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FEB. 22, 2014

Understanding Gender Roles

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“Does our history affect our present reality?”

“Why do men’s clothes have so few options?”

“Why are more young males excited about parenthood than females?”

“What do you never want to hear spoken again about your gender?”

These were just a few of the questions heard around Cheoah last Monday. It was community meeting time at OA, and the topic was gender. The discussion opened with all of the students and staff who identify as women in the center of the room in a circle talking about what we like and dislike about being women. The students and staff who identify as men were laying down on the floor outside the circle, silent and listening. After a few minutes, the two groups switched and the women had the opportunity to be “flies on the wall” and listen to the men’s conversation.

It was a rare opportunity for each of us to solely listen to each other, without being able to respond or ask questions. I’ve participated in this activity before, but I am continually struck in each conversation by how so much of what is discussed in the men’s circle are worries, frustrations, and advantages that I have never thought about before and will probably never be able to fully understand.

The men spoke about the expectations to be strong and unemotional in public settings, the lack of creativity with men’s typical wardrobe options, how they wrestle with the history of male superiority, and how even today they enjoy the fact that when they speak in a group, people often inherently listen to their words and ideas. Is it due to their deeper or louder voices or somehow linked to cultural experiences? Some men spoke that they enjoy the fact that they can be more aggressive in sports, debates, and even everyday discussions without being judged or labeled negatively. Others didn’t like that people often make assumptions about men’s sexual orientation based solely on the activities they are involved in such as musical theatre or football.

The women’s group spoke about enjoying the freedom to lead either a domestic life or being able to enter into nearly any career they want and not being judged for either. They also spoke about how much they value their female friendships and being able to show more emotion towards their friends in public with less fear of judgment than men experience. Some women felt empowered by the ability to bear children, while for others, this was a source of fear and unwanted expectations.   Women wished that they felt safe in as many situations as men, especially when it comes to traveling in foreign countries or doing activities alone.  When it came to physical expectations of women, there were varied voices in the room. Some hated the expectations of women to shave, wear makeup, or eat a certain way,  and others loved the freedom females have to wear both men’s work pants and hiking boots in the same day as fancy dresses and heels.

Since the meeting, there have been many interesting ripples in our community. In some classes, women have found a more prominent voice in group discussions, more men have been experimenting with their clothing options, and the students are talking about having a day where they switch up any gender-related tasks and activities in the community.  I’m excited to see what they learn stepping into the shoes of others, but also, more interestingly, what they realize they cannot learn from simply changing their clothes or cabin activity.

Laura Kraus
Math and Art Teacher