Both men and women are often undervalued by society when they work in traditional unpaid or low-paid roles such as manual labouring, looking after children, home-making, refuse collecting, or providing personal services. They may not recognise how useful they really are being.
When the women’s movement spoke up for the value of women it rebelled against the traditional gender stereotypes and proclaimed equality between the sexes. It quite rightly opposed any idea of male superiority and female subservience.
Men and women and sexual equality
However this idea of equality has also led to a minimising and even denial of any basic differences between men and women. Some fear that any talk of gender stereotypes is only a short step from women being different to being inferior – thus justifying discrimination.
I would say however that in fighting discrimination against women, society lost sight of the older meaning of the word ‘discriminate’ — to distinguish accurately and thus to discern any specific differences. Just because a belief is a social stereotype, it doesn’t mean it isn’t true.
This question of course is caught up in the nature-nurture debate. Biologists have known for years, that male and female genes and sex hormones are very important in affecting the behaviours that separate men and women. But given some differences in gender roles across cultures, controversy continues on the relative role of social conditioning.
Whether it is inherent or not in the nature of the sexes, there is a growing amount of research finding that brains of men and women differ. Apparently, brain activity is more diffuse for women and more specific for men in relation to vocabulary, visio-spatial perception and emotion.
The presence of male hormones often increases aggression, competition, self-assertion, self-confidence, and self-reliance, whereas female hormones usually decrease these factors.
Tend and befriend
Whatever the cause, men tend to use problem-focused coping and the ‘fight-or-flight’ response to stress, whereas women tend to employ emotion-focused coping and the ‘tend-and-befriend’. The ‘tend-and-befriend’ idea was originally developed by Dr. Shelley E. Taylor and her research team at the University of California, Los Angeles. It refers, when under threat, to protection of offspring (tending) and seeking out the social group for mutual defence (befriending).
Psychologist and therapist John Grey says that men and women use the same language, like men do, to make points and solve problems. But women also tend to talk about feelings a lot more than do men. In his opinion women feel a need to share and express their feelings, in order to both discover what their feelings are and sort them out; also as a means to get closer to a friend or to experience greater intimacy with a partner. A man mistakenly assumes that when a woman talks about her feelings and problems his role as a listener is to assist her in feeling better by offering her solutions.
According to a Swedenborgian perspective, men and women do differ in so far as a female tends towards a subjective and the male an objective mental set. Often she is orientated to the personal angle rather than the impersonal. Whilst she tends to be concerned with practical application and implications of ideas, he is focusing on the facts, logic and principles behind ideas themselves. She inclines towards expressing her heart and he his head.
Swedenborg claims that feelings of personal concern are warmer and stay longer in women. At the same time a man finds it easier to think in rational light and for longer: he is concerned that his actions are directed by the sensible thoughts of the head — or if they are not, he wants them to appear so.
These days such opinions are often heard as sexist — that women are more emotional and men are cleverer — but this is exactly not what Swedenborg is saying. A similar range of intelligence and emotional reactivity is found in both men and women.
“It is masculine to perceive from the understanding, and feminine to perceive from love; and the understanding perceives things which are above the body and beyond the world, it being to these that rational and spiritual sight extends; while love does not go beyond what it feels. When it does go beyond, it does this by drawing on that conjunction with the male understanding which was established from creation; for understanding pertains to light, and love to heat, and that which pertains to light is seen, while that which pertains to heat is felt.” (Swedenborg, CL 168)
Thus for a man to grow spiritually, he needs to learn from women. He needs to be influenced by female feelings of care and sensitivity to personal issues, in order for him to gain moral wisdom. At the same time, a woman needs to learn from men. She benefits from male objectivity, and rational thinking.
The fundamental principle that men and women deserve equal respect and value was thus established by Swedenborg, long before it began to be asserted by the feminist movement.
Copyright 2012 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems