Although the terms ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ are commonly used in an interchangeable way in everyday life they do have two very different, if albeit related meanings. Our ‘sex’ is what we biologically are, our ‘gender’ is the package of attitudes, behaviours and cultural norms that we are taught to internalise, embody and enact as being socially appropriate to our sex. Men end up doing ‘masculine’, women do ‘feminine’ and we all know what’s supposed to go in the blue and pink boxes.
Viewed in this light the terminology used to describe proposed legislation for the promotion of ‘gender’ quotas in political representation is wholly inaccurate. No woman will be nominated to run for political office on the grounds of possession of any stereotypically feminine qualities that may be indicative of her ‘gender’. She will not be chosen on the grounds of liking pink, being able to knock up a spongecake or knowing that red socks in the boilwash is a bad idea. The quota will require only that she is biologically female. This is because it’s really a sex quota which, of course, it will never be called because of the endless and derogatorily smutty jokes that would ensue.
So does the difference matter? I think it matters more than we realise and I also think that difference must be acknowledged if the hopes that we have for female representation are to be realised. Those hopes are embodied in two issues. Firstly, in the long overdue move towards equality of representation for the women who constitute more than half the Irish population. And secondly in a pervasive hope that a more prominent female presence in the structuring and administration of our social order would actually make it a better place, reflecting qualities that are generally perceived to be the prerogative of the feminine domain.
The desirability of the first is beyond dispute but it should be noted that if the principle of quota by sex is accepted as morally correct then equivalently proportional representation by factors such as race, class and ableness etc. will subsequently become difficult to logically dismiss as an ultimate, if Utopian, goal.
The second issue regarding greater female political representation, the notion that it would make society a better place, is somewhat more contentious and is the place where the prime difference between ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ really comes into play.
At a time when Irish feminists are celebrating what is undoubtedly a very significant legislative imperative the fact that women in power are perfectly capable of behaving just like men, if not worse, is the ultimate pink elephant in the corner that no one dares to mention for fear of letting the side down.
Sex does not determine gender, but gendering does determine both attitudes and behaviours and it’s an arbitrary and moveable feast, based upon the division and allocation of human attributes for purposes of social power and dominance.
Although stereotypical gendering is patterned into us from the moment we are born the reality is that we all have access to the entire range of human attributes and behaviours all the time and the extent to which we acknowledge and implement them is largely determined by our position on a spectrum that has individual integrity at one end and a predilection for peer approval and self-interest at the other.
Traditionally, the gendering of males as ‘masculine’ has fostered the ‘hard’ qualities that are primarily expressed through an ideology of hierarchy, embodying competitiveness, aggression, rejection of co-operation and communality and lack of care and compassion, particularly with respect to those perceived as vulnerable. In a historically male-dominated world all our social structures have been constructed on this model and continue to function (or more accurately dysfunction) on it.
Men have not maintained power because they are worthy of greater merit, a fact reflected in the statistics of the CSO’s most recently published report ‘Women and Men in Ireland 2011’ which actually shows the opposite to be true, highlighting women’s significantly superior achievements at every level of education. In spite of this the report also demonstrates men’s overwhelming dominance within both the professions and politics. Men have maintained a specifically and iniquitously inequitable form of power not because they merit it but because they are spectacularly well-engendered to both construct and maintain it.
The general consensus is that women will bring their more compassionate, altruistic and co-operative qualities into this bear-pit, thus improving things for us all and with specific hope for the lot of other women. The evidence is not, thus far, convincing.
In Didi Kirsten Tatlow’s recent article for the New York Times, ‘Remixing Ireland’s Gender Blend’, Kathleen Lynch, one of only two female ministerial incumbents in the current administration, is quoted as saying that the lack of gender balance in the Irish power elite was one of the factors in the current economic debacle. She goes on to say that……
‘If we had the proper balance and mix, I think different decisions would have been made…and even if you’re making the same decisions, then I think the emphasis would have been different.’
Mrs. Lynch is described in a way that no male politician ever is, as being 58 and a mother of four.
I too am 58 and a mother of four. My youngest child, my son who is just eighteen, has severe autism and is also severely intellectually disabled. At time of writing Mrs. Lynch has just announced proposals to cut funding for the most basic of services to disabled young people who are about to ‘graduate’ from school provision. In reality, this will mean that thousands of parents who will inevitably be women, given that eighty per cent of Ireland’s Carers are already female , will have to give up work and careers to care for these displaced and disabled young people that the State wishes to abandon. In 2011, Mrs. Lynch’s other ministerial colleague, Joan Burton, demonstrated a similar willingness to attack young and extremely vulnerable disabled people when she introduced proposals to drastically slash their Disability Allowance, aiming to render them further dependent on the care and support of their parents, which in the reality of everyday living produces a disproportionately heavy burden for mothers.
During the time of this administration women such as myself have had our lives and opportunities decimated by our political ‘sisters’ whose ascent to the House has been predicated on our subsequent confinement to ours. In doing so they have replicated the dynamics of masculinisation at a level that would shame many an established male politician.
It’s lucky for them that the term ‘gender quota’ is not factually correct. If it was, reflecting both attitudes and actions, they may have difficulty convincing the populace of their right to eligibility. It’s a point that feminism ignores at its peril.