Gender Roles, Feminism and the Humanist Perspective

Gender Roles don't make any senseGender Roles, Feminism and the Humanist Perspective

I was asked to comment on the Humanist perspective as it relates to gender roles and feminism. So, that’s what I’m doing.  You might be unhappy to find out that we don’t really have a consensus on these issues as Humanists. For instance, some of us are ok with porn and some of us think porn exploits women. With that much range on some very basic issues within the Humanist community, it makes it rather hard to comment and make a blanket statement about the Humanist perspective on topics related to gender. But there are some basic concepts that almost all Humanists agree on, so I’ll focus on those.

Let’s start with a simple statement. All Humanists are feminists in the classic equity sense. But not all feminists are Humanists because; some feminists are gynocentric and misandric, meaning that some feminists don’t like men.  Humanists are not gynocentric or misandric. The important thing for us is that regardless of gender, we are all human.

When Humanists promote public policy that is pro-women (ie: feminist), we are doing so because we are pro-human and any policy that discriminates or harms a human is a policy we Humanists think needs to be changed. We are for equal rights for gays for the same reason we are for equality for women. It isn’t the gender that is motivating us it is the discrimination we are against. (For a great essay on this distinction check out this blog post by The Jewmanist – she’s awesome!)

Gender Roles

Now let’s get into the tricky stuff: gender roles. The reason this is tricky is because of the nature/nuture debate. And again, not all Humanists agree on this matter. There are a number of women in the Humanist movement who argue that we are nurtured into gender roles. At the other end, arguing that there is indeed a human nature is Steven Pinker. I side with Pinker in this debate and I suspect most of the younger Humanists do as well, meaning the nature vs. nurture debate within the Humanist movement could very well be an age related thing. The reason for this divide based on age will become clear in the next couple of paragraphs. Suffice it to say, the older generation fought a battle for equality based on this issue so it is near and dear to them.  

Regardless, to delve into this subject in detail I highly recommend Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature
as he does an excellent job of describing the historic nature/nurture debate problem and how this impacts our concept of gender roles in society and most importantly, what the current state of science is on the nature vs. nurture debate. But in case you don’t want to read this rather large tome and still want to find out what he says in the book, let me try to provide you with a basic synopsis.

Nature vs. Nurture

It is nearly impossible to discuss the idea of gender roles without getting into the nature vs. nurture debate. And the reason the nature vs. nuture debate is important to the discussion of gender roles is because of equality politics. 

Women have had a really hard time historically gaining the right to determine for themselves who they want to be and what they want to do with their lives and what legal rights they might have.  In fact, we still aren’t considered equal before the law because ERA was never ratified, but that’s another story. In my perspective, as a woman, the biggest contribution that the feminist movement has made to modern society is that women and men are no longer stuck in prescribed gender roles. If I want to go to college to pursue a career. I can. And I can pursue any career I want. It’s super duper double looper wonderful that my sisters and I now have this right. Men, can, if they want to, stay home and raise kids, and that’s ok too.

But, to win that right, our sisters and mothers and aunts and yes, uncles had to argue that our basic nature as women did not prevent us from pursuing our dreams.  And this is why the idea of whether there is an inherent human nature and whether male and female natures are inherently different or whether nurturing develops them is so important to the politics of the equality movement.

The reasoning is that if we are born this way, then we do have a basic nature and social roles based on our basic nature make sense.  If we are nurtured into arbitrary social roles based on our gender, then those gender roles make no sense.

The problem is that the science is showing that we are born with a basic nature. And really, this shouldn’t be too surprising because anyone who has had a child knows that the child’s personality is almost all nature. They really are born with a personality and aren’t raised to have one. Some kids are naturally more gregarious and some are more cautious. Some are more creative and some are more literal. That’s their nature.  And yes, this is also true of the differences between boys and girls. Not only are we obviously different physically, anyone who has raised both boys and girls or hung out with a group of toddlers knows that boys will be boys and girls will be girls and there is not much you can do to change that.


But does the fact that we have an inherent nature mean that prescribed gender roles make sense?  The answer it turns out is no. Yes, boys and girls are different and it’s not just due to gender roles being foisted on us. There really are some differences in how men and women generally approach the world and think about it. But that doesn’t mean we all should be forced into prescribed gender roles.

The Humanist approach is to allow the individual to decide for themselves what sort of role they want to play in society.  If a woman wants to be a stay at home mom, like I did, they should be allowed to do that. If they want to work and not have kids at all, they should be allowed to do that. Same thing goes for men.

Here’s why. We are each unique individuals. We are born with an inherent personality and nature and proclivities and abilities. And that inherent personality, nature, proclivities and abilities are unique to us. So, even though I am a woman, that doesn’t mean I’m exactly like all the other women out there. And my husband would argue that I most definitely am not like all the other women out there.

And since we are each unique, we should be treated as such and not be stereotyped based on the norms of any group we may belong to.  For instance, I am a white heterosexual woman who is married and who lives in Florida in the United States of America who has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Hawaii and I’m a Humanist.  Any of those characteristics and groups I belong to can be used to pigeon hole me or stereotype me. 

And that would be a mistake. Because even though I belong to all those groups and am proud of it, I am not like anyone else in those groups.  Just as it would be wrong to treat me as an average white person or an average married person, it is also inappropriate to treat me as an average woman. And it would be even more annoying if I were forced to play a gender role based on what the average woman is like. The truth is, there is no average women. We are all individuals and we are all different.

This is why we Humanists are always talking about the dignity and worth of the individual human. Those aren’t just hollow words. They actually mean something.  We are each of us an individual. Anyone who seeks to limit any human based stereotyped gender roles isn’t acknowledging us as individuals who may or may not fit that stereotype. Anyone who tries to prevent an individual from exemplifying the stereotype is also guilty of not allowing the individual to be who they want to be.

The point is that we all should be allowed to be who we are without society getting in the way and telling us we shouldn’t. If a guy wants to dress like a girl, who they heck cares! That’s what they want and they are doing no harm. If a woman wants to pursue a career that is currently dominated by men, more power to her. 

The problem is that we aren’t just being pressured to adhere to the norms typical for our gender. There is also a countermovement to have us not adhere to the norms typical for our gender. I think both groups are wrong. People who don’t adhere to typical gender roles should be free to do that and people who are gender typical should be allowed to be gender typical without being hassled about that. It’s all about allowing individuals to make those choices for themselves.

So, long story short. We Humanists are for equality of opportunity. We think discrimination based on gender is wrong. We are for individuals being allowed to be the individuals they are. And our hope is that most people will join us in embracing the fact that we humans, despite the fact that we have A LOT in common in terms of our basic nature, are still individuals. It seems to me that if we embrace our individualism, the gender role argument becomes rather superfluous.

Some final advice

Now, for guys who are frustrated that there are some women out there who don’t want you to pay for their meals when you go out on a date, stop worrying about it and don’t argue about it. You have no idea why your date would reject your offer to pay for her meal. The point is that she should have the right to reject your generous offer. It doesn’t matter why she is rejecting it. She could be a rabid feminist who doesn’t want to fall into gender roles. Or, she could also have gotten date raped in the past and is just being cautious. You have no way of knowing, so don’t assume you do. Yes, it is unfair that she is treating you as the equivalent of the worst of your gender, but given what some women have been put through, you should consider being a bit more compassionate. And if it really bothers you that much, don’t go out on a second date with her.