Monday, March 26, 2012

Feminist Question of the Week: Women Nurture, Men Protect

Gender Essentialism: Basically this ideology states that gender and sex go hand in hand, meaning that gender roles are the result of biology. Now granted, there is a little more to the idea than that, however that's the bit I'm focusing on for this week's question.

I was always taught that women are nurturers; women are maternal, loving and filled with an overwhelming desire to have children. The home is a woman's sphere. Men on the other hand, are meant to provide and protect; Men are supposed to take care of women.

The argument has kicked up it's heels again recently (what with all the great political, woman furor that has surrounded this election cycle) and I'm wondering how you feel about the issue.

Personally, I lean away from gender essentialism, however nothing is really that simple is it?

I'm curious, do you believe that there are defined gender roles for men and women? Do you believe biology affects gendered attributes? What about small things? There are dozens of studies that discuss the differences between men and women, "Men only worry about things that directly affect the physical safety of those they love, while women worry about the small things--which is why men seem lazy and women are nags" (Laura Brizendine).

Anyway, answer the question. What do you think?


  1. This is such an interesting question. Growing up I didn't think about it either way. Once I was in high school and college, I started to think about it and decided that gender is cultural/social and sex is biological and the two do not overlap.

    However, this semester (my final semester!) I have had a class that makes me reconsider some of this. It is psycholinguistics and we often talk about the physical differences between men and women that affect how they process language slightly differently. Women, for example, have naturally better hearing, from an evolutionary perspective this could have been to be able to hear one's child crying or something.

    I guess what I'm saying is that I think there are sex-based differences that make men and women better at different things. I don't like it, but that is how it is. That being said, we live in such a day and age where any physical "deficiencies" can be mostly made up for with tools or something. Anyway, now I'm getting sleepy, so hopefully this made sense. ;)

  2. You know, Rachel, I've always resented broad, sweeping statements about how women are nurturers. Do I have nurturing aspects to my personality? Absolutely. But I'm not nurturing in the way people expect. I am very nurturing with a sick animal or with one of my plants. Even if a cat is only feeling sick because it ate too fast and threw up, I'll talk to that cat in a soft voice, and pet it really gently and feel just awful until the cat feels better. But if I make a comment about not liking babies, I am guaranteed to downright offend someone. A lot of people take it as a sign that something is wrong with me.

    But I can be very caring. In fact, when Carl The OMC saw how I treated my cat when she got sick, he was surprised and remarked "You're very nurturing with her." I'd never thought of it in that light before, but it's true - I can be nurturing.

    But I see a couple problems with ascribing roles (and it's hard for me to admit that I feel this way, since leaders in a faith that's very important to me actively promote these rolls). But here's my problem:

    1 - If these roles are inherent, why do we have to prescribe them? Wouldn't they just happen, without us doing anything to force that pattern?

    2 - If we do in fact need to force or develop these roles, that opens the door to people really narrowly interpreting what the roles entail. For instance, I think a lot of LDS people assume that for a man to be a good provider, he has to get a job as a lawyer or a doctor. And I know a lot of LDS people assume a woman can't be a good mother if she works outside the home.

    But ultimately I think all parents can provide, and protect, and nurture, in a lot of different ways. Women can even have careers, and men can stay home with their kids, and that can work well. I, for one, think I'd be miserable as full-time stay-at-home Mom.

    And before you tell me that I'll change my mind when I have my own kids, consider this: I know my personality, and I probably know it better than anyone else on this Earth.

    But my point is simply that we have to allow for individuality, and sometimes I'm not sure what value there is in spelling out those separate rolls. If the choice is ultimately up to families and individuals anyway, why prescribe a division of responsibilities that they'll either naturally choose or thoughtfully reject anyway?

  3. 1. One could argue that they are being prescribed because they are inherent.

    Is culture the cause or the effect of evolution? That's really the question here.

    2. You're ascribing cultural meanings to biological roles. "Nurturing" in the evolutionary sense just means feeding and protecting young. That's it. No more, no less. No "goo-goo" or "ga-ga" required.

    Evolution simply says "here, try not to let it die."

