of economic self-interest.
Because caregiving is not regarded as work, competitive pressures penalize people who invest their resources in caring for dependents, creating a cost of parenting that falls disproportionately on women. For example, taking time off of work to care for children means forgoing salary; this penalizes all caregivers, but especially mothers. Furthermore, these caregivers bear most of the costs of caregiving while they do not receive all of the positive externalities of their care. For example, good children become good workers who pay Social Security taxes, and that money is used to fund everyone else’s retirement, without requiring an equal subsidy from everyone who benefits from those taxes (Folbre 2001, 109-110).
Due to the time-related costs of caregiving, however, a childless couple is able to make two incomes, and usually rise in their careers at a much faster rate than a couple with children, yet the childless couple will get more from Social Security because of their higher earnings (Folbre 2001). Conversely, the couple that raised the children, whose work helped pay for the collective retirements of all, will receive a smaller retirement benefit because they had to do less wage-work in order to raise those children. This shows how caregivers, who are usually women, suffer a disproportionate amount of the costs of caregiving without receiving a commensurate amount of the benefits.
These costs are many and varied but a great deal of them can be summarized in what Ann Crittenden calls the “mommy tax,” a personal tax paid by mothers who forgo certain work-related opportunities. The most basic description of the mommy tax is that women typically change to part-time work or leave their jobs altogether in order to provide adequate childcare (Crittenden 2010, 5). The components of this tax are much more serious than this simple definition sounds. For example, mothers who choose caregiving over work will give up wages, pensions, the ensuing Social Security benefits, promotions, and training opportunities. Those who switch to part-time schedules are also placed on the “mommy track,” which offers little or no chance for advancement within the company. Mothers earn less than both men and childless women. Blue-collar workers lose seniority, forcing them to start their careers from scratch when they return to work. Some women take an alternate payment plan on the mommy tax by never having children, being unable afford the imposed costs of motherhood (Crittenden 2010, 87-109).
The penalization of motherhood explains the declining birth rates experienced in the United States. “All else being equal, the younger the mother, and the more children she has, the higher her tax will be, which explains why women are having fewer children, later in life, almost everywhere” (Crittenden 2010, 91). According to the Pew Research Center, birth rates declined rapidly after the birth of the baby boomer generation. It is interesting to note, however, that there was a slight increase in births, followed by a large decline around 1970 and 1990 (Livingston and Cohn 2010). Pew connects the birth rate to economic recessions, which is certainly a factor. However, in those particular years, the decline was steepest before a recession occurred; in 1970, there had not been a recession since the late 1930s; and in 1990, the nearest recession had ended approximately 6 years before the decline and the next recession did not occur until 2008. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that the feminist movement put mass numbers of women into the workforce in the 1960s and 1970s, while women born during the movement were reaching childbearing age (which overlaps with the timing of college education and the beginning of a career) in the 1990s. It is likely that the consequences of being both a caregiver and a worker caught up with these women at exactly these times, causing many to make a choice: work over children, masculine wage-earning over female reproduction.
Because society actively penalizes women who care for a dependent, many women have attempted to opt out of these feminine duties by being more masculine: they become unencumbered wage-earners, which works well for the businesses that employ them; they have very few children, if any, and they take on masculine character traits in order to compete within their careers. In taking these steps, women are able to attain a level of achievement that is generally only available to unencumbered men. There are at least two obvious flaws in this plan, however. In the short term, women are placed “not on par with men but on a new and fragile pedestal” (Jamieson 1995, 106); they must act like men when everyone can plainly see that they are not. In the long run, caregiving becomes so irrational that very few people can accept the consequences it brings. Besides these flaws, the term “unencumbered” is misleading. To become unencumbered, a man need only have someone else to take care of any children he fathers—a role usually fulfilled by his wife. For a woman to be unencumbered, she must forgo motherhood altogether, because she is unlikely to find a similar source of unpaid caring labor.
