It’s a….gender neutral card?!

Several people I know have recently had children. Being mindful about the power of society’s messages sent to kids based on their sex (even before their birth) and ardently believing in the social construction of these norms, I wanted to send gender neutral congratulations cards to their parents. All of these parents are very progressive and cool

The staff of the local stationary shop also seem very progressive and cool. However, my search for such greeting cards was disappointing. All but one card was gendered (i.e., to a boy or or girl). The one exception was under the “humor” category that did not seem very funny to me.

The shop staff were really helpful and seemed disappointed themselves that such cards did not exist in their store. I proceeded to purchase some (hopefully nice) blank cards. When I got home, I went online and found some of the types of cards I wanted: http://www.greetingcarduniverse.com/congratulations-cards/new-baby

Perhaps it can be considered an act of feminism to bring in a printed copy of this web page to the stationary store staff so they can order them.

It is a cliche at this point to ask the question why do gender norms matter so much in American society.  However, I think the possible answers are still worthy to explore. When people, including children, repeatedly and voluntarily cross gender lines, I think it inspires anxiety in people, including adults. Without such binary guidelines of how to act as a woman or man, so many other rules would be questioned: Why do women still make earn 78 cents compared to a dollar that a man makes? Why can’t men wear skirts (outside of specific contexts) without the risk of intense social disapprobation? Why are McDondald’s happy meal toys still sex segregated? Why are the terms sex and gender still so confused?  Why do trans people have to get approval to get gender-affirming surgery? Why is there still the term, “women firefighters” or “male nurses?” Why are there so few female/male collaborations in rock and pop? Why is there a category of “women’s music” and several channels devoted to “television for women?”

Adults’ anxiety about gender tends to very strong when children have an intersex condition, meaning that their sexual organs and/or chromosomes do not match the female/male binary in some way. For more information please visit: http://www.isna.org/faq/what_is_intersex

Intersex conditions, also referred to as disorders of sexual development, are biological condtions but their sequelae would not have so much social significant if not for gender’s rigid rules. Even at birth, what makes something a penis or vagina is determined subjectively by standards of size for these body parts.  Fortunately, there has been some progress. Historically, medical professionals would make decisions about the sex of the newborn and sometimes even family would not know about the intersex condition. However, it is thankfully increasingly common for family members and even children with intersex themselves to be collaboratively involved in the process.

All this being said, I do think gender differences can seem “real.” Females and males do often seem to act, feel, and think disparately. I wonder, though, do these distinctions stem more from how they are treated by family, peers, educators, strangers, and the media at such a young age rather than some gendered “essence”? Also, social and physical science research studies looking at “gender differences” may be searching for the incorrect variable. What if before entering the study, the female and male participants were given a gender identity/expression scale and then placed into feminine and masculine groups based on their responses? Powerful differences based on gender (not sex) may result. I especially became curious about this process after reading the gender similarities hypothesis: http://www.careerpioneernetwork.org/wwwroot/userfiles/file /the_gender_similarities_hypothesis.pdf . This analysis of aggregate studies showed that there are only a few factors on which women and men seemed to significantly differ. I wish this study had more press!

In recent years, there has been very important progress connected to gender equality and I do not want to minimize that. Still, when only girls were asked (via a vow!) not to curse at a New Jersey school (http://www.nbcphiladelphia.com/news/local/NJ-School-Implements-No-Cursing-Rule-But-Only-for-Girls-189514501.html), there is still much work to be done.

-Sem

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