Previous Blogs by Topic

Politics and Economics

Science and Religion

Various Art Forms

The Human Condition:

On the Basis of Sex – December 1, 2019

People puppets

I recently—and belatedly—saw the movie about Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s early fight for women’s equality, On the Basis of Sex. Once again, it reminded me that while I share many views with my parents and their generation, I am yet and remain A Classic Liberal.

My mother was trained as a landscape architect, having studied at Penn State in the 1930s. She never practiced professionally—even if we did have pretty neat gardens around our several homes when I was growing up—although she used her skills to work as a draftsman at Bell Labs during World War II. After the war my brother and I were born in rapid succession, and so she stayed at home as our mother. Still, she taught us various bits about measuring, draftsmanship, graphics, sign making, and other useful subjects.

I have always supported women getting an education—not only in the arts and sciences, but in the martial arts as well, for self-defense. When I was first at college in the late 1960s, I heard university administrators had stated that they favored educating women because by doing so they were educating a family. And yes, this is a sentiment that would appear to limit women to the role of caregiver in the home. But some women did—and still do—want to be stay-at-home moms, and they should be as educated, with developed and refined minds, as anyone else. However, most of the young women with whom I attended college at the time were not seeking husbands and a wifely role as homemaker but instead studying for their own careers and planning for their workplace futures. And about half of the students in my karate classes were women as well.

My entire professional career was spent working alongside, and sometimes reporting to, women. In the publishing business, in technical editing at the engineering and construction company, in communications at the utility company, and in documentation and communications at two biotech companies, women were to be found as often as men. Language skills and the capability for understanding and handling numbers and complex concepts are equally distributed between the sexes. There may have been fewer women working as registered professional engineers back at the construction company in the 1970s, but that is a trend that steadily eroded in my lifetime. When I got to the biotech firms twenty years later, there were as many women scientists and administrators as men.

I believe this gender blindness was actually intended at the nation’s founding. I see the terms “man,” “men,” and “mankind” in this country’s original documents—certainly in the Declaration of Independence—as being inclusive, referring to men and women equally, rather than singling out males for distinction and pride of place. “Mankind” has generally been treated—until recently, when political consciousness kicked in—as equivalent to “humankind” and not promoting one sex at the expense of the other. So “all men are created equal” in the Declaration does not imply a lesser place or lack of distinction among women.

In the Ginsburg movie, the point was made that the U.S. Constitution does not anywhere include the word “woman” or “women.”1 It also does not include the word “man” or “men.” When it addresses an individual human being, rather than a government body, it uses the words “person” and “persons,” which could equally apply to a woman as to a man. So our founding law was sexless and genderless, making no assumptions about the citizens and their roles.

However, I’m still not “woke” enough to align with the current politically correct thinking that sex and gender are entirely mental states. I still believe there are some jobs that certain women, with smaller frames and less muscle strength, simply cannot perform despite any reasonable accommodation. Hauling a firefighting colleague twice her size out of danger would be one such job. Handling a jack hammer as tall as she is and half her weight would be another. A woman may want to do these jobs, just as a man of below average height, weight, and strength may want the job, but that does not alter the biological facts. These people should not be denied these jobs on the basis of sex but on the basis of strength and innate capability. In the same way, I might want to be appointed to a university professorship in the department of mathematics, but my poor old innumerate brain and an education that stopped at Algebra II simply do not qualify me for the position.

If sex and gender are supposed to be entirely mental, then “trans” people would be exempt from their own genetics and physiology and allowed to adopt whatever gender they choose. While I don’t deny that “gender dysphoria” may exist, and that a person in a man’s or woman’s body might feel strongly that they belong to the opposite sex, I still don’t believe this is a healthy state of mind. In the same way, I don’t believe that unrelieved depression or persistent delusions and hallucinations are healthy states.2 But I am also liberal enough—believing in human individuality and a person’s freedom to be what they want—that I can’t condemn the choice of a mature person, after serious reflection, undergoing the surgeries, hormone treatments, and counseling to change their physical presence and presentation to the world. But I would withhold the same surgeries and treatments from a pre-pubescent child, when children are notoriously fluid in their identities and imaginings, and they are not yet settled in their own lives.

Still, there remains the troubling affair, currently waiting to be sorted out, of segregated athletic competitions that are being invaded and dominated by trans people. This is almost always in terms of trans women competing in and—because they transitioned after puberty, and so have larger, stronger bodies—dominating the sport to the exclusion of women who were born female. This is even more troubling when the new competitors are not required to have had surgery or hormone therapy but simply, emotionally, maybe spiritually, “identify” as women. But I think the solution is relatively obvious—although perhaps not to those who are pushing the issue as a political wedge into traditional society. Instead of letting trans women compete in the women’s category, create a separate sports category for them, with their own meets and records and honors to be won. And then let the judges in that separate category decide how much muscle mass and testosterone should count for an achievement. This would be “separate but equal,” but no more onerous than the previous and accepted separation of men’s and women’s tennis, gymnastics, track, and other sports competitions.

In all of this, I am driven by a core belief: that all humans—“persons” in the language of the U.S. Constitution—are equally valid and deserving of respect. We may differ in physical strength and prowess, intelligence and education, emotional development and stability, understanding and insight, and every other parameter that can be applied to H. sapiens. But we are at a basic level all people. And I believe that this is the bedrock of any civilization.

1. You can bring up the full text at The Constitution of the United States: A Transcription and run a keyword search yourself.

2. But while we’re on the subject of mental states, I can accept that attraction to and lust for a person of one’s own sex is not a disease. The urges toward sex are so widespread in the human brain, and the objects and situations that one person may find attractive so varied, that limiting their scope to one popular form of attraction and attachment—binary coupling among heterosexuals—seems as absurd as saying that the “missionary position” is the only natural and acceptable form of sexual encounter.