Boys with babies and women with knives: Rethinking gender assumptionist power structures

I have been meaning to write a response to this article by Ursula LeGuin for some time. Needless to say, when she says stuff like, “It’s amazing, given their different physiology and complement of hormones, how much alike men and women are in most ways,” I want to tear my hair out. This stuff comes off like somebody saying, “Hey, it’s remarkable that men and women are so… so… human! Like, together. Like, the same species.” This is why I prefer Joanna Russ over LeGuin.

LeGuin goes on to say:  “it seems to be the fact that women on the whole have less direct competitive drive and desire to dominate; and therefore, paradoxically, have less need to bond with one another in ranked, exclusive groups.”

It’s one of those assertions that makes me wonder what sorts of groups of women LeGuin hung out with when she was young. There’s a reason movies like “Heathers” and “Mean Girls” and “Clueless” are so popular. Women organize themselves into competitive groups all the time. It’s just that the acceptable ways for women to be competitive are different than they are for men in this particular society. And when you take away a lot of those restrictions, when you put women into the same kind of competitive atmosphere as men in stuff like violent sports, you start to see pretty similar competitive behavior (including some of the misogyny).

This is the part LeGuin takes great issue with – by joining in with the competive power structures of men, women have begun to organize themselves like men, and are now displaying all the nasty negative things that guys do who participate in this hierarchy.

It’s this little nugget of the essay that I agree with wholeheartedly, and it’s something I explore a lot in GOD’S WAR and the other violent matriarchies I build in my fiction. By participating in certain kinds of power structures, people will find themselves becoming the very monsters they hoped to vanquish. Looking into the abyss, and all that.

My argument has always been that there are certain types of hierarchical structures that just naturally turn people into assholes, and if we tell people that organizing themselves into those structures is how to get ahead, they’ll do it. It doesn’t have anything to do with women having more “fluid” social structures than men.  If we told guys that the way to get ahead was to stop being assholes and building hierarchies and instead pushed hard on non-heirarchical ways of ordering societies, we could do it. There have been, historically, plenty of societies that have done so. It just so happens that colonialism built very good hierarchies so it could conquer the world, and we’re still mucking around in the aftermath of that, desperately flailing for alternative ways of organizing ourselves. But are these inherently male structures? I’m not so sure, and I think we should think long and hard before we make that kind of gendered assumption.

I’m reminded of the story of the group of monkeys that encountered a big poisoned dump of goodies. Because the strong, aggressive male monkeys ate first and most, they all died off, leaving the alpha females and young males to rebuild the troop. In the absence of aggressive hierarchy, they rebuilt their entire troop as a matriarchy and banded together to run off any encroaching aggressive males who stuck to the old hierarchy model. The males that stayed were the ones they deemed acceptable to the new, less hierarchical structure.  They were able to rebuild their society in a less hierarchical way because the old hierarchy was abolished.

Lots of folks hear that story and think, “Well, yeah, the females were in charge now, and they’re naturally more fluid and crap in their social structures, so they rebuilt it in a way that’s more feminine.” But I’d argue that it was the fact that females were victims of the abuse of a hierarchy that challenged them to rethink it.

Women have traditionally been oppressed and enslaved in societies. Women who break out of this role may in fact go on to oppress and enslave other women as well because they stay in a society that values people based on how many people they oppress, but if you were somebody who was oppressed and suddenly found yourself in a society without oppression, would you really seek out to oppress and enslave others the way you’d been? (NOTE: edited this paragraph for improved clarity)

I don’t object to the rejection of heirachical structures, of course, I just reject the idea that hierarchical structures are instrinsicly a male thing hardwired into a guy on his Y chromosome. I think we use abusive power structures because they are a very fast and easy way to get a desired result (long term, they are far less stable).  So to LeGuin’s question: “Can women operate as women in a male institution without becoming imitation men?” I’d say “Of course.”

