Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Gender and feminism, a guilt trip
Tell me it’s not throw-up material, this sudden parade of glamorous career women arguing across the front pages about the best way to birth, suckle and rear their young. Next it’ll be the diaper diaries, and we’ll all be expected to hang impatiently on the cloth v disposables dialectic, parsing the contents like ancient seers. Anyone would think today’s thirtysomethings were the first ever to achieve parturition.
But there is something interesting about these Mummy Wars, all the same. It’s this. The root from which they so vigorously sprout is the cleft stick in which feminism has got itself thoroughly, perhaps irreparably, wedged.
Insecurity is the soil. You don’t hear men angsting in public over whether they’re even halfway decent fathers. If paternal guilt exists, they’re all very grown up about it. Yet we’re supposed to believe that these traits are learnt, not innate. Learnt from whom? Well, from teachers (oops, mostly female). Mothers (even oopser). OK, from big, bad, paternalistic society.
Insecurity is the soil of the Mummy Wars but behaviourism is the root, or at least the cleft stick that holds it.
Feminism has long committed to behaviourism in order to deny innate brain-difference, arguing it’s all nurture, no nature. Why? Because anything else makes femaleness a disadvantage, out in the world beyond domesticity. The minute you allow difference – say, “males are more driven” – you make non-maleness second-rate.
But when it comes to kids, the nurture-obsession rebounds. We wouldn’t worry so about whether our little Taylors and Jacksons (note gender ambiguity) might have their glorious trajectories permanently damaged by not being taught Mandarin in utero or being insufficiently applauded at every tottering milestone if we didn’t believe hugely in our power to shape our kids.
This nurture thing cuts directly across the huge genome-push of contemporary science, seeking “the gene” for everything from cancer to autism. But, more pertinently, it also puts all the weight of the world back on the mother.
A hundred years ago, mothers were just pleased to get their kids out the other end of childhood alive, so weren’t much given to self-blame. But with agency comes responsibility and with responsibility comes guilt.
You might think, then, we’d eagerly jettison our sense of controlling our children’s destinies. On the contrary. Mother after young feminist mother seems committed to the guilt route, to proving that gender is indeed a myth and that, beyond basic biology, girls and boys are born identical, with all distinguishing traits post-production.
The latest purveyor of this implausible creed is psychologist Cordelia Fine, whose book, Delusions of Gender, has made global headlines. Fine presents no original science but assiduously takes to task those who do, at least where the work seems to show brain gender.
But Fine’s nurture-fascism is a brittle edifice. Not only are there all those documented cases of identical twins who, being separated at birth and growing up on opposite sides of the earth still end up both driving Triumph TR4s, both liking raw octopus and both marrying short pudgy redheads called Mavis.
More compelling, in the gender department, is what psychiatry calls gender identity disorder or, less pejoratively, gender dysphoria. “Perhaps one man in every 12,000,” the British government’s 2003 Policy Concerning Transsexual People notes, “feels he is a woman.” (And no, it’s not just the Poms.)
There are countless histories of boys who look male and are brought up male but who nevertheless feel so extremely un-male as adults that they willingly, even desperately, undertake the enormous social, hormonal, psychiatric and surgical traumas of gender reassignment. Many who are unable to make this journey elect suicide.
Fine’s insistence that boys and girls are born with identical brains does not explain how an un-gendered mind, fully steeped in boy-type context, can reach adulthood with the life-or-death conviction that it is actually, profoundly, female. How could that happen?
Fine’s hyper-behaviourism plays to the tenor of the times. Pursuing her own populism, she derides last century’s “popular writers”, such as John (Men Are from Mars) Gray, for their uninformed use of “pseudo-science” and insists that the vast array of genuinely scientific research her book debunks is driven by covert “neurosexism”. In other words, all dissent is mere propaganda. But Fine, too, has her political agenda firmly pinned to the dash.
Truth is, we don’t know. The British transsexual policy admits “scientific proof [is] far from complete” but notes there is “growing acceptance of findings of sexual differences in the brain that are determined pre-natally”.
But perhaps it’s neither black nor white. Increasingly, genetics is looking multi-factorial; genes establish a tendency that upbringing can either enhance or suppress. It seems commonsensical, further, to see gender not as an either-or but as a spectrum, running all the way from uber-male to uber-female, and to recognise that brain-gender, similarly arrayed, may not correspond fully (or at all) to body gender.
Thus, an uber-male brain may inhabit, say, a glamorous female body. I guess the lucky ones are those whose minds and bodies coincide or at least happily cohabit.
Suddenly, sexual stereotyping is no longer a problem. Indeed, not longer even a possibility. As well, we can relax about our kids, recognising that even through our worst mothering moments, they have the steadying influence of genes. This makes them much tougher than we think.
Life then is a compromise, I guess, and is vastly preferable to Fine’s nurture-fascism, which has supposedly liberated women out there substituting baby-stuff for proper intellectual fare, plunging us straight back into the primal domestic swamp we thought we’d just crawled out of. Who says feminism has no funny-bone?
DRAWING: BY EDD ARAGON