Monday, August 02, 2004

Man and woman for eternity

The Pope has released a letter to Catholic bishops on the issue of feminism. One of the more conservative aspects of the letter is its reaffirmation of gender difference. According to the document feminism has erred in its "obscuring of the difference or duality of the sexes" and that,

From the first moment of their creation, man and woman are different, and will remain so for eternity.

According to one newspaper report Catholic feminists responded to this criticism by claiming that "the letter presented a caricature of feminism as trying to deny any difference between the sexes".

But then up popped the feminist author Natasha Walter, who immediately confirmed the "caricature" by questioning "whether there were essential differences between men and women at all." Ms Walter then cast doubt on the existence of any special maternal instinct in women by arguing that,

We have centuries and centuries of acculturation towards a 'vocation' of maternity, and men have only had a couple of generations of acculturation towards active paternity. Until we encourage men [to do more] it's too early to call on whether there are innate differences. The weight of tradition is so strong that it precludes the freedom to choose.

This is an interesting quote for two reasons. First, it's one of those statements you sometimes come across nowadays which overlook the commitments that men have traditionally made to their families.

When Ms Walter talks about the recent advent of "active paternity" she means the sharing by men of traditionally motherly tasks, like the feeding, washing or changing of children. But this use of language excludes from "active paternity" the efforts that men make to provide for and protect their families, to socialise their children, and to maintain the formal, public structures of community life.

These traditional commitments of men can't just be taken for granted. They need to be recognised and encouraged within a society, particularly by women who are the chief beneficiaries.

The quote is also interesting as it brings out the conflict between liberal individualism and tradition. Liberals believe that we should be self-created by our individual reason and will. Tradition necessarily falls foul of this dictum because it pre-exists our own reason and will. In other words, tradition will often seem to liberals to be a hostile force as it is something that influences who we are and what we do but which we don't choose by our own will or reason.

Hence, all the talk by liberals about tradition "weighing" upon the present generation, rather than guiding it or inspiring it or adding identity and meaning to it. Ms Walter is therefore showing a typically liberal concern when she fears that a "weight of tradition" might interfere with an individual "freedom to choose".

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