Some Thoughts on Feminism and Gender Equality
Being the egalitarian sort of fellow I am, I’d like to think of myself as supporting the feminist movement. When I see articles and discussions of the topic I often take an interest and read them. The views I’ve formed are pretty straight forward.
I think women should be free of men, or other women, trying to control or tell them how to live based on their sex/gender. Whatever lifestyle or attitude they want to have is theirs to choose. That can mean fitting into predominant social stereotypes or rejecting them. It is important that some people challenge accepted norms, but that doesn’t mean everyone needs to. I think the only people betraying the feminist ideals are those who dictate what women should or should not do.
When it comes to equality, I do not deny generalized differences between men and women. Obviously, there are gender differences. But those generalized differences should never trump each individual’s right to be who they want to be. Just because women are not typically as physically strong as men, does not mean a woman who is especially strong, or a man who is not, should be treated as if they were not real women or men, or judged based on some average of the sex rather than their own individual merit.
Like other groups that have historically faced a lot of discrimination, and who demonstrably still suffer from unequal treatment overall, I support efforts to try and level the playing field by giving an advantage to women when there is a clear gap. For that reason, I will sometimes vote for women candidates when I don’t have another strong reason to differentiate and hire women in IT whenever feasible. I don’t see these situations as judgments of an individual but as an effort to try and counteract the effective bias in society that makes women under-represented in these areas.
Here is where things can get a bit tricky. In any society, we are going to make moral judgments of individuals regardless of their sex. The social and personal stereotypes and biases we all carry to some degree can assert themselves in these judgments event when we are not explicitly making a sex-based judgment. It’s easy to say that it is sexist when someone says, “A woman’s place is in the home.” It is another when someone says, “She needs to tone down her criticism.” It may be that someone’s criticism needs some toning down, but we know from study that there is a bias specifically against women being critical. Being aware of these bias, and trying to check ourselves when we tread near them, can at least help us avoid sexist judgment.
Another stickler is the area of broad social critique vs individual choices. I think religious practices that treat women as some kind of sexual danger are misogynistic. The headscarves worn by some Muslim women are a good example. That said, when an individual woman chooses to wear one, and proudly claims it as part of her identity, I would not criticize her for the practice. What I don’t like is that some religious traditions seek to coerce women into a given behavior. If they choose it freely, then I won’t make a personal judgment, especially not one based on what I think she should or should not do as a woman. From the outside, it may seem a double standard, on one hand, to critique wearing a headscarf as a cultural practice, while on the other supporting an individual who chooses to do so. But the consistent principle is that people should make their own choices.
Finally, I wanted to touch on the subject of sports and other segregated activities. The reality of the median physical abilities of men and women have traditionally denied women participation in athletic competition. We’ve come to realize that such competition is good for everyone so we have created segregated athletic activities. On one hand, I’d like to see women compete at the highest levels of sports traditionally dominated by men. I’d be thrilled to see a woman in the NBA or NFL who competes at the highest level. On the other hand, the segregation of sports (say in Olympic events) keeps men from dominating the competition as they likely would (in most but not all events) if it were integrated and thus protects women’s ability to participate. What if the Olympics allowed women to join men’s but not the other way around? Then I think you would have a sort of tacit view that the men’s competition was the “real” competition and women’s was second class. I can see that as a good reason to continue this segregation. I cases where there is no real alternative for men’s competition, I absolutely feel that women should have the opportunity to compete. The NFL would be a good example.
I feel compelled to say something about transgender people here. Consistent with the ideal of self-determination, I support treating people as the gender they identify with. In most situations in life, it doesn’t pose any real challenges for people to simply be treated as they want to be treated. There are some wrinkles in areas like sports, where a transgendered woman could have some potentially unsportsmanlike advantages in a women’s competition. I think dealing with these on a case by case basis is the best policy. Hopefully, everyone involved can have some sympathy for the two competing ideals in situations like these.
So, pretty simple stuff. Treat people as individuals, and don’t judge them based on a broad group they belong to. But at the same time, we can acknowledge the broad differences between the sexes and an individual’s sense of identity with regards to gender. What it means to be a man or woman to one person, is not exactly the same as it means to another, nor should it. Treat others with respect, and let them make their own decisions.