Thursday, October 11, 2007

A woman's place?

I've often wondered why people think the right way to characterize people would be by their gender. Humans come in many different shapes, sizes, colours and so on, so why choose something as simple as gender to set people apart from each other?

As I've mentioned before, I've been born during a time when most parents tried not to raise their children according to their gender. But trying and succeeding are two different things.

So, even during my youth, a lot of people (mostly older ones, but not just those) have been stating "a girl should do that" or "a woman shouldn't do that" or "that's something only boys do" or other stuff like that. Why? I've wondered about that for a long time.

Okay, so there are things only men or only women can do. Only women can give birth, yes. Only men can impregnate (at least the 'normal' way without medical tricks), yes. But above our 'biological destiny', what does really set men apart from women and the other way around?

There are some physical differences, but they are quite minor - especially today. Most jobs don't exactly require a male body and the supposedly higher strength. Nevertheless, the idea of what a man/woman should or shouldn't do is stronger than twenty or so years ago.

Why am I writing this now, you might ask. It's Eva Herman again. As I've written before, she has been fired because of something she said when defending her new book. She definitely hasn't learned it, as she proved this Tuesday. She's still defending the rather stupid answer she gave, even though she could probably have made everything alright by just saying "I'm sorry, I didn't mean it that way". But enough of her current troubles, at least for this post.

Mrs. Herman is only the most renown person talking about the 'old' way of family life (with mum staying at home while dad goes to work and brings home the money). She's advocating this traditional female role with a fervour that is surprising - as she's working (and currently trying to get her job back). A woman, she claims, can only be happy with children and a nice home to take care of. Career can't make a woman happy, or so she says. And, of course, men can't stay at home and take care of children - even if the woman could earn more money, because she's got a better job. Men are, after all, supposed to go out into the cold, dangerous world and bring back the mammoth meat...

No wonder, the conservative party and the churches (especially the Roman-Catholic church) applaud her. It's exactly what they've been saying for years.

I, on the other hand, always find myself reminded of a book I read quite some time ago. It was first published around 1900 (couldn't find the exact date that quickly, especially as the book has been republished eight times during seven years) in German - but I think, it must have been published in other languages, too. The German title is "Über den physiologischen Schwachsinn des Weibes". It's hard to translate it, because the book tries very hard to be seen as scientific. Basically the idea the title evocates is that women are physiologically mad (or at least weak-minded) - and thus should not have the right to vote or a better (and higher) education. As much as this book tries to seem scientific, it's meant to help against the first wave of feminism, nothing else. With the argument "women are too weak-minded to take care of themselves, thus they can't take on better-paid jobs or vote" men hoped to cut back the rights the women had been given already (voting and going to university) - and, of course, make sure that the women didn't get any more rights.

Even though I doubt Mrs. Herman has ever read this book (I've got a reprint of the last edition), she mostly argues in the same way he does: Women are by nature meant to stay at home and have children. They are not meant to do the jobs nature has designed for men.

The funny thing - in a very un-funny way - is that even nature does not design females only to have children and men only to go out and get the food. Most predators don't make a difference between males and females - all grown-ups hunt (with the lions, only the females hunt). Herd-animals quite often travel separated by gender most of the time, males are only allowed into the female groups during mating. There's other examples (the most extreme being the seahorse, where the males actually 'give birth' to the next generation, or a kind of gecko, where there aren't any males around and the females clone themselves through their eggs). And then, of course, there's the bacteria which don't know gender at all and still have managed to survive for millennia.

So, nature doesn't make a difference between 'those who bring home the food' and 'those who give birth to the children'. Those who can bring home the food, do so. If they also are able to give birth, that's a bonus. Nature is flexible, that's its character.

So why should a woman's - or a man's, it works the other way around, too - place be defined by her gender. Why should a woman not, for example, work with mechanics or technology? Why should a man not work as a kindergarten teacher?

Compared to other countries in Europe (and I'm not going to compare Germany to the United States or Japan), we have one of the smallest numbers of working women, anyway. Most women stay at home, once they've got children. The French, for example, don't do it. The women stay at home for half a year and then go back to work while their children go into day care. France does not have a higher number of psychologically damaged people - unlike what Mrs. Herman says about children with working mothers. Neither do Sweden, Denmark or Norway, also countries in which women go to work full-time and children are in day care.

There is no such thing as 'the' place for women in this world. Everyone who thinks differently should get his head checked, really.

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