Have I passed my sell-by date? Rethinking gender…

Feb 09


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Helen Whitten

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Have I passed my sell-by date? Rethinking gender…

“Do you identify as a woman?” I was asked last week, by the 119 Vaccine Appointment hotline service.”  I was somewhat taken aback by this question and replied “I am a woman”. 

Did that question feel ok?  Not really.  I felt old, out of sync, out-dated, out-moded, maybe past my sell-by date.  But “oh” I thought “this is the new norm, so I had better get used to it.”

But must I?  I feel fine with my chromosomes and I feel happy in my skin as a woman.  Telling someone I identify as a woman doesn’t speak for how I feel about myself as a woman, a woman who was once a girl, a daughter, a wife, who is now a mother, grandmother, sister, partner.

Of course, the roles of men and women have changed enormously from my birth in 1950 when women were still unable to work, own property.  They would have found it socially unacceptable to say they were lesbian, let alone trans-gender.  But then, also, the science was not available in those days to enable any change of sex.  And, shockingly, homosexuality was still illegal.

So no doubt it is time to discuss, once again, the roles of men and women.  There has been a furore over the Etonian master, Will Knowland’s, Youtube video Knowland Knows.  He was sacked because he refused the disciplinary demand to take the video down but the video itself, which I have watched, whilst very provocative, did seem to be quite timely in the questions it was posing – eg what kind of man do you young boys want to be when you grow up?

In case you have not read about this case, Knowland created the video as part of a series of class debates on topical subjects intended to encourage critical thinking.  It was to be followed by a debate created by a female colleague, exploring the topic from another perspective.  But that was not to be, as Knowland’s approach was deemed anti-feminist, so the video was not shown.  The debate was not had.

Speaking for myself I never had any discussion at school or as a young adult to explore what it might mean to be a woman, or what sort of woman I might consider trying to be, or to emulate.  There were few female role models when I left school in 1967.  Now, of course, girls have plenty of women to look to, and it seems to me that a class debate to help girls determine the qualities they admire or abhor would help them shape their decisions.  It is, after all, a far more complex world than it was when I started out in life.  Today there are, I think, more opportunities and yet, perhaps, more threats.  Or is that just how it looks from my 70-year-old perspective?

Is it not a good and wise thing to help young men reflect on masculinity?  To stop and think about what it is to be a man in today’s world?  Much is made of ‘toxic’ masculinity but we should not forget the fact that men can also be just, gentle, protective, chivalrous, respectful of our equality.  For men can be all things, as women can be all things, and likewise the LGBTQ community, for we are all unique and multi-faceted.

There is still much that is being remoulded in relationships.  In my parents’ generation the majority of women were housewives.  In my generation many of us worked ‘until’ we got married or had children.  Some of us, myself included, then carved out a career for ourselves later but the idea of a ‘career’ was still fairly new to us.  Today’s women are definitely plotting a career path though are often knocked sideways or backwards when they take maternity leave and, according to reports during covid, are often bearing the brunt of balancing home-schooling with work.

But younger men and women certainly appear to share the chores and childcare in a far more equal way, though this can still be an uphill struggle in some relationships.

I think what concerns me in all this, and particularly in the kind of question about identity that I was asked, is that there has been little discussion on the changing role of men, women and the LGBTQ community in the general population.  We read a great deal about it in the press and are the recipients of this new language and the rights that are being given by governments here and across the world but have you personally been asked your thoughts on the matter?  I haven’t, and would like to be but am aware that anyone who has an innocent, or intelligent, question on the subject is often shamed into silence on the presupposition that any doubt or question indicates that the person is a bigot or transphobe, where maybe they are perfectly open to change but would, quite simply, like to be asked.

I suspect others will have opinions that are worth listening to and I worry that the actions being taken are being influenced by a few strong lobby groups but not by the general public.  Could it not be that some people, if asked, might come up with some really innovative ideas about how we all live together and flourish in a world where I might, or might not, choose to ‘identify’ as a woman?

If laws are being changed to allow someone to identify as a man without any kind of medical consultation or diagnosis, as they are now in several parts of the world, then presumably I should be able to enter any one of the male bastions of privilege by simply telling the receptionist I am a man?  

But what I fear more is that many more young girls, especially those growing up in cultures where women are regarded as second-class citizens, will opt to become male because there are more privileges open to them if they do.  And then what?  The Chinese one-child policy did not have happy outcomes.  When we mess with science, nature, biology we can skew the natural world and the result can be too many males, which presents many problems. 

I am delighted that minds are more open today and that those who felt outsiders no longer need to do so.  I would just like to understand more about who is making the decisions that will be shaping our new norms, and to feel that we had greater opportunity to participate in the debate that will shape the lives of our grandchildren.  We are talking about complex and sensitive areas.  People are getting their heads around these new perspectives and may not, like me, know what they truly feel about it yet.  But they deserve a voice and should be able to ask questions without being silenced.

We all benefit from helping all individuals within our society to prosper but within this change I would still prefer to say “I am a woman” rather than “I identify as a woman”.  I am interested in how others feel about this.  I am sure it would be a lively discussion! 

But maybe, as I say, I am out of date, and feeling, as every older generation has tended to, somehow out of step with what is being shaped by the younger generation.  Quite probably.


One Response

  1. Helen, can I just pick out one aspect of your peice, which is the aggressive and sometimes surreptious tactics of the activists and the supine attitude of those administering governance?
    We have the unjust treatment of the feminist academic, Prof. Selina Todd, the hate filled campaign against JK Rowlings and a few years ago the wholly disproportionate and shameful treatment of the Nobel Laureate Prof. Tim Hunt by UCL.
    For me closer to home is a campaign to influence Ofgen against the delightful TV channel “Talking Pictures” which in my dotage I enjoy as the films it carries are often set in the 50s and early sixties and remind me of my boyhood years.
    The treatment of Will Knowland would seem to be an example of no platforming and Orwellian thought control in line with the above.

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