Thursday, December 11, 2008

Feminism and the Anscombe Society

by Christina DiGasbarro and Kelly Roache

In a recent post on Equal Writes, Laura Gary-Smith dissected the Anscombe Society’s position statement on “Sexuality and Feminism." However, as both members of this group and contributors to this blog, we believe that Anscombe’s position has been misinterpreted and would like to offer an explanation of how it actually encourages equality of the sexes.

The Implications of XX Chromosomes
“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.”

This statement, far from being “far-from-obvious,” is, in fact, a simple truth rooted in biology. That there are inherent physical differences is pretty obvious just from looking around. The question, then, is: why are men’s and women’s bodies different? Answer: women have XX sex chromosomes, and men have XY sex chromosomes. And the significance of this difference is that one’s particular set of sex chromosomes influence the hormones one’s body produces, which influences the physical and sexual development of the body.

Compounds that are so powerful as to cause drastic changes in one’s body cannot be expected to have a merely physical effect. For instance, consider the pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS), which, granted, some women suffer more from than others. Mood swings, irritability, and anxiety are associated with PMS, which is the result of the changing level of hormones in a woman’s body prior to menstruation. This is a clear example of a physical characteristic—hormone levels—affecting emotional, behavioral, and psychological characteristics. It is also a clear example of an inherent difference between women and men (who don’t menstruate).

Consider also the effects of steroids on women who use them. Women who use anabolic steroids, which are primarily composed of synthesized testosterone, may lose their periods, experience a deepening of the voice, and grow more body hair, among other things—in essence, they acquire certain male characteristics. Both men and women who use anabolic steroids may also experience more aggression as a result of the excess testosterone, which is believed to contribute to aggression. This shows that hormones are indiscriminate: they affect the human body in certain prescribed ways, regardless of whether the person has XX or XY chromosomes. However, one’s particular combination of sex chromosomes determines the relative concentration of one’s hormones, which affect a person physically, emotionally, behaviorally, and psychologically.

It has been duly reported that Anscombe believes “these differences do not evidence the superiority of one sex over the other,” and this is absolutely true. Men and women do differ as explained above, but those differences do not in any way compromise human dignity. Men and women, being equally human, obviously have equal human dignity and deserve equal rights. There is no reason that differences between men and women preclude equality.

Notice that Anscombe claims no rational, intellectual, ethical, or moral differences between the sexes. This is because the way one thinks, what one thinks, and what one believes are derived from how one is raised—i.e., not by the chemistry of one’s body. Intellect, ability to reason, sense of morality and ethics—these qualities vary widely across all of humanity, regardless of sex. It is also these qualities that are (or ought to be) directly relevant when considering candidates for jobs, political office, etc.

There is still a need to help children understand the differences between men and women while also understanding that men and women are equal to one another as human beings. Children can recognize differences and be concerned by them; parents need to help their children understand that yes, there are some differences between boys and girls, but these differences are no cause for alarm. Nor are these differences cause for treating people in a worse or better way based on sex; children must sometimes be helped to understand this as well, especially because they are inevitably exposed to aspects of society that seem to indicate otherwise.

“True Feminism”
Traditional feminism does sometimes imply things against the spirit of true feminism. While we wouldn’t accuse our fellow Equal Writers of employing this standpoint, there is a large, vocal school of feminist thought that actively argues women’s superiority over, rather than equality to, men. This “cultural feminism” has largely supplanted “equality feminism.” Ironically, it first concedes that there are significant differences between men and women – for instance, men are more incommunicative and aggressive, while women are more empathetic by nature. However, it exploits these differences, using them as justification for female superiority. Cultural feminists don’t want to be equal to men. How is this not equally as odious as misogyny or male chauvinism that we as feminists (rightly) condemn?

Instead, Anscombe advocates “true feminism,” which seeks equality over superiority or entitlement. As shown in the previous section, the inherent physical differences between men and women lead to a different experience, but Anscombe believes it is possible to pursue distinction without discrimination. True feminism recognizes and celebrates the unique characteristics of men and women, but draws no distinction when it comes to the rights and privileges each deserve and should be afforded by law and culture. In this brand of feminism, men and women complement each other and are stronger in union than the sum of their parts, whether through marriage or collaboration in society.

