The way we live now

Do we live in a gender-neutral society? Geoffrey Kirk evaluates the evidence


Correct me if I am wrong, but isn’t one of the main arguments in favour of women priests and bishops that we live in a gender-neutral society, and that the Church needs, in consequence, to become gender-neutral itself in order to sustain its position and credibility? This, I take it, was what George Carey was saying in his intervention in the 1992 Synod debate: ‘We are in danger of not being heard if women are exercising leadership in every area of our society’s life save the ordained priesthood.’

If that is the argument, then two things logically follow. In the first place, we will need to establish whether or not our society is gender-neutral. Secondly, we will need rigorously to exclude conflicting or subsidiary arguments: if women’s ordination is held to be a response to the gender-neutral society, then it cannot at the same time be commended as a means of achieving it.

So what is a gender-neutral society? It is one in which the hopes, aspirations and ambitions of individuals are not hampered by sexual stereotypes; one in which men and women have equality of opportunity in every field of endeavour and employment; one in which the conventional notions of ‘manliness’ and ‘femininity’ have lost their purchase and their potency. That, at least, is as far as the George Carey view of gender-neutrality goes. But, of course, there is more.

A wider view of gender-neutrality is now emerging in which heterosexual marriage is seen as an oppressive institution, constricting the free expression of other sexual preferences; and where (as in recently proposed legislation in California) terms like ‘mother’, ‘father’, ‘mom’, ‘dad’ are proposed to be removed from educational literature because they indoctrinate children with a view of sexual roles and societal functions alien to a gender-neutral community.

The fact that, to the best of our knowledge, there never has been a gender-neutral society in the past (all previous known and recorded societies have been patriarchal, as Steven Goldberg [The Inevitability of Patriarchy, 1973] has conclusively demonstrated), should not deter us from asking whether we have we reached that stage now. Are we living in the world’s first gender-neutral culture?

The evidence is mixed. It is certainly true that jobs and professions closed to women (or thought to be ‘unfeminine’ or ‘unladylike’) are now open to all comers. There is a significant representation of women in the legal profession, in industrial and commercial management and finance, and in many blue collar jobs – bus and lorry driving, refuse disposal, and the like. Women are well represented in higher education and in academe. On the other hand, even in developed countries the vast majority of women are employed in childcare or domestic tasks, and almost all surveys show that there is still a strong perception, among both women and men, of the ‘proper’ division of labour in the home. The concept of ‘women’s work’ is alive and well, as much among the young as among the mature, as Steven Rhoades has shown [Taking Sex Differences Seriously, 2004]. Even the most ardent advocates of the gender-neutral society admit that there is a hill to climb. All-women lists of parliamentary candidates are not a sign of success, but an indication of increasing desperation.

So we have clearly not yet reached the promised land. The question, then, must be whether it is realistically attainable. Were the hopes and longings of the earliest feminists, of de Beauvoir, Freidan, Greer, Firestone, Millet, any more than pipe-dreams?

The problem for the architects of gender-neutrality is quite simply the past. It is not just that all previous societies have been patriarchal, but that in the literature which has become canonical for our culture – a tradition extending from Homer to D.H. Lawrence – values inimical to the gender-neutral society are embedded, expressed and passed on. How are we to view the relationship of the sexes? Where will a woman learn to be feminine and a man discover manliness? The answer must, to a large extent, involve the literary texts which have been the basis of Western education for over two thousand years.

Attempts, of course, have recently been made to edit those texts into compliance with the new orthodoxy. This has been most notable amongst revisionist Christians, whose more restricted canon (a mere 80 books in one handy volume) has rendered it a relatively simple task. But even there, as anyone who has sat through Mayhew-MacCrimmon’s bowdlerised version of the Responsorial Psalter will know, the task is not easy. The plain fact is that the entire literary tradition of mankind, from the very invention of writing, is inimical to the social project in hand. People learn from their (predominant) forefathers’ values, which, if forthrightly expressed on a present-day political platform, would secure expulsion from the party (whichever it was).

To create the gender-neutral society it would be necessary to expunge the wrath of Achilles, the suicide of Dido, the passion of Isolde. It would be necessary to sink most, if not all, of Shakespeare, remove the wedding finale from every pantomime, and withdraw all but the most arid operas from the repertoire. For all these are schools of manliness and femininity. From all of them we learn the gender roles in which we live and move and have our being. We learn in particular (which the gender-neutral society hates with an especial loathing) what it is to be a hero.

‘Manliness,’ writes Harvey C. Mansfield, in a recent celebration of gender-specificity [Manliness, 2006] ‘seeks and welcomes drama and prefers times of war, conflict and risk. Manliness brings change or restores order at moments when routine is not enough, when the plan fails, when the whole idea of rational control by modern science develops leaks. Manliness is the next to last resort, before resignation and prayer.’ And, in the aftermath of the heroic work of fire-fighters and others on 9/11, Mansfield claims that America has seen a positive re-evaluation of manliness.

We need to face the facts. It is very much to be doubted that the gender-neutral society will extinguish either manliness or femininity as either concepts or lived realities, surrounded as they are by so great a cloud of witnesses. The Church need feel no necessity to fall into line with what is at the best a work in progress, and at worst an experiment doomed to explosive failure.

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