On pens and penises

Meet Gilbert and Gubar; two ladies whose collaborative feminist treatise The Madwoman in the Attic opens with the question “Is the pen a metaphorical penis?”

I’ve had a long look at my black felt tip. It doesn’t appear virile- though of course that ejaculation might be premature.

For decades, academics and journalists have been considering women’s place in the world. They have been characterised as angels, whores, monsters and mothers. In the name of progress, their gift in writing has been likened to a product of the male reproductive organ.

In western society, traditional notions of a woman’s place in the home have become taboo. Of late, the idea that a woman might choose to become a fulltime mother rather than a professional has been rendered unthinkable.

The reluctance to accept that a woman may decide on motherhood over career advancement was exemplified by a New York Times article by Jack Ewing published last week, which meditated on the surprisingly small number of German women who return to fulltime work after availing of the government-paid 12-month parental leave.

The writer laments the fact that “Despite a battery of government measures … only about 14 percent of German mothers with one child resume full-time work, and only 6 percent of those with two”. He goes on to cite example after example of corporate bodies where only a tiny proportion of women have ended up at the top. Part of the problem, he muses is that “most schools still end at lunchtime, which has sustained the stay-at-home-mother image of German lore”.

While it’s worthwhile to draw attention to gender disparities in top corporate positions, the discourse that surrounds it – while well-intentioned – does a good job of enforcing the idea that women remain passive beings with little control over the course of their lives.

Ewing expresses the misgiving that “when it comes to empowering women, no Teutonic drive or deference seems to work”. Far from promoting any egalitarian cause, such speculation denies women the right to make life choices outside of a socio-political narrative, which subtly yet forcefully dictates that having a career is more worthy than caring for a child and that empowerment can only be measured in economic terms.

Germany is a good example to focus on to illustrate the point. Government measures strongly support the mother in the workplace – she is allowed 12 months parental leave with pay and is guaranteed her job back at the end of it. Although it’s probable that a larger proportion of mothers return to part-time work, the fact that only 14% go back to a fulltime career is indeed surprising.

In the absence of financial and political disincentives however, the fact that is continuously over-looked, is that women are opting not to return to work. Instead of being respected as free agents, those that make this choice are treated as victims of a social order which is portrayed as significantly less than the sum of its egalitarian parts.

For true parity to exist, the Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus mantra must be debunked. Ewing describes Germany as “one of the countries in most need of female talent” (my italics) but doesn’t define what he means by the term. If male and female talent aren’t viewed with equality, the prospect of a roughly 50:50 breakdown of gender in all sectors of professional life is unrealisable.

Furthermore, unless it’s accepted as equally scandalous that the proportion of male nurses is equivalent to that of female corporate executives, a discussion of gender can never be detached from a social weighting in favour of money.

Were society’s priorities reversed, public discussion might centre around the outrage that a man’s right to parental leave is considerably more restricted than a woman’s, that a boy’s emotional development is stunted by the expectation that he will advance up a corporate ladder and that the male body is no more than a military tool.

While you can’t spell “metaphorical penis” without pen, as I look again at my black felt tip I begin to think that Gilbert and Gubar might have been feminists equipped with rather (pardon me) fertile imaginations.

12 thoughts on “On pens and penises

  1. “Which subtly yet forcefully dictates that having a career is more worthy than caring for a child and that empowerment can only be measured in economic terms. ”

    This, and your 2nd last paragraph took me from endeared by your blog, to full on crushing. 🙂

    I have a frequent arguement with someone dear to me, on our groundings in gender discussions. Mine tends very much to be the complaint that for all the good feminism did (and let’s be clear, I’m in favour of it, and for the purposes of this paragraph, i’ll even overlook the fact that many women were pushed/forced out of the home), almost the entirety of its movement was placing women in traditionally masculine roles. There wasn’t any corresponding move to make it more acceptable for men to take on traditionally female roles. So the value of the sets of roles remained the same. There wasn’t a movement saying “hey men, you can stay at home and look after the kids, it’s equally valuable”, so we just saw the greater adopting of traditionally masculine role. I think if we’re going to have some greater level of equality, we need somone saying that kind of stuff. But hey, I’m sure you know this stuff. I won’t fill up your blog comment feed with my ranting.


    • We’re in complete agreement. Why should you – as an empowered man – not be able to become a fulltime parent and why should I as a (hopefully) empowered woman not be able to do the same without some kind of societal sanction? I think that the feminist wave swept over the idea that children are important – in my opinion – much more so than corporate board positions. Also, I know that as a person rather than as a woman the very idea of heading a large corporation horrifies me. It’s not because I think my gender discounts me from such a role, it’s simply that my personality isn’t suited to it.

      I’ve no idea whether – if I have childern- I’ll be a working parent or not but I would certainly like to have the freedom to make that choice outisde of some form of narrative on account of my gender.

      Most importantly though, far from filling up my comment feed with ranting, I am really, really happy to have you as a reader, and your thoughtful comments delight me 🙂


      • “It’s not because I think my gender discounts me from such a role, it’s simply that my personality isn’t suited to it.”
        While I agree with you that, on an individual level, you’re personality may not be suited to it, that sentence seems to contain the implicit idea that your gender has no bearing on your personality.

