Saturday, December 6, 2008

Females, femininity and the Anscombe Society

by Laura Smith-Gary

The website's title proclaims, "The Anscombe Society: Confirming the Goods of Family, Marriage, and Faithful Love." Below, a welcoming statement proclaims that the Society is committed to human dignity and has "been led" by the consensus of "sociology, psychology, medicine, philosophy, theology and human experience" to take certain positions on "the family, marriage, sexual ethics, chastity, and sexuality."
Links situated between the title and the welcome allow the viewer to jump to the Society's mission statement and an explanation of their name, a calendar of events, contact information, a long list of web-based resources on subjects such as "chastity and culture," "feminism," and "marriage," and the Anscombe Society's position statements on Family and Marriage, Sexual Ethics and Chastity, Sexuality and Feminism, and Homosexuality. It is the Society's position statement on Sexuality and Feminism that I am addressing now.

I know for a fact that there are self-proclaimed feminists (like Equal Writers Kelly Roache and Christina DiGasbarro - ed) who are members of the Anscombe Society, and I do not doubt their sincerity. However, a close reading of the Society's position reveals attitudes that define women by their "feminine characteristics" – very broadly defined – and their capability to give birth.

XX Chromosomes = Feminine Body, Feminine Actions, Feminine Instincts, Feminine Feelings, Feminine Thoughts, Feminine Choices, Feminine Priorities
The Anscombe Society begins its position statement on Sexuality and Feminine with a sweeping declaration of fundamental differences between the sexes: "The Anscombe Society recognizes that there are inherent physical, behavioral, emotional, and psychological differences between men and women, and we affirm and celebrate these differences as wonderful and complementary."
The use of the word "recognize" implies they are merely observing a deep natural truth, not actively asserting a far-from-obvious position. The structure of the phrase "inherent… differences" is also revealing. They are saying that at the most basic levels, even in the absence of gender-defining culture, men and women are fundamentally unalike not only physically but in their behaviors (and "behavior" is either a very shallow term – women shop! Men hunt! – or a very deep one, implying different wills, perceptions of the world, and life-defining values), their emotions, and their minds.
With the possible exception of physical differences, every one of those "inherent differences" which are so obvious they need only be "recognized" can be expanded almost indefinitely to endorse and justify adopting different attitudes and actions toward men and women. To make such a broadly sweeping an nonspecific statement amounts to a sweeping endorsement of ascribing any perceivable difference between any aspect of men's and women's actions, personalities, thoughts, choices, ect. to inherent – inherently good -- differences that should be affirmed rather than examined.

The statement continues that "These differences do not evidence the superiority of one sex over the other," but can differences to the extent that they describe co-exist with equality? Obviously, if differences between two groups of people are so sweeping, they should be approached differently. This doesn't necessarily mean their political/civic rights would be different, but if an entire society thinks and feels about men and women differently, and has learned to treat men and women differently, then how relevant will a facade of political rights be? Women can run for office, but if it were true that men and women processed information differently and cared about different things than men did, then there would be a legitimate question about whether or not both sexes were equally qualified to lead. And which sex, do you think, would end up being declared unfit to be Commander in Chief?
The best scenario I can envision under this system of thought would be women in "caring" leadership positions such as Secretary of Education or Program Director of nonprofits, with men occupying "rational" leadership positions like business CEOs. If you think that's how it should be, own up to it -- argue that it's the divinely intended or evolutionarily beneficial arrangement of responsibilities, but don't pretend it's equal. Truly equal rights "in the community," let alone in the workforce, cannot coexist with the presupposition that men and women are inherently different to the extent asserted by the Anscombe Society.

Of course, a few paragraphs later the Society states "We believe...that children be raised with an understanding and appreciation of the equality and differences between the sexes." I disagree with the action this sentence is endorsing – the inclusion of "equality" notwithstanding, for the reasons I described above – but I find it particularly interesting because it suggests that contrary to all their assertions so far, they do recognize that to children will not naturally understand the concepts of "masculine" and "feminine," let alone divvy up physical, behavioral, emotional and psychological differences according to these categories. The Society may, of course, merely be asserting their opposition to the radicals who attempt to raise their children gender-neutrally, but their obvious awareness of the need for differences between the sexes to be taught tells its own tale.