The Centrality of Motherhood
There is no way around the fact that motherhood is critical for the continuation of the human race. While we should strive for and expect social and political equality, we cannot obviate the biological differences that make women the child bearers during pregnancy, thus conferring some measure of physical responsibility upon them that men simply do not have. This incontrovertible connection between mother and child continues after birth; for instance, women are able to breastfeed while men are not. Upon establishing this, it becomes clear that certain aspects of childrearing rest immovably with women, and as this cannot be circumvented, society must adapt to make equal opportunities available to them.

The Anscombe Society works to this end, seeking “career opportunities that can coexist with motherhood and the unique responsibilities it entails.” Rather than restricting women to a maternal role, as its detractors claim, the group actually advocates more freedom of choice by fighting for more options in the workplace, giving women the “luxury” of simultaneously having both a career and children.

The question of balancing motherhood against other roles—for instance, having a job—is a serious one. It is one with which we personally have struggled. We know that we want to be mothers. We also know that we want to have jobs, careers. There is very much a feeling that one must be incredibly fortunate to be able to do both. If forced to choose between kids and a career, neither of us honestly knows which we would pick, but whichever way we chose, we would feel that we were denying ourselves something very important. Anscombe does not want women to have to face this choice; if a woman wants to be a mother, that's wonderful; if a woman wants a career, that's wonderful; and if a woman wants both, that is also wonderful, and we should do what we can to make that possible.

It is modern society that relegates women to a pre-defined, inflexible role by forcing them to choose between working and having children. Three-quarters of abortions in the United States are caused by women’s concerns that a child would disrupt their career or education; by creating a culture in which women feel pressured to sacrifice motherhood in order to succeed, we try to make them into men who have no such biological “limitations” and strip them of their right to attempt it all. When we as feminists choose one over the other, we allow ourselves to be constrained by this “all or nothing” model. By contrast, Anscombe desires novel opportunities for women in the workplace, rather than restricting them to jobs that are already compatible with motherhood. Anscombe's statement means that regardless of the career path, greater efforts must be made to help women pursue motherhood while remaining dedicated to their field of work.

In wanting women to be given this choice freely, Anscombe seeks to counter ideas that motherhood is a burden or second-class responsibility. This may not be the predominant view of motherhood, but there are undercurrents of such a view. People wonder why such a smart or talented or ambitious woman would “waste” those gifts in order to focus her children. People make jokes, that stay-at-home moms spend all their days watching soap operas and eating chocolate bon-bons. There probably are some women who manage to do that, but most mothers will tell you that being a mom is not a walk in the park and requires a lot of hard work, patience, and creativity, among other things. Whether a woman is a stay-at-home mom or a working mom, we need to be sure that she is equally respected in her capacity as a mother as in any other capacity.

Moreover, Anscombe’s commitment to family implies that women will not be expected to raise their children alone, and should have every right to pursue rewarding careers, as well. As the website states under its “Family and Marriage” section, “The intact…family offers the best environment for raising children, providing them with…love, support, and education.” Nowhere does Anscombe claim that women are solely responsible for staying home with their children – quite the opposite. A mother should be supported by her husband, who has an equally integral stake in his sons’ and daughters’ upbringing.

Overall, Anscombe seeks to promote equality and welcomes feminists like us. This incredibly dedicated, talented group of individuals – both men and women alike - has been a rewarding part of our Princeton experience and has proved truly harmonious with our own goals and those of Equal Writes.


At December 11, 2008 at 8:56 AM , Blogger Courtny said...

Yes, there are inherent biological differences between men and women, but come on...PMS? Really? Rather than choosing a controversial example of a symptom of menstruation, one that has heavy social connotations and is used to invalidate women's voices ("you sound it because you're PMSing?") - why not just talk about menstruation and use that as an example? I suggest an immediate revision.