Added to these there is also one less-obvious flaw: if masculinity is the social goal and women are becoming men, then men must be even more masculine in order to maintain their separation from women. To borrow a phrase from Agacinski, this creates an “anguish of masculinity,” where being masculine is not enough to differentiate men and women because women are moving along a sliding scale of androgyny in order to achieve the supposedly male gender-traits that will allow them to succeed in a male-centered society.
Binding Women Binds Everyone
The push to either penalize or masculinize women has had devastating effects on our national advancement because it also harms men and children. For example, in the field of academics, theorists are limited by the views that they bring to their work. In the field of international relations, as theorist J. Ann Tickner explains, this leads to a limited understanding of the ways in which people and nations exercise power, which in turn limits the types of responses considered valid when nations are seeking global security.
Tickner points out that current studies of international relations focus on power in the masculine sense: “… autonomy and separation, importantly associated with the meaning of sovereignty, have determined our conception of the national interest” (Tickner 1992, 64). Thus, power is exercised by one individual (separate and autonomous) against another, such as war. Feminist scholars have instead proposed a version of power defined as “the human ability to act in concert…” (65). In this sense, power can include acts of diplomacy and negotiation.
This example shows that masculine thought on its own is incomplete. When feminine options are not also considered, acceptable response options and potential solutions are halved, which binds our ability to respond effectively to national security problems. We need both halves of the human face in order to identify the problems and consequences faced by both halves of humanity, as well as the best remedies. In other words, we need a society where women can be both women and competent contributors to their society, mothers and strong voices at all levels of decisionmaking from the home to the nation.
But we also need a society where men can be fathers and parents can be equal partners. The traditional male-dominated household is based on the argument that children need full-time mothers, so fathers are in the best position to be providers. It may be true that children are better served by stay-at-home mothers than fathers, but it is also true that children are better off when it is mothers who control the family’s income. The traditional model assumes that a father will act “to everyone’s advantage, putting his own personal wishes aside” (Crittenden 2010, 120). In reality, studies have shown that men, including fathers, are most likely to put their own goals first, spending more of their income on goods for their consumption or enjoyment. Women are much more likely to spend a greater percentage of their income on the children (Kristof and WuDunn 2009,192). Kristof and WuDunn go on to point out that in third world countries, where the traditional family and patriarchal power are usually enshrined in law, poverty strikes women and children much more heavily than adult males. Folbre would describe such a system as economic abuse.
These studies indicate that women need a stronger position in the work force to prevent the pervasive pattern of economic helplessness. When the mommy tax and maternal dependency are reduced—when mothers can combine work and family effectively—children do better (Crittenden 2010, 125). This evidence does not necessarily mean that men cannot put their own needs aside to be nurturers; it simply states that they do not when the position is already filled. Think back to the masculine model of unencumbered work: fathers are encouraged to ignore their paternity, lest it burden their position as workers and providers. This type of family model teaches men to focus on their own interests by leading them to focus on their role as providers. Fatherhood narrows to a single activity, and fathers are eventually cut off from regular interaction with their children. In other words, socialization has made men unanswerable to their children and their children’s needs. Whether by upbringing, language, or law, fathers are disconnected from their duty to actually parent their children, and in some instances this can include the duty to provide.
Gender socialization has also victimized men. Legal expert Joan Williams explains, “As men’s breadwinner status came to underlie their claims to familial and social dominance, anxiety became a permanent feature of masculinity” (Williams 2000, 26). Williams states this even more poignantly when she states,“…conventional genderings tie men’s sense of themselves to their success in market work. These gender pressures leave the typical man with little emotional alternative but to perform as an ideal worker…” (125). Note that she cites the problem as gender, not sex. The problem arises because we have proclaimed that wage-work is masculine, not out of some biological need for men to be the main (or only) worker in his family. The anguish of masculinity proves itself in these statements.