Our construction of what constitutes feminine social structures and ways of being are also socially constructed. Women are not naturally nurturing. All babies are inherently selfish. We have to learn empathy. A good many of us – male and female – remain stuck in adolescence in a culture that does not encourage us to be socially responsible, unselfish, and cooperative. America in the 21st century is a special case, not a norm; we’re acting like spoiled Americans, not “men.” Because when you break down what exactly “man” and “male” is, it’s just as tricky a definition of what “woman” and “female” is.

Much of the essay seems to lament a loss of a dream – the dream shared not only by feminists of the day but by the sort of free love hippy utopia ideals shared by the radicals and rebels and communists/socialists and commune-builders of the time – both men and women – who sought to create a non-heirarchal, fluid society where folks governed their societies in truly democratic/ideal communist ways.

This is truly something to mourn, and to question, but let’s not pretend that it’s some magical idea that bubbled up from the magical DNA women get when they have wombs. It was a radical rethinking by a people tired of being oppressed whose generation was just waking up, for the first time, to its own subjugation and looking for a better way.

Like LeGuin, I agree that we should continue to question dominant definitions of power and value, because our current system is based on Othering a great deal of people. One can only be powerful today by depriving others of agency. Interdependence, though, is already the way life works – it’s how eight million people can live in a single city. What’s missing is our awareness and celebration of our own interdependence, and to me, that is a very American oversight, not necessarily an oversight that comes with being born with a penis (though if you’re born with that privilege, of course, you’re even more likely to be blind to this interdependence – my argument is simply that creating hierarchical structures is not somehow carried by a Y chromosome; it is a social construct that we’re born into and that men, being closer to the top of this particular hierarchy in this society because of their gender, or going to be more likely to support).

So if I generally agree with LeGuin that hierarchies are bad and men certainly benefit from them more than women, and that as women join them, they will also probably become assholes, just assholes with wombs who have more reason to push for for universal childcare and contraception, why am I taking issue with LeGuin’s wording that building these power structures is somehow intrinsic to one’s DNA instead of a social construct we support based on our gender?

Because it’s arguments like LeGuin’s that people use when building worlds full of passive women and aggressive men. “Women are just naturally nurturing people who value interdependence” and “men are just naturally aggressive people who prefer unequal power structures” are statements that let people get away with lazy writing and worldbuilding. They think, “Well, if women are naturally this way, I certainly couldn’t create a society of violent women without radically altering their DNA” or “Surely I can’t create an egalitarian society or society that actually has men in it who don’t abuse people without castrating all of them.”

That’s bullshit.

I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time researching war, atrocities, women fighters, rebel armies, and regular military training and operations, and I can tell you right now – men are not naturally killers. Fewer than 20% of the men who went off to WWI even fired their guns. They couldn’t shoot a stranger in the face, even if they were being shot at. The reason the U.S. reached a 95% fire rate in the Vietnam War was due do intensive training and indoctrination of troops (and that STILL means that 5% of the guys who went to Vietnam never shot their weapons at the enemy during combat). We teach men and women how to kill others. We desensitize them. There’s an entire other language we use in war that distances us from the actual people we kill, which is why they’re “insurgents” or “japs” or “ragheads” or “targets” and not “people.” It’s why we’ve come to prefer drones and killing people from afar over shooting people in the face. Studies have shown we’re psychologically a lot better off when we murder a million people from a mile away than a single kid with a gun to the face (of course, the kid still dies).  Without “official” stats for women in combat in this country (cause women aren’t “officially” in combat in this country, right? Right? Ha, yeah), I can’t make a comparison, but after researching women who worked as part of guerilla armies, I can tell you the experiences seem to be about the same no matter your gender (in fact, as I recall, firing rates in rebel armies tend to be higher overall than traditional armies because the people have a stronger belief in their cause and motivation to kill). The extra fun bit you get as a female soldier is that you have to deal with sexual abuse from your fellow soldiers (which is a whole other rant). But a gun is a gun, and killing a person is killing a person.

