X is a Man (RE: Another New Start -- Maybe

Nathan Newman nathan.newman at yale.edu
Sat Nov 27 11:05:03 PST 1999

> -----Original Message-----
> From: owner-lbo-talk at lists.panix.com
> [mailto:owner-lbo-talk at lists.panix.com]On Behalf Of Carrol Cox
> Let's see if we can creep up on the sex/gender debate.
> "X is a woman."
> What follows from this statement?

Actually, the more interesting question is what to do with the statement "X is a man", since the privileges and assumptions of that role usually define what roles and privileges are denied woman.

In the absence of men, most of these gender debates would automatically disappear since women would make due since there is nothing men do that women cannot do with more or less success, except for the pure biological donation. However, as Joanna Russ the science-fiction writer has illustrated, is a poor place to build theory given the technological realities of the near future and her all-women social scenarios illustrate than the presence of men, not that of women, is the issue that raises the tough gender issues.

All the debates about women in the military really focus less on the capabilities of women than on whether men will fight less hard or more recklessly, or will undermine military comradery through sexual liasons and jealousy. The question of women at work ties much more into the question of men's self-worth as breadwinners and whether dividing employment undermines their self-image - a big theme apparently in Faludi's STIFFED. If men did not have such strong issues over their gender construction in regard to employment, it would be much simpler to discuss solutions to employment and child care issues.

Because of men's issues on their identity, a large implicit part of the gender debate is that men "really care" about their preferences for being a dominant breadwinner and since women like both the nurturer role and the breadwinner role, they should take the nurturer role so they get at least part of what they need and men get what they need for their gender self-definition.

In many ways, it is the assumed flexibility of women's self-definition and the inflexibility of men's gender roles that have usually allowed men's preferences to "trump" women's needs in these debates. Men have to win out in these broad gender role debates because if they don't, they get nothing, while if women lose out, they at least get to keep the nurturer role which they like.

Of course, the problem with this debate is it assumes that each individual, male and female, matches this broader social type. Since there are obviously women who have the same inflexible preferences for living their life as the sterotypical man, and (probably statistically fewer) men who have a similar preference for the life arrangements of the sterotypical women, even the shitty social compromise described above where everyone gets at least something they want fails.

And this distinction between the social type - the genotype for those in the biology debate - versus the individual - the phenotype - is what makes almost all the quasi-scientific debates fail in regards to gender differences. "The exception proves the rule" is a social classification rule, but in science the exception is the theory-destroyer. Not to be a complete Popperian, but one counter-example basically destroys any causal argument and returns us to a multiple explanation world.

There are no doubt clusters of genes associated with the X-chromosome versus different clusters associated with the Y-chromosome, but the issue is not the significance of those differences but how important those differences are compared to the genes associated with the other 31 chromosomes. If the spread in human capability and creativity determined by the other 31 is larger than that between the X and Y, then it is not the "difference that makes a difference." Genetic differences are in their best light one of probability, not of determinant difference.

Nothing is caused by such genetic differences, but it is cultural classification of the genotype, the social type, that leads to the essentialism that divides the genders. Now that cultural classification may be deeply embedded in child-rearing as folks like Chodorow argue, in cultural play as Gilligan argues, in social violence as Dworkin argues, in material patriachy as Engels and modern socialist feminists argue, but it seems relatively clear that the classification process, however embedded, is the place to start.

Starting at the individual level, the phenotype level, of a specific women gets you pretty much nowhere, since that "woman" does not exist without all that social classification.

But if you want to start at an individual level, starting with the rather inflexible gender roles that most men feel -- and I would not claim great exemption on this point at the subjective level -- is probably a more fruitful point for getting at the problem, especially since men on average have more power as actors in the classification part of the gender division system.

-- Nathan Newman

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