Earlier this year, a Canadian couple announced their decision to raise a genderless child, Storm. Their announcement that they would keep their child’s gender a secret to the outside world and give Storm the “choice” to decide its gender was met with mass controversy. This moral outrage reflects just how deeply rooted gender stereotypes are. But for the same reason—the intensity of the socialisation of gender—raising a genderless child is a fantasy.
We’re taught everyday that biological differences between males and females determine a person’s behaviour. Of course this socialisation is part of parenting, just think of the importance people attach to the question of whether a baby is a boy or a girl, how they decorate their children’s bedrooms, or what colour and type of clothes and toys they give their kids. It starts before we can even speak.
Then, of course, there is the gender divide inside the home itself. Traditional gender roles, with the mother as carer and cleaner and the husband as lawn mower and primary wage earner, are still very much the norm.
In her excellent critique of the biological basis of gender, The Gender Delusion, Cordelia Fine details one example of a mother who, “insisted on supplying her daughter with tools rather than dolls [who] finally gave up when she discovered the child undressing a hammer and putting it to sleep”. The mother concluded it must be hormonal—until someone asked who had been putting her daughter to bed!
But the socialisation of gender goes much deeper than our home life. That is why parents who try to raise genderless children end up frustrated. Australian psychologist Barbara David’s research shows that girls copy women and boys copy men—but only after they confirm that this is what men or women in general are expected to do. Gender stereotypes are drilled into us on television, at school, in children’s books and in “common sense” attitudes. It is almost unquestioned that boys are interested in “practical” and “logical” endeavours and girls are interested in “caring” and “thoughtful” things. We hear all the time that women must be mothers to be truly fulfilled in life.
There has been a recent resurgence in ideas that gender norms are biologically hard-wired. But this is nonsense. The rigidity of gender stereotypes is not because of a biological process, but a social one.
Throughout human history, notions of how a woman or a man should behave have differed greatly. For instance, there is no evidence that in pre-class society, such as the nomadic hunter-gatherer Aboriginal societies, that women were subordinate to men. Even in some class societies there were “third genders”, like the Fa’afafine in Samoa.
In fact, modern gender roles and the nuclear family were enforced only at the beginning of industrial capitalism. There was a concern at the top of society about how to raise the next generation of workers and keep the workforce sustainable.
A woman in the home, doing hours of unpaid housework, with a man as the “breadwinner”, was the answer. There was a consistent ideological campaign about the “natural” roles of men and women, and of monogamous heterosexual relationships, to make it a reality. It was reinforced through the legal system, education and the mass media.
This is where the so-called “natural” gender behaviours we have now come from. And the same structures reinforce them today. Though women now make up half the workforce in countries like Australia, they are nevertheless still expected to care for the household and children and conform to stereotypes of being nurturing and gentle.
Storm’s mother, in a letter protesting the outrage over their child, asked, “When will this end? When we live in a world where people can make choices to be whoever they are?” Such a world is exactly what socialists want.
But we have much more power to challenge these stereotypes collectively than we do individually.
At the height of the women’s liberation movement in the 1960s, there were protests and debates within workplaces, schools, universities and homes. They won now widely accepted freedoms for women, including ending the taboo on sex before marriage and winning more rights to divorce.
When we’re united together in any fight, there is an opportunity to break down stereotypes and oppression and change ideas on a mass basis. During the Egyptian revolution, men and women united in Tahrir Square, challenging sexist ideas. Women were leading the demonstrations and slept in tents side by side with men without being harrassed.
Struggles open up the possibility of challenging the status quo—and are part of laying the basis for getting rid of a system that relies on gender stereotypes.