I’ve been thinking quite a bit this weekend about gender. One of my students (a native Spanish speaker) likes to point out that it is language that has gender not people. He’s right, in a way. Being male/female is a matter of biology, of sex. Whereas gender is a social construct: men and women.
Of course, there are biological differences in our size, muscle mass and distribution, and reproductive systems. Speaking to my brother the other day, I reminded him that the physical experience of being female is something very distinct to what he knows. It seems to me the male half of the human race doesn’t really fully appreciate what it’s like when your body controls you. They are masters of their body (or think they are till it bites back); as soon as menstruation starts, girls know they are not and are reminded monthly. I think this is the big difference between the sexes.
But it’s illogical to extend these physical differences to other parts of the person. Science is proving, though no-one’s really listening, that there is negligible if any difference between male and female brains. Check out this Observer interview with neuroscientist Gina Rippon. Psychologist Cordelia Fine has also been writing about neurosexism for some time. That science always looks for differences between the sexes, using men and women as homogeneous, clearly defined categories, constantly irks me.
Social experiences perpetuate our binary categories. Qualities and skills that we think of as stereotypically and innately masculine/feminine (i.e. men are good at spatial tasks, women are better communicators) are developed through social reinforcement from the moment we are born, or even in utero these days – read that Gina Rippon piece.
And then there are all the social expectations of how we’re supposed to behave. The BBC Radio 4 serialisation of Amateur by Thomas Page McBee made me realise how uniquely placed transgender people are to comment on the different social experiences of men and women, being that they have experience from both sides.
Of course, too, we live in a world that is designed by men for men, from smartphones to architecture. I’m tall, so most of the time this is not a problem for me, though I do have small hands and often have trouble with things being too big to hold. And don’t get me started on public toilets! (How many times is there a long queue for the ladies’ while the men are in and out in a couple of minutes? I just need a quick slash too! Kind of desperately, actually, because my bladder is smaller. Can we just screen off urinals so everyone can use the cubicals? And where there are just two small rooms with toilets in that are exactly the same, why even label them men/women??)
I’ve found the UK is much more progressive in gender neutrality than here in Spain. Is it to do with the language? Sex distinctions to describe people have largely been eradicated or are on the way out (actor/actress, for example), and it helps that English doesn’t assign gender to words to start with. I do hate the use of ‘woman’ as an adjective, though, as in ‘woman writer’. What’s wrong with ‘female writer’? You’d never say ‘man writer’ but ‘male writer’. Anyway, minor point. It was good to come across Barcelona council’s guide to non-sexist language (in Catalan, of course).
So in conclusion – although there is so much to discuss – just because I’m female doesn’t mean I’m inherently better at x, y, z, I’ve just been socialised that way. Don’t make assumptions about me. Just treat me like a fellow human, I’m not an alien species. My utopian vision of the future is that someone’s biological sex becomes as relevant as their skin colour or accent: it tells us something about their background and experience of life, but nothing really about who they are or what they can do.
To get there, we need to talk about it, share experiences, listen, empathise and learn. It is starting to happen, in our society at least. Just because it’s not your experience doesn’t mean you can’t imagine! I have no idea what it’s like to have a baby and be a parent, but people spend enough time telling me about it, so I get it. I have no idea what it was like being a persecuted jew/a slave/an abused child whose only future is a life of crime. But goddam I read books and watch films, and I have empathy, so I’ve got an inkling.
It feels like it’s going to take the whole length of human civilisation to reach this understanding, that we are all basically the same. Maybe by the time the seas rise and wipe us out, we’ll have got it!