        Yes, you of course should be able to choose whether you want to work in a high powered office, or a medium/low powered office, or focus on child raising, or etc. That should not be a problem. However, it is certainly a problem that society impresses certain values and traits upon women simply because they are women, and that impacts their chances of becoming one thing rather than the other. For example, studies show women are much less likely to negotiate for higher salaries in jobs than men are, in part because of the virtues of politeness and modesty which is taught to women moreso than taught to men.

        Or, to put it more simply, the very fact that a vast majority of women are choosing one thing in the vast majority of cases, and the vast majority of men are choosing another thing, implies that at a societal level, there is still a basic gender script we are following, and teaching our children to replicate (i mean, while women are clearly choosing to stay at home after their 12 month leave, it’s still women that are taking the leave to look after children, and not men). And that’s certainly a bad thing, because it’s reducing the options of both genders,

        And thank you very much for your kind words 🙂


  2. I’m not denying the obvious biological differences between men and women which more than likely contribute to broad societal trends. I can’t imagine whether I would want to climb a corporate ladder if I were a man because my biological sex as well as my relationship with the society which has shaped my expectations has been entirely informing. To talk about whether I would have similar career expectations were I a man for me is as abstract a speculation as wondering whether I would want the same things if I had been born to different parents and in a different part of the world. What I mean is that the nature of my expectations are ultimately impossible to source. As for women negotiating salaries, who is teaching modesty and politeness to them? Could it not be that women are self-imposing these characteristics? For example, there are countless times when I have been agreeable or lacked assertiveness not as a consequence of societal expectations but on account of my own shortcomings. Basically, I think it’s important not to detach the individual from the idea of ‘society’. In a democaratic society, responsibility is weighted toward the individual. In a totalitarian regime, it is a completely different situation. It may be hard to negotiate for a higher salary, but there is no necessary reason to believe that it’s any easier for men and they just happen (as a general trend or because of their biology) to make more effort or to favour getting what they want over being liked.
    (To you too, thanks for the kind words!!)


  3. “Basically, I think it’s important not to detach the individual from the idea of ‘society’.”
    And yet that’s exactly what you’re trying to do by attributing these trends to “women [who] are self-imposing these characteristics” It may very well be they’re self imposing. But why are they imposing those characterisitcs, and not others? And why are women doing it and not men?

    You can’t attibute such a wide scale trend to individual behaviour. if it was individual behaviour and not a societal script then there wouldn’t be such disproportionate amounts of one gender rather than another gender doing it. It’s like saying minorities are less likely to succeed because of their own choices to work less hard.


  4. Reading your entry gave me much food for thought – actually, I felt that despite the changing roles and apparently ‘freedom of choice’ to select what we want to do, we still feel compelled to do what we need to do once we have selected motherhood. It’s a natural instinct to want to grow with the child and groom him/her up. Imagine a father giving up his job to be a full-time paternal model while the mom goes out to work? They will possibly be stigmatised. Unfortunately as such, in this world somehow the majority goes with conformism as it is extremely hard to stick up for the guns and do what we really want to – scoring a 9 of out 10 is considered outstanding.


    • Yeah, I think men who choose to be stay-at-home dads do get stigmatised a lot. The implication seems to be “what will happen to your intellect, friends and hobbies?!” Making that choice as a parent is going to be challenging: obviously your social outlet is hugely reduced and your freedom is curtailed etc but at the same time I think that it must be one of the most rewarding experiences possible to see your child growing up. I would like to think that if I ever have to make that decision, I will be able to do so free of stigma or comment on my “wasted brain cells”, which was a comment my mum received when she announced she was going to stay home to look after her children… As always Clariice, thanks so much for reading and taking the time to leave a thoughtful comment.


  5. Hi Kate,
    I’ve been keeping up-to-date on your musings and thought I’d comment on one for once. It got a bit out of hand though as I kept atyping! (And, thus ends a bit abruptly too, as I realised how much I’d written…) Just my two cents on an interesting topic.
    Hope you’re well!

    I think any discussion of equality has to begin with the understanding that gender is an entirely artificial construct, which is created differently around the world. That differing creation may manifest itself in terms of what societies expect of their biologically male and female members or it may go further and have what we may consider to be the impossible (if we tie gender to sex) and have more than two genders. Some Native American tribes had as many as 5 or 6 genders in the past. In a more relatable example, those we might term “transgendered” are treated as an entirely seperate gender classification, with different rights and expectations, in Pakistan and, to a lesser extent, India.

