Gender roles: bane of my existence

I went to a reception for my cousin and his new bride last weekend. My aunts asked me when I was going to have kids, since I've been married a whole 7 years now (well, in 10 days.) I told them I wasn't going to, which brought on the "but who's going to take care of you when you get old?" line of questioning. [Answer: my retirement savings and a cabana boy.] "But no one will visit you!" So? I was stuck at the "hen table" because my dear husband was running around with my 11-year-old cousin and 43-year-old uncle. I'm not so keen on the throwing things at each other part of playing, so I sat it out.
Several weeks ago, when the FDA approved Wyeth's new pill Lybrel, ridiculous news stories with titles like "Gender Bending: Redefining the curse of menstruation" (since retitled to Gender Bender? New Pill stops periods) sparked discussions across the feminist blogosphere. Never mind, of course, that the "period" that comes when women take the pill isn't a real period anyway, but estrogen-withdrawal bleeding (and was put in as an attempt to placate the Pope.)

What is gender? What does it mean to be a woman or a man? What role do the societal norms play on what masculine or feminine means, or what is good or bad?

Gender is, in most sociological circles in 2007, not the same as sex. Sex generally denotes biology; a child with a 23-XX genotype will usually grow up into a woman, while 23-XY will usually grow up into a man. For simplicity's sake, not to exclude or denigrate, I'll avoid discussion of XO, XXY, XXX, and other 23rd chromosome abnormalities, as well as intersexed individuals; however, they throw very fascinating wrenches into the notion of biological sex.

Gender refers to the sociological constructs regarding proper behavior based on biological sex. Or, to borrow from the transgender folks, "Sex is what's between your legs. Gender's what's between your ears." Before you continue reading, go take Kate Bornstein's Gender Aptitude Test.

"That's women's work." "Boys don't cry." "Real men don't eat quiche." "Real women are the tribe that bleeds." How harmful are these sociological notions? Women's work is devalued: teachers, daycare providers, nurses, waitresses, stay-at-home mothers, and all other tasks traditionally done by women (like cleaning and cooking) are considered, somehow, of lesser value than being a high-power attorney or medical doctor. Women are pigeonholed into nurturing careers and asked about their reproductive status -- no kids? when are you having one? 1 kid? When are you having another? Want to go back to work after having your baby? You're a bad mother. Career-driven women are ball-busting bitches.

No decision a woman makes regarding her career or her reproductive status is free from other people who want to stick their noses into her business.

Men, too, are harmed: men who don't fit into the football-and-beer-and-NASCAR mold are derided as effeminate or worse. Men who want to work in traditionally-female fields get questioning looks or "you'll meet lots of chicks!"

Returning to the topic that kicked off this percolating idea: My mom badgering me to "give her grandchildren." Growing up, I always figured I'd have kids when I grew up, because that's what happens when you grow up. Then I met a woman who was adamantly opposed to having children of her own, and my eyes were opened. Having children is not a requirement. I can decide I don't want to raise children, let alone bear them.

Yet people tell me I'm not a real woman, or I'm somehow unnatural.

There is a greater societal expectation that people of the 23-XX genotype turn to goo when they see a baby and want to awwwwwww when they see tiny shoes or onesies. That makes no sense to me. I seem to have missed out on the nurturing gene.

I hate getting my period. It's uncomfortable and messy. If I didn't already have a form of birth control I'm satisfied with that also suppresses menstruation, I'd sign up for Lybrel. Yet there are feminists telling me that I'm just brainwashed by the Patriarchy into hating this "natural process of womanhood." Gag me. I think I can decide that being doubled over from cramps is something I'd prefer to avoid without The Man telling me so. Then the MSM goes on about how women not getting periods somehow makes us into men.

Women who opt out of menstruation are men. Think about that. "Man" is the default. Women are secondary. I'm all for blurring the arbitrary sociological constructs regarding gender, but telling a woman she's really a man because she doesn't bleed once a month is ludicrous.

Gender roles are arbitrary constructs. Society enforces gender roles by calling women who dare aim to be CEO or even President "ball-busters," by calling men who dare to express sadness or love "homos," through the subtle implications that women who would rather not have children are somehow unnatural (but it's A-OK for men not to want children, and in fact is the construct placed on men) or that women who enjoy sex are harlots (but men who do are studs).

Feminists seek to smash these arbitrary constructs so that a person, regardless of genotype, can choose to be a CEO or a nurse or a stay-home parent, without society telling them it's unnatural. This is why I'm a feminist.


This piece touches on so many things

I am so happy you wrote it.

