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Men, women, and difference

26 April 2013

The 'complementarity' of the sexes is a comparatively new invention, argues Jane Shaw


Equal but different? A detail showing Adam, God, and Eve fromThe Garden of Earthly Delightsby Hieronymus Bosch,c.1500

Equal but different? A detail showing Adam, God, and Eve fromThe Garden of Earthly Delightsby Hieronymus Bosch,c.1500

I shall never forget the comment of a senior English churchman: that he could envisage Adam and Eve sitting across the camp-fire from each other, just as he and his wife did in their drawing room. An image of a man and woman wearing fig leaves, but sitting in chintz-covered armchairs, drinking sherry, immediately sprang to my mind.

The churchman's comment exemplifies the kind of ahistorical thinking in the new report by the Church of England's Faith and Order Commission, Men, Women and Marriage (News, Leader Comment, 12 April). It has received almost universal condemnation, not only for its content (or lack thereof), but also for its poor argument.

The leader comment in this paper advised readers to ignore it, and most will. Nevertheless, its publication opens the opportunity for some real education on the subjects about which it purports to inform us. As the leader said, the report "speaks of a unique relationship between a man and a woman without ever explaining this contention. Seldom clear, the text adopts a particular obscurity whenever a contentious matter is touched upon, such as the complementarity of the sexes."

The report provides no history of sexual difference, nor of its accompanying bugbear: the "complementarity" of men and women. Under the sweeping assumption that both sexual difference and gender-complementarity are universal and timeless concepts, the possibility of same-sex marriage is rejected. Yet, for the past several decades, historians of medicine have convincingly shown that both are modern concepts, emerging in particular political and social circumstances in the West.

Before the modern period, scientists - still relying on ancient sources such as Aristotle and Galen - understood woman as an imperfect version of man. They believed that there was "one sex", hierarchically arranged. Women and men were seen as having the same sexual organs; it was just that women's were on the interior.

The point is illustrated by the French essayist Montaigne's retelling of a folk tale about a woman, Marie Germain, who jumped over a ditch while chasing pigs through fields: her genitals dropped - and she became a man.

This "one-sex" idea was challenged in the Enlightenment, in part through science; but that science was driven by political change. The old hierarchies were being questioned. Universal rights were being championed, but was everyone really equal? The answer was sought in the supposed "facts" of biology.

The search for anatomical sexual differences was driven by an increased sense that women were intrinsically different from men - and, on those grounds, should not receive the same rights. The result was the articulation of two sexes.

But, you might say, despite all this, sexual difference is true. Yes and no: it is less clear-cut than we might imagine, as medical cases of those who find themselves biologically between the sexes illustrate. But the important point is that sexual difference was imbued with political ideology from the beginning.

Out of all this came the notion of the complementarity of the sexes. This is the idea that women and men have distinctly different qualities (rooted in biology), and that this suits them for different (but "complementary") roles in life.

This suited the economic climate of newly industrialised Britain very well. As work became separated from home, the middle and working classes emerged. Separate spheres for work and home developed, and home came to be seen as the special domain of women - at least, middle-class women - whose "natural" characteristics of gentleness and passivity made them keepers of morals and preservers of the hearth.

Preachers took on gender complementarity with enthusiasm, especially those of the Evangelical Revival. New ideas about the differences between men and women were given a theological grounding, and blended with old ideas about the subordination of women.

Women were seen as spiritually equal, but, in practical terms, socially subordinate. These ideas were taken around the world by missionaries and imperialists alike, and imposed on completely different cultural arrangements of the sexes and kinship relations.

These ideas did not go uncontested. Women argued for their admission to higher education and for universal suffrage, for example.

YET such ideas continued to have an impact on theology, most notably in the work of Karl Barth, who insisted that the "distinctive natures" of men and women were "the command of God". For Barth, these distinctive natures led to sex-differentiated functions, which were absolutely rigid. As he wrote: "The sexes might wish to exchange their special vocations, what is required of the one or the other as such. This must not happen."

One of the great problems of all this thinking is that concepts of sexual difference and complementarity that our ancestors would barely have recognised 300 years ago, let alone 3000 years ago, are regularly mapped back on to the Hebrew scriptures, especially the creation stories in Genesis 2.

Unfortunately, the new report on marriage appeals to just this sort of ahistorical thinking. And that does no one any favours at all.

Many people have suggested that we need a history of marriage, which the new report does not provide. I agree; but we also need to understand how gender relations in the modern period have been powerfully shaped by particular ideas about sexual difference and gender complementarity, which are relatively new, and have never been universally accepted.

The ideas about women and men which emerged with the notion of sexual difference were made to fit a particular kind of middle-class fam-ily arrangement. Some found that it suited them; some did not. This is why Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique 40 years ago, and this is why movements for the liberation of women and of gay people followed.

None of this is to question the clear value of marriage as a building-block of society. It is to suggest that, in thinking through a distinctly Christian view of marriage, we need to recognise that ideas about gender relations have always been specific to context, and always will be.

The Very Revd Dr Jane Shaw is the Dean of Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, in the United States.

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