This morning I changed a wheel on my car for the first time in my life. I felt ridiculously proud of myself for completing such a simple task. Then I climbed out of our bathroom window onto a roof and cleared up some broken glass that’s been there since the storm smashed one of our windows last week. Meanwhile, my husband looked after the kids and did the hoovering in an attempt to win the war against fleas that he is currently waging. Things seem to work out this way in our household. I am drawn to practical tasks that are usually considered a traditionally male activity, and my husband often finds himself looking after the kids. This is partly why I felt so proud of myself for changing the tyre, not only because I had the sense of a task well done, but also because I know that I am stepping outside of my traditional gender role and proving that women can do anything they want. This might seem like a big jump to lots of people -it’s just a tyre after all, but I think it’s significant.
As a result of my obsession with gender roles, one of my guilty pleasures is watching the occasional reality TV show, and over the past few years, I’ve become a bit addicted to the Island. I’m always fascinated by the group dynamics and class and gender are often fascinating factors in how people interact. For those of you who don’t know, the Island involves dropping a group of contestants onto a uninhabited tropical island to see how they survive on their own without any creature comforts. Last year, they had two groups of people on two different islands – men on one, and women on the other. Initially I got a bit annoyed at the way the women seemed to be a bit useless at first, but by the end of the series, they had built shelters and beds, were able to light their own fires and were hunting and killing wild boars. All in all, they showed that they could survive just as well as the men and it was gratifying to see. This year however, they dropped the men and women onto the same island (without telling them) and after a few days they found each other. Initially, the women had found a good base, lit their fire and were getting on pretty well on their own, whilst the men flailed around, unable to light a fire or establish a base and generally doing badly. When the two groups united, there was a brief honeymoon period under the leadership of a female soldier which ended when she had to leave the show. There was then a noticeable and depressing shift. Male members of the group openly expressed concern at having to “look after” the women and how this would impact on their ability to survive the weeks on the island. The women who had previously been harmonious as a social group, started flirting with the men and conflict erupted. The men began to insist on going out on hunting missions on their own, clearly seeing this as a male sphere of activity, whilst the women soon began to concern themselves with keeping the camp clean and limiting themselves to more traditionally female activities such as making fishing nets which the men would then swim out and check. The change was obvious and depressing to anybody watching this through a feminist lens. Women on their own are more than capable of surviving and doing any of the things that the men could, but when you add men to the mix, they are instantly told that they are weaker, less capable and a burden. Subsequently, their behaviour changes and they mostly begin to conform to preassigned gender roles.
This may be a fairly extreme example, but this kind of conformity to gender roles pervades the whole of society. A while ago, someone I know made a comment about feminists getting annoyed at men holding doors open for them and how ridiculous that is. The image of the irate feminist refusing to allow a man to simply be courteous, is a common stereotype but when I checked how it made me feel, I realised that it does bother me too. Of course there is nothing wrong with being polite, but it isn’t about that. I have often encountered men who refuse to walk through a door that I am holding open for them, just because I happened to get there first. An embarrassing little dance usually ensues, ultimately concluding with the man taking the door and me shuffling through after him as custom dictates. The custom isn’t simply that it’s polite to hold the door open for your acquaintance, but that it’s polite for men to hold the door open for women. I have had similar scuffles with various men in my life when I have attempted to shift furniture across the room or carry anything heavy. Now, not to blow my own trumpet, but I am stronger than I look. I’m no delicate little flower and I’m entirely capable of lifting and carrying a fricking chair across the room. Similarly, I can lift tables, shift wardrobes, carry my own suitcase, manoeuvre wheelbarrows, build sheds, put up blinds and now it seems, fit a tyre.
These may all sound like small things and I can already see the “Oh my God, haven’t you feminists got anything more important to worry about” comments on the horizon, but it is these hundreds of tiny examples of gender policing that combine to make women feel weaker, less competent, more impractical and in general need of looking after, than men. It starts with “You throw like a girl” and “That’s not the sort of thing that girls do”, and continues our entire adult life with men insisting that we are not capable of completing fairly simple basic tasks. It’s not enough to say that these men are just “being polite” without analysing where the concept of “politeness” comes from in the first place and having a think about why exactly it is that men feel the need to wrestle anything heavy away from us the minute they get the opportunity. What is this saying to women and girls if not, “Let me do it. You’re not as capable as I am. I need to take care of you” And that is exactly how gender is socially constructed. It is only by challenging these gender roles that women and girls can break out of the stifling prison of femininity and prove that they’re just as good as the boys. Learning to change my spare tyre is just one tiny piece of the jigsaw but it’s a start….
