Monday, April 05, 2010

Lest anyone get the wrong impression, I'd like to make three things clear. First, I'm not deeply attached to this, it's just an idea I've been kicking around; please, discuss. Feel free to prove me wrong. Second, I'm generally--and still--an advocate of a very man-friendly reading of feminism, which is not clear from the content of this post. Lastly, I like men. A lot. Even if this theory happens to be right. Ok, now we can start.

I have a theory that since men held so much material power in sexual relationships for such a long time--the ownership of all property, children, and spouse, and a greater right of divorce, among other things--women have, for a long time, been more or less forced to do the work of emotional and interpersonal regulation for both parties.

There's a pattern often found in abusive relationships. Anybody who grew up with a severely physically abusive parent will recognize it; constant threat of violence changes the way you see the world. Your behavior and emotions are absolutely dominated by the goal of keeping yourself (and perhaps also the people you love) safe--which you do by trying to keep your abuser happy, at basically any cost. There is not possibility for give and take in this sort of relationship, no honest communication or mutual recognition of needs. The child is basically not allowed to have needs, particularly not emotional ones.

This is exactly the sort of power over others that has traditionally been afforded to men within marriage, generally without negative physical, legal, or social consequences. Despite the fact that, even in the most brutal times, there were probably lots of men who were decent enough not to engage in this sort of terrorism, I think the fact of it's possibility probably had a large impact on women's functioning over time.

And so we arrive at the (usually essentialist) argument that women just care a lot more about relationships and emotions than men seem to. I think this is definitely the current state of affairs, and that if we're interested in any form of gender equality it can't and shouldn't be ignored.

Here's some evidence:

When addressing ethical challenges women are more likely to place a high value on taking care of people's emotions and creating collaborative solutions to problems--instead of focusing primarily on principles, as men are more likely to. Regardless of technically having access to all fields, women still choose their work by very predictable criteria--on average, we're far more likely than men to be motivated into our career path by wanting to help people. We also want a lot more emotional feedback from our professors then men do.

Perhaps most tellingly, we perform far better--especially in technical fields--when placed in classrooms with no men, whereas men perform the same or worse in single gender classrooms.* Usually people explain this in terms of men showing off for women, and women "showing off" their suitability as mates by not being intellectually intimidating.

I think it useful to contextualize this differently. What is a woman doing when she chooses not to be intellectually intimidating, other than looking after the emotional welfare of her potential colleagues and partners? And why is it that, rather than recognizing that by looking after people's emotions she is performing a valuable service (maybe the reason some studies show that men perform better with women in the room?) which needs to be done by somebody in order for everybody to function well, we simply try to "empower" her out of it?

This is a problem I see with basically every kind of "women's work." Liberating some women from housework doesn't change the fact that housework definitely needs to be done--and that this problem is often "solved" by hiring someone of a lower economic status to do this thankless job instead. Encouraging women not to be completely bound to parenting doesn't change the fact that parenting is a spectacularly important project, which deserves to be done well. The wage gap (for the same hours working outside the home) between mothers and non-mothers is far larger these days than the wage gap between men and women; chew on that.

When you look at the lives of great intellectual men, they are often littered by complicated, even ugly relationships with bright or even brilliant women who never accomplished anything particularly visible themselves. Maybe, there was work going on there too--work of a different kind, work that we ought to recognize. Maybe it will never be possible for women to reach their full technical and intellectual potential until men start to reach their full emotional and relational potential--until men start carrying their weight in doing the work of relationships, along with all the other marginalized kinds of work traditionally left to women.

*Not better or worse as compared to one's classmates, but on national standardized tests like the GRE subject tests.


___________________________ said...

Hmm.... this is an interesting idea. I would guess that this isn't just a matter of threat at this point, but now a standard way to socialize girls.

I suppose the big thing to look for is societies that have more equality having women who are less empathetic.

After all, I would imagine that the big theory that you are opposing is the "women are naturally empathetic" theory. So, I think a major issue here would likely be showing that power differences are somewhat ahistorical and that without them women are less empatheitc.

The reason I say ahistorical is because if male dominance has existed for a few million years or so, then a cultural theory of gender oppression doesn't explain all of the differences now. Instead, we'd have had an evolutionary selection pressure towards empathetic women that they would all naturally express without much regard to the institutional set up.

As well, if it can't be shown that these distinctions don't exist in a more equal society, then the theory also has been shown wrong on some level. The thing is, there should be a historical hope for verification, that is that the theory should match historical anthropological findings.

Btw, I am reading Susan Moller Okin's book "Justice, Gender, and the Family".

Day said...

Hmn. . . Maybe. One of the problems with the whole concept is that emotional work isn't particularly measurable, and it's definitely not zero-sum; would women have to be less empathetic? Or could men simply become more empathetic?

Anonymous said...

Taking you at your theory, Day, and considering you to have answered yes to the last question you pose in your above comment, I would have to wonder at the mechanics of what you are proposing. It made me think of the simplistic but useful explanation that Virginia Woolf offers re: the threatened and angry response of both men and women to any suggestions toward a change in gender roles. Virginia says that men consider women their magic mirrors, at least doubling the size of the image of the man looking inside. This is basically what you suggested, that women have often played a crucial role as The Emotional Support. Virginia goes so far as to cede (without condoning) the usefulness of these mirrors--with the kind of ego that comes from seeing yourself twice your actual size, men created empires, wrote masterpieces, won wars, etc. etc. etc. Again, the idea is not nuanced enough to really act as a theoretical device, but it does explain the fearful responses to some extent; for me, it especially explains those women that uphold patriarchy--they too believe that their only value lies in their ability to magnify and reflect, and therefore they cling to it with more tenacity than often do men.

So my question is: how do you, mechanistically-speaking, encourage men to allow themselves to be an emotional mirror, if you will, when the men of patriarchal societies will worry that this will lead to a reduction in their own reflection and thereby in their accomplishments? And how do you get women to tone down their magnification settings in the interest of allowing men a more accurate picture of reality when they are terrified this will strip them of their innate value? This also speaks, I think, to your secondary suggestion of men taking on the base-tasks more often, rather than subletting them out to marginalized peoples; a man that considers himself more than he is will consider himself above activities that don't result in certain kinds of recognition.