Thursday, September 8, 2011

The need for gender neutral roles- why feminist discourse must strive for gender equality

As someone who is uncertain where their feminist allegiances lie, Deborah Rhode's book, "Definitions of Difference" touches upon a salient issue that I often struggle with when defining my individual version of feminism. The notion that men and women are inherently different and that this difference should be recognized in order to advance certain rights unique to women- such as pregnancy leave- appears to be an innocuous statement, supportive of women's rights. However, when one probes deeper into a simple suggestion such as pregnancy leave akin to disability leave, one is suddenly confronted by a loaded policy proposition that may harm women as much as help them in the workplace.

When reading Rhodes' description of difference, I repeatedly found myself referring back to Equal Protection cases regarding race. For example, before Brown v. Board of Education, 347 US 483 (1954) was decided, many African American parents found that the parents of white school children would not be able to ignore the plight of African American children if the two races' futures were intertwined. In a similar vein, this rings true for women and men. Although race and gender are different from a biological approach (without going into any in-depth discussion, races are not physiologically different, while men and women possess markedly different biological features), when one categorizes based on race OR gender, it is always important to recognize that the mere act of making a distinction can reinforce racial or gender stereotypes.

For example, in Johnson v. California, 543 U.S. 499 (2005), the Supreme Court struck down a California statute that required prisoners in correctional facilities to be segregated based on race to prevent gang violence. Justice O'Connor wrote that such classifications "threaten to stigmatize individuals" based on their race, thus increasing hostility and "reinforced" racial divisions. The concern that women may be further alienated by laws that positively validate such differences, not through social norms but through established laws, may indeed serve to perpetuate gender stereotypes. While such laws may help women attain legal strides through the enactment of legislation that is pro-woman, such legislative advancement may only further exacerbate the already entrenched cultural norm that women are somehow different then men.

Afraid to declare women innately different (as opposed to race where there is no biological difference), one must figure out how to connect the futures of women with that of men, such that defining women as separate genders does not imply that women are in need of such protection. As Rhode explains, "Gender-based legislation has often worked to reinforce roles that are more separate than equal...While pregnancy is in some important sense unique, stressing that uniqueness has often exacerbated women's economic disadvantage and the stereotypes underlying it." This is the ever constant dilemma that women face, and in order to remedy the situation, it appears that men need to have an interest in the outcome of any gender legislation to stem any potential backlash that women may face because of gender specific legislation.

The answer may be found in Rhode's suggestion for sex-neutral strategies. This can be contrasted with Judith Baer's suggestion that sameness and difference don't have to be polar opposites but can coexist and in fact compliment each other. For Baer, sex specific laws can fill the gaps where gender neutral laws fail to compensate women for gender roles they must fulfill; when female specific roles are neglected by gender neutral roles, sex specific legislation provides women with the necessary protection. Personally, I find myself aligned with Rhodes' demand for gender neutral legislation. As long as men and women both participate in gender roles, any protective legislation ceases to fall squarely on the shoulders of women. Such naked legislation, if you will, strips women and men of any gender differences and replaces any gender specific legislation with laws that treat men and women the same. At the same time, women are not forced to renounce their femininity; in fact, women are then enabled to embrace gender differences without the adverse consequences that arise from female oriented legislation. Meanwhile, men are allowed to share in the advancement of femininity, rather than denounce such policies and discourage women from participating in such a scheme. At the least, this would require some mandatory participation on behalf of both sexes, since some men would undoubtedly eschew such policies and frown upon other men who were willing participants.

While it may seem overly idealistic to envision an "all-encompassing" law that affords women the time they need with their children and the time they need for childbirth, providing men with a stake appears to be the key in creating a successful gender neutral policy. Men and women participate as equal players in many aspects of life. Oftentimes, the mother may be off at work while the father is off at his daughter's soccer game, or the father may be cooking dinner while the mother is out at happy hour with co-workers. Male and female roles have undeniably intersected and oftentimes flipped. There is no reason why our treatment of the traditional domestic sphere should not be refined to reflect contemporary norms where both men and women share roles.

1 comment:

Megan said...

This is a great commentary on how laws intent on helping disadvantaged groups can sometimes have the unintended effect of further stigmatizing them by holding members of that group out as different. However, in the case of gender, men and women are biologically different. You touch briefly on this in your post in contrast with racial differences where physical differences may be only superficial. My belief is that this difference should be acknowledged in legislation and in broader societal norms. When I saw "acknowledge," however, I do not mean that it should be used to create separate spheres of work. I mean that any sphere of work should be structure so that differences that we as a society purport to value, will in fact be treated as a value-added.