Feminism: The Complementary Angle

Does equality have to mean sameness, or can men and women capitalize on their differences to create synergy between the sexes?

When it first dawned on Betty Friedan that something was wrong with the role of women in society, she was not incorrect. Nor, of course, was she the first in history to notice, or the first to hit on an inadequate solution. The problem, as she articulated it, was the discontent of the average suburban housewife with a role perceived as smothering and unfulfilling, inferior and therefore unfair. Friedan’s book, The Feminine Mystique, was printed in the early 1960s and is considered the precursor to the so-called second wave of feminism, the first having been the suffrage movement begun the previous century.

While controversy surrounds Friedan’s claim that she spent 20 years as a bored housewife, and that this caused her to become a feminist, it is fair to acknowledge that there were a number of bored housewives in her generation and in the generations before hers. Whether they pursued feminism in any of its many forms as a result, or if not, why not, are questions worthy of pursuit.

Bored or not, however, housewives over the centuries have been the subject of many attempted solutions to the problem of establishing women’s role once and for all. To some the answer is a matriarchal society and the elimination of male violence, under the assumption that violence is a particularly male attribute. To others it is the complete subjugation and humiliation of women in order to “keep them in their place.” The treatment of women under Afghanistan’s Taliban regime is a reminder that even in modern times the pendulum can swing widely.

Generally, though, most in the West agree that men and women should be treated as equals and have equal value in the social order. But even that is open to many interpretations. Some modern feminists are pursuing what they refer to as “complementarity”—that is, equivalence that acknowledges sexual differences. Others suggest that such a concept actually threatens the equality that feminists have worked so hard for.

Equal Yet Different?

So what is equality?

Women are the equals of men and should be treated as such” is feminist author Wendy McElroy’s opinion, even as she asks, “But what is equal? How is equality defined? . . . Does it mean equality under existing laws and equal representation in existing institutions? Or does it involve a socio-economic equality—a redistribution of wealth and power—that, in turn, requires new laws and an overturning of existing institutions?”

When equality is defined as equitable treatment under the law, even the staunchest conservative would probably agree with McElroy. “No one questions the concept of equal access to the Law; to a just and fair treatment for all in the Courts, before the bar of Justice,” says Jacob van Flossen, ultraconservative author of a 1998 political novel entitled Return of the Gods.

This basic concept of equality has been the broad legal intent in certain earlier cultures as well. Notable among them is first-century Jewish society. Under its laws, men were given definite instructions on their obligations to their wife’s needs, and women were endowed with inheritance and property rights not enjoyed by Western women until modern times.

Such a definition of equality doesn’t go far enough, however, to pacify adherents to all the numerous branches of feminism, particularly those known as gender feminists or radical feminists, who maintain that women will be oppressed as long as traditional gender roles are accepted by society. This form of feminism, like most others, is hard to pin down dogmatically, because the approaches to ending such “gender oppression” are as numerous as the individuals who seek to apply them. While some may go so far as to reject heterosexual relationships and/or advocate complete separation from patriarchal society in the belief that men are inherently evil, other gender feminists focus on changing media portrayal of gender differences or removing gender-specific pronouns from communication. The latter group, believing that equality simply means sameness, is trying to eliminate perceived differences between men and women.

Are there differences? And if so, is that a bad thing? 

But are there differences? And if so, is that a bad thing? Or does the idea of complementarity have some merit? Van Flossen asks, “By what compulsion do we make the denial of human difference—the denial of that which makes each of us unique—an ultimate goal?”

Danielle Crittenden, author of What Our Mothers Didn’t Tell Us, echoes his question: “Should men and women be trying to lead identical kinds of lives, or were there good reasons for the old divisions of labor? . . . If so, do these divisions make us ‘unequal’?”

Mutually Dependent

In trying to get to the core of the issue, it might help to take this question even further. Which “old” divisions of labor do we look at? Those extant in the ’60s? The ’50s? Do we go back to the Middle Ages? The first century? Ancient history? Do we look to agrarian societies, where men and women both worked at home or on the adjacent family property, performing different but vital functions? Or to urban societies, where one or both have to go away from home and property to make a living?

