For decades, governments have been using gender stereotypes to their advantage, but this narrow viewpoint is outdated and irrelevant, writes A L Jones.
EVERYONE KNOWS there are only two sexes, right? The Almighty decided that’s how it would be and that’s how it has been until now, right? Until all this “woke” palaver about “multiple genders” got the young’uns confused — are they pink or blue? Rest assured that conservative governments are no fools: pink is pink, blue is blue and there is no mauve.
Currently before an Australian State Parliament is a proposed bill to prohibit the teaching of gender fluidity in schools. Yes, you guessed it – One Nation’s NSW upper house MP Mark Latham is pledging to rescue parents and children from the clutches of woke “ideology”. Henceforth, teachers would be banned from mentioning the difference between biological sex and human gender.
Governments have always known how to magnify sex-based differences for political gain. After WW2, for example, the powers-that-be wanted the women who had worked in the war effort to go back to their kitchens. Why?
First, to have babies for the country. Second, to give their old jobs (read, independence, status, money) back to the deserving diggers. Third, to make them forget they had ever that modicum of societal esteem that comes with working in the public sphere.
Enter some big lies — advertisements, for example, featuring ball-gowned women swooning over their shiny, brand new Frigidaires and Mixmasters. The governing message? Don’t call us, we’ll call you (in the event of war or disaster); in the meantime, remember that real women want nothing more than to cook and gratify their husband.
After the Black Plague of the 1300s half destroyed Europe, population rebuilding topped governmental to-do lists. Enter the same old big lies. How to get the womenfolk to have more babies? Most imperative was to stop those pesky midwives teaching women – against the Almighty’s plan – about family planning.
It was a pushover. A resurrection of the ever-popular Madonna/Whore binary succeeded in bringing about the witch craze. Tens of thousands of women were burnt, drowned or hanged. Their crimes: using spells to prevent conception, for example, or abducting newborns to give to the Devil. Midwives and nonconforming souls (sexually or socially) topped the death lists.
Later, to save knocking them off, the powers-that-be simply prevented women from becoming midwives. The man-wives, that is, modern obstetrics (a trade barred to women) took over.
And, lest we forget, just a few centuries later, Australia’s own Julia “ditch the witch” Gillard. “Juliar”, “empty fruit bowl”, “Bob Brown’s bitch”, “is (your partner) gay?” Gillard; not the brotherhood’s favourite woman. Though not, of course, because she meddled with the Australian Defence Force and the Church.
What if contemporary governments stopped using sex differences as a political weapon? What if we saw sex differences as we see other biological traits such as eye colour (not, of course, by ignoring sex-based prejudice)? How might things change?
Try this thought experiment, which can also help tease out the biological from the cultural aspects of a given trait: what is the biological basis of eye colour? What, on the other hand, might be understood as its “cultural” aspects?
First, as an expression of biology, eye colour varies widely — from blue to green, brown to grey and to pink (from albinism). That blue and brown eyes predominate does not delegitimise other hues.
Second, what might be construed as a cultural dimension to eye colour? For example, am I, as a brown-eyed person, seen as inferior to those with blue eyes? Do my brown eyes make me dull, boring and run-of-the-mill? Historically, the queer-eyed have suffered bigotry because of their eye colour — the green-eyed accused of being witches, the pink-eyed of being cursed.
The 1960s “blue-eyes/brown-eyes” exercise used in diversity training revealed the cost of discrimination even when based on a trivial difference. Even though the players knew it was all a game, they were deeply disturbed by the relatively brief experience of being disparaged and unfairly treated because of their eye colour.
My point is that the issue of how people feel – or are made to feel – about their eye colour or another trait such as their sex is social and cultural, not biological.
What, you might be asking, has all this eye colour stuff got to do with sex? The eye colour analogy tells us that cultural aspects of biological traits are entirely malleable. We can stop saying uninformed and cruel things about people and discriminating against them because of their physical traits. What’s more, we can call out the harm done by the powerful whenever it suits their political ends. As for eye colour, so for sex.
For a start, look at how biological sex is determined. In lay terms, a person’s biological sex results from a combination of physical factors present at birth: chromosomes, hormones, internal and external anatomy and so forth. “Intersex” is the term used when these factors are mixed.
Variations in sex chromosomes affect sex characteristics. As with blue and brown eyes, although the XX and XY combinations predominate, there are many variations. As well as the typical 46,XX (female) and 46,XY (male), variations include: 45,X0; 47,XXX; 47,XXY; 47,XYY; 48,XXXX; 48,XXXY; 48,XXYY; 48,XYYY. Additional, though rare, are 49,XXXXX; 49,XXXXY; 49,XXXYY; 49,XXYYY; and 49,XYYYY.
As with eye colour, the fact that two sexes predominate does not delegitimise the other combinations. The story that there are only two sexes – male and female – is a big lie told for political purposes. What do I mean?
Yes, science and leadership knew there were at least a dozen different biological sexes. Why didn’t they tell us? Political expedience and social control: those who can be made to feel ashamed for being different – which includes social dissidents – are more readily co-opted, coerced and silenced.
The more division governments sow among us, the more we do their dirty work for them. Just as some contemporary scholars claim – contrary to the evidence – that the common folk, not their leaders, fomented and fuelled the witch craze, so the spin still goes.
In the beginning, sex-based mistreatment came about when the dominant culture took what were biological differences between men and women and made them, in women’s case, into markers of social inferiority. By way of social norms labelled “masculinity” and “femininity”, the powerful decided who was and wasn’t a worthy member of their sex as well as a worthy moral member of society generally.
The term “gender” is used when describing the social dimensions – for example, differential treatment – from the biological aspects of sex. That’s why gender is said to be “socially constructed”.
Historically, the system has required men to be on permanent standby to carry out the civic, political and territorial needs of the state. Whenever leaders smelled war, they became obsessed with eradicating gender ambiguity. Warmongering European statesmen in the 1800s and 1900s said that increasing rates of perversion had lowered birth rates and weakened national defences.
Traditionally, while men’s duty was to kill and be killed for the state, women’s was to bear and raise such men. The trick, of course, was to keep men and women in their assigned roles. Hence the need for persuasion, half-truths, myths, outright lies and coercion.
After five millennia, let’s call out these big lies about sex and gender — and, with it, other harmful categories. During WW2, 200,000 Australian women joined the workforce (at two-thirds of men’s pay). Post-war, governments sent them back to their kitchens.
Julia Gillard didn’t go home. Speaking for today’s women, neither will they. And all of us must resist the sowing of division, distrust and fear of difference. Everything is mauve.
A L Jones is a psychologist and author of several published books and numerous articles on gender politics.
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