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my heroes have always been shield-maidens

(Early to bed, early to rise, I guess! It's not even 4 AM, and I'm fully awake.)

Over at ChristianityToday's Her.meneutics blog, Margarita Mooney has been discussing what I call "soft complementarianism." Complementarianim is the idea that men and women are in some sense separate but equal. I mean that sincerely and not at all snarkily. Complementarianism, in theory, does not make men superior to women. It simply says that men excel in some areas, women in others, and that both genders excel when we do what comes most naturally to us. And that "naturally" is innate, it's ingrained into us because of our gender. This basically means that women are happiest when they do traditionally female work, and similarly for men.

Many complementarians use this to argue for women not to be in the workforce. Women are natural mothers, and so when possible we should encourage them to be mums. "Soft" complementarians like Ms. Mooney don't go quite that far. Using the philosopher Edith Stein, Mooney argues that women can excel at any field they want – but that they will be happiest when they do this in a feminine way. Specifically, women are innately nurturers, and so they should not feel the need to masculinize themselves in their professions. Ms. Mooney is a university professor, and she mentions how this means being a listener to students' problems and helping connecting them to the right campus resources to help them when they're depressed or overwhelmed or whatever.

Ninety-second version: According to Stein (per Mooney), there's no reason women have to be biological mothers to be fulfilled. But they are naturally nurturing, and they'll be happiest if they can find an outlet for that.

The problem is, some careers are naturally more open to nurturing than others. If Stein is right, then women are not going to be most fulfilled as a laboratory science researcher. Or even as an accountant or computer scientist. It's not irrational, then, to suggest we should admit more women into educational programs that prepare them for feminine careers. Or that human resources people should be more ready to hire a woman in a job where she'll get to be more "nurturing." It's only what's best for her, after all. You might even argue that within a certain degree, it is rational for women to be nudged into the more "nurturing" track, even if it is less highly paid or prestigious – nurse rather than doctor, marketing rather than engineering, etc. Ironically, in many cases this would push us to women into higher positions (up to a point). Men make good grunts or CEOs, while women make good middle management, etc.

If Stein is right – if men and women are intrinsically different – then some kind of complementarianism is a step forward. Of course it's been abused in the past, but abuse doesn't in itself prove a belief wrong. (You can think Stalin and Mao were monsters and still think Marx had it right.) But my problems with complementarianism go beyond that. It assumes that women and men really do have innate characteristics that are different, so much so that all women will live best when they use the feminine traits (and similarly for men). Soft compatibilism is a step in the right direction, but it still says that men and women are inherently different.

Yes, many women like to nurture, but I tend to think that's the weight of culture more than any innate character. Historically women did serve as child-raisers, and "good" women (ones who excelled at their appoint tasks) were good nurturers. So women were raised to encourage that and now the gendered equivalent of ambidextrous women – ones who can excel at either traditionally male or female traits – were pushed to build up the traditionally feminine ones. This is true not just of women who can excel equally well in either category, but also women who might be more drawn to traditionally male domains but that can (with some effort and no small degree of awkwardness) make feminine traits work for them.

I count myself in the second camp. I'm highly logical and like to fix things or at least understand them. My background is in math, and while I really enjoy teaching, I don't particularly enjoy the hand-holding parts. What I like is not so much comforting the student but in helping them become a better philosopher and a better human. I like being a leader and making things work. I'm thankful for Stein's not restricting me to the "domestic angel" role, because I would be miserable there! (With all due respect to those people, male and female, who thrive in that role, that's simply not who I am.) And I suspect many other women feel similarly. For that matter, many men excel at the traditionally feminine as well. Just one example I know of: one of my cousins is a laboratory scientist while her husband is an author and a stay-at-home dad, and he's great with their kids. Complementarianism seems like it would have nudged them both into opposite roles, and while I don't presume to pass judgment on their lives, I can't see how that would be an improvement.

When I read the post, I thought about the movie title: My Heroes Have Always been Cowboys. My heroes have always been shieldmaidens. Or the kick-ass science types of the Star Trek universe (Jadzia Dax, B'Elanna Torres, even Katherine Pulaski). Or hobbit matrons who were every bit the equal of their male counterparts – the image of Lobelia whacking the ruffian over the head with her umbrella is easily one of my top five moments in Lord of the Rings – or even certain brainy Gryffindors who we know first and foremost as an individual and "the smartest witch of her age." (It's incidentally why I have no love for Bella Swann, who seems to define herself in terms of her handsome prince saving her from the banality of being human.) These characters are women, to be sure, but they also play tonga and slay Nazgûl and otherwise transcend what women are supposed to do in polite society. And I love them for it.

None of this means that girls have to go in for this particular model of the no-holds-barred heroine. But I think that for those of us who do like to see the world this way and maybe want to take those people up as role-models, that's not wrong. It's not less valid as a woman (or as a man, if you prefer a more traditionally-feminine model). It's just different.

What do you think? Is there such a thing as "feminine" / "masculine" traits? I'd love to hear peoples' thoughts.

This entry was originally posted at http://fidesquaerens.dreamwidth.org/23139.html. Please comment there using OpenID.

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