Your defense of Anscombe's position about equality of the sexes is well written and sounds truly feminist. I'm happy to read that. However, your section about "cultural feminism" vs. "equality feminism" reads like it's straight off an MRA board. Actually, it's the status quo now that tells men they need to be aggressive and repress emotions, not feminists who are telling them that's what they do cause they're men. Society's construction of the modern masculine is hurtful to men, just as society's construction of the modern feminine is hurtful to women.

Though mainstream feminism has had some big problems with entitlement and equality, mostly it has to do with leaving out the voices of poor women and women of color, not bashing teh poor menz.

Which brings me to the next section of your post: the centrality of motherhood. There was never a choice for poor women: they worked and had kids. This is Princeton, though, so I guess many of us have the means to make the choice. Just remember that right now, there are many women who have no choice.

At December 11, 2008 at 9:03 AM , Blogger Robert McGibbon said...

>>“The Anscombe Society recognizes that there are inherent physical, behavioral, emotional, and psychological differences between men and women..."
>>"Notice that Anscombe claims no rational, intellectual, ethical, or moral differences between the sexes.

Why not?

>>"This is because the way one thinks, what one thinks, and what one believes are derived from how one is raised—i.e., not by the chemistry of one’s body."

You sure?

Why aren't you willing to claim the existence of those additional differences? It seems like you're willing to claim that every other difference between men and women not only exists, but is essential to their "complimentary" nature. What differentiates say, intellect, a characteristic on which you think there is no difference between the sexes, from emotion, where you concede the difference?

The argument you give for their difference is basically nature vs. nurture. People end up smart or stupid, you say, not because of their body chemistry but because of "how they were raised."

Point of fact! This is patently untrue. There are many examples of situations in which "physical" characteristics not only determine emotional characteristics (as you point out with PMS) but also intellectual ones. Down syndrome. Huntington's disease. Dropping a baby on its head. Physical characteristics can determine intellect too.

I don't see how you can so adamantly affirm some essentialist differences between the sexes and then so easily dismiss the existence of others.

Robert McGibbon '11

At December 11, 2008 at 11:16 PM , Anonymous jkis said...

In your section on "The Implications of XX Chromosomes," you claim that a binary system of gender arises naturally and (or, perhaps, divinely) from the division of human beings into two kinds of biological and anatomical sex characteristics: male and female. This statement rests on two assumptions that are fallacious and dangerous:

Assumption #1: Human beings fall biologically/anatomically into only the categories 'male' or 'female'. This is quite obviously not true: the existence of intersex, hermaphroditic individuals explodes this premise entirely. Even the preoccupation with chromosomal division into male/female is flawed. While XX and XY are the most common chromosomal combinations, XXY and XYY also occur. People who deviate from the XX/XY, female/male construct that you argue is "a simple truth rooted in biology" are a minority, certainly, but cannot simply be written out of anyone's conception of human sexuality or "God's plan" for anyone. The biology of sexuality is not nearly so simple as the 'truth' you ask us to believe.

Similarly (moving on to Dangerous Assumption #2), the way that biology translates into gender is much more complex than you allow. The existence of transgendered individuals, butch lesbians and even drag queens proves that gender does not flow directly from biology, and that the relationship between gender, sexuality and anatomy is a much more nebulous one than Anscombe would have us acknowledge. While society certainly holds stereotypes about what character traits are inherently male and female (stereotypes which you seem to endorse), having the anatomy and hormonal cocktail of a man or woman does not ensure adherence to those expectations.

Not only does the pretense that these kinds of complications exist in the discussion of gender don't exist ("complications" that live, breathe, and coexist with us every day) undermine your argument, it enacts a kind of violence upon the people who live in between the lines- negating their value and legitimacy by rendering them invisible, or, at best, marginal. This runs contrary to so many of the stated goals of feminism! You don't have to feel comfortable with the ways in which widespread social assumptions about gender and sexuality are complicated by those who don't fall into neat, biologically simple categories, but beware of hinging a worldview, or even an argument, on invalidating or ignoring the experiences of an entire group of people.

At December 12, 2008 at 3:36 PM , Blogger Robert McGibbon said...

jkis>>"the way that biology translates into gender is much more complex than you allow"

I agree.

One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.
-Simone de Beauvoir


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