[[This was originally posted on my Facebook page on August 31st 2012, and there were some interesting replies which sparked many more questions for me.]]
I’ve been thinking a lot about gender over the last few months. The issues seem to pop up everywhere. Supermarkets are finally getting rid of the gender divisions on their magazine racks (so it’ll now be acceptable for women to take an interest in politics, science, technology…) and Oxford’s academic dress rules no longer include gender distinctions. When Bic brought out biro pens “for her” in pink and purple, the product was mocked and targetted for sarcastic reviews on Amazon. It all seems really positive.
At the same time, I’ve been questioning with other Christians what gender is meant to mean to us. A few seem to hold the view that housework really is a woman’s job, and should a woman find herself too busy to do it, it is her responsibility to organise a cleaner, rather than expect that her husband might do it even if he has more time. It’s been suggested that I should aspire to be a vicar’s wife rather than a vicar, and that even before I’m married I can practice submitting to my husband by stepping back to allow men to take more leadership roles. I’ve also seen Christian men and women stand on a stage and explain very clearly that God has given women and men equal authority to lead, equal gifts and equal roles, that Christian leadership should in no way be limited by gender.
I’ve spoken to people fed up with being told to get a sense of humour when they challenge a sexist remark, read endless stories of sexism so normalised it almost goes unnoticed, and I can understand when some people begin to say that distinguishing between people by gender at all only seems to do harm.
So I’ve got some questions that I’d love to hear your thoughts on: (if I’ve tagged you, it’s only because I thought you might have a thought to share,if I haven’t tagged you, please do contribute anyway!)
– What kind of an understanding of gender do you think our society is or should be moving towards, as we try to eliminate more and more discrimination on the basis of gender? Are we trying to eliminate any concept of gender altogether, to reduce it to something as arbitrary as hair colour or taste in music? Do we still want to understand it as a key part of identity or is it less important than that?
– Is there a difference between what we can say descriptively about gender (“Generally speaking, women are likely to own more shoes than men”) and prescriptively (“You’re a woman, you have to enjoy buying shoes”) – or does one flow from the other so much that we should not make any descriptive comment? Is it possible to talk about gender descriptively without offending, discriminating or excluding some?
– Is it more acceptable to hold on to an idea of gender identity, gender differences, and some kinds of generalisations based on gender, as long as we are happy for everyone to choose which gender if any they want to identify with? How do we stop that from being artifically created categories for everyone to slot themselves into? Is there anything we can say about gender that isn’t purely a social construct, or is it okay that it is?
– Given that gender is used so negatively, to shame and manipulate (“man up!”, “you throw like a girl”, “she trains like a man”), is it possible for gender to become a postive way to identify ourselves, or is it beyond redemption as a concept?
Bonus question – for those who are interested from a Christian point of view:
– Some Christians seem very clear on gender roles, that men and women are ‘equal but different’, equally in the image of God, equal in dignity and value, but given different roles. Not only do Christians coming from this view find it easier to define what men and women should do, in terms of leadership, marriage and so on, but also seem to be far clearer on what men and women are (as well as should be) like – try “Wild at heart” and “Captivating” for books that are confident they can describe and explain the differences between men’s and women’s hearts.
For those Christians who don’t agree on the different roles of men and women in terms of leadership and marriage, for those who think leadership and authority are given to men and women equally, do we have much left to say about a biblical view of gender? What does it mean to be a Christian man if not that you can preach a sermon, what am I as a Christian woman if not designed to be a mother, wife, Sunday school teacher, and cake-baker? What do we mean when we say “male and female God created them?”
So, thoughts if you have any? If anyone does want to post a few, could you keep them to your own thoughts rather than replying to anyone elses? And feel free not to post an essay (unless you’re super keen). Thanks, I’d really like to hear what you think.