One reason for this is that liberals believe that to be free we must be self-determining. We must be unimpeded in creating who we are and what we do. Our sex - the fact of being a man or woman - is something that we don't get to determine for ourselves. Therefore, it is seen negatively as a "biological destiny" and traditional sex roles are rejected as being merely "conventional" and therefore "restrictive".
This orthodox, establishment liberal view, that sex distinctions must be made not to matter, is set out by Susan Moller Okin as follows:
A just future would be one without gender. In its social structures and practices, one's sex would have no more relevance than one's eye color or the length of one's toes.
Similarly, Carolyn Heilbrun has declared that:
our future salvation lies in a movement away from sexual polarization and the prison of gender toward a world in which individual roles and modes of personal behavior can be freely chosen.
Here in Melbourne there is a private club called the Athenaeum which, since its formation in 1842, has restricted membership to men. A group of 130 high-profile members of the club have been campaigning to change the rules, but have not persuaded the majority of members to do so.
A Herald Sun columnist, Sally Morrell, weighed in on the issue. Her argument was simple but significant:
Of course, once there was the cry of "sexism" the usual gender war warriors came out to once more re-fight the battles of last century.
There was Victoria's Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission chief, Helen Szoke, claiming that while she had no power to change the Athenaeum's rules it was a "matter for common sense" that it should allow women to join.
Common sense tells me that it's actually very common indeed for women to prefer women's company, and men men's.
Barbecues in my childhood always had the women clustering around the kitchen, while the men stood around doing what they do to the snags and burgers.
And nothing much has changed. Look around at the next school social or street party, and you'll see the sexes doing their oil-and-water thing.
Sure, my women friends love the men in their lives, and love socialising with men, but we also love our women-only time.
My book club has no women-only rule, yet not a single man has even asked to join it in the years we've been going, and none of us plans to bring one along soon. It's wonderful to be among just women, free to indulge ourselves in goss and pop-psychology ...
I bet those old dinosaurs at the Athenaeum feel much the same way about their club.
And, I guess, the club offers them much the same kind of service.
A refuge from the other sex, albeit in somewhat grander environs and with a brandy after dinner to boot.
And you've got to wonder why Szoke doesn't also declare war on the women-only Lyceum Club, just a short walk from the Athenaeum.
For some reason the sight of rich women enjoying each other's company seems natural and social, but the sight of rich men doing the same seems sinister and evidence of a conspiracy.
Sally Morrell is arguing that sex distinctions do matter in our lives. That there are times when we enjoy the company of the opposite sex, but also times when we interact in a different way with our own sex.
She is arguing that this is a natural, ongoing, ineradicable, positive aspect of life which does not need to be suppressed.
In accepting sex distinctions as a natural and positive aspect of life, she has no need to explain them as an assertion of superior identity by one group over another, as left-liberals commonly do. So she doesn't assume that when a group of men socialise together, that they are acting to enforce an unjust power structure over women.
She therefore doesn't resort to the usual double-standard in which it's considered alright, or even liberating, for women to socialise or interact together, but thought dangerously illegitimate for men to do so. (Why "liberating" for women? Presumably, in socialising or interacting together separately from men, they are held to be escaping male control and male power - this is the very negative understanding of sex distinctions which leads to the retention of women-only groups, such as schools, sports clubs, gyms and girl guides, but to a voluntary or sometimes compulsory shift to unisex membership for previously male groups.)
I would add one further argument to those made by Sally Morrell. It's particularly important that young men experience masculine, and therefore masculinising, environments. Without this, it's more difficult for boys and young men to develop the strength of character and resilience they need to shoulder the burdens that will be placed on them in their adult lives. It's of considerable personal benefit to women if their fathers, husbands and sons cope well in life. So women, too, have an interest in maintaining male only spaces in society.
There's been one other setback to the liberal programme of making sex distinctions not matter. A couple of years ago I noticed that even feminists were returning to traditionally feminine pursuits:
It seems to me that the more that such feminist women reject femininity in theory, the more that they attempt to bolster it in practice. How else can you explain the feminist craze for the most feminine of interests, such as knitting, sewing, decorating, flowers and kittens.
Kate herself lists her primary interest as knitting; Mindy makes quilts; Laura likes baking and kittens; and Janet likes to sew pink clothes for her daughter. Janet, in fact, runs one website about her passion for laundry and another about her love for motherhood, her daughter, flowers, gardens and sewing.
This return to feminine interests has now become a recognised social trend. In a feature column in the Melbourne Herald Sun, Kylie Hanson writes:
For so long, the feminist movement made housewife a dirty word ...
We were proud not to cook, and shrugged our suit-clad shoulders when confronted with a sewing machine ...
It was dubbed progress ... But what women realised was that turning our backs on domesticity wasn't the easy answer.
Now, younger women are returning to the so-called domestic crafts: sewing, cooking, knitting and gardening.
Doesn't this trend suggest that sex distinctions are more deeply ingrained than liberals suppose? Why else would even the most "progressive" women take up traditionally feminine interests? It's not as if the current generation of women have been socialised to sew and to bake. Nor do they lack alternative pathways. But still they return to the traditionally feminine.
Why would they do so if the feminine only exists artificially to oppress them? Isn't it more likely that women are naturally oriented to some degree to what is distinctly feminine?
The evidence suggests that sex distinctions do matter and should be accepted as playing a meaningful role in society.