Gender Matters

The Swedish Bowling Association has announced plans to merge male and female bowling tournaments in order to make the sport gender-neutral. Social Democrat politicians have proposed installing gender-neutral restrooms so that members of the public will not be compelled to categorize themselves as either ladies or gents. Several preschools have banished references to pupils’ genders, instead referring to children by their first names or as “buddies.” So, a teacher would say “good morning, buddies” or “good morning, Lisa, Tom, and Jack” rather than, “good morning, boys and girls.” They believe this fulfills the national curriculum’s guideline that preschools should “counteract traditional gender patterns and gender roles” and give girls and boys “the same opportunities to test and develop abilities and interests without being limited by stereotypical gender roles.”

As with our erstwhile Toronto parents, the problem of the pronoun has presented an especially vexing challenge. Nevertheless, a solution has been found.

 Earlier this month, the movement for gender neutrality reached a milestone: Just days after International Women’s Day a new pronoun, hen (pronounced like the bird in English), was added to the online version of the country’s National Encyclopedia. The entry defines hen as a “proposed gender-neutral personal pronoun instead of he [han in Swedish] and she [hon].”The National Encyclopedia announcement came amid a heated debate about gender neutrality that has been raging in Swedish newspaper columns and TV studios and on parenting blogs and feminist websites. It was sparked by the publication of Sweden’s first ever gender-neutral children’s book, Kivi och Monsterhund (Kivi and Monsterdog). It tells the story of Kivi, who wants a dog for “hen’s” birthday. The male author, Jesper Lundqvist, introduces several gender-neutral words in the book. For instance the words mammor and pappor (moms and dads) are replaced with mappor and pammor [I suppose the English equivalents would be Dommy and Maddy].

A few observations.

1. At the start, it perhaps goes without saying that many senses of equality are salutary and to deny that is to exhibit serious moral myopia. Men and women should, for instance, receive the same pay for the same work. Boys and girls should have equal opportunities for education. All should enjoy equality under the law and equal access to the courts.

2. Alexis de Tocqueville argued that in aristocratic ages, inequalities are not much remarked upon for they are everywhere. However, in democratic ages, where equality is the highest social and political priority, even the slightest inequalities will give offense. Thus, the more equal a society becomes, the more glaring even the smallest inequalities will appear. Yet, we must at the same time recall the wise words of Edmund Burke. He understood that perfect equality will simply never be achieved. Inequalities of all kinds seem to be, well, just part of life. If we consider these two insights together, it appears that in our futile attempt to achieve perfect equality, we will find ourselves perpetually offended even as we approach that illusive ideal. A society of perpetual offense does not sound like a pleasant place.

3. We give our boys Ritalin to make them sit down, shut up, and behave more like little girls, who, incidentally tend to outperform boys in elementary school. Our enemies speak to their boys of honor and sacrifice. Which one seems like a winning strategy? Or to put the matter differently, will a society of hens be as strong, vital, creative or even as interesting as a society of hims and hers, of men and women? Who, truth be told, wants to be a hen? Who wants to marry one? Apparently, there are some who want to raise them, but I suspect the children (like Jazz) will find the going tough and childhood will feel more like a controlled experiment than a time of carefree existence. Perhaps it goes without saying that some of us prefer our hens fried or grilled.

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