Anyone who’s actually been a mother or had serious, frank discussions with mothers also knows that being some beautific, unselfish, nurturing person 24/7 to your child is a myth. Not all women love their children. Not all women like their children. Not all women want to have children. And those who do have children and love them often feel intense guilt for wanting just five minutes or even five whole days to themselves. Even women who love their children sometimes hate them. That’s the actual, natural reality. Mothers are people, not symbiotic extensions of their children. And though women  have absolutely banded together into interdependent groups, they have, as any high schooler knows, also successfully banded into very hierarchical ones. And let’s not even get into that whole crazy soccer moms, pageant moms, and PTA meeting, non-profit and certain volunteer organizations today where we generally see a higher female-to-male participation ratio (these being activities that we, as a culture, encourage women to embrace).  If you think women are naturally nice people, try listening in to the politics of a group of MA’s at a medical practice or mostly female teachers and tell me that nobody is gunning for anybody else. Women can be just as competitive and underhanded and manipulative as men; sometimes even more so, because we learn early that outright aggression gets us shunned and shut down. We have to think of smarter, more manipulative ways to get what we want, and hence, the stereotype of the scheming woman throughout history. When you’re not allowed to settle a score by hitting somebody in the face because aggression could get you thrown into a mental institution (yes, really), you’re going to find other ways.


But in other societies the ways that we’re allowed to manifest our own will based on gender may be different. It may not be OK for guys to get into fights to “settle” things. There may be no rape culture because society considers it repugnant (no, our society doesn’t – it’s still seen as a grab-and-conquer-manly thing for guys). It may be seen as vaguely worrisome if a woman devotes every waking moment to the care and feeding of her children instead of going out into a fighting ring (hey, you never know. Figuring out a world where that happened and it made sense could be fun. Uh. Not that I’d know anything about that…).  Your people could even totally live in an egalitarian society where men and women are expected to raise children communally, with an equal share in childcare, and women build the boats and men carry the water and women cook the food and men make the clothes. Or maybe the society doesn’t organize things by gender at all, and lo, people just do whatever it is they have wont to do, and society expects nothing of them, no matter what’s between their legs or what clothes they want to wear.

It’s funny because whenever you challenge somebody to look around at the people in their lives who don’t fit dominant expectations of what men and women should be doing, they come up with hundreds of examples. But ask them to construct fictional worlds that contain that same kind of fluidity between gender roles, and it all goes to hell. We write in shorthand. We make assumptions that men shun babies and hit things in the face and women protect things and avoid conflict. In fact, the people in our lives are so much more compelling an dynamic than this. Do a little digging, and you’ll find that history is full of people who don’t conform to this narrative either. It’s a narrative we seem to have been carrying a long time, but which was solidified here in the U.S. in the 50’s when we started rewriting and reinterpreting the history of our species so suddenly hunter-gatherer tribes actually had all the men going out to hunt and the women staying home at nursing babies and maybe gathering a few fruits (just like they were expected to do in the 50’s! How convenient that history was rewritten to reflect current social norms!). It completely ignored the fact that a lot of big game herd-hunts required most of the tribe to lure animals off cliffs, and that the majority of prehistoric diets came from fruits and vegetables. Men were not occasionally hunting game and then just lounging around. Nor were women just nursing babies and lounging around. Everybody was working incredibly hard to ensure the survival of the group, including childcare and food gathering. In groups that small, there’s no time for specialization. It’s work together, it’s interdependence, or death (if you’re interested in a total mindfuck of your conception of how gender may have actually determined certain roles in prehistoric times, read Barbara Ehrenreich’s Blood Rites).

Women are not “naturally” nice. Men are not “naturally” assholes. And the sooner we stop pretending that’s somehow hardwired in our DNA, the more interesting stories we’re going to be equipped to tell.

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