The solution to these problems lies in casting the pattern of mixity on society and all its institutions. “Civilization is not entirely women’s responsibility. This kind of conservatism demeans men by assuming that they can’t possibly help out” (Folbre 2001, 14). It should not be left to women alone to civilize men and care for everyone. Men should take part in the responsibilities for care, especially childcare; if a woman becomes a mother, a man necessarily becomes a father. Childbirth is naturally mixed, and so too should parenting be. As Williams states, “An alternative is to seek not androgyny but a widening of the accepted range of masculinities and femininities” (176). We must leave behind gender ideas in order to empower women, thereby freeing men and relieving children of the economic abuse they suffer.
Favoring Family: How to Change America and Create Gender Equity
One step American society must take in order to rid itself of the consequences of masculinization is to make the work space more family-friendly. The mommy tax is an effective tool for masculinity because it penalizes those who would act as caregivers, both mothers and fathers. One solution that Williams suggests is making part-time—or flextime—schedules more attractive and easier to attain, such as by offering proportional benefits and equal per-hour pay. “[A] system of restructured work would yield children raised by two parents, rather than by an overburdened and absent father and a marginalized and economically vulnerable mother” (Williams 2000, 100). This would enable men to be fathers and allow mothers to be workers without requiring as heavy a “mommy tax” from either.
Williams also recommends that businesses change their promotion options. They could have a fast track for people who want to be promoted quickly through the ranks and a slow track for people who are willing to be promoted less quickly as a tradeoff for spending more time with their families. The new system would benefit both men and women by allowing them to continue a career at a slower pace, determined by their productivity and results rather than face time. At first, more women would take the slow track than men, but as men realized they could have families, decent wages, and a future on the slow track, none of which could be had on the mommy track, more men would be willing to take fewer hours at work in order to take a few more hours at home. Over time, the proportions of men and women in higher careers would even out, and the proportions on slow and fast tracks might become less disparate (Williams 2000, 96-97). Thus, women could be held to the standard of their work rather than their ability to mask as men. Women would no longer be held to the double-standard of the gender focus. A woman could be both feminine and masculine in character traits or thought, yet maintain femininity in her biological expression.
Other authors have echoes these issues in their own writings. For example, Nicholas Kristof, Sheryl WuDunn, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali show that another step we can take is greater encouragement of female scholars, which can be achieved by instituting Williams’ pro-parenting policies within academia itself. Hirsi Ali points out the dire need for female interpretations of male-dominated fields, such as religious studies. Raised as a Muslim, she quotes passages that, when translated from the original Arabic, command men to beat their wives and children. As she says, “The Quran… gives a legitimate basis for abuse, so that the perpetrators feel no shame and are not hounded by their conscience or their community” (Hirsi Ali 2008, 307).This has led to the oppression of many women in the more conservative sects of Islam, leading Hirsi Ali to believe that Islam can never be the peaceful religion some scholars claim it to be. But would female Muslim scholars offer the same interpretation of these passages?
Kristof and WuDunn have found the answer is no: when those same passages are retranslated by feminist Islamic scholars, the same verses that advocated physical abuse can be reinterpreted to advocate peaceful negotiation, and by using alternate meanings of the Arabic text, the original scriptures are left intact (Kristof and WuDunn 2009, 151-152). This means that the Quran, which is believed to be the literal word of God, can be reinterpreted in favor of women without changing the original words used by the Prophet Muhammad. Both interpretations are equally taken from the original text, so both are equally valid, but they lead to vastly different results.
This shows that even something as unchanging and potentially dangerous as religion can be used to create support for the fair treatment of women, and this is so because women have a unique perspective, leading to interpretations and solutions that are radically different from, but equally valid to, those of men. This same phenomenon can occur in religion, the sciences, and politics if there are sufficient women to fill the positions, but presently most institutions lack a strong female presence, often due to the obstacles discussed previously. We need women and those who understand women’s experiences in places of power because it enriches those areas of development. We need to represent the mixity of humankind in order to create a full range of acceptable solutions to the problems we, as humans, face.
