The Problem with “Gender Roles”
December 23, 2011 By Libby Anne 76 Comments
Here is an excerpt from a comment recently posted by a reader going by the name JW. Since he asks his question honestly and politely, I thought I’d respond with a post in kind. “In the articles I have read of various feminists I always tend to read some kind of grudge within. It is as if the world is terrible because it seems to ‘demean’ women and deprive with of inequality. Yet, yes, there is inequality in this world and it is the right thing to do to fight for them but with feminism this delves into such areas as roles in ‘family’ units. For me, I understand that there should be roles within the family unit because there is a nature state there. Women, usually, naturally gravitate to child rearing and even things around the home whereas the male usually gravitates toward construction projects around the home. Just as I did today in installing a wooden fence to replace the junkyard of one that just somehow hung there even through hurricanes. In my readings I get the feeling that feminists see this as inequality when I see it as a nature role of gender in society. Men and women are different inside and that differences usually becomes a kind of synergy when male and female come together in marriage.”
If I read his comment correctly, JW suggests that there are natural gender roles, and that feminists just need to accept this rather than fighting it. In response I would make four points.
First, JW and others who refer to the idea that there are natural gender roles often operate under the assumption that these different roles are somehow equal. Men and women should play different roles, they hold, but both roles are important and necessary and therefore somehow equal. The problem with this is that it simply isn’t true.
JW suggests that women “gravitate to child rearing” and “things around the home” while men gravitate toward “construction projects.” While JW didn’t go further than this, this kind of thinking generally leads to the idea that women should remain at home and raise children, because that is what they are especially suited for, while men should enter the workforce and earn money, because that is what they are especially suited for. This of course leads to a situation where women do the cooking, cleaning, and sewing while men rule the world. Suddenly this sounds a whole lot less equal, doesn’t it?
Second, a significant number of people do not fit within these supposedly “natural” gender roles. I know plenty of women who feel more comfortable under the hood of a car than they holding a baby. The comments that followed JW’s comment make this point clear. There are many families where the man prefers cooking and the woman prefers yard work. There are families where the mother would rather work and the father would rather stay at home with the new baby. The reality is that people are incredibly diverse. For every “naturally” nurturing woman, there is a woman who finds the idea of having children foreign and frightening. For every man who loves to fix things, there is a man who would prefer to take his car to the shop or call a plumber. I know so many people who absolutely do not fit within these “natural” gender roles that it begins to make the idea of natural gender roles seem absurd, or at the very least way too simplistic and highly problematic.
The reality is that this idea that there are “natural” gender roles pushes people into specific boxes whether they want to be there or not. I have female friends who aspire to be historians, judges, and scientists. Should they be told that they aren’t suited for these positions because they are female, and that the should instead start having babies and stay at home, because that is what they’re suited for? The idea that there are natural gender roles creates a situation that is extremely limiting for anyone