What does it Mean to Favor ‘Traditional’ Gender Roles?

I wish I knew. Despite my being very interested in gender issues, I have actually done very little reading in this area. The reason for this is that most of the literature that I come across is written by angry women whose main project is to eradicate y-chromosome-bearing beings from the world. The rest of the literature that I have found is sparse and, generally, bad. I have therefore been unable to develop a complete gender theory on my own, though it is certainly a goal of mine to adhere to one some day, be it adopted from somewhere else or of my own creation.

That said, I don’t think that today’s endeavor will be entirely hopeless, for I do have a skeleton of a gender theory in mind and I hope that, after presenting it here, people will add to it and/or critique any weaknesses or inaccuracies that it may have. Here goes.

Why ought there be gender roles in the first place?

A man and a woman together are capable of attaining a good which no other combination of persons can attain (at least not licitly, but that’s another discussion). That good is the procreation and rearing of children, and the weight of this good, given that the survival of our race depends on it, demands that it must be sought in the best way possible.

The procreation and rearing of children is a lengthy process that demands an immensely high degree of dedication on the part of both of the spouses involved. However, the ways in which they dedicate themselves will be different. Some of these differences are due purely to biology; a woman is going to have to carry a baby around for nine months and deliver it. The effect that this has on the man will vary from place to place. In the industrialized West, it mostly means that he will need to be particularly attentive to the needs of his wife. In a more primitive world, it might mean that he has to spend his nights outside the cave, spear in hand, to protect his wife and unborn child against whatever dangers the wilderness may hold.

Other differences will be due to psychology, as research has shown that children learn different behaviors and skills from their mothers and fathers. The 82nd edition of the journal Psychological Reports, for example, contains psychological research shows that the differences in the parenting styles of fathers and mothers complement one another. The research concluded that children learn from their fathers how to be autonomous and independent, and from their mothers how to interact will with others. Clearly, both sets of skills are important.

We have now come to the first reason for which gender roles ought to exist: men and women need to be prepared to play their respective parts in the procreating and rearing of children in which they may some day participate.

Saying that there was a first reason implied that a second was to follow, and indeed there is. Not only ought men and women be prepared for their roles as potential future parents, but there must also exist the cultural norms which guide this process from potency to act: dating. Of course, the practice of arranging marriages still exists in some parts of the world, but that practice is completely alien to me and so I can’t comment on it.

In order to date, couples have to know what to do; there must be some norms against which they can judge their actions. The absence of such norms makes it difficult for each member of a couple to interpret the level of affection, commitment, interest, etc. that the other is trying to communicate. They also need to know what is expected of them as a couple by society and, consequently, through what stages and at what rate their relationship ought to advance.

This second reason can be combined with the first. That is, the norms that serve as the basis for communication can also serve to prepare men and women for their future conjugal lives. For example, I think that the classical paradigm according to which a man must court a woman (and her family) in order to woo her forces him to place his desire to be with her and serve her above his inclination to objectify her (which is an inclination in all, I am sure, but the most blessed of men).

What about the exceptions?

Okay, so men and women have certain general characteristics respective to their genders, but what about the womanly men and the manly women? I, as a man who detests watching sports, appreciate this question, which is why it pains me to say that I am unable to provide an adequate answer to it. I will, however, do my best.

I will begin first by pointing out that I think most of the people who ask this question give the exceptions to the rule more weight than they ought to. If you claim that women are more nurturing than men, they will immediately tell you about their uncle who was a very sensitive father and was always attentive to the immediate needs of his children. To your observation that men a bigger risk-takers than women, they will rebut with a tale about their dare-devil niece whose thirst for danger gives you the shivers.

In my experience it has usually been the case that these pesky exceptions to the rule usually exhibit only one or two traits that are more on the opposite gender’s side of the spectrum than their own. On the whole, when you combine the traits of these individuals into a psychological profile, you find that, more often than not, they still display an overall profile that is characteristic of their gender. Of course, this is mere conjecture based on my personal experience.  I hope one day to test it against psychological evidence, but I do not yet possess the means of doing so.

Nevertheless, these exceptions also bear no weight when it comes to biology. You may be able to take issue with my ideas about general psychological profiles by making reference to exceptions and to human psychological plasticity, but these arguments are useless against the inalterable (mostly, again, that’s another subject) biological dichotomy that separates males and females. The consequences of this are that women who bear strongly-masculine psychological characteristics are nevertheless going to have to prepare for the role that biology will assign them. At this point, I would go so far to say that any women (or man) whose psychology is so strongly akin to that of the opposite gender that she (or he) is unable to carry out the tasks that are biologically dictated to her (or him) is disordered.

I should also mention that while I speak of roles and norms and general profiles, these are rarely meant to be understood as absolute rules. So long as a whole culture does not decide that they are a collection of purely-autonomous individuals and date and marry and raise children however they want, then the norms which prepare boys and girls for dating and marriage and raising children will still be in place and will still serve to educate and to provide a standard against which to judge actions. Those who argue otherwise should probably check out the new Netflix series “Orange is the New Black.” The main character, a graduate of Smith College (where everyone is encouraged to “express herself” [itself? zieself? themself?]), was educated in a very “express-yourself” climate. As a result, she couldn’t be more confused. She graduated college as a lesbian, and then decided that she wanted to marry a man, and then she wasn’t a lesbian anymore, but then maybe she was, but then only a little bit, but then a lot, but then not at all. How could anyone stand living like that? Human desires – especially sexual desires – are too fickle to be used as a behavioral standard. It would be better to recognize they they exist for a purpose and then to gear them according to that purpose.

In other words, husbands, if your wife tells you that she’s feeling overwhelmed with the housework, pick up the slack and help her out.

So What About Those ‘Traditional’ Gender Roles?

Well, I think it’s impossible to endorse one particular culture in one particular time as having come up with a perfect solution to this problem. To proceed from here I think that our culture needs to reflect on masculinity and femininity and in order to understand how these qualities function best together for the future of society. This understanding will produce changes, and these changes will take various forms. Some will be concrete, for example, it may be set in law that mothers should be given x months of maternity leave with y amount of pay, while fathers should be given x’ and y’ respectively. Others will be more nebulous, as when we encourage or discourage certain behaviors in our sons but not in our daughters.

But regardless, it seems clear to me that a society which embraces gender differences and uses their natural complementarity will benefit more than a society which sees them as eradicable difficulties.

About mattd4488

My name is Matt. I am currently a doctoral student at the Catholic University of America. My specialization is in Christian Ethics / Moral Theology. My aspiration is essentially to be a "translator" who makes the ethical tradition of Catholicism accessible to the lay secular world.
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2 Responses to What does it Mean to Favor ‘Traditional’ Gender Roles?

  1. Well written, Matthew! Have you checked out Matt Fradd’s blog entry on the differences between the sexes? It is very interesting. Here is the link: http://mattfradd.com/2013/08/27/the-science-of-sex-differences

  2. mattd4488 says:

    Thanks, Fr. Andrew, I’ll check it out.

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