It is our great good fortune that we live in an era and society in which there are many and diverse ways of "being a woman" — as there are of "being a man". Recognition of the uniqueness of each of us, whether woman or man, is a central element of the invaluable gift of individual freedom Western democracies delivered in the 20th century. In the case of women, that freedom was implemented by radically changing the assumption that to be acceptable as a woman one must fulfil specific criteria.
One problem with writing on the topic of "being a woman," is it seems to demand that some of the most important longings, characteristics or experiences that women and men share — such as kindness, friendship, joy, awe, wonder, playfulness, intellectual curiosity, transcendence, a search for ethics, spirituality, to name just some — are excluded from the discussion.
Another problem is that our choice of focus in making claims about "men and women" is not neutral. Recently, we seem to have focused on the similarities between women and men when such a focus would benefit women, and women's and men's dissimilarities when, likewise, that would benefit women. In doing so, we have been wilfully blind to the risks and harms to men that can result to the detriment of all of us, women, men and, especially, children and young people, as both individuals and a society.
So with those caveats in mind, as an ethicist, let me start by musing on values.
Masculine and feminine values
Values are sometimes described as "masculine" and "feminine." For instance, justice and courage are often thought of as masculine values, and mercy and empathy as feminine ones. Traditionally these values were largely attributed to either men or to women and each sex carried the values assigned to it for society as a whole. But that assignment is no longer the case, which means we must all try to uphold all of these values, if they are to remain strong.
Indeed, the representation of justice as a blindfolded woman holding the scales of justice and the sword of mercy may always have told us that. It would explain why justice, traditionally a masculine value, is represented by a feminine symbol — the scales of housewives and of peaceful ethical commerce, of balance and breast-like duality — and mercy, traditionally a feminine value, by the masculine symbol of the phallic and war-like sword. Together, the value and its symbol encompass and unite male and female.
Complementary by nature
That being said, I believe that men and women are different in important ways, but bring gifts of equal value to those they love and society and deserve equal respect. My politically incorrect belief is that men and women are complementary by nature and that individuals and society need the richness of experience and wisdom that complementarity engenders. I do not accept that gender is always irrelevant and that we should try to, or even can, create a genderless society. I think that epigenetic research (the study of the interaction of genes and environment, of nature and nurture) will, in the future, prove that belief to be correct. Avant garde neuroscience research is showing differences in men's and women's brains. For instance, a recent article in Current Biology shows women do unconsciously "prefer" pink and men blue and that these preferences might be connected with each sex best contributing to providing food for the group as a whole, a survival mechanism.
I believe there is a core biological reality to being a woman (and, likewise, to being a man) that matters. Our use of culture should respect that reality and in doing so help both women and men to flourish, equally, as both individuals and members of society. My experience in ethics is that achieving such goals requires balance, for instance, in the case of women, between feminism and femininity. The challenge is to hold the best of all worlds in creative tension and do the least harm and achieve the most good. In assessing how to realise that goal we must consider not only women's rights, needs and desires, but also men's, even if just for the sake of women.
The aunt's story
The first lessons most of us learn on being a woman come from women in our own families. Those lessons are delivered through positive identification with traits that we like in our close women relatives and decide to emulate, such as kindness and empathy, or negative identification with ways of being we vow we will forever avoid.
I am fifth-generation Australian and both sides of my family are from the Outback. Stories of strong women, my ancestors, "going bush," the hardships they faced and how they survived were handed down. These stories were all deeply coloured by admiration, pride and respect for the women they described.
My maternal aunt was a powerful role model. She reached adulthood during the Second World War and because she was unmarried and not employed (my grandparents believed that "ladies" did not engage in paid employment,) to their horror she was conscripted to work in a munitions factory. Instead she went into nursing.
My aunt never married — she insists on the honorific Miss, rejecting both Mrs and Ms, and sometimes describes herself with a self-deprecating chuckle as "an unclaimed treasure". But she's no shrinking violet or anti-feminist. On the contrary, she went on to become, for several decades, matron of the hospital in which she trained. It was from her that I learned what it means to be a professional woman in a vocation that one cares about deeply and, in recent times, how one can live alone, grow old gracefully — she's now 86 years old — and continue to lead a life of caring for others, love and laughter, even when all is not as we might wish it to be.
We also learn how to be a woman from the men in our families, especially, if we are blessed, our fathers. There has been much concern, recently, about the serious harm done to boys by absent fathers. That is also true for girls. My father was passionately interested in life (especially nature), God (despite being an atheist for at least part of his life), art (in particular music) and the world (as described daily in newspapers which he devoured and discussed).
I recognise that I have been unusually privileged and that for many women in the world "being a woman" is a sentence to a lifetime — often a tragically shortened one — of pain and suffering, and terrible discrimination. One crucial key to remedying some of the horrible abuses of women is to recognise and implement women's right to education and, at the least, their right to have the same educational opportunities as men. We should all accept a serious responsibility to do what we can to ensure that right is fulfilled.
