Why you can be a feminist and believe men and women are different

2

May 21, 2014 by Devin

So I imagine that this particular post is liable to make some of my more liberal friends angry at me and my more conservative friends… well, they already know what they think of me.

But to both groups, hear me out on this, because I think this is a point that gets tossed around a lot and is not always answered well. The point I am talking about is differences between men and women, especially the biological ones.

I remember having several different conversations with my more conservative friends about feminism and gender issues, and they usually went like this:

Me: “Are you a feminist?”

Friend: “No, I am not.”

Me: “Well, do you believe that men and women are equal?”

Friend: “Yes, but I believe that men and women are different.”

And I would have to at least concede that point. I have heard people say that men and women are exactly the same if it were not for cultural constructs, and while I am open to exploring that idea, I do not see enough reasoning for me to buy into that just yet. In addition, men and women do have some clear biological distinctions that I believe do affect how men and women live their lives to an extent. I have not studied all the genetic issues comprehensively, but from what I do understand, differences in male and female human beings exist beyond the physical and into the behavioral. I do think these differences are greatly exaggerated, but I am willing to admit that they probably exist.

But, and here is the key point, I don’t believe those differences matter, at least in regards to how I treat people and I believe people should be treated. Everything I said about gender in the previous paragraph I could also say about race. After all, historically different races have lived in different environments which required different traits to survive, which means natural selection would have favored different genes. This means that there should, logically, exist a difference between people of Asian descent, of European descent, and of African descent.

But if somebody asked me if I believed that blacks and whites were equal, I would not say, “Yes, but blacks and whites are different” because that would not be a factor in whether or not I think blacks and whites are equal. It is about what you decide is relevant to judging someone, and if you use sex to determine how to treat someone, I hate to say it, but you are a sexist.

(I kind of want to put a point here addressing the “Women are different but equal” point, but I feel like that would require a whole blog post. Suffice to say, “separate but equal” has, historically, not worked out)

Are men and women fundamentally different? Possibly. Does that mean women are unsuited for leadership? Does that mean that women are unable to serve their country in combat? Does that mean that it is okay for whole industries to be hostile work environments for women?

If you think that men and women are different, good for you. If you use someone’s gender as a factor when deciding how to treat them, then you are sexist in the same way that I am racist if I use someone’s skin color to decide how I treat them.

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2 thoughts on “Why you can be a feminist and believe men and women are different

  1. linddykal says:

    I think a lot of people don’t think that gender equality is not the same thing as gender sameness.

  2. Liam says:

    This post suffers a little from imprecise wording/terminology. When you talk about men and women, are you talking about the biological sex categories or about gender identity?

    Women (the gender identity) have different experiences of society than men and this informs their behaviour and the behaviour of men towards them. For example, women are more often the target of shaming for sexual behaviour than men are; men dominate in politics and expect to have their voices heard; the standards and relative importance of beauty are different for men and women.

    These are all clearly cultural issues where the solutions involve equality (no sexual shaming; equal political representation; more progressive cultural understanding of appearance across genders). That said, the solutions to these problems often appear to be gendered, e.g. encouraging women to enter politics.

    Biological issues are fundamentally different in that the solutions will not involve equality. The male sex cannot carry children to term but it is still imperative that they contribute to providing robust healthcare for women – it may seem unfair that men have to pay for pregnant women’s health insurance, but in fact everyone in society benefits from strong reproductive healthcare because we all came out of a uterus at some point.

    The key is to recognise that the differences in cultural experience of gender are disproportionate to the biological differences between sexes. Biological claims about men and women that don’t directly relate to reproduction must be met with skepticism, because they lead to injustices such as those outlined above.

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