"True Feminism"
Instead of elaborating on the concept of "different but equal" – an attempt that would almost certainly lead to self-contradiction or (as I explain below) explicitly religious arguments -- the Society attempts to bolster its position by undermining a possible wellspring of objection: traditional feminism. "The Anscombe Society supports true feminism," they write, immediately implying that other forms of feminism are false or flawed. "True feminism does not embrace the idea that women should become more like men, or that they abandon feminine characteristics and instincts. Nor does true feminism assert that women are superior to men." By constantly prefixing feminism with "true," this paragraph slyly infers that other, apparently more false, forms of feminism do in fact want women to become like men, abandon feminine characteristics and instincts, and assert that women are superior to men. The Society then concludes that "true feminism recognizes the natural characteristics, strengths, and abilities of women and seeks to affirm them in this identity."

First of all, what are "feminine characteristics and instincts?" Do not be deceived into thinkng that because the society is not listing a set of traits – caring, vain, emotional, fickle, maternal, irrational, ect. – that it is not supporting the existence of such lists. If you insist women are a monolithic block in terms of certain characteristics and instincts they possess, and you are writing in a society that is fairly enlightened but still has a strong awareness of what traditional "feminine" traits are, and you provide no specifics on what you consider "feminine characteristics," then obviously you're not trying too hard to disassociate your views from the traditional view. And honestly, off the top of your head – what "feminine instincts" do you think they're talking about?

Despite the positive framing of the society's final conclusion of what "true feminism" is, its impact is entirely negative. It bestows on womankind one pre-determined "natural" identity, painted in the sweeping terms of "characteristics, strengths, and abilities." It also functions to suggest that women's characteristics, strengths and abilities are all ascribable to their sex. And though it does not say so explicitly, this statement also suggests its mirror image – that women also share weaknesses and limitations of ability that are supplemented by men. Of course, it seems that the Society would also hold that men have shared sets of characteristics, strengths, abilities, and weaknesses to be supplemented by women – but men are not mentioned. The parallel statements about "masculinity" are not made – perhaps unintentionally conveying the impression that women are a more uniform group than men.

The Centrality of Motherhood
Of all the "feminine characteristics" of women, the most important to the Anscombe Society is clearly the ability to be a mother – defined, naturally, not just by giving birth physically, but also in behavioral, emotional, and psychological terms. Almost the entire second half of the position statement is devoted to this topic, introduced on the heels of "true feminism": "[W]omen should be guaranteed equal rights and freedoms in the community, as well as career opportunities that can coexist with motherhood and the unique responsibilities it entails."
At first, I found this sentence very puzzling. The first part seemed relatively clear, although I coudn't decide whether "in the community" was intended as a restriction (as opposed to "in the workplace") or merely as a rhetorical flourish allowing them to insert the word "community" into the statement once again. The second clause, however, makes things more clear: it seems to imply that "in the community" is a restriction (although it's still unclear what it means), and that in the workplace women should be granted career opportunities in which the important point is not whether the opportunities are equal to mens, but whether or not they are compatible with "motherhood" as it is broadly conceived by the Anscombe Society. The statement does not go so far as to say women should not be given equal opportunities, it merely shifts emphasis – in the community, equality and freedom are important and should be guaranteed. In the workplace, motherhood is important and should be guaranteed.

They move quickly to rebuff any possible criticism of these values by going on the offensive: "In contemporary society, motherhood is sometimes seen as a burden, and being a stay-at-home parent maligned as a second-class responsibility. On the contrary, we assert that motherhood is of the utmost importance, a vocation to be honored and respected." I have no patience with claims of persecution by persons who are not the slightest bit persecuted, and I object to the religious overtones of labeling motherhood as a sacred calling or even a sacred duty – especially without an explicit admission of that position.
I would also like to call your attention to the lack of any attention at all to the importance (or even existence) of fatherhood. This indicates that the purpose here is not entirely (or even primarily) to ensure children are well taken care of, but to define a woman's identity and the choices available to her by her ability to become pregnant.

The Society does not, they add, believe that all women are "called" to be mothers or men "called" to be fathers. They then follow this religiously-laden language with an appeal to a their humble recognition of deep natural order: "We simply recognize what science and humanity demonstrate, namely that mothers and their children share a special bond and we do not believe women should have to sacrifice or deny this bond in order to be seen as equal participants in society."

In this, the concluding sentence of the Anscombe Society's position statement on Sexuality and Feminism, they manage to re-emphasize a number of points, asserting that:

1. The Anscombe Society is not making any kind of radical, prejudiced, or culture-shaped statements, nor are they driven solely by religion, but are instead merely affirming obvious truths evident in the world.
2. Women love babies, and this love defines their lives: they are feminine beings, and the central characteristic of femininity is motherhood.
3. Society is hostile toward women seeking to enjoy this love or any other "feminine" characteristic, and contemporary society, rather than the Anscombe Society, seeks to squelch women's equality.