Elisabeth Badinter is a Parisian anthropologist with a doctorate in philosophy. Some of her books have been translated into English, including Man/Woman: The One Is the Other, in which she takes an anthropological view of equality, discussing the concept in the context of primitive societies. She writes: “The human diet implies the sharing of tasks and resources. In all known primitive groups, hunting is normally the men’s pursuit, and gathering that of the women. A combination of meat and vegetables is essential to a balanced diet for both sexes. Both, then, exchanged their resources: animal proteins for vegetable proteins.” Badinter sees this as an indication that role differences have historically ensured equality rather than diminished it.

She adds, “When men and women are working to obtain different resources, they establish their mutual dependence. No section of the collectivity can definitely monopolize its wealth. The regular nourishment of its individuals calls for these resources to be pooled, and for everyone to have access to them once they have been collected. Complementarity is objective, since no section of the group can subsist without the other.”

Role differences have historically ensured equality rather than diminished it. 

This mutual dependence is a factor in the consideration of the one for the other and, perhaps more than people think, in equality.”

Nkiru Nzegwu, a professor of African studies at Binghamton University in New York state, makes an almost identical assessment. In a 2001 article for Jenda: A Journal of Culture and African Women Studies, she writes of cultures in West Africa, describing them as “dual-sex systems” because men and women aspire to different roles. In such societies, she says, “women and men are equivalent, namely equal, in terms of what they do in the maintenance and survival of the community. This introduction of complementarity as the principle of sex differentiation accords comparable value to the duties, roles and responsibilities of men and women in society. Even though they perform different tasks and function in different roles, men and women are perceived, or have to be perceived, as equal given their respective value to the community.”

Feminism in the Third World

By all accounts, feminism should be well supported in the developing world. With forced or arranged marriages, polygamy, slavery and other aspects of unequal, inhuman treatment accorded women in that world, we should expect a great support for the work of the feminist movement. No greater need exists for the development of human rights. 

But all is not as it might seem. Concerns about the individualism inherent in the Western model, with its destructive force on communities and families, are real. Western values are already seen as the cause of the breakdown of traditional family life. Large-scale urbanization and the demands of industries for migrant workers have contributed to vast social problems in Africa, including the epidemic of AIDS. So why would another Western concept be able to help? 

The plight of women is seen as being best resolved by an appeal to a higher standard. Hence, Mercy Amba Oduyoye, an ardent speaker and activist for African women, speaks in theological terms. She says, “We banish peace when we don’t live out compassion-filled justice.” That justice has a defined basis. Oduyoye continues, “May we live God’s justice so that those who see us proclaim the only God.” Wisely, she hopes “that a theology of relationships might contribute to bring us closer to human life as God desires it.” 

Nzegwu explains that Western feminism cannot translate effectively in these communities, because its proponents aspire to the same roles as men. She traces this to the Western idea of individualism, which fails to see men and women as vital but different parts of a whole.

In her view, this is a fundamental flaw that holds Western feminism back: “Although feminism has made important contributions towards redefining gender relations, its individualistic notion of equality in which sex difference is viewed as inconsequential is problematic. Its emphasis on individualism obscures the in-built power imbalance between men and women, and allows gender inequity to be preserved and reinforced. Presented as ‘emancipatory,’ the individualistic conception of equality as equivalence is a non-liberatory concept.”

In a docudrama written by Nzegwu, two women from Onitsha, Nigeria, confront two well-known Western feminist leaders. One of the African women, named Omu, makes a straightforward observation: “It seems that in your society, being a woman, or a daughter, or a mother, or a wife are negative and powerless things and so you are terribly obsessed with sameness. But they need not be. Here, those roles embody power and constitute the basis of important social responsibilities. You have to understand that this state of affairs is possible.”

The second African woman, Onyeamama, interjects: “Your anger is irrational. . . . It is unhealthy and abnormal. . . . We don’t share it.”

You shouldn’t utilize men’s life as a model of female identity,” Omu continues, “for that perversely presupposes that women are nothing. If you want to state that, do so directly. But don’t go treating women as nothing, by characterizing their life and activities as irrelevant. Better still, ask yourself why you are so male-fixated.”

Onyeamama summarizes their position: “We have no need to define equality in terms of being equal to men or yearning to be men or in eliminating the affirmative differences between us. Here women and men are social complements.”

