“But don’t you think there are differences between men and women?” I thought for a moment, and responded, “Well, I know that brain differences at birth are minimal, and it seems to me that the gender constructs created by society drastically amplify those differences.” The conversation continued for a moment, still focused on binary gender differences, and I added, “But we don’t even know what would happen if a child were to actually grow up in a non-patriarchal society. I only know of a few isolated examples.” My friend affirmed that a few matriarchies do exist, at a minimum two in China that she knew of.
So of course, when I got home later, I immediately went online to try and learn more about these matriarchies. It turns out that these exceptions to the rule are mostly matrilineal rather than fully matriarchal societies. (see for example Garrison) Mosuo men handle politics, the clan chief in a Minangkabau society is always male (if selected by women), and so on. At the same time, in Mosuo society, “Women are treated as equal, if not superior, to men; both have as many, or as few, sexual partners as they like, free from judgment; and extended families bring up the children and care for the elderly.” (Booth) So the Mosuo society is in fact free of the assumption that masculinity (as defined by the society) is superior to femininity (as defined by the society), and therefore is indeed not a patriarchy. But it still doesn’t appear to be free of the idea that masculinity and femininity are different, granting that I have a lot more learning yet to do.
Part of this discussion, you may well have noticed, has to do with a sort of groupthink - what do different cultures’ attitudes tell us about the roles and ways of being of men and women, even as individuals’ attitudes and ways of being within a given culture may differ dramatically? And what does the fact that cultural attitudes typically omit intersex and/or non-binary people from the discussion (whether out of ignorance or willfully) tell us? To what extent does biology legitimately play a role and where does nurture take over? And, as my friend asked in our subsequent discussion on Facebook Messenger, “Is it too much to expect large groups of people to comprehend there is a reason for differences/stereotypes, but they should not be applied to the individual????”
In thinking through possible answers to her question, I want to reflect on the difference between “differences” and “stereotypes.” As I see it, a difference simply is. A stereotype, however, rests on assumptions (however rooted in genuine group-level differences they may actually be) that may or may not be true when applied to a given individual and are often attached to judgment. The trick, then, is acknowledging difference without allowing it to feed confirmation bias and create, perpetuate, and/or lead to the application of stereotypes. Which should indeed not be too much to expect. Achieving it, of course, is something else altogether.
One of the core tenets of this school is for our students to use their voices to affirm their true, authentic, best selves. That implies an individual search for, and hopefully developing awareness of, who exactly that true, authentic, best self is - looking within, to discerning that core self placed under a constant barrage of assumptions and expectations, and without, to find a way to express that core self in a world that may or may not be ready to accept it in the fullness of its complexity.
It’s an interesting exercise to try and imagine what we might be like if born into a society that truly had no gender expectations. There’s probably a really good YA novel in there for some enterprising writer. And that mode of thought has been fundamental to my own gender journey. But for now and for the foreseeable future, especially given that many people are firmly opposed to the idea that having such a society would be a good thing in the first place, that’s not going to be the case.
It comes down to what we can control. We can control our own individual part in the collective nurture that is our societies. We can control our own individual reaction to the cultural expectations placed upon us and any bias and stereotypes we might see. And we can control how we talk about difference.
Which brings us back to where we started and the fundamental importance of ongoing conversations.