Claims about essentialism and gender roles often go hand in hand, with one justifying the other. For the sake of this post, I will define gender roles as behaviors that are prescribed based on what biological sex you have, and essentialism as the claim that behavioral attributes can be attributed to the same biological process that creates your biological sex.
In other words, essentialism is a descriptive claim about how all women – regardless of culture – will have similar behavioral attributes, and gender roles are prescriptive claims about how women should act.
For example, it is often claimed women are naturally better at child care. They were just born that way. This is essentialism. This type of claim is frequently followed closely by the claim that, because of this essential difference, women should be the primary caretakers. This is a gender role.
This subtle shift from how women are to how they should act is often glossed over. Pop psychologists suddenly shift from their claims about biological differences to their recommendations for a better life. To quote the philosopher David Hume, “This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence.”
I submit that an examination of this shift shows that gender roles serve no useful function – regardless of the truth or falsity of essentialism.
First, deriving normative claims from natural facts commits the naturalistic fallacy. Some pedophiles are naturally attracted to pre-pubescent children. A pedophile derives pleasure from, and is very skilled at, molesting children. That does not mean he should molest children. His essential nature does not determine how he should act.
If one says that a pedophile is different because the pedophile’s essential nature is “evil” or “immoral,” one has abandoned the essentialism and gender roles line of reasoning, and the debate is now about what actions are inherently good regardless of one’s nature.
Second, assume for the sake of argument that essentialism is true. Women are natural caregivers. However, that claim that women should be caregivers does not follow from this statement. Why should people do what they are naturally good at?
When I was growing up, if I could say I was naturally good at anything, it would be math. Math came easily and intuitively. I was consistently one of the best math students in every class. However, I ended up getting a degree in philosophy. Math just didn’t make me happy. I didn’t care about it.
Similarly, women may be natural caregivers, but if it doesn’t make them happy, who cares?
However, many gender roles are attempts to create a happy life for women. Women are not only natural caregivers, but they will be happier if they act in that capacity. At this point, what purpose do gender roles serve?
The underlying claim here is that people should be happy. Giving people the freedom to explore their own unique conception of happiness is the best way to achieve this. People will naturally gravitate toward what makes them happy. If essentialism is true, women will end up being caregivers. There is no need to enforce this eventuality by using gender roles.
Additionally, it is very unlikely that if essentialism is true, it will be a form of essentialism that says all women will happier as caregivers. It will more likely be a claim that women, on average, will be happier as caregivers. In this instance, the need for freedom becomes obvious. The outliers need the freedom to seek their own happiness. To quote Justice Ginsburg, “generalizations about ‘the way women are,’ estimates of what is appropriate for most women, no longer justify denying opportunity to women whose talent and capacity place them outside the average description.” Freedom allows both the average woman and the outlier woman to seek happiness. Gender roles condemn the outlier to unhappiness.
Third, assume that essentialism is not true. Here, the consequences of gender roles are stark. Women will be unhappy. If there is no connection between gender and happiness, then gender roles will not create happiness at a higher rate than any other randomly selected set of behaviors.
Therefore, gender roles can only serve to limit happiness. If essentialism is true, then gender roles are unnecessary for average women and decrease the happiness of outliers. If essentialism is false, then gender roles arbitrarily control behavior, which decreases happiness.