    3. Men "protect" mostly because of inherent biological adaptations of musculature, endurance, and other survival-oriented development.

    These differences are well researched and proven.

    4. I believe these roles are founded in our evolutionary development. Indeed, the process of slow adaptation favors the development of specialists. I'll hunt while you gather; I'll bleed so you have a chance to run away.

    No, you can't join me; we cannot switch places - I cannot make milk/ I am not pregnant/ your eggs are more valuable than my sperm.

    Our bodies do not understand that we can eat and populate as we please. Our drives and instincts still operate under the assumption that we can die at any moment.

    1. But, if inherent, why do we need a prescription for it?

      Masculinity is a list of traits (active) and femininity is a lack of traits (passive). Whether to be active or passive in a certain situation depends on that situation, not on the sex of the person in it. If adult brains end up looking different according to sex, it's because of the sex *roles* they were performing, because as the twig is bent so grows the tree.

      With regard to strength: The longer a race gets, the more women win it. Endurance may just be the most comprehensive qualifier of strength.

      -Truthful Nacho

  4. T.C. - you seem to dismiss the cultural implications that come from someone taking the mere biological (which is all you actually argue in favor of) and using the biological to justify prescribing cultural behavior. (ie: women are naturally nurturers, therefore they should stay home full-time with the children; or men naturally want to protect their families, therefore a father should beef up and learn how to use a gun).

    Do you think we should dismiss the cultural aspects that organizations prescribe? Or are you saying that nobody is actually prescribing them?

    Because ultimately, I think you're responding to different concerns than the ones I raised.

  5. You're welcome to think whatever you wish.

    QUESTION 1: "If these roles are inherent, why do we have to prescribe them? Wouldn't they just happen, without us doing anything to force that pattern?"

    REPLY: "One could argue that they are being prescribed because they are inherent. Is culture the cause or the effect of evolution? That's really the question here."

    I'm arguing they are "just happening" i.e. evolution informing culture.

    You're welcome to rebut.

  6. T.C. you're not responding to my last post, so much as repeating a couple things you said before (which clearly didn't communicate your ideas in full, as I was confused) so I don't think further discussion would be productive. I just want to clarify that I'm all for others disagreeing with me on NAW - I just don't fully understand what it is that you're communicating. If you're unable to elaborate in terms I understand, that's fine.

    You're welcome to elaborate some more, but I don't currently see your stance clearly enough to even attempt a rebuttal.

  7. It would be a mistake to blame the sender for the receiver's lack of understanding.

    I'll try again, as I believe the sender of a message has the responsibility to clarify themselves in the face of objections - I trust someone with your level of education can agree with that.

    You asked: "if roles are inherent, and if so, wouldn't they just happen...?"

    I answered: "they are inherent; and they are just happening."

    You replied: "...I think you're responding to different points than I raised."

    I'm not sure how you can argue that I'm not addressing your points when I've answered at least one of your questions directly. Perhaps you would indulge a laymen and restate clearly, and simply, the questions you would like answered.

    Until then, I'll take this opportunity to rephrase my rebuttal to your original post:

    Feminist communication theory (FCT) falls apart in the face of biological and evolutionary science. This is mostly because FCT begins with unsupported a-priori assumptions about gender and sexual politics. It commits the ultimate blunder of setting out to prove what it already believes. In terms of rhetoric and the basics of the scientific method, this is poor form.

    Here's one of my questions you didn't quite address: does culture inform evolution, or does evolution inform culture?

    Without taking into account biology, or human evolution, FCT is a dead-end. It seeks to "free" us of our biological roles without ever asking if such "freedom" is even possible - or desirable. FCT simply assumes that it is.

    This approach is fundamentally flawed.

    A need to specialize (i.e. a "role") is displayed by almost all social mammals.

    Without a willingness to accommodate - let alone address - the findings of biological science it's doubtful that FCT can ever effect lasting or productive change for the benefit of the species.

    In the end, FCT is a defeasible ideology. It just hasn't realized it yet.

    Personally, I believe that the culture informing these roles can be changed; the mammalian need for a role to exist cannot.

