Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Can liberals tolerate sex distinctions?

Things don't always go the way of liberal modernism. Take the case of sex distinctions. These are supposed to be made not to matter in a liberal order.

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?

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.


  1. Now, younger women are returning to the so-called domestic crafts: sewing, cooking, knitting and gardening.

    I grew up in a family of largely men - three other brothers, no sisters.

    My father has taken up sewing, my younger brother had an interest in gardening, and I really, really love cooking. On the holidays I found myself learning a bit of sewing off mum, too.

    This evidence would seem to suggest that there is nothing particularly feminine about these domestic tasks, and that therefore they are not a valid or useful way of distinguishing between the sexes!

    If there is a resurgence in the popularity of so-called domestic chores it's probably got less to do with their 'feminine' associations, so much, as the fact that they're pleasurable and rewarding.

  2. Tim T, there is always overlap between the sexes. Nonetheless, there are aspects of female behaviour which are likely to flummox a normally masculine male.

    For instance, my wife's favourite shop is called Spotlight. It's a fabric shop. How many men do you know who hanker for a visit to a fabric shop and who squeal with delight when a fabric shop catalogue arrives in the letterbox?

    Tim T, perhaps the best way I can persuade you that there are some essential differences between men and women, including our sense of the domestic, is to refer you to some female websites.

    How about this page, in which a woman confesses that when she can't sleep she turns on the internet in order to look at pictures of ... saris. Why?

    "Because I can never look at beautiful fabric enough ... my heart hungers for beauty. And I don’t especially want to wear beautiful clothes - that’s too much trouble - but I want to look at beautiful clothes and fabrics."

    Or have a look through Muppinstuff. On the front page, at the moment, there's a story about how much the author misses her curtains, accompanied by some pictures of curtains.

    There are pictures of flowers, and reports on children, babies, shopping, baking, sewing and cooking and cats.

    Or what about the following post from a "laundry" blog:

    "Domestic bliss, in pink

    "Yesterday was almost domestic stay at home for a day motherhood bliss. Almost. Hanging washing on the line with the buzz of bees droning in the distance and the fragrance of several types of blossom floating past.

    "Grace helping or playing nearby and being the most charming child imagineable. Going to the library and swimming lessons. Wearing underpants for two days in a row. Without being asked. Just taking her nappy and tights off in the morning around ten and appearing in a socks and underpants combo."

    This last post is maybe the most significant, as it comes close to capturing the focus of many mothers out there.

    Tim T, I cannot believe that you or any man in your family is really focused in the same way on the same things as the average woman.

  3. I accept that there are clear biological differences between men and women, but I'm far from convinced that the examples cited so far are evidence of this. I'm sorry, but talking about a love of saris or curtains seems to have more to do with the blogger's personal tastes than with their evolutionary inheritance.

    People make odd assumptions about men as well as women - one good example would be that men are naturally interested in sport. That is so far from being true when I think of my family that it's simply ridiculous.

    I suspect that many of these frivolous distinctions about men and women and the way they supposedly act have less to do with the biological inheritance of mankind than we think they do.

  4. Tim T, I wonder if you're trying to have it both ways.

    At times, you seem to want to follow scientific lines ("evolutionary inheritance"), which makes me think that you're looking for some kind of scientific proof, rather than what we experience in our daily relationships.

    But then you cite as proof of your own views what you've experienced in your own family.

    At any rate, the problem we're going to have in this discussion is that we have different approaches to how you discern the truth about these matters.

    I'm speculating here but you seem to want to only accept a law of nature so clear and distinct that it is universal and can be easily fitted into a scheme of evolutionary inheritance.

    Therefore, any exception to a claimed aspect of human nature appears to you to rule out the truth of that aspect of human nature.

    Nor do indicators of sex differences which can't be easily rationalised in terms of evolutionary inheritance appear to you to have significance.

  5. Tim T's family is probably the exception that proves the rule.

  6. I agree that the evidence I cited from my family is largely anecdotal and am happy to have it struck down on that count - it doesn't have any larger statistical significance, and indeed the only reason that I raised it was because the evidence cited in the Herald Sun article is largely anecdotal as well. (If the anecdotes they use are acceptable in argument, then I don't see why a few anecdotes on my part would go astray.)

    A lot of the examples that you cited - and a lot of examples that could be cited - about the distinction between men and women, though, would seem to fall into the same category. For instance, women like shopping/shopping catalogues/saris, etc. Or, alternatively, men like sport/cars etc. People make these distinctions a lot, but it seems to have more to do with social expectations about how others should act. And when *some* men or women do act according to these myths - often out of a sense of obligation more than any personal inclination - their actions may themselves be taken as evidence of a sex distinction.

    Also, education would appear to play a part in this too - I know little personally about sewing, much less than my mother or a friend who attended a Sydney girls' school - but that's because they learned it at school; I didn't. Again, this would seem to be a sex distinction that is socially created rather than one that has its origins in biology.

    There *are* a few examples that you cite that could possibly be of biological origin - for instance, a greater interest and knowledge on the part of women about mothering - but that's hardly basis for accepting all the other common stereotypes about the differences between men and women.

  7. My wife once had the charming vision of seeing our younger daughter with two dinosaur toys, and they were chatting and having tea; her younger brother had two Barbies duking it out.

    I'll say that my family imposes expectations: our daughters will grow up to be women, and our son will grow up to be a man.

  8. Tim T,
    When science speaks of innate sex differences, the conclusion is a wholesome one on a larger scale. Exceptions are never ruled out.

    Now feminists and liberals, pick up these exceptions as a proof for gender fluidity. As I say these "examples" are rare exceptions to biological determinism.

  9. I agree with Tim T and I dont agree with these things proving sex differences. I cant cook, sew, knit and havent the first clue about gardening. I am a woman and have been married 10 years. Realistically I have never met a woman under 40 that knows how to knit. Have you? Not in this day and age and if any of them now how to do it then I dont know where they learnt it.

    I dont do the gardening as it is usually men of all ages that care more about that type of thing and and women of pensionable age.

  10. Anonymous, just go down to your local fabrics shop and count the number of customers per gender. You will not find an equal number of men and women in these stores.

    The existence of sex distinctions seems so clear to me, that it's curious to have to defend it.

    Haven't you observed the different way that boys in groups relate to each other compared to girls in groups? Nobody teaches them to do this, but it's reproduced year after year.

  11. Lesbian dance parties no-go zone for men

    "A PARTY company specialising in dances for lesbians and bisexual women has won the legal right to ban men...

    VCAT ruled in favour of Pinkalicious this month, with Judge Marilyn Harbison noting no objections were raised after the proposed man ban was advertised.

    But Men's Rights Agency director Sue Price slammed the ruling.

    She said it contradicted Attorney-General Rob Hulls' move to open up elite men's venues, including the Melbourne and Athenaeum clubs, to women.

    In May, Mr Hulls slammed private men's clubs as "a throwback to a bygone era" and said he wanted them to lose their exemption to anti-discrimination laws.

    Ms Price said Pinkalicious was given special treatment.

    "I get enormously angry about the laws," she said...

    The Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission backed the ban.

    "The Commission supports the type of events run by Pinkalicious because they offer a disadvantaged group the chance to experience supportive social occasions, feel safe in public spaces and build a sense of belonging," Commission CEO Dr Helen Szoke said.

    VCAT has given gay men's pubs, including the Laird Hotel and the Peel Hotel, permission to ban women."

    Hmm, so discrimination is OK if you are disadvantaged and need a safe place to belong. Consistency is not a virtue anymore...