April 17, 2005


Can We Make Boys and Girls Alike? (Stanley Kurtz, Spring 2005, City Journal)

What if a society existed whose citizens, motivated by a burning passion for perfect justice, committed themselves to a total reorganization of the traditional family system, with the express purpose of eliminating gender? Such a society has existed, of course: the early Israeli kibbutz movement. The movement wasn’t just a precursor to modern feminism, it’s important to add. The kibbutzniks were utopian socialists who wanted to construct a society where the ideal of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” would govern the production and distribution of goods. It was as part of this larger socialist vision that the kibbutzniks set out to wipe away gender.

Kibbutz parents agreed to see their own children only two hours a day, and for the remaining 22 hours to surrender them to the collective, which would raise them androgynously (trying more to “masculinize” women than “feminize” men). Boys and girls would henceforth do the same kind of work and wear the same kind of clothes. Girls would learn to be soldiers, just like boys. Signs of “bourgeois” femininity—makeup, say—would now be taboo. As if they had stepped out of Plato’s Republic, the children would dress and undress together and even use the same showers.

The experiment collapsed within a generation, and a traditional family and gender system reasserted itself. Why? Those who believe in hardwired natural differences obviously would say that cultural conditioning couldn’t remove the sexes’ genetic programming. Indeed, in his now-infamous conference remarks, Lawrence Summers invoked the history of the kibbutz movement to help make his case that biology might partially explain sex roles.

Feminists, though, say that the kibbutz experiment didn’t get a fair chance. However committed to gender justice the kibbutzniks might have been, they were all traditional Europeans by upbringing. Somehow they must have transmitted the old cultural messages about gender to the children. Perhaps, too, those messages came from the larger Israeli society, from which it was impossible to shelter the boys and girls entirely. What’s more—and Chodorow would doubtless emphasize this fact—the kibbutz child-care nurses were all women. A 50/50 male-female mix might have done the trick.

Yet American androgyny proponents rarely refer to the kibbutz experiment—for understandable reasons. Its failure—even if you accept their own cultural explanation for it—puts a serious damper on the idea of androgynizing America. In the U.S., after all, there’s nothing remotely approaching the level of commitment to surmounting gender found among the early kibbutzniks. If androgyny proved unattainable in a small socialist society whose citizens self-selected for radical feminist convictions, how could one bring it about in contemporary America, where most people don’t want it? It would take a massive amount of coercion—unacceptable in any democracy—to get us even to the point where the kibbutzniks were when they failed to build a post-gender society.

The best account of the experiment’s breakdown, offered by anthropologist Melford Spiro in his books Gender and Culture and Children of the Kibbutz, points out an even bigger obstacle to androgyny. Ultimately, Spiro argues, the kibbutzniks didn’t succeed because the mothers wanted their kids back. They wanted to take care of their young children in the old-fashioned way, themselves. Two hours a day with their kids wasn’t enough. Even among the kibbutz founders, Spiro notes, women often agonized over the sacrifice of maternal pleasure that their egalitarian ideology demanded. He quotes from one mother’s autobiography: “Is it right to make the child return for the night to the children’s home, to say goodnight to it and send it back to sleep among the fifteen or twenty others? This parting from the child before sleep is so unjust!” Such feelings persisted and intensified, until collective pressure forced the kibbutz to let parents spend extra time with their kids.

Spiro holds that a pre-cultural form of maternal instinct subverted the kibbutz’s child-rearing approach. But a plausible cultural explanation is even more devastating to feminist hopes for a gender-free America. What really defeated androgyny on the kibbutz, this interpretation posits, was the profound tension built in to the very culture of modern democratic individualism that the kibbutzniks embraced—the tension between liberty and equality. As part of their insistence on their unique individuality, the kibbutzniks recognized the unabridgeable unique individuality of everyone else. Hence, their insistence on radical equality. Full equality meant that everyone had to treat everyone else the same way. Even the differences between my children and the neighbors’ kids would have to go. They pretended that their children belonged to the collective—“child of the kibbutz,” they would say, not “my child.”