So where do we go from here? One approach in ethics when we are not sure how to proceed is to ask as many of the right questions as possible in the hope that that will lead us to as many as possible of the right responses.
Are our present approaches to being a woman creative or destructive, or might that depend on the circumstances? Is the current dissatisfaction of many privileged Western women just a case of always wanting what we don't have and a result of undertaking the impossible task of seeking happiness directly, instead of acting in such a way that we hope it will come to us?
Do we still impose on women a model of how to be a woman, although that model differs from traditional ones? What does freedom to be a woman mean?
Have we made a mistake opting for choice over chance, for example, in relation to some aspects of reproduction? Have we lost touch with the magic, mystery, awe and wonder of life? Is the danger not that robots will become like us, but we will become like them? Did women traditionally keep humans from doing that?
Feminism has counteracted serious harms and brought important benefits to women, but have feminists made some mistakes? A major contribution of feminist scholarship has been to focus on protecting and promoting relationships, not just individuals; an "ethic of care" is a central doctrine in feminist ethics. Have we, however, paradoxically, created a Zeitgeist in which young men and women find it very difficult to bond and commit to one another — one in which they have become "unglued"?
Restoring a sense of humour
Another mistake might be pinpointed in the accusation that feminists lack a sense of humour, with some writers claiming that young women are rejecting feminism because they want to "have fun" and see feminism as antithetical to doing so. The true meaning of a sense of humour is a sense of balance, seeing things and especially oneself in perspective, being able to laugh at oneself and I would add to laugh with — but never at, in a mean way — others. Striving for a certain "lightness of being" coupled with deep integrity, sensibility, compassion, caring and courage, to mention only some characteristics — that are, in my view, central to being a woman.
So, how can we retain the best of both worlds, traditional and contemporary? Part of the answer is that we need moral courage in making decisions. In particular, the courage to say no, when appropriate, which can take more courage than saying yes, especially when a negative answer is seen as politically incorrect and as contravening liberal values and individual choice. And we need wisdom to guide us in choosing between yes and no.
We must also hold wisdom in trust for future generations.
I've argued elsewhere, that older people may need to hold traditional values in trust for society, in order to provide a safety net for younger people whose role in society includes experimenting with new values. The resulting amalgam of wise values that emerges has recently been labelled "retro-progressive" values. Has our fear as women of growing old, not only resulted in our becoming obsessed with youth and taking drastic measures to look young(er), but also, likewise, caused us to adopt the latest fad in values espoused by young people at the cost of some values of which we should be the custodians?
"Secret women's business"
That brings me to a 25,000 year old Australian Aboriginal myth I sometimes use to start to talk about the ethics that should govern new reproductive technologies, which some feminists see as giving men control over reproduction.
The women called a corroboree (a meeting) because they knew the men had discovered the secret cave where the "secret women's business" (knowledge) was hidden. And they decided to allow the men to steal the knowledge because they knew that if they didn't there would be no peace in the mob (tribe).
Men also had "secret men's business" from which women were excluded, but one form of knowledge the women had that the men didn't related to reproduction. Women were thought to have a miraculous power to reproduce that men lacked. Note that in this story the men only get the knowledge, because the women allow them to do so, not because the women are powerless, weak or defeated.
I suggest that in the recent past we women have taken back all "the knowledge". That was certainly necessary in regard to certain kinds of knowledge, for instance, science, literacy and so on. But are there some kinds of knowledge that we should allow the men to have as their own? What I'm thinking of is the "knowledge" they need to establish their sense of male identity which many men are having problems doing, especially young men. And does that require us to reinstate some of the traditional courtesies, customs and rituals we used in the past to affirm male identity and especially to distinguish it from female identity?
A final anecdote
Recently I took the train from Montreal to Kingston. An elderly woman passenger — I would guess she was in her 80s — was struggling to lift her case onto the luggage rack. She was dressed optimistically and agelessly in a white cotton blouse, black and white cotton skirt, and sneakers. Her grey hair was cut in a bob with bangs; she wore glasses and was chewing gum. A middle-aged man offered to help her. She replied, loudly enough for the whole carriage to hear, "Thank you, but no; I have to be independent. If you weren't there I'd have to do it myself and I have to learn." She concluded, firmly, "Thank you again, and have a good day." By this time the man was scarlet with embarrassment — like a small boy who had been reprimanded by his teacher in front of everyone else in the class.
I couldn't help but contrast this with my 86-year-old aunt's behaviour in similar circumstances. She, too, is fiercely independent, but she loves people to help her. If she is loaded up with groceries and vegetables from the market and that person is a man, she flirts lightly and skilfully and many times I've seen her and the man share warm laughter as she thanks him and they part. I recently asked her how come she had boyfriends and I didn't. She replied, "Darling, you're just too young yet!" Just one more valuable lesson in being a(n old) woman.
Margaret Somerville is founding director of the Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law at McGill University in Montreal. Her most recent book is "The Ethical Imagination: Journeys of the Human Spirit".