That masculinity and femininity are important realities and not merely social constructs seems clear. Yet when we try to nail down what exactly these realities are, the social constructs often become the focus of our discussion. We end up discussing poor caricatures of masculine and feminine based on a laundry list of non essential qualities.
For example, it is a fairly universal point that men and women dress differently. But what constitutes male and female dress is clearly shaped by time and place. Pink is not essentially feminine or blue masculine. You cannot declare a length to wear hair that has always and everywhere defined male and female coiffure.
Strangely we seem to hollow out the meanings of these terms in very different ways. In discussing the masculine we present a sort of primitive man. He hunts and fights and subjugates. He has no emotion. MAN. Yet there are many powerful, masculine men who bear little resemblance to this portrait. Men can be artists, philosophers, hunters, poets, warriors. Even better they can be warrior poets and philosopher kings like some of the great figures of history. They may be sensitive and still strong, in fact strong in their sensitivity.
(On the other hand they may be stoic without suffering from the dreaded toxic masculinity many fear. My husband produces one tear every two years at the birth of a child. He is neither a Neanderthal nor a psychopath.)
Where men are reduced to a list of stereotypical qualities, discussions of women tend in the opposite direction. Here, anything seen as stereotypically feminine is looked at with deep suspicion, as if a Stepford Wife hides behind every corner. Since women are not “just” mothers or housewives we must never talk about motherhood or home making as important to many women’s sense of self. Women feel passionate about education, career, and other public sphere goals. Others, or even the same women, can long for the fulfillment of family and home.
One beautiful lesson the Church teaches through the lives of her saints is the beautiful diversity of the feminine genius. St. Joan is not masculine. She and St. Catherine of Sienna and St. Zelie Martin are all models for women though they seem on the surface to bear few similarities besides love of Christ.
The problem of course is focusing on accidentals instead of essentials. What is the essence of the complementary qualities of masculine and feminine? Much greater minds have spent many years and written great tomes discussing this. Let it suffice for now to acknowledge that there is something essential and that it isn’t quite as simple as what we do, like, or wear.
This brings me to the question of the Scouts BSA, formerly known as Boy Scouts of America. Is it important that the Boy Scouts specifically remain the Boy Scouts? No. Are girls barred from interest in the activities of this organization? No. For one thing, lost in all the controversy, is the fact that scout troops will still be segregated by gender. For another, the Girl Scouts always struck me as an unappealing alternative personally. If a brand new organization, dedicated to the same things and welcoming both sexes, were to launch today instead of an old one changing, nobody would bat an eye. Girls hunt and fish and camp and build with their fathers and brothers and even, gasp, mothers all the time. There is nothing essentially masculine about being outside or performing public service.
And yet. Should we just meet this change to a modern institution with a shrug? Also no. And here’s why. This is an opportunity to have an important conversation about the disappearance of spaces for both girls and boys to be in single gender groups. Is there no room in our society for anything that isn’t coed? Is a single gender organization automatically about exclusion? I think not.
In fact, it is in such settings that we learn that what unites us as women or men are not our accidents but something deep and difficult and powerful. We learn that while we may have different personalities and interests than other women, different tastes in clothes, music, and books, different dreams, we belong to the great sorority of Womanhood. Likewise men can learn to have deep friendships with other men, the greatest inoculation against shallow Bro culture. The essence of the sexes can be very hard to define, but it is more easily discovered in lived experience of women and men developing relationships with their fellow women and men. Of course then we must go forth and learn how to relate to our complementary opposites but we don’t need to sacrifice the one for the other. Both are important and one in particular seems to be dying out.