For a writing class I am taking this semester, I was asked to write an epistolary essay—an essay in the form of a letter—and, as I had been studying and enjoying the writing and philosophy of Virginia Woolf earlier in the semester, I decided to address my essay to her in order to update her—and inform my reader—about the current state of gender division. In her essay “A Room of One’s Own,” Woolf references Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s idea of the “androgynous mind.” Woolf argues that in order to be a great writer, one must embody an androgynous mind and either be woman-manly or man-womanly in their thinking. In my essay, I comment on the fact that I believe that, today, many people have still yet to take on an androgynous point of view, not simply in writing, but in all aspects of life. I feel that sharing this essay is appropriate in light of the debate that has taken place over the JMU Catholic Campus Ministry’s Man Retreat article and its discussion of gender division. And the essay goes something like this…
Dear Virginia: You once demonstrated your agreement with Samuel Taylor Coleridge when he said that a great mind is androgynous. Great writers with great minds, you asserted, would display neither male nor female characteristics in their writing—any sort of gender bias would distract from the content. Through my recent understanding of this ingenious concept, I have begun to wonder: Has society heeded your advice since the time that you warranted it? Have people begun to make a substantial effort to embody the androgynous mind not simply in writing, but in all aspects of life? The conclusion I have come to, most unfortunately, is that the majority of our society, namely men, have yet to adopt your philosophy.
When I say that it is explicitly men who have not accepted the idea and implemented it into their everyday experiences, I mean to say that I believe women have—especially in recent years—dared to venture into spheres that are traditionally male-dominated. Now, thanks to women’s movements, many women openly wear clothing once intended for men, compete in sports once intended for men and take on careers once intended for men. But, on the reverse side of this advancement and liberation, men continue in their disinclination to participate in spheres that are traditionally female-dominated—and consequently continue to keep their minds confined to a single gender.
For the most part, men do not wear clothes that only women commonly wear, they do not participate in activities that only women commonly participate in, and they do not occupy careers that only women commonly occupy—stay-at-home-Dads are certainly a rarity. This generalization, of course, does not apply to all men. Some dare to enter spheres that are by-and-large deemed female, but others, for fear that they would be called—heaven forbid—“women,” which also seems to be a synonym for “weak,” keep their distance.
Our media, which, you have to understand, Virginia, has grown significantly more pervasive since you were around, helps to perpetuate this idea that it is “weak” for men to fall into these female spheres. Films, television shows, advertisements and any sources of media that may reach the mind of a young child emphasize that girls are expected to concern themselves with one set of toys, hobbies and temperaments, and that boys are expected to concern themselves with another. Baby girls are to wear pink and baby boys are to wear blue. Girls always receive the “girl” toy, which is typically a doll of some sort, and boys always receive a “boy” toy, which is typically a car, in their Happy Meals at McDonald’s. McDonald’s is a fast-food restaurant chain, Virginia, and is another rather disgusting topic—but I digress. I have witnessed parents become worried when their child does not naturally begin taking pleasure in gender-normative activities. Even as innocent children who are just starting to discover our interests, we are expected to enjoy and to participate according to gender. Sadly, this indoctrination does not cease as we develop.
It is also our educational systems that encourage our minds to favor one gender. Can you believe that, at my university, within the required general education classes, there is no option to choose a women’s studies course? There are, however, countless history courses to chose from—courses that are notorious for their focus on powerful white men. Men are given few chances to broaden their understanding of women in order to grow closer to embodying an androgynous mind. But, would men actually desire to understand women anyway?
Many men may be reluctant to accept an androgynous mind because it would rob them of their precious masculinity. If men were to make an attempt to understand women, it would force them to acknowledge the fact that they are not objects. Again, I realize that not all men view women as objects; however, many do. Many men are content with reveling in their manliness and refusing to embrace any dormant feminine tendencies because doing so allows them to separate themselves so distinctly from the women that they objectify. If men were to discover that women had thoughts or emotions they could relate to, they might actually begin to feel guilty about degrading and shaming them.
Virginia, I have begun to feel that I have been placing a considerable amount of blame on men for the division of genders, but I also want to note that I recognize that women are not completely innocent in the matter. Many women, in fact, are also at fault for encouraging a separation between the genders. Several times, I have heard women make comments alluding to the notion that women are always sensitive and caring, and that men are always tough and brave when, in reality, either gender can embody any combination of these qualities. It seems as if many people have been playing “Men Are from Mars and Women Are from Venus”—a horrendous, gender-stereotyping board game—for their entire lives. They cannot break away from these gender stereotypes and seem to cling desperately to the idea of them. I have encountered many women, and men for that matter, who prefer to see men embodying characteristics that are traditionally deemed “male” and women embodying characteristics that are traditionally deemed “female.” Any evidence of gender bending, in their opinion, is simply repulsive and unnatural.
Forcing people into stereotypes—categorizing them as you would papers in a filing cabinet—makes understanding the human race easier for some people. In my opinion, Virginia, I see this as a cop-out. Humans are complex creatures who deserve to act complexly and to be perceived as complex. For humans to reach their full potential, it is necessary that they begin to embrace both their male and female attributes— to embrace the androgynous mind that you so vehemently supported. The recipe for harmony in the human mind is also the recipe for harmony in the world; and until humans begin to accept that they are more similar than they are different, this global harmony will never be achieved.