    Gender, as a construct, unfortunately does inform individuals. One-year-old girls and boys display the same levels of ‘assertive behaviours’ (e.g. shoving, hitting, grabbing) and ‘communicative behaviours’ (e.g. talking, gesturing, babbling) as one another. However, boys are much more likely to receive attention as a result of their assertive behaviours, and girls are more likely to receive attention as a result of their communicative behaviours. These responses, by adults, re-enforce the corresponding behaviours in children such that, at 2 years, boys and girls no longer display equal levels of these two behaviour types. Boys are more aggressive and assertive (what we might term “manly”) and girls spend more time interacting and speaking (things we might deem more “feminine”). [I saw this study in a book called ‘The Equality Illusion’ by Kat Banyard, by the way. It’s a very interesting book.]. So it seems to me to be a self-perpetuating cycle that well-meaning parents and caregivers allow to continue without ever realising what they are doing.

    Even more simply than this, I reckon we can see that it is gender and not sex that creates the difference between males and females when we see that there is nothing biologically wrong with a man who wants to be a house husband or a woman or wants to be a CEO.

    In terms of the original study on German mothers, I think it might be interesting to consider the sphere in which decisions concerning parenthood are taken. I do think that the low number of women returning to work is a cause for concern in this situation. The government measures to make it easy for women to return to work have not worked because they have not tackled the primary reason why a parent chooses to stay at home: namely, they believe their child has a better quality of life with a biological parent present than with a childminder. In the German situation, the women are the only biological parent in the position to do this job – indeed, they have had a year’s on-the-job training so they are more competent than their husbands. In addition, the media and society around them tell them that women are child rearers, not men. Hence, they stay at home. In order to allow as free a choice as possible in this situation I think a couple of things would be helpful. Most importantly, government should mandate equal parental leave for both parents (that is, not just mandate companies allow it but that both parents must take it). Helpfully, this would also stop the discrimination in employment practice currently against women who are of “child birth age”, or whatever term they use. Also, there must be a large number of approaches taken to cut down the broadcast of gender norms in society. This happens already, but at a snail’s pace, government could certainly give it a kickstart. For starters, banning all advertising that uses women to sell things would be very helpful in removing many of the messages that young girls get about what they are expected to be. I reckon getting rid of pornography is also a nice early step. It requires a lot of encroachment on what we would term freedoms, but when we recognise the huge lack of freedom that people have as a result of the concept of gender it’s probably justified.


    • Couldnt resist adding my comments to this –
      I would agree completely. A child’s mind is like a blank piece of paper – what he/she comprehends is defined by adults.And unknowingly, the child’s development has been moulded according to the parents’ perspective of the gender.
      Parents actually weld such power over their children and they have no idea that their every behaviour is also mimicked by their children. Slightly scary, isnt it?


    • Hi Mark,
      Nice to hear from you!
      If you use the word “gender” to refer to patterns of social behaviour encouraged by society and associated only incidentally with biological sex, then of course the difference between what we call ‘male’ and ‘female’ is entirely constructed. However, for every social-constructivist study there is a neurological and genetic one pointing to pervasive patterns of differences between the biological sexes. These patterns are not binary oppositions but exist on a spectrum with qualities associated more commonly with biological females on one end and those with biological males on the other. Most people fall somehwere in between but nevertheless more women are more astute readers of emotion and more men are better at navigating. Of course you could argue that this is because boys are encouraged to explore and girls to be caring but I find this both an inadequate and implausible explanation. I have observed many families with children (years of babysitting…) where the differences between a boy’s and girl’s behavioural pattern is so stark that the difference in their rearing would have had to be substantially different as to justify the extent of the disparity. In many cases this simply doesn’t appear to be the case. Furthermore, if a child -in spite of being ‘reared’ one gender-can grow up feeling so strongly that it should be a different ‘gender’ then there must be strong biological drives at play in the first place. I do not believe that we are no more than blank slates upon which our gender is written.
      The media and society (where I am anyway) does not tell women they are child-rearers. In fact it is quite the opposite, in my experience. The media constantly tells me that being a child-rearer is demeaning. This was in fact my impetus for writing the piece. As a woman, I believe that the image of a stay-at-home mum is a negative one and that the message being fed to me is: to give up a job to raise a child is to waste your life. Germany makes returning to work very easy for women. They (like their males counterparts) are guaranteed their jobs back after the 12 month period. I believe that women are making the choice not to return to work in the absence of a disincentive and hence I beilieve it is their free choice. In the absence of a financial disencitive (which is the only concrete measure available) commentators impose a societal one. I argue that the ‘message’ that women should rear children is no longer current. Otherwise, why would I -as a woman – feel that I would be stigmatised if I were to give up work to look after my children? My plea is for freedom of choice to make a decision without my ‘gender’ being an issue at all.

      Women are not forced to market their bodies in our society. They choose to. To ban them from doing so would be a further enfringement on their right to make choices.


  6. You know mark, I was about to post a serious mancrush response, until I read your final paragraph, which is fraught with issues, the most serious of which is this:

    “For starters, banning all advertising that uses women to sell things would be very helpful in removing many of the messages that young girls get about what they are expected to be”
    By all means, in order to introduce equality, let’s ban companies from using a single sex/gender from selling things. Because men of course get no mesages about what they’re expected to be from advertisement.


  7. Pingback: A Quarter-life crisis, a Familienfest, the land of the free, my first real job.. Here are the highlights of 2011 | Katekatharinaferguson's Blog

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