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Sex Differences: Some Stereotypes but One Is Key to the Family


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Dale O’Leary - published on 11/14/14

Women and men naturally see their family roles very differently.

Men and women are different. That should be hard to deny. However, political correctness driven by the ideology of radical feminism has created a situation where acknowledging the obvious is decried as sexism. Some appear to be terrified that any recognition of sex difference will drag women back to a dark age where they were uneducated, powerless, oppressed, barefoot and pregnant. Radical feminism tells us that the observable differences between the sexes are not natural; they are instead the result of socially-constructed gender roles imposed on women by a sexist, patriarchal power structure.

While affirming sex difference, it is important to resist the stereotypes that have restricted women’s access to the workplace and the political sphere – stereotypes which divide traits and talents, virtues and vices between the two sexes, like a zero sum game.

A stereotype is an inadequate and/or inaccurate description of a class. For example, when asked what is the difference between a dog and a cat, most people reply with stereotypes: dogs are bigger, cats have longer tails, dogs are friendly, cats are cold. These are stereotypes, none of which apply to all dogs and all cats. How many of you thought of a non-stereotypical trait, such as the fact that cats have retractable claws and dogs don’t? Although no one to whom I posed this question answered with a "difference" that was not a stereotype, every one of them, including my two-year-old granddaughter – could instantly tell a dog from a cat.

Respect for the dignity and equality of woman requires that we reject inadequate, restricting stereotypes. It also requires an honest recognition of the distinct, authentic vocation of women.

Every human being discovers himself through a sincere gift of self, as Pope St. John Paul reminded us. For most people this gift is given within the family. Man and woman together are called to serve the family – the primary human institution. When the bond of family is broken, for whatever reason, the impact, especially on children may be irreparable. For this reason, it is essential to prevent family breakdown.

Other institutions of society  the government, the economic system, the educational, cultural and religious institutions  – should all help by serving the needs of the family. They can do so directly, by providing goods and services, or indirectly, by providing income to family members. Families are not one of a variety of options for raising the next generation. They are not merely social constructions that can be discarded in favor of other arrangements. While human beings are flexible, there are limitations. Children are designed to be born into a family, consisting of a mother and a father. If a child is deprived of either, he will suffer. If the adults around the child work heroically to make up for the loss, the child may emerge relatively intact, but society should not overestimate the ability of children to cope with deprivation.

To understand the differences between men and women we should begin by looking at the way in which men and women view their responsibilities within the family.

Men and women are equal, but different in some ways and similar in others. While it is common to speak of women as the opposite sex, men and women are not polar opposites. Rather, the difference can be compared to having two eyes a few centimeters apart. This gives human beings the ability to perceive depth. In the same way, because men and women view their responsibility toward the family from slightly different perspectives, they are, as a couple, able to see and respond to the needs of the family in a more complete way. From these different responsibilities in the family spring different ways of relating to work, to the world, and to other people. Society should not be deprived of women’s vision and families need the depth of the father’s perception of his responsibility.

The conception of a child places a grave responsibility on the father and mother, but they view that responsibility differently. The woman feels a responsibility to care for the new individual and to make a home. The man feels a responsibility to protect and provide for the family.

Children are entrusted to women. Women alone become pregnant. Their bodies are prepared to nurse their babies. Women feel a responsibility for the care of the children and for the care of the home. That doesn’t mean women have to do all the work, only that they will feel responsibility to see that it is done.

Men feel responsible for protecting and providing for women and children. In order to accomplish this, men see the need to work together with other men and they accept that the work of provision and protection may take them away from the home. 

Husbands and wives can divide the tasks of the family, but not the felt responsibility. These different senses of responsibility affect the way men and women respond to the tasks of the family. When the father accepts the responsibility to provide, it frees the woman to care for the child. The father who loses his job feels he has failed to fulfill his primary duty. A father, of course, can help with household tasks and childcare, but he sees these tasks as helping his wife. A woman who works outside the home to help with expenses can feel guilty if doing so forces her to leave her infant in daycare.

New studies on how a baby’s brain develops point to attachment to the primary care giver as being essential to future psychological health. Babies’ brains do not come pre-programmed; babies are born seeking certain experiences. These experiences are supplied by interaction with the mother. Through the attachment process, the baby’s brain is "wired" and the foundation for psychological health is laid.

Women’s sense of responsibility for other human beings – the urge to mother – is not an oppressive social construct. Co-creating and nurturing new human beings is the most important work in the world and mothers are uniquely able to supply the attachment that babies need.

Denying the difference between men and women ignores the need of children for mothering. Deprived of mothering, children will reach adulthood with an empty place in their hearts. They will still seek attachment.

Regardless of whether a woman ever has a child, the potential for motherhood lies within her heart. Each woman senses that she is in some way entrusted with the human person. Motherhood alone does not define the totality of what it means to a woman, no more than fatherhood totally defines a man, but good mothering isn’t a luxury, it is essential to the survival of humanity.

Nature requires nurturing.

Dale O’Learyis a freelance writer, author of The Gender Agenda: Redefining Equality (which is available in Spanish and Italian) and One Man, One Woman. She writes for numerous publications and has spoken around the world.

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