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This is a good post and I agree with what you’re saying, but as an interesting aside, I live near Texas in a small eastern New Mexico town, and everybody holds doors for each other, it’s automatic and men do not get offended by it. It does not seem particularly gendered, though otherwise the place is heavily gendered.
Yes, I totally agree with you. I’m building a house with my male partner and we both basically started as complete beginners at carpentry. We carefully made sure that we both did all jobs that came up to avoid gender stereotypes and so we both learn all the skills. It still feels awkward when I carry the heavy things and he doesn’t, and it still feels more natural for me to do the organising and designing and him to do the power sawing and nail gunning but we are resisting and you know what? It turns out that I am perfectly capable of doing all the things.
I even discovered, over the course of a month, that I was able to carry heavier and bulkier things than I would have thought I was capable of, not because I got stronger (I don’t think there has been time for that) but because I got better at using my strength effectively. It’s a skill like anything else and this has translated into my regular life with things like jar lids and furniture and bags of groceries.
Looking forward to more blog posts!
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Yes, I am sure so much of it is social conditioning and being told that we can’t do something or that it’s not for us. Great to hear you have discovered you have so many hidden skills! Good luck with the build.
Well yes and no. Personally as someone who’s fundamentally believed in equality since I was a teenager, over 40 years ago now, I’ve always strongly believed that everyone should have basic skills such as changing a tyre and I’ve always found women who expect me to automatically do such things, just because they’re women and I’m a man, deeply irritating.
On the other hand I trained as a biologist/physiologist, and it’s simply a fact that women are not as strong as men just because the density of muscle fibres is less in women due to lower testosterone levels. This for instance is quite amusing as the world’s strongest women looses to some pretty average looking guys at arm wrestling despite looking considerably more muscular in most cases (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MF-YeWnIJfU). I also used to rock-climb regularly and was quite used to seeing women who could out perform me and most other men, largely because they made better use of balance and technique than the average guy, who tended just to throw pure strength at the problem and never refined technique. But the when it comes to an absolute contest in that and every other sport the men are simply better because of the extra boost in fibre density testosterone supplies – one for one female muscle is about 2/3rds as strong as male muscle. Same is true across many sports – Ice Hockey for example where the USA women’s Olympic team trained against High School boys because the level was about the same. There’s also issues women have with pelvis shapes and the like that make women incapable of performing at the same level as men, but muscle fibre density really is the clincher.
I don’t see any issue with this myself, it’s just the way things are because of the way we evolved, although I do think that there is something of a growing concern over telling all women that they can do everything physically all men can do because of ideology, when in fact they just can’t and it’s just as damaging as telling women thy can’t do things because they’re ‘soooo’ much weaker than men, when in fact they can, A bit of realism all round would benefit everyone,
I’m not trying to deny that there are some basic biological differences between men and women. Of course the strongest men are stronger than the strongest women but I am not talking about the extremes. I am talking about the every day. I think most women are capable of carrying a chair across the room for example but they are treated as if they are not. This is my objection. Most people are not elite athletes after all.
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Well yes, obviously it’s really dumb to pretend that women can’t carry a chair or the like… and yes that’s one of the things that irks me too.
However you sort of illustrate my point, it’s not extremes, it’s the norm. In fact I underestimated it myself. There’s actually virtually no overlap between men and women in terms of strength. The average male for instance is stronger than 99% of women, and there appears to be very little overlap in strength between the sexes if you plot as a distribution, probably less than 10%.. Quick internet search revealed these two, which are interesting and provide plenty of references: http://dieoff.com/_Biology/BeautyAndTheBeast.pdf and https://www.researchgate.net/publication/247233659_Costs_and_benefits_of_fat-free_muscle_mass_in_men_relationship_to_mating_success_dietary_requirements_and_native_immunity.
So to return to the chairs, sure if you just need one for yourself it’s insulting to pretend you can’t carry it. But if you need to to move a group of chairs across a room quickly you should ask the men to do it, because they’ll be able to carry at least twice as many and maybe three times as many each trip as you can.
I think it’s really interesting that your response to my blog post about how annoying it is to be told by men that you are weaker and less capable is to tell me that women are weaker and less capable.