  8. TC, I'm not engaging further in a discussion with someone who is pointedly and deliberately acting condescending and attempting to "mansplain" (an internet feminist blog phenomenon that occurs when a man shows up and tries to provide all the answers to the poor, misguided feminists - without actually listening to anyone else). If others would like to continue this conversation, feel free. I'm checking out.

  9. Taking your ball and going home?

    "...mansplain..." All aboard the Train of Logical Fallacy, first stop: Ad Hominum attack, with a brief excursion to quaint and rural Straw Man.

    Poor form Ms. Emily, poor form indeed.

    Is this what will happen when it comes time to defend your thesis? One simple challenge to your ideology and you fall apart? I'm disappointed. I thought a PhD candidate would pose a greater challenge.

    At least ease my anxieties and promise me that you have no desire to run for office, or effect public policy.

    Not to mention the absurd presumption of both my gender and my motives.

    " internet feminist blog phenomenon that occurs when a man shows up and tries to provide all the answers to the poor, misguided feminists - without actually listening to anyone else..."

    I suppose FCT is gently guiding men toward enlightenment?

    I'll again point out that you have not answered direct and reasonable challenges to your position. It's obvious as to why. FCT - like most communication oriented critiques - is nothing more than empty speculation.

    Though, I do have a special place for Marxist critique. Comms isn't totally devoid of intelligent contributions.

    You're throwing a tantrum as FCT has no true or meaningful answer to the science of evolutionary biology does it?

    No, obviously it does not.

    That's okay, none of my former professors could answer this challenge either.

  10. Wow, TC, take your arrogance down a few notches. It's one thing to disagree and challenge someone's theories and assumptions; it's another to come in and accuse someone of "throwing a tantrum," "taking [their] ball and going home," and not being a satisfying challenge to your questions. I think both of you were raising legitimate points initially, but you're approaching the line where you go from intellectual conversation to being a jerk for the sake of building yourself up.

    I would actually disagree that evolution informs culture OR culture informs evolution. Human cultures are far too complex to assume a straight Point A, Point B approach to biology that says "x, therefore we y." Not all cultures were strictly patriarchal, and not all cultures that have historically been patriarchal a) looked the same or b) handled straight "biological" things similarly. For example, in some Pacific Islander cultures, masculinity was gained through childbirth. The more children a woman had, the more her role changed to become masculine (up to and including different pronouns and relationships and responsibilities). And no, before you ask, it had nothing to do with her age and relative fertility (i.e. menopause).

    I also think we have to be careful when assigning biological rationales for human behaviours because were always changing. What may have been true during hunting/gathering epochs (which we still know very little about, factually speaking) hasn't necessarily held true for a very long period of time. You spoke of endurance and strength, TC, but what about the ways in which strength and endurance register differently on female vs male bodies? In societies where swords and other weaponry requiring upper-body strength predominate, it makes sense that the world would appear to be biologically favourable to males wandering the woods instead of females. But lower-body strength actually favours females, so to me that indicates that culture was as much to blame for the way things have gone as anything else was.

    The other thing that gets me about biological arguments is that you can use them to refute most any theory, including Marxist (i.e. some people are not fit to be management or anything other than the bored and alienated proletariat). Marx and Engels both focused on the economy, which is a very important aspect of power and cultural meaning, but they failed to account for all the other ways in which humans like to hierarchically arrange themselves. Let's say their revolution had come to fruition in the U.S. anytime in the 20th century. Do you truly believe that the social oppressions that existed along racial lines, for example, or along sexist lines, would have been erased? The people revolting and creating an economically just society were equally products of their culture, and I doubt that all of them would have had the ability (or desire) to advocate that the revolution create an entirely equal society.
    (comment divided in two for space)

  11. (comment divided in two for space)
    The other problem I have with biological arguments is that they can be used to prop up any unequal institution, and again I'm going to point to racism as another example of broad social injustice. So you argue that women are biologically prone to a more nurturing role (not entirely, mind you, just more inclined) and males are inclined towards a more aggressive and protector role. How do you respond to the biological arguments that have been used to maintain a system of racial oppression? It's "proven" (which is a bogus word in most research, by the by) that African-Americans have a disproportionately high likelihood of developing Type II diabetes. Is it true? At this point in history, yes. Does it mean that African-Americans are genetically predisposed to it? Well, sort of. Some of it is genetic, like the fact that your likelihood increases if your parents had it, etc. etc. Some of it, however, is social; since Type II diabetes is equally influenced by lifestyle and diet, there are valid indicators that access to poor nutrition and little opportunity for exercise and relaxation have played a significant role in the explosion of this type of diabetes in African-American populations. This suggests that the thing that appears to be biologically determined- a disease whose prevalence is in part influenced by genetic history- is also just as much socially determined. Biology is important, but it's not everything.