The Third Wave

Could Western women identify with these culturally foreign ideals? Apparently the advantages of complementarity have become part of the understanding of at least some Western feminists. Today’s third-wave feminists are as varied in their approaches as the second-wave variety of yesterday, yet a large number of young women today who consider themselves feminists distance themselves from the ideals their mothers espoused.

Authors such as Crittenden have addressed some of their issues. For example, she answers former National Organization of Women president Karen DeCrow’s notion that men should never allow themselves to support their wives (because, DeCrow claims, love can flourish only when everyone pays his or her own way). Crittenden remarks: “The unfortunate discovery of my generation is that economic equality brings us no closer to ‘flourishing love’ than the old sexual division of labor. . . . This is because successful marriage has less to do with reaching equity with our husbands than it does in understanding, and accepting, the different compromises and sacrifices men and women make over the long course of marriage—compromises and sacrifices that arise out of our sexual differences, and thus our different reasons for getting married in the first place.”

Where Western feminist definitions of equality extend to the problem of sexual double standards—a subject fundamental to most branches of feminism—Wendy Shalit, author of A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue, echoes the principles of Badinter and Nzegwu. She argues that women have been uniquely compromised by the sexual revolution, because in trying to become as sexually free as they perceived men to be—in trying to achieve sameness—they’ve given up the most liberating power they held: withholding sex until receiving the long-term commitment they really want.

Shalit does not advocate using this power to manipulate. She sees it as a legitimate complementary role, vital to family and social stability, which women have traded for powers they perceive as more desirable: those that would make them more like men.

The sexual revolution seems to have failed,” says Shalit, “mostly because it ignored the differences between the sexes. . . . Women’s liberation . . . failed because it. . . held that all differences we observed were the result of oppression. Hence all their ways to restore order, such as through sexual harassment legislation, have been like trying to put a Band-Aid over an amputated limb.”

If, as Shalit says, women in today’s society are reduced to either trying to fit into the same role as a man or “to be feminine in a desperate, victimlike way,” is there a way out? According to Shalit, the sexual complementarity of men and women can be regained: “Many young women today don’t think their lives should be spoiled by their parents’ mistakes, and we would want nothing more than to return, if we could, to the days before all of these experiments. Not only do we think there are differences between the sexes, but we think these differences can have a beautiful meaning—a meaning that isn’t some irrelevant fact about us but one that can inform and guide our lives.”

Not only do we think there are differences between the sexes, but we think these differences can have a beautiful meaning.”

Wendy Shalit, A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue

More specifically, Shalit elucidates, “Our mothers tell us we shouldn’t want to give up all the hard-won ‘gains’ they have bequeathed to us, and we think, what gains? Sexual harassment, date rape, stalking, eating disorders, all these dreary hook-ups? Or perhaps it’s the great gain of divorce you had in mind?”

Roles and Relationships

While even complementarity may be approached in different ways by today’s feminists, no one has much difficulty understanding the validity of complementary reproductive roles. It is obvious that men and women each contribute a vital part to producing children. But it can be harder to accept complementarity in the roles of parents in bringing up their family, once produced, and in their marriages overall.

Studies such as one produced by the University of Edinburgh in 1998 report that while children need similar things from their fathers and mothers (a role model, quality time, supportive behavior, expressions of love, and physical contact), it was not ideal for one parent alone to provide them. “Children,” notes the report, “need from their fathers and mothers together a balanced, complementary, and stable relationship.”

The complementarity of the sexes that seems so obvious to Elisabeth Badinter and Nkiru Nzegwu may be hard to sell in the modern West, but evidence of it pops up in almost every area of human life. To Badinter, “the lesson to be learnt is twofold: the total abandonment of the characteristics specific to either sex is difficult and risky, for in disregarding this truth one risks death.” She then paraphrases compatriot and fellow anthropologist Georges Balandier: “The relationships established between the sexes seem to conform to extremely ancient and intangible structures and . . . every attempt to undermine this system is a far more corrosive revolution than one that merely aims at the elimination of class relationships. Sexual dualism is the paradigm of all dualisms, the paradigm of the history of the world.”

Must men and women fear being different? Would embracing the concept of different but complementary roles necessarily relegate women to Betty Friedan’s model of the bored suburban housewife? Or could it lead instead to greater liberation than has been experienced in any of history’s previous experiments?