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The Pros and Cons of Gender Neutrality in Upbringing and Education

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.

Margaret Mead, American Cultural Anthropologist.


Our recent participation, via Skype, in the BBC’s #100 Women Debate, left us all so inspired we were motivated to create our own monthly ISSUES DEBATE, open to all members. The wonderful diversity among our membership and the variety of possible topics (you don’t need to have prior knowledge) lends itself to a lively, and edifying exchange. Calling in from the comfort of our own homes certainly makes participation easy.

Member Susan Ring bravely initiated and moderated our first session on the theme of GENDER NEUTRALITY. The video links she sent in advance helped participants prepare for the discussion. The topic is current and complex, and was new to all of us. We wrestled with the distinction between biology/sex and socially constructed gender identities. We took our time teasing out the practical impact of gender neutrality from a variety of vantage points — in early education, the work place, in parenting, in sports, and in the very language employed around this topic.

The more I reflect on our DEBATE, the more I appreciate the way something like the notions of gender neutrality tosses the male-female binary arguments on their heads, takes them out of their either/or position, and redirects the focus from competition for equality toward something more cooperative, more natural. I believe it helps the cause of women, too, as it challenges male dominance while demanding that we uncover and question the truths and assumptions we hold so dear, loosen our grip, manage our fears, and open up to ways that are fresh. It’s tough to dwell in that liminal space of not knowing, embarking with wobbly legs through uncharted territory toward some understanding of certain issues and how they play out in the world, yet it is what we must do before we can hope to find the tools to both develop and structure an imaginative new wholeness. We always have the hurdle of overcoming our fear and mistrust of the “stranger”, the challenge of suspending value judgments of the “other” and remembering instead that we are interdependent “neighbors” sharing a collective responsibility for one another. Healthy human community building has at its core the idea nothing is static, that we must remain fluid.

The video voices we heard on gender neutrality felt, in retrospect, like a collective human plea for the acknowledgment and support of each person’s individuality and his/her desire for inclusiveness, as dizzying and complex as all the permutations around gender may appear. It asks us to notice, to be in relationship to each other, to remain open and fluid while our nature begs to settle on a fixed and secure resting place. Today this ‘conversation’ moves rapidly as technology allows us such easy and immediate access to information and the opportunity to feed off of one another’s insights and creativity, lending even stronger support to generate and maintain forward momentum. Of course, it can feel a bit daunting and overwhelming at times, too.

There is magic that can be derived from taking the time to come together as women to expand our understanding in a mutually supportive environment, sharing such different views. This fledgling ISSUE DEBATE was important and, I hope, a part of a greater developing whole. None of us can say we weren’t stretched in some way by this exchange. My hope is that it will infuse our activism in the world with more energy and understanding and all of us who have participated thus far look forward to the participation of all AWC members.

Next month’s topic and date will be announced soon, so stay tuned and join the ISSUE DEBATES.

Molly Moylan Brown, January 2016

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