The XX Factor

Congressman Makes One Tiny Good Point Amid Lots of Stupid Ones

Phil Gingrey, a Republican congressman from Georgia, flipped a switch on my indignation machine Monday when he championed the indefensible Defense of Marriage Act by suggesting that children need both a mother and a father. That’s not a new argument, I informed the indignation machine, to no avail. But then Gingrey made things worse by recommending (whir) that grade schools teach American kids gender stereotypes (whir), so that they’d see how dads do some things better than moms, and vice versa, which is why every family needs one of each (whir whir whir).

Here’s Gingrey:

You know, maybe part of the problem is we need to go back into the schools at a very early age—maybe at the grade school level—and have a class for the young girls and have a class for the young boys and say, “You know, this is what’s important. This is what a father does that is maybe a little different, maybe a little bit better than the talents that a mom has in a certain area.” And the same thing for the young girls, that, you know, this is what a mom does, and this is what is important from the standpoint of that union which we call marriage.

Gah. And yet, over the drone of the outrage motor, a thought spoke to me, and it was this: In a very limited way, Gingrey is correct. To the extent that men often possess masculine traits and women often possess feminine traits, raising a kid with one man and one woman might mean the kid gets a full complement of experiences. She might learn about both courage and kindness, competitive fire and teamwork; she might roughhouse and be nurtured; she might appreciate the distinct-but-equal joys of mud and glitter. Or—and herein lies the rub (and the whir)—she might not: Masculinity and femininity, for all their validity as behavioral categories, have very little to do with biological sex.

Just ask Sandra Bem, a psychologist at Cornell University whose gender schema theory describes the complex ways we develop gender identities. According to Bem, masculinity and femininity are modes of performance that become available to people of either sex once they’ve tuned into social norms. These gender templates aren’t opposites—bits and pieces of each can coexist in one person. You can be, for instance, both compassionate and aggressive (I know, mind-blowing). What this means for Gingrey’s argument is that a single parent can do both “mom” and “dad,” or mom can do “dad” and dad can do “mom,” or either parent can do either role to whatever extent it feels good to him or her. In fact, Bem argues, the most psychologically healthy and flexible among us incorporate both masculine and feminine attributes, rather than cleaving rigidly to just one type.

Gingrey’s idea to brainwash children with outdated sex stereotypes is clearly a bad idea. But one microscopic part of his point is correct: that masculine and feminine forces both have something crucial to contribute to a kid’s upbringing. Even Gingrey has a little bit of “mom” and a little bit of “dad” in him—too bad the lotta bit of “fool” is the one talking.