I recently submitted my first draft to my supervisors so now, though I am far from an expert in the subject and my views are still, of course, developing, it seems like a good time to talk about some of the things I have discovered. In particular the reading I have done about gender has prompted new thoughts on that question of what, if anything, does it mean to be a woman today?
Gender is fluid
The first, and probably most startling, discovery I made was how fluid a thing gender really is. Without even going into the 4% of live births in the UK which cannot be categorized as male or female on the level of anatomy and genetics, sociologists widely agree that our concept of what it means to be male or female is largely shaped by our culture.
This was first shown by anthropological research studying different cultures around the world. What it means to be a man, or what is considered to be masculine, in one culture is vastly different in other cultures. This can be seen in typical behaviours, work patterns and child rearing practices. In some cultures child rearing is a male dominated occupation. In some manual labour is women's work. These expressions of manhood and womanhood are often deeply held but also extremely varied.
There are many 'kinds' of masculinity and femininity
It has been argued that there is a dominant expression of femininity and masculinity in Western cultures and if you live in this culture the characteristics of these will be immediately obvious to you. Yep, in a nutshell, the macho, assertive man and the pretty, co-operative woman.
These types are favoured, and society exerts pressure on various levels for people to conform to these stereotypes, but within society there are actually multiple expressions of masculinity and femininity. One size really does not fit all and no one masculinity or femininity can be seen as natural or more ideal than another.
Men and Women are as alike as they are different
Within this idea of multiple masculinities and femininities it has also been found that in many qualities and abilities there is more variation within the genders than between them. Of course, as gender is largely created our culture, we can also create differences between genders by how we are socialized but this does not make men or women biologically better at one thing or another. Such differences are remarkably rare and the similarities between the sexes emerges much more starkly in research of this kind.
All this has made me reflect on my original question, way back then, what does it mean to be a woman today? My explorations have in some ways pulled the rug out from under me as many of the differences I consider there to be between men and women can be shown to be variable across cultures and not fixed at all. In many ways I think this is a positive thing. Rather than seeing individuals as something you can stick a label on saying 'Man' or 'Woman' and then expect a certain set of behaviours through this research the diversity and variety of humanity can be recognized and, one day I hope, treasured.
Women don't have to be more sensitive or less assertive. Men don't have to love power tools or be some great rescuer for the women in their lives. The door is opened to greater responsibility on the part of both genders, for themselves and for each other. I have so much more to say on this subject and so much more reflection to do, particularly on the place of femininity in faith and how this has both advanced and hindered women, but my thoughts from the last year have arrived in a place of stressing our mutual calling as men and women to good human, rather than gender specific, values.
In the Bible these are described in one passage as the 'fruit of the spirit'. Galatians 5 reads, 'the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control'. These values are gender neutral. Rather than seeking what it means to be a good woman or a good man I feel confident in saying that if you seek these human values, you won't go far wrong. By bringing kindness and generosity into our encounters with each others difference perhaps we will indeed find more joy and peace. By bring gentleness and patience into our relationships, regardless our gender, better things will surely come.
So that is where I am right now and your thoughts are always appreciated. I will continue to think and debate and be back on this again, I am sure!