Conclusion: A Call to the LDS Community
Folbre discusses an allegory of three nations that pit their citizens against the other groups in a race. One nation had their citizens simply run as fast as they could, each man for himself; they all eventually fell to fatigue, injury, or illness, because none took the time to care for another. The second nation had its men run in front and its women walk at the back, taking care of those who could not run; this led men and women to fight against one another because the women discovered they could run just as fast when they were not required to carry the dependents. The third nation had all of its citizens run while carrying those who could not; they made slow but steady progress and eventually won (Folbre 2001, 22-23).
The tale is utopian but it illustrates a good point: women cannot be abandoned at the back of the race and men cannot be allowed to leap ahead as if their place is as far from the women’s position as possible. Humanity cannot survive if we are all competing against each other. It is simple doctrine that a Zion society involves the care of all for all rather than a Hobbesian “war of all against all.” In other words, short-term self-interest must necessarily give way to long-term care. The redistribution of those care responsibilities will be necessary to sustain future growth.
I extend these questions to members of the LDS community: Do we not want mothers who can contribute to society through public works? Do we not want fathers who share in the task of raising the children God has given them? More importantly, do we want to live and work in a world that increasingly requires two incomes to support a family, but demands that parenting be sacrificed for that support? If we truly value family, we cannot allow the workplace to deny the alternatives that would allow workers to parent their children and provide for their needs.
In light of this, I ask one more question of my LDS audience: who better to lead the charge? Williams notes that while feminists have tried to meet the needs of families, it is often too divisive to make true progress because it is traditionally viewed as supporting masculinization and the gender focus. She states that feminism tends to alienate non-whites and the working class, who favor the arrangement of the traditional family, but who are forced to have a dual-income family for economic reasons (168). Feminism arguably did a great deal for women, but it is no longer the rallying cry that it once was. It cannot unite groups the way LDS activists might be able to if they rose to the challenge.
LDS pro-family activists can be among those giving the initial rallying cry because of their open religious support of the traditional family. Even LDS women who work for personal fulfillment rather than economic need can connect to the working-class desire for a traditional family by pointing to the strong, consistent speech proclaiming the need for male providers and female nurturers. Less-frequent, but still prevalent, speech also proclaims the absolute good of women working when necessary; this means that the LDS culture supports dual-income families while recognizing the desire to return to a traditional family when possible, which reflects the realities and desires of many working-class and non-white families. In other words, LDS support for the family can be used to bring non-LDS individuals into the cause of men, women, and family by ameliorating the alarm such individuals would otherwise feel toward “mainstream” feminists. Church doctrine could be a tool to shift focus away from bringing women into the workforce and toward the needs of the modern family.
Our doctrine cannot tolerate society as it stands. We cannot accept the masculinization of women as the only way to empower them in a male-centered society. We cannot accept institutions that tie the meaning of men’s lives to their work rather than their families. We cannot accept a system that keeps parents from their children for all but a few hours of the evening.
Research shows us the negative effect of these trends, pulling families apart by drawing fathers out of the home, often resulting in the kind of economic abuse that thrusts women and children into poverty. The point is not merely to empower women against these injustices, but to allow women the option, should they choose it or need it, to be both mothers and workers; a secondary, but equally important, point is to give men the chance to be fathers and the social encouragement to want the job. As Elder Quentin Cook said in the April 2011 Conference of the LDS Church, “I would hope that Latter-day Saints would be at the forefront in creating an environment in the workplace that is more receptive and accommodating to both women and men in their responsibilities as parents.”
As members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, we know that the basic unit of society is the family, so it must be our mission to stand at the forefront of the battle for family. That battle will help men, women, children, workers, the American underclass, and a multitude of racial and ethnic groups. This is a battle we cannot afford to ignore, and it is one that we cannot afford to lose.
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Full Citation for this Article: Rickett, Rebecca (2012) "From Sex to Gender: Female Androgyny and the Crippling of Men," SquareTwo, Vol. 5 No. 1 (Spring), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleRickettGender.html, [give access date].
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