    A really interesting read on something similar, by the way, is an article on epigenetics and obesity in the Netherlands. You can find a summary of the findings at

  12. Erica:

    Though, I think if you really wanted to analyze the exchange Emily was clearly dismissive and indignant from the start.

    She was evasive to my points while berating them as vague - so yes, calling her out for throwing a childish tantrum is perfectly acceptable.

    Moving forward:

    You are correct to point out that genetic influences are just that. They do not completely define or dictate behavior. Though, I think your contention that evolution does not inform culture is only partially correct. Such influence on the part of biology exists as a spectrum, not an absolute. I don't believe I've argued otherwise.

    In other words, evolution has a greater influence in gender/sexual politics than it does, say, in economic structures. Though, the human species appears to be inclined toward hierarchical structures in general.

    As I said to Emily before, I believe the culture can be changed, but the apparent simian need for roles (and hierarchy) appears relatively fixed.

    Thought Experiment: What do you think your behavior and body composition would be like after six months of heavy testosterone dosing?

    I think your changed attitude and copious chin hair would make a strong case for biology's role in sexual politics, no?

    That's just one hormonal difference.

    I also agree that the biological argument can (and has i.e. Eugenics) be used to justify all kinds of absurdities. That, however, lies in humanities misconception of its own origins and its misuse of knowledge.

    What experimenters in Eugenics would never know is that genetics always involves a regression to the mean making their vision fruitless and oppressive.

    I'm running a bit short on time, so my apologies if I haven't hit all the points you would like to be addressed, but I'll conclude with this:

    Evolution does not ask that men make all the money and women do all the cooking. That's how our culture has interpreted evolution's information.

    Specialized gender roles are rooted in biology. Perhaps evolution experimented with social roles that included females who fought and died next to their men. A noble, beautiful (and kind of cool) prospect. But ultimately bad for the species. A dead mother cannot milk her infant, and the genetic disposition which made such behavior a natural instinct would never be included in future generations.

    Culture has interpreted this information as "nurturing."

  13. I didn't say that evolution doesn't inform culture; I contended that the relationship wasn't one-way (which is what your apparent argument has been).

    In response to your thought experiment, I would ask for further clarification. What do you mean by different attitudes? Are you hypothesizing that I would be more aggressive? Or are you referring to the likely sense of relief and cohesion that would occur if I had previously been unhappy in a body dominated by estrogen and progesterone?

    As far as "calling out" Emily is concerned, your indignation is acceptable but your taunting is not. As far as I'm concerned, you're an anonymous person on the internet who finds this feminist question of the week intriguing- but differences of opinion do not entitle you, or anyone else, to treat another (semi-) anonymous person on the internet with disrespect. Nowhere in her language does Emily mock you or respond to you with the immaturity with which you responded to her in your earlier comment. Everyone responds to feedback differently, and perhaps her comments came across to you in an unintended manner ("It would be a mistake to blame the sender for the receiver's lack of understanding" I believe is your stance on that). I'm not going to judge how ambiguous her tone may or not have been. But there was no such ambiguity with your words, and they were inappropriate. End of story.

  14. Erica:

    I'm referring to the physical and behavioral changes that come with hormonal therapy. Such behavioral and physical changes are well documented - there's nothing hypothetical about it.

    Aggressive? That's a loaded word; especially in FCT. Would you mind defining that for me so that we're on the same page?

    "Or are you referring to the likely sense of relief..." This is a straw man. Not to mention an apparent attempt to ferret out any misogynistic attitudes on my part.