Until a few years ago I was one of those women who couldn't imagine other women not wanting to have children. Now that my girls are older, I want them to have options - choices they can be happy with. Choices they won't have to constantly defend to society. Beautiful piece.

Robin Hayes lied. Nobody died, but thousands of folks lost their jobs.

Vote Democratic! The ass you save may be your own.

I think the important thing.

is for our society to accept either definition of "woman". Just as there seems to be this constant battle between type A and type B mom's (I refuse to accept alpha and beta moms), there is a continuing struggle between the have's and have not's. To quote Rodney King, "Can't we all just get along?"

One man with courage makes a majority.
- Andrew Jackson

Jesus Swept ticked me off. Too short. I loved the characters and then POOF it was over.

Why do we have to define "woman"?

Or "man," for that matter?

The Michigan Womyn's Festival refused to allow transwomen, for a variety of reasons: they're not "real women," "tribe that bleeds," and other gender essentialist crap that boils down to transphobia.

Gender essentialism is anti-feminist, which is surprising to find in a woman's group.

Gender is really a sliding scale - not either/or

We shouldn't have to define who is or isn't a woman - because that gets redefined every day by individuals, including those of us who are "womyn-born". When I (it can't come too soon!) go through menopause, will I no longer be a woman? What a load of shit.

The Michigan Womyn's Festival refused to allow transwomen, for a variety of reasons: they're not "real women," "tribe that bleeds," and other gender essentialist crap that boils down to transphobia.

I was invited to a similar event in the Southeast (don't remember what it was called or even where it was, but my son was still a little kid.) I was not able to attend because I couldn't bring my little 8 year old boy with me. Nor would I have wanted to. Apartheid is wrong, no matter who is behind it.

I think there's a good argument for ...

women-only spaces, as long as they're not jerks about it, which the WMF were. Excluding someone because she has a young son? Jerks.

Personally, I have no trouble identifying as a woman; my mental gender and physical sex are not in conflict. But when it comes to a lot of the societal bullshit around Women's Roles™, I feel conflicted. My usual social circle is great, and most of the time not into the whole gender prescriptivism thing; when I get outside my fabulous cocoon, though, it's a wake-up call.

Definitely a place for women only spaces

and men only spaces - for those that need and want them. It was the vehement disgust with which my male child was looked upon that made me more than a little upset. It was as if I had done woman-kind a disservice by bearing a male child.

my fabulous cocoon

How poetic! Great turn of phrase. You should definitely save that for the title of something.

Actually female is the default

Women who opt out of menstruation are men. Think about that. "Man" is the default. Women are secondary. I'm all for blurring the arbitrary sociological constructs regarding gender, but telling a woman she's really a man because she doesn't bleed once a month is ludicrous.

Don't all fetuses present female at first? The penis and scrotum don't develop until later in the womb-life (I think.)

This is an great post, C.Diane. So often, gender is thought of as one thing - women who have babies and nurse them and bleed once a month, etc. Does that mean that women who have hysterectomies are no longer women? Women who can't have their own children are not women? When my son was born by C-Section, there were female relatives who intimated that I had not really experienced what it was like to truly be a woman - as if the one experience of pushing a baby through my vagina was the only thing that would define my womanhood. It was shocking to me. I can imagine it's even worse for a woman who chooses not to have children at all - and heartbreaking for women who would like to have children but cannot.

The Bornstein test is a kick, and it truly makes you think. Anyone who has not read her work needs to. For the record, my score was 92; I'm a gender outlaw. (not a shock to me, but maybe to some of my more conservative friends.)


for the first few weeks all embryos are "female". Its about the 6th week when the chromosomes kick in and the sex organs start developing.

Draft Brad Miller-- NC Sen ActBlue

"Keep the Faith"

It's true

In fetal development, the male features don't happen until a change in hormonal balance increases testosterone.

However, in society, male is presumed to be better, to be good, to be what is aspired to. Unisex clothing is pants, as opposed to skirts. Business attire for women is modeled after men's, sometimes with pants, other times with skirts, and preferentially with high heels. (Yuck. Though I do like wearing heels for ballroom dancing or special occasions. Or when I want to feel tall. Definitely not every day, though.)

I took the quiz a few weeks ago, but I forget my score. I was also an Outlaw (not shockingly.)

A western philosophy class

I took as a young college kid shook my tree. Apparently women were seen by the Greeks as not just less than men, but as not really fully human ... a malformation of the perfect human form ... necessary for reproduction. Loss of the true form was thought to impart loss of proper human reasoning and thinking ability as well. Pissed me off and explained a whole lot of historical stupidity to that 18yr old kid I was.

