Are Gender Roles Exclusive?

Let’s get a key definition out of the way: “gender roles are socially constructed roles, behaviors, activities and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for men and women.”

As I had mentioned, I was trolled the other day – what I didn’t say was that the question was on the equality of men and women. I’ve spent the last day or so trying to mop up the chaos – and thinking about what I’ve learned.

I think the ancient world was onto something when they accepted opposites as both being true. For every rule, there was an exception and both were perfectly fine. For every teaching, an exception and both were perfectly fine – existing together without cancelling each other out. Perhaps we should take a page out of their own book.

Traditionally, men were the breadwinners, while women were stay-at-home moms. Some version of that pattern seems to exist in most cultures; but there were always exceptions. Unhappy circumstance could leave women destitute and with no choice but to support themselves in a world that shut them out of every traditionally male-occupied sort of work. So they would find a way to work as women do, bringing in what money they could – usually handiwork or craft-type industries. In this, the gender role of earning income, while traditionally male is inclusive of females. It took quite some time, but eventually the doors opened for women to work in traditionally male-occupied industries. Teaching, for example, was solely a man’s job for my great-great-something grandfather but by the time my great aunt took up the position of being a teacher, the field had become dominated by women. So in this way, kinds of work became inclusive.

Not only that, but we’re also seeing in-roads into being stay-at-home dads or “Manny”s – male nannies as the women’s gender role is becoming increasingly inclusive. The more television normalizes it through various family-centrist sit-com type shows, the less we’ll question it or label it as wrong – just as we did when family shows were about step families and multi-race families who were making it work just as well as any other family. After all, who’s to say that the man doesn’t have any right to be a father to his children all day long – and not just after work hours when he’s tired?

In our increasingly equal and egalitarian society, the line has begun to blur where a person is forbidden from doing an activity only appropriate for the other gender. Things that are exclusively masculine or exclusively feminine make up only a relatively short list.

So when it comes to gender roles in Christianity, the default teaching is that husband are the heads of their families, and wives are to submit to their husbands authority as they raise their children. But these days people are beginning to recognize that masculinity doesn’t confer upon an individual greater intelligence, understanding, or some magical ability to deal with the chaos the world dishes out any better or worse than femininity does. After all, men and women are so very much alike, having much in common, able to do the same things just as well as the other. In a day-to-day living sense, a woman can work just as much as a man, a man can cook just as much as a woman, a woman can lead and direct others just as well as a man, and a man can care for and nurture his child just as much as a woman. Men’s work and Women’s work have become human work.

Surely, there are other cultures and societies where the division of labor is far less fluid; where tradition is deeply rooted. Each culture is different. Each man is different. Each woman is different. This is the tension I think the ancient world dealt with poorly: two kinds of people are different, therefore one is superior to another.” We need to accept the tension that all people are very different and also very much the same – and therefore are completely equal, regardless. We should stop qualifying it: “Men and women are equal in person-hood who have different roles.” As pretty as it looks on paper – it just doesn’t hold up in the real world.

Circumstance, disease, infertility, fatal accidents, imprisonment; such things can interfere with one’s predesignated culturally-defined gender role forcing one’s partner to step beyond the boundaries of the gender role that they were taught was acceptable. I saw this with elderly widows/widowers who couldn’t cook their own food or maintain their own cars because it was the duty of their spouse who preceded them in death. Not willing to re-marry, they had to manage as best they could on their own. I saw this with the story of a woman fighting a disease that would soon kill her, her husband began to take over her chores – allowing her to use what energy she had left to enjoy their time together as long as it lasted. Some women cannot have children and therefore must do something with the long, tedious hours in her day – why not take up a job and save up some money for traveling and other fulfilling hobbies?

You know that short list of exclusively masculine or exclusively feminine activities? It brings up a question: does such a list justify the superior treatment of one kind of human over another? Does the ability of men to impregnate women justify men having a higher status or priority over women? Does the ability of women to bear children justify women having a higher status or priority over men? Hopefully, we’re finally starting to see that preferential treatment causes resentment, partiality causes inequality – and it’s high time that a differences is accepted for what it is and not a reason to justify the superior treatment of one kind of human over another.

The pressure to exist according to one’s gender roles can create any number of problems. One culture says that men ought not be emotional or cry, another says that men can and should cry when the occasion calls for it. One culture says that women are the aggressive fighters, another says that women ought not fight and ought to be gentle. One culture says wear this not that, the other – wear that, not this. Anyone who doesn’t seem to fit what their culture says they should be like is left to come to the conclusion that they are physically one thing and expression-ally the other in their culture and vice-versa in another. Things that were once common of one gender have also found acceptance for the other. We see this in the “for Her” and “for Him” versions of products traditionally advertised for the other gender, but modified so as to be more acceptable and bring in more money for the companies who make those products.

What used to be an impassible wall has eroded, bit by bit, it’s definition has become less clear. Gender roles isn’t that old of a concept – it’s from the mid 1950s. Femininity and womanhood hail from the 1400s and masculinity and manhood just two hundred years before that. We’re creating new words and definitions every day to clarify this conversation about gender that we’re finally ready and mature enough to have. We have thousands of years of history full of men and women who both completely obeyed what was expected of their gender role and also others who threw it out and lived as they pleased in a world that shamed them for it. I think gender rules were never exclusive – they were always arbitrary and changing. If they weren’t, they would never need be taught or reinforced because they would never be transgressed. If they weren’t, every man or woman who transgressed their role would be treated as an outcast for turning their backs on the color they were supposed to like or the kind of clothes they were supposed to wear or trying to be like the wrong kind of person.

So are men and women the same? Yes, yes they are. They’re also different. And they’re completely equal. So let’s stop looking to the color of a person’s skin, or the gender of a person’s body to decide how we will treat them – let’s look to the content of their character and take up a live and let live attitude.

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