Magazine article UNESCO Courier

A Time for Partnership

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

A Time for Partnership

Article excerpt

Men are from Mars, proclaims a recent book title, and women are from Venus. This two-planet image vividly expresses the lingering belief that women and men are fundamentally and unalterably different.

But if it were true that women and men are inherently so different, how is it that their differences differ so much from one time and place to another? For example, in Victorian England the mark of real femininity was a "ladylike" paleness and weakness, whereas in Kenya real femininity was traditionally proved by a woman's ability to do very hard work on behalf of her family. In the Samurai Age of Japan, real masculinity was proving oneself a fierce warrior, whereas among the Hopi Indians of North America men were supposed to be peaceful, agreeable, and non-aggressive.

Not only that, but over the last decades the roles and relations of women and men have been changing at a very rapid pace. For example, large numbers of women have in many Western nations begun to do things that were once considered exclusively men's work, such as the work of doctors, plumbers, engineers, lawyers, welders and university professors--all highly-paid professions and trades from which women were once barred. Similarly, men have begun to redefine fathering to include some of the "women's work" of feeding, diapering, and otherwise caring for and nurturing babies.

Moreover, even against enormous resistance, women's and men's relations have gradually become more egalitarian. At the same time, although more slowly, once firmly entrenched beliefs that men, and what men do, are more important than women and what women do, have also begun to change--with such commonplace remarks as "hope next time it's a boy" increasingly considered offensive by both new mothers and fathers.

For some people, both women and men, these changes are a source of hope for a more humane, less violent, less unjust future: one where one kind of person (be it a person of a different race, nationality, religion or sex) is no longer viewed as of a lower order than another. But for others, these changes are a source of confusion and fear, yet another complexity to be dealt with in a far too rapidly changing world.

Women, men and human relations

It is certainly true that our world has been changing very fast over the last few hundred years, so fast that, in the words of the futurologist Alvin Toffler, it has put some people in "future shock". Rapid technological and economic changes have destabilized not only established habits of work, but long-standing habits of thinking and acting. This has been the source of much dislocation and stress. But as modern history drastically demonstrates, technological and economic change has also opened the door for questioning much that was once taken for granted--be it the once supposedly divinely-ordained right of kings and princes to absolute authority, or the once also supposedly divinely-ordained right of men to absolute authority in the "castles" of their homes.

The questioning we see all over the world today of sex roles and relations is thus part of a much larger questioning. It is also part of a much larger movement for change: the global movement toward more democratic and egalitarian relations in both the so-called private and public spheres.

In fact, once we examine the constant interaction between the private and public spheres, it is possible to see patterns or connexions that were invisible in older studies, because these focused almost exclusively on the public or men's world from which women and children were excluded. These patterns or connexions show something that once articulated seems self-evident: that the way a society organizes the roles and relations of the two halves of humanity--which is what men and women are--profoundly affects everything in our lives.

For example, how these roles and relations are organized is a critical factor in how a society structures the family. …

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