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Una Smith smith-una at
Fri May 28 08:01:56 EST 1993

Tom Tucker:

>>If "we" are to reach our mutual nirvana, we must each play every role[...]

J. Harper, jharper at

>That touches the point of my post:  we _cannot_ play one another's roles.  We
>are all placed in our gender by an accident of birth; but one gender happens 
>to be privileged in our society, and privilege cannot be _played_.
>Even if male privilege were to be somehow _assumed_ by a woman for the sake of
>some discussion or other, it would always be in her consciousness that the
>privilege was only _lent_ and not _hers_.

Jane's point of view is a familiar one, but one that I have never
understood.  To me, it isn't an issue of being assigned "roles" and
"playing" at assuming a role that doesn't "belong" to me.  Rather,
I assume for myself whatever role I feel comfortable with, and that
*is* my role.  There is no loan, no pretense in life, unless that
is an integral part of the role you choose.  Anyone who thinks it
is not up to her to select her own role in life has bought into a 
myth.  I'm not saying the myth is necessarily bad, only that it is
a personal choice that we all must make for ourselves, because if
we don't make our own choices we risk ending up in roles that don't
really suit us.  No, it's not easy, and yes, sometimes it hurts. 
But that's life.  It is a form of self-destructive escapism to give
someone else, be it "men" or "society", the responsibility for our
choices and the blame for our mistakes.

I certainly do not think men are, as a class, privileged.  I do
think they are often more successful at finding their roles in life
than women are (or have been for part of this century in part of
the world).  In some cultures, there exist stereotypical, familiar
roles that are clearly defined and easy to distinguish, and thus it
is relatively easy to choose a role that happens to be one of the
familiar ones.  In such cultures, it is very difficult to take up a
role that is not one of the well-defined ones, but it is often not
so difficult for a woman to take up a role more often held by a man,
or vice versa.  I have in mind, among other things, the enormous
respect and status that professional women have in Latin American
countries, compared to the United States.

But most people reading this discussion live in so-called "modern"
cultures where the traditional roles are all changing, and it's not
at all clear what it means, for instance, to be a scientist or a
person who rears children;  what those roles entail, what they will
be like in 10 or 20 years.  It's really hard to make a decision when
you don't know whether the role you pick will be the same in ten
years, much less how *you* will have changed by then.  The feminist
movement has broken so many of the old roles for women so fast that
we don't have "safe" default roles to choose from, and thus it takes
a lot of research (talking to others, reading, thinking, exploring)
to find out what the most promising options are.

Not surprisingly, many women have enormous difficulty making these
hard choices.  I suspect so do men, but they hide their anxiety. 
And men's default roles are still more or less intact and
well-defined (although that's begining to change too).


      Una Smith      Department of Biology       smith-una at
                     Yale University
                     New Haven, CT  06511

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