    I feel that both data and inference points to historical patterns of strengths and weaknesses inherent to both genders and such data and inference supports the argument that "roles" are simply exaggerated caricatures of biological specialization.

    I do not feel, however, that this data implies women are somehow deficient in intelligence or character, or that men are superior in regards to the same.

    I'll reiterate my point that the physical and behavioral changes you would likely experience would play a significant role in gender/sexual politics. To argue otherwise is to discount years of factual data.

    "Nowhere in her language does Emily mock you..." I disagree. Nowhere in my language prior to my last post to her was condescending or inappropriate.

    Clearly both you and her think different. So, we'll have to agree to disagree. I prefer not to keep score but I cannot stop others from doing the same.

  15. ...In all honesty, I'm wondering if you know what a "straw man" argument actually is, or if you know much about trans theory. There was nothing facetious in the suggestion that I would feel relief if I didn't identify as a woman but had been assigned female at birth, and in fact I'm wondering why you got so defensive and assumed that I was trying to "ferret" anything out.

    A very simple and honest question for you, one without ulterior motive: if you believe we're here to attack, judge, and sneakily trap you, why are you in this conversation?

  16. I'm aware of trans theory. But even "change" in terms of sexual politics is somewhat limited by our inherent biological and genetic characteristics. Sex and sexuality is one of the most primitive and fundamental aspects of Humanity's genetic character.

    It is not lightly waived.

    However, I have repeatedly acknowledged that the exaggerated nature of gender roles can be played with. The problem is the roles themselves are unlikely - if ever - to be eliminated. This implies that contemporary FCT proponents are not "equalizing" the genders so much as replacing one power dynamic with another equally oppressive substitute.

    On this point FCT fails to learn from history: hierarchy in human institutions is a constant, not a variable.

    I feel your last few posts - as well as Emily's - were posed in such a way as to put focus on my attitude, demeanor, and perceived "defensive" posture as a means to attack the biological argument. Indeed, we are not even discussing the arguments I've made but are now devolving into pop-psychology. Granted it may not be a straw man in the strictest sense, but for our informal purposes it's close enough.

    I never said nor implied you're attacking, judging, or trapping me. However, it's worth pointing out that I've been called "arrogant," "condescending," "immature," and now psycho-analyzed all for suggesting - with supported and common-knowledge evidence - that gender/sexual politics is clearly influenced by evolution and biology and that our "roles" are being loosely defined for us by that reality.

    As far as I'm aware, current FCT believes that biology has little if any effect on the interaction among the sexes. A perspective I feel has been has been refuted by solid data.

  17. Ha!

    If by "Trans Theory" you mean gender identity. That too is easily explained by biology and evolution.

    Those with the resources, courage, and tenacity to completely change their sex seek and are prescribed hormonal therapy appropriate for their gender identity.

    Another compelling argument for the power genetics has over our gender roles.

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  19. Feminism, I think, requires men to be protectors. Men are physically more powerful than women, and more aggresive, so for women to live and work in safety requires that this violence be dampened and controlled. Think who you'd want to decrease this violence in this way outside of personal relationships-policemen come to mind. Sure, with weapons a woman can protect herself, but men do have naturally better coordination than women on average. Women need someone else to help out. They need someone to protect them, preferably someone close to them. Husbands, being both male and having a close and positive (if women choose wisely and dump deceivers) personal relationship with wives, naturally fall into this role of protector. In the modern economy, men do not need to be providers, and would create dependents out of their wives by being ones. But it only makes sense for them to be protectors. I can't think what would predispose women to do the cooking and cleaning except as a trade for the men doing the heavy lifting, e.g. fixing cars. In the case of having children, it only makes sense that women are deeply attached to what just came out of their womb (like mama bears) and nurture them. Hand-in-hand with the nurturing goes cooking and cleaning, because taking care of children instead of paying others to do it for you requires taking time off from work during which gaps a woman, who is already at home, can clean up. So, feminism and children combined require protectors and nurturers. Those do not decrease financial and thus individual indpendence except before children are old enough for school, and when children are small men's testorone levels drop anyway and they become very concerned about their wives. Gender roles are not all bad.