20 June 2012


I do not subscribe to an inherent superiority in either gender.  Yet due to our socialization and our respective genetic makeups, in social situations men and women each enjoy certain specific advantages and disadvantages, along with significant overlap.  Here are two cases in point.

From Science Daily ~ "New research from Brigham Young University shows that dads are in a unique position to help their adolescent children develop persistence .... Over time, the persistence gained through fathers leads to higher engagement in school and lower rates of delinquency .... The key is for dads to practice what's called 'authoritative' parenting (not to be confused with authoritarian parenting).  Here are the three basic ingredients ~

  • Children feel warmth and love from their father
  • Accountability and the reasons behind rules are emphasized
  • Children are granted an appropriate level of autonomy
The study report is brief, and does not compare how fathers and mothers might differ.  Indeed, mothers are not even mentioned.  The actual paper was published in the June 15 edition of the Journal of Early Adolescence.  It seems likely to me that children are just as likely to learn persistence from their mothers.  Despite this, it is gratifying to see male parents portrayed in a positive light, in a climate in which fathers are often described as either abusive or as deadbeat dads.

A much more thorough discussion appears in Why Women Are More Often Right, a Role/Reboot piece by Hugo Schwyzer.  The title is in the context of disagreements between male and female partners in heterosexual relationships.  The author explains ~

"As anyone who's ever been in a serious relationship can tell you, one near-certain source of conflict comes from the simple truth that thanks to our experiences, we all see the world slightly differently.  That's obvious enough.  But do women's experiences ~ as women ~ give them 'standpoint privilege' in arguments with men?  The answer is almost certainly yes.

"In a relationship between two people who are of different sexes, classes, or ethnic backgrounds, it's reasonable to assume that each person's knowledge of the world will have been shaped in no small part by their status.  Class and sex and race and faith are some of ~ but surely not the only ~ prisms through which we see and interpret the world.  Patriarchy, the complex system through which male identity is privileged in an extraordinary number of ways, impacts everyone.  Yes, as the famous saying goes, it 'hurts men too'.  But one particular thing that patriarchy does is warp our understanding of everything around us, particularly things like power dynamics, sexuality, and how we communicate with one another.  Feminists point out the deeply obvious ~ the class of persons most likely to be discriminated against by the system are also those most likely to be aware of the system itself.

"This enhanced awareness leads to something called 'epistemic privilege'.  (Epistemology is the philosophical discipline that deals with how we know things.)  Epistemic privilege means that in a heterosexual relationship, it is generally ~ though not universally ~ the case that the woman will see gender-based power imbalances more clearly than will her boyfriend or her husband.  This isn't because of 'feminine intuition', it's because folks in a historically oppressed class are always required to be more aware of power dynamics than those who belong to the dominant group.  The same epistemic privilege can occur in race and class relations, regardless of the sex of the people involved.

" .... This doesn't mean, by the way, that women are 'always right' and men 'always wrong'.  But it does mean that in heterosexual relations it is likely that a woman's understanding of some dynamics (particularly around sex and power) will be superior to those of her male partner.  In my marriage to Eira, for example, there are several layers of standpoint difference.  I am male, she is female.  I am white, the son of two college professors, and grew up in what most people seem to consider the upper-middle class.  My wife is of mixed race, dark enough to have been called a 'nigger' when she was a child, she grew up very poor and was the first member of her family to earn a bachelor's degree.  Around three intersecting issues ~ race, sex, and class ~ my wife's experience has been radically different from my own.  In a very real sense, that gives her a breadth and depth of knowledge about those issues that I cannot share.

"Sometimes my wife is wrong.  (Yes, my love, you are, even if it's only every fifth Tuesday.)  Sometimes I am.  We quarrel like any couple, though our experiences have given us tools like 'fair fighting rules' that not everyone, alas, possesses.  We know that in our marriage, each of us is equally important, each of us is entitled to his or her opinion, each of us deserves to be heard.  But we also know that we didn't come into this marriage as disembodied souls ~ we brought our gender identities, our class backgrounds, our skin tones, our multi-generational family histories.  And just as it's absurd to pretend that we've come from equally privileged backgrounds, it is equally absurd to pretend that those backgrounds have not at least in part shaped our worldviews.  Again, power obfuscates, oppression clarifies.  So when the topic at hand is gender dynamics or race or class, the epistemic privilege is not mine.  And thus the burden to reflect just a bit harder, is." 

Schwyzer's views resonate deeply in me (hence the extended quote).  Over the years, through three marriages, a time spent minoring in Women's Studies, and even more time spent thinking about and discussing power relationships (gender, race, class, etc.), my thoughts have come to closely parallel his.  If you'd like to learn more about "gender myths, body image, sexual harassment, rape prevention, sexuality and gender justice, check out his eponymous blog.

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