But the other side of democratic individualism is the idea that each of us is uniquely individual. And inseparable from this individualism are certain aspirations—to express yourself personally, and to treat yourself, your possessions, and your family differently from how you treat everyone else. Child rearing doesn’t escape these aspirations. In fact, in modern societies people pay far greater attention to the unique characters of their children than people do in traditional, group-oriented societies. Lavishing intense, personal attention on their kids is a favorite way for modern individuals to exercise personal liberty.

Kibbutz mothers who hoped to treat everyone the same thus also wanted to express their individual characters by molding their own kids. The two goals—reflecting the two sides of modern democratic individualism—were finally incommensurable. Eventually, the desire for personal expression trumped the quest for radical equality. The parents decided to raise their own kids in their own way. No one ever got the chance to find out if further tinkering might have eliminated their children’s gender differences.

The culture of democratic individualism characterizes contemporary America, too, of course, and it still cuts two ways. Feminists insist on radical equality, and androgyny is the logical outcome of that drive for equality. Yet at the same time, especially since the baby boomers came on the scene, many American women have treated the experience of motherhood as an exercise in self-expression—indeed, they do so more fervently than the kibbutzniks.

A modern, self-expressive, committed-to-full-equality American mother might know that her child is getting quality care from a relative, a nanny, or a nursery, but she’ll often feel dissatisfied, since the care isn’t hers. Part of the point of being a parent, she’ll feel, is to express one’s unique personality through how one cares for and shapes one’s children. In practical terms, she’ll be reluctant to give up her kids long enough to break the cycle of “gender reproduction.”

True, the last 40 years have seen tremendous changes in the social roles of men and women—changes that could never have happened were there not significant flexibility in gender roles. From the standpoint of feminism’s ideal of androgyny, though, the shift is still very partial. Until the link between women and child rearing completely breaks down, neither corporate boardrooms nor Harvard professorships of mathematics will see numerical parity between men and women. In the meantime, in disproportionate numbers, at critical points in their careers, women will continue to choose mothering over professional work.

From either a biological or cultural point of view, then, the feminist project of androgyny is ultimately doomed.

In the end, every question of human affairs comes down to nothing but the tension between freedom and security (liberty and equality).

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 17, 2005 11:45 PM

Meanwhile, back at the classroom, the teaching profession continues its agenda of neutering males. It won't work, given human nature, but that won't be for lack of effort and expenditure. And there will be psychological costs, too.

Posted by: ghostcat at April 18, 2005 12:30 AM

Insert obligatory joke about Jewish mother, kids not calling etc. (Ah. That feels better)

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at April 18, 2005 12:37 AM

Jim -

That angle hadn't dawned on me. Like trying to get between John McCain and a TV camera.

Posted by: ghostcat at April 18, 2005 12:46 AM

Would appear that only a revolution that is both skeptical of human perfection, respectful of the Almighty (in whatever guise), and promotes the ideology of "the pursuit of happiness" (i.e., respectful of human choice, within certain limits, of course) has a chance of success.

And that all other revolutions that focus on the perfectability of the human are either doomed or become nightmares.

Ideology can be exhilirating; but if it proves inflexible, it becomes corrosive.

The kibbutz, for all of its achievements, and there have been many extraordinary ones, is no exception.

Posted by: Barry Meislin at April 18, 2005 3:06 AM

On the other hand many of the Kibbutz moms and dads really were irreconcilable loony leftists who did sacrifice their children to their loopy ideas. What has really doomed the Kibbutz is that the kids raised in this collective fashion turned out to be determined not to do the same to their own kids.

What we learned is that socialist delusions are not hereditary.

Posted by: ZF at April 18, 2005 7:56 AM

People want to care for their own children...wow, it's almost as if there are instincts that evolved to aid survival and reproduction.

Posted by: Tom at April 18, 2005 4:44 PM

Or not.

Posted by: David Cohen at April 18, 2005 9:02 PM

I recall a book review about the kibbuyz's where the author said "he visited them to see how culture could change human nature--but instead saw how human nature trumped culture."

Posted by: ray at April 18, 2005 10:41 PM