There are few things more frustrating than unfounded nuggets of biological determinism being presented as fact. You know the kind. The ones that posit ridiculously broad gender stereotypes as truth; things like ‘women are hardwired to be obsessed with shoes’ and ‘men can't figure out complicated things like bra clasps’. Such responses feature heavily in what I like to call the ‘Nah, I don’t reckon’ school of intellectual thought. Or in other words, they’re total bullsh*t.
When dealing with such obstinate opposition to logic (another thing women are apparently less inclined towards), it can be difficult to transcend the rage bubble inside your head. Instead, we stand there frothing at the mouth and spluttering, wondering how it’s possible for someone whose brain cells fire with all the intensity of a stoned sloth to have figured out how to breathe and walk at the same time.
Here are some suggestions on how to calmly respond to some of the more stupid observations offered up about the natural inclinations of men and women.
1. Women are all their own worst enemies
This one’s mostly employed by people with a bone to pick about feminism. The argument goes that it’s really women who hold each other back, because we’re all petty and jealous and we can’t stand seeing other women succeed. If we want to address our own inequality, we have to look at ourselves first. I mean, look at how the dudebros do it. They just mind their own business, getting on with things because that’s what men do. You know? They’re not obsessed with all the rubbish that consumes women. It doesn’t matter to them who’s the best looking, or the smartest (because everyone knows that looks matter less for men anyway, because women are nurturers and see what’s on the inside whereas men are more visual and like girls who take care of themselves). Women are too catty, you see.
WRONG. You know what the biggest enemy to women is? The structural system of power that ensures we experience the majority of the world’s poverty and sexual violence, that has us performing the majority of the world’s labour but owning less than 1% of the world’s property, that sees us occupying only 30% of the media and accounting for even less of its storylines, that has women of colour experiencing significantly higher levels of oppression and violence and even greater invisibility than women privileged by race, and that after all of this still tries to project the cause of ongoing inequality onto women by telling us we’re that if we just stopped fighting with each other then all of our problems would go away. Women are their own worst enemies? GTFO and stop wasting my time.
2. Women are naturally better at caring for others
This is perhaps one of the least interesting of all generally uninteresting grids in the great biological determinism bingo playcard. Not only is it grossly unscientific (correct me if I’m wrong, but scientists have yet to discover a gene for nurturing) but it indirectly positions men as lumbering neanderthals and/or sociopaths whose ability to connect with other people is limited to the Meccano penetration of various orifices. When you use this argument, what you’re really saying is that men’s biological make up prohibits them from being very good at the basic expression of love. That their ability to parent or care for their partners, friends and family members is crude at best, hindered by some kind of biological forcefield that turns their efforts into a Benny Hill sketch.
The effect is twofold. Firstly, it reinforces the idea that women’s greatest interests and contributions to the world are limited to delivering other people into it and then caring for them, thus working to keep them in the home and impact their financial autonomy. And secondly, it says that men are so emotionally void that the practice of caring for another human being is an act so foreign it should probably come with a manual (because men are very good at reading those). When you use the argument that women are better nurturers (which is, conveniently, largely a thankless task), what you’re really saying is that men can’t be trusted around children. And that’s a pretty gosh darn offensive concept.
3. All women want to have babies and get married
As far as mainstream society is concerned, there are two acceptable reasons to be ‘without child’ over the age of 30. The first is that you suffer from some kind of perceived impairment - a disability, say, or being poor. These women aren’t allowed to have children, because such a thing is selfish. We can’t just go about breeding more divs and povvos as if these things are okay! The only other time it’s okay to be childless is when it’s not by choice.
All those other women, the deliberately barren whose wasted wombs sit like empty husks inside an unfeeling and selfish (probably career driven) robot, are just harridans who don’t understand the precious gift that awaits them once their absurd attempts to live like men fall to the wayside. ‘You’ll change your mind’, is the constant refrain. ‘And if you don’t, there’s something irreversibly wrong and broken about you. HAVE FUN BEING LONELY IN YOUR OLD AGE.’
Unmarried, childfree women who’ve chosen to be that way remain a strange threat to the mores of mainstream society. In general, it doesn’t know how to deal with women who reject the tropes that have have been set out for them since time began. But here’s the thing - sometimes, tradition is less an indication of desire and more one of necessity. Throughout most of history, marriage was a means of property transferral and familial empire building, with the Church only formally presiding over services from around the 1500s. Reproduction was much less about a woman’s natural prerogative than it was about providing an heir.
So the idea that the desire to marry and reproduce are somehow biologically part of a woman’s makeup isn’t just completely at odds with science, it’s also at odds with history. Given any kind of meaningful choice, I'm sure at least a few of King Henry VIII's wives would have preferred to be given autonomy over their own destiny rather than traded like property, forced to breed and then beheaded for pissing him off.
Of course, arguments that employ biological determinism will continue because the world is full of idiots (which is how we managed to elect a government on the weekend that wants to take us right back to the 1950s). And now that Abbottacalypse has begun, we’re going to be running into a lot of them. Batten down the brain hatches people. It's going to get ugly.