Yet it seems to me that in this model there is no equality, no flexibility, and no questioning, but rather a rigid definition of "femininity" and a uniform hostility toward any contemporary conceptions of gender.


At December 7, 2008 at 12:18 AM , Blogger Aku said...

I agree with your points generally, but one statement bothers me:

"I have no patience with claims of persecution by persons who are not the slightest bit persecuted."

Not only is this untrue--stay-at-home mothers are often derided for not fulfilling their intellectual potential, while working mothers are sometimes accused of neglecting their children--it's an odd generalization, considering you take issue with Anscombe for doing just that.

At December 8, 2008 at 11:54 AM , Blogger Robert McGibbon said...

>>"Truly equal rights... cannot coexist with the presupposition that men and women are inherently different to the extent asserted by the Anscombe Society."

If your feminism hinges on the refutation of any essential bio-psychological differences between the sexes, you've put yourself on very shaky ground. As evolutionary psychologists, biologists, and other scientists uncover these differences, you're put in the position of having to refute the scientific findings of scientists. Ouch.

You're on much safer ground if you concede the point that there are essential differences beyond the physiological ones, but that these positive statements of fact have no normative implications with respect to our rights or moral standing.

We have equal rights as human beings based on our equal capacity to suffer, regardless of the identity of our sex organs, the differences in our temperaments, the ratio of hormones in our brains, our intelligence, our caring, our favorite color, or our preferred brand of tennis shoes.

When Jefferson observes that "all men are created equal," he doesn't mean that we are equal in our physical, emotional or intellectual characteristics, but that we are equal in our humanity and thus equal in our rights as moral subjects.

Truly equal rights can only exist with the understanding that despite the plethora of inherent differences between each and every one of us, we are equal in our humanity.

Robert McGibbon '11

At December 11, 2008 at 11:11 PM , Blogger LSG said...

Finally getting a chance to read and respond! Thanks for your comments, both of you.

To Aku -- your point about my tone and generalizing is right. My statement was an expression of frustration, and I should either have elaborated or left it out. I'll do so now.

To say that society maligns stay-at-home moms does a few things I object to:
1. I think it misrepresents the situation. I'm not denying that some people look down on stay-at-home mothers. As you point out, though, some people also look down on working mothers -- women are between a rock and a hard place. It's a difficult position (as I think almost everyone realizes), but it's not systematic societal prejudice against stay-at-home mothers.

2. It sets up an us-vs.-society attitude that is more conducive to arguing with "society" and reinforcing a group identity through a sense of conflict than it is to finding constructive solutions.

3. Most of the time when we discuss discrimination, we're talking about holding a negative opinion about what a person IS (ie, their race, sexual orientation, or nationality) rather than what a person CHOOSES (staying home with a baby, going back to work, ect.). While it is wrong to make unfounded assumptions about a woman because she chooses to stay at home with her baby (that she's wasting her intellectual potential, ect -- how do we know?), it is not wrong to question her about her choice or to encourage her to examine her own motives (just like it wouldn't be wrong to do the same for someone going into banking or to getting engaged or moving to Australia...all major life choices). I see cries of persecution as attempting to undermine a legitimate discussion about choices by implying that being a mother is so central to a woman's identity that it is untouchable.

To Robert -- My feminism definitely doesn't hinge on thinking men and women are physically identical, not by a long shot. The key phrase in my sentence was "to the extent asserted by the Anscombe Society", which I was arguing went far beyond physiological and into the normative.

Of course "all men are created equal" doesn't mean everyone is alike, and I'm certainly not suggesting that the Anscombe Society is trying to deprive women of the right to vote or the right to free speech. However, if the differences between men and women were truly as extensive as their statement implies and if these differences were truly inherent and inherently good, it would be legitimate for men and women to play different roles in society: for instance, to hire only female elementary school teachers because female psychology is more suited to that role, or for the military to refuse to allow women to enlist because men's natural and inherently good aggression, competitiveness and loyalty to commanders makes them more suited for the armed forces. Even if the Bill of Rights applied equally to all citizens in this society, it would be blatantly unequal. But unfortunately, if we spin out the concept of complementarity, it leads to a society revolving around gender roles, which in my view cannot be compatible with true equality.

I'm interested to here more!


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