Articles & papers – Sexes as neighbours

In April 2000 Mike Read, an editor with the Australian environmental-issues magazine ‘Green Connections’, asked me to provide a gender perspective for the magazine’s upcoming ‘Neighbours’ issue. I adapted for the gender-issues area a number of the basic themes from “Wyrd Allies” – particularly the concept of power – and pared them down as hard as I could to fit within the very tight space available. (Mike also commissioned a well-known woman writer to create a female counterpart, but it was apparently so sexist and blame-based that even the magazine’s decidedly pro-feminist editor, Joy Finch, realised it was unusable – it certainly didn’t fit in with the theme of ‘good neighbours’!) The article as published in GC31 had been edited to match the magazine’s strangely formal grammatic style, with the result that the ‘voice’ sounds stilted and cold; what follows is the unedited original, which is a lot ‘friendlier’ in style:

It’s often called “the war of the sexes”. But if we’re supposed to regard our closest neighbour as our enemy, does this really help anyone? And could anyone ever ‘win’ this supposed war anyway?

Like all wars, this one’s gone on for far, far too long. And since the only sane answer to those questions is ‘No’, it might be wise to negotiate a truce… within ourselves, with each other, and with the wider world.

To reach that truce, we each need to face three key questions: What’s happening right now – in this place, this country, at this time? How did we get here? And what can we do about it?

So, first, what’s happening now?

The usual propaganda still asserts that Australia is a ‘male-dominated society’. But whilst that may once have been true, it’s certainly true no longer: present Australian society is better summarised by the phrase “women have rights, men have blame”. School education now intentionally favours girls, but at boys’ expense; and although girls are now the majority of tertiary students, they’re still provided special ‘minority’ support and facilities. At work, most traditional ‘male’ jobs have disappeared, replaced by different jobs which favour women’s dexterity. Legal discrimination against men is rampant almost everywhere: the Sex Discrimination Act even formally defines ‘sex discrimination’ as ‘discrimination against women’. And so-called ‘equal opportunity’ legislation has been little more than a sexist joke, whose only real result has been to increase the gap between rich and poor: “one woman’s ‘equality’ is another woman’s poverty”, as a disillusioned feminist commented recently.

At home, things are perhaps even worse. Male health and fertility are falling at alarming rates; divorce rates are the highest ever, with one third of all children living with only one parent; one in five adults are victims of domestic violence. For all of this, our supposedly ‘male-dominated’ society emphatically blames men alone. But in fact, male health problems are closely linked to increasing alienation and an over-‘feminised’ diet, whilst women initiate most divorces, and are no less likely than men to break up a relationship with an affair. Or, for that matter, to start a fight: despite decades of fudging and falsification, the objective data now show beyond doubt that domestic violence is a bleak ‘equal opportunity employer’, with victims overall being more often male than female. And yet, for no reason other than that they are women, women still can, and often do, literally get away with murder – or worse.

In short, it’s a mess. Another confused, chaotic, dishonest mess…

So what happened? How did we get here?

The short answer is that things are the way they are because they got that way: there’s certainly no point in blame. Yet ironically it’s clear that many of the current problems arose from the success of women’s campaigns in previous centuries, resulting in three fundamental social changes: the ‘de-skilling’ and deprecation of the ‘housewife’ role, a huge drop in infant and maternal mortality, and reliable contraception. Which in turn largely ended for women the automatic, biologically-driven, definition of ‘self as housewife and mother’; and left them facing the same impossible question that men have faced for so many centuries: “if I’m not that, what am I?”

And their answers have been as inadequate as men’s: trying to find self in work, or in others. Or in denying their own responsibility, trying to control through ‘blaming and shaming’: many ‘ecofeminists’ still seek to blame men alone for all environmental problems, whilst many – perhaps most? – political feminists still promote abuse and violence as ‘women’s rights and women’s power’. Men are no better, of course – yet are becoming understandably angry at the scale of state-sponsored abuse. The results are ugly, and everywhere… and increasingly dangerous for everyone, as the pendulum starts to swing once more.

So what can we do about it? What can we do towards ending this pointless ‘war’?

One essential is to look within ourselves – not just in others – for attributes such as honesty, responsibility and courage… attributes which are usually conspicuous only by their absence…

We could look to saner feminist theorists such as Starhawk (Miriam Simos), who show us that the only true source of power is from within ourselves – though we can help, or hinder, each other in creating it. We could learn to recognise that true power is not about who we can fool, or bully, or blame, but is simply ‘the ability to do work, as an expression of choice’. Or ‘to do play’: ultimately, as children show us every day, ‘work’ and ‘play’ are actually the same word.

We need to face our attempts to export our sense of powerlessness to others, through violence or abuse. Violence gives an illusion of empowerment, and abuse an illusion of evading responsibility, but in each case it’s only shortlived – and hence dangerously addictive.

We could watch how we condone three dominant pairs of gender-stereotypes: “men do; women are”, “women don’t think, men don’t feel”, and “men are hunters, women are gatherers”. And note that whilst each pair has its truth, they can only be resolved by working on them as pairs – not just on the women’s side of each pair, as in the past four decades; or the men’s, as in some past centuries.

And we could aim not just to talk about, but actually live, an equality in which the needs, concerns, feelings and fears of men and of women are of exactly equal value and importance – rather than one in which ‘some are more equal than others’ by virtue of body-shape alone.

That’s what we could do. It’d be a start, at any rate…

And yes, it’s never easy – especially in this seriously insane society of ours… But do we want this mad ‘war’ to end? Do we want peace with ourselves, and with our many neighbours? If so, finding that peace can only start, and end, with us.

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