"They took all the trees and put them in a tree museum Then they charged the people a dollar 'n a half just to see 'em. Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you've got till it's gone? They paved paradise and put up a parking lot."

That hasn't changed much.

Take a gander at the recent SCOTUS decisions which indicate that the men on the court don't feel women are fully human, and we need their expert guidance in figuring out what to do with our lives. (Carhart v Gonzales, the one SD posted the video of in the open thread, etc.)

Women didn't get the right to vote in the US until 1920. Women were believed to be less intelligent, childlike, and in need of male guidance and direction.

I never did get that baby thing.

I like them ok, but I don't coo over them and don't want any. I'm not sure how anyone could, the way the world is today, but more power to them if they do.

Now give me a puppy or a kitten or my little pomeranian and I'm beside myself with joy.

Anyway, feminism is about choice. Being able to do and be in the world whatever your true self dictates.

feminism is about choice


I've been told some of the most interesting things regarding my womanhood from all directions. One elderly man asked me if I was a lesbian because I was not yet married. I was 21 at the time. A woman, who was a self proclaimed feminist once told me that I was too feminine and prissy to be a feminist. Hmmm...didn't know that not wearing birkenstocks and hippie clothes disqualified one from being a feminist.

Point being, women, (and men), should not be forced into rigid, traditional gender roles but feel free to be who they are and express themselves in a way they feel comfortable with.

I think the people who try so hard to define us

by gender are the same people who want to tell us what to buy and who to vote for and how to worship or have sex. They think they are talking about right and wrong but they are really talking about "do what I tell you to do."

Whether they're trying to influence me to make themselves another buck or they just like ordering people around, it's all pretty sick.
News of the 10th district: See Pat Go Bye Bye,

Good point

I agree, it's a weird control issue.

We see it in excess from rightwingers---wanting to control people's every move down to what they do in the privacy of their bedrooms.

Had a conversation with a group of 30-something

women a few weeks ago during which we all agreed that we were happy to not have children and were looking forward to continuing to not have children. Aside from our age, we were a fairly diverse group - married/single/divorced, white collar/blue collar/pink collar, southern/northern/midwestern, black/white/hispanic - and yet we all felt the same way.

None of us claimed to dislike children per se...we simply feel quite fulfilled in the lives we have and don't look at pregnancy/child birth/parenting as something that's missing.

The description I use most often, when inappropriately asked about my reproductive future, is that I've never felt as if I were missing out on something by not having children but I've often felt relieved that I don't have children. Apparently, I'm not the only one.

Larry Kissell is MY Congressman


Isn't there something in the Bible about women who can't bear children being "barren" or some freaky thing? I think this is where the attitude toward women who choose not to have children stems from.

Then, when birth control pills first hit the market, there was a lot of sexist BS in opposition to birth control to keep women pregnant and barefoot in the kitchen. Oh, wait, that's happening again now too.

think about it

in all the stories from history how many times does the man shoot blanks? ever? a guy has 5 wives and they are all barren? all of them? its all a little crazy if you ask me

Draft Brad Miller-- NC Sen ActBlue

"Keep the Faith" I hadn't thought of that


Robin Hayes lied. Nobody died, but thousands of folks lost their jobs.

Vote Democratic! The ass you save may be your own.

Well, silly, it's because the women

are all cursed, of course. They all angered god. At the same time. gawd. Don't y'all read the O.T.? (snarks)

"They took all the trees and put them in a tree museum Then they charged the people a dollar 'n a half just to see 'em. Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you've got till it's gone? They paved paradise and put up a parking lot."

They used to believe weird things

The homunculus theory is notably weird, and places all the blame for lack of bebbehs on the woman. This theory was that the man provided a teeny tiny proto-human (homunculus) during intercourse, which then incubated in the woman's womb. If it didn't grow, it was the woman's fault for having an inhospitable womb.

Much to think about here

Ok, I'll admit to being an old hippie and trying to break the sterotypes in the 60's and 70's. Love was free and better than war. We didn't want to be pigeon-holed back then any more than women do today. Where has that gotten us? Where have all those hippies gone? Some of us are still around, still raising our voices and fighting against the doctrines of the day. Most of us are now the over 30's type that we didn't trust then and can't be trusted now. We did make some changes that I am proud of....some men actually help raise the children, wash dishes and clothes, help clean the house and do the shopping. Some women are the bread winners and their hubby's are stay-at-home dads. Things do change, but sllllloooooowwwwwllllllyyyyyy.

Great post C.Diane! I wish you would write more often, I really enjoy your perspective.

No matter that patriotism is too often the refuge of scoundrels. Dissent, rebellion, and all-around hell-raising remain the true duty of patriots.

Progressive Discussions