Local Lifestyle

Wednesday, Jan 30 2013 05:40 PM

VALERIE SCHULTZ: Traditional gender roles only hold us back

By The Bakersfield Californian

The connection between women in combat and seahorses may be a strange one to make, but let's try. Consider the seahorses, as they mate in the moonlight. Gliding in the ocean, they meet, greet each other, and dance the steps that have been choreographed by time and DNA. They mirror each other's movements, swooning and swirling to a rhythm only they can sense, and then, in a moment of stillness, the female deposits her eggs into the male's waiting pouch. Then she swims away, confident that he will gestate their young. When the time comes, his body will contract powerfully and push the baby seahorses out into their world of water.

At least that's how it looked to me during the video display at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Visiting the exhibit on a weekday and surrounded by wide-eyed elementary students on field trips, I watched the little girls' fascination and the little boys' queasiness as they examined the cross-section model of the male seahorse full of eggs. "Eww," said one boy. "No way," breathed another. "That would suck," said a third. The girls were mostly silent, perhaps in awe, perhaps at the thought of what could be.

The aquarium, full of the future in the shape of kids and offering the hypnosis of the ocean, is an apt place to reflect on our human reliance on gender roles. Adding to the gender-bending evident at the "Secret Lives of Seahorses" exhibit, the master of ceremonies at "Feeding Time in the Kelp Forest" pointed out the California sheephead, a fish that is born female, but can change into a male about two-thirds of the way through its life. Apparently, and for reasons not yet known, it can go either way, which was another challenging fact for the kids to tuck away in the developing psyche. As in all aspects of life, the more we learn, the more we grow.

We are sometimes uncomfortable when gender roles are turned upside down or sideways, our discomfort sometimes in direct proportion to our age. We get used to the way things have always been, and thus mistake what has always been for what is acceptable or right. It alarmed my mother, for example, when my husband picked out our dish pattern over 30 years ago. Imagine, then, the sense of the topsy-turvy she felt when U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced that women in the armed forces would no longer be barred from combat positions.

It may seem a small thing, as women have been active and wounded and killed in combat for a long time. During World War II, many countries relied on women to augment their armed forces, including on the front lines. But peacetime rules for women in the military are often more prohibitive than the rules during wartime. Qualified American women in the past have not been able to break through the military's "brass ceiling." It is long overdue that qualified women -- not unqualified women getting a break because they are women -- can apply for and aspire to the opportunities and promotions they deserve.

The handwringers and naysayers see this change in military policy as further proof that the country is going to hell in a handbasket. But other countries have pioneered this road, and survived. In support of gender equality, countries such as Canada and Israel have allowed women to serve in combat for years. Time and practice will show that our military will endure.

Because times change, roles change, rules change. In India, a gang-rape and murder of a woman has prompted a nationwide examination of conscience regarding the "culture of masculinity," in which women are barely treated as fully human, let alone as equal. In the United States, women now have the right to earn combat roles from which they have previously been excluded solely because of anatomy. In my own life, I see a new generation of fathers who are deeply involved in the daily care and raising of their children in a way my father's generation was not. And all along, under the sea, the male seahorses have been laboring and giving birth.

The ocean, more than anything else, teaches me that creation is limitless, that the Creator knows no bounds, and that we are the ones who stunt ourselves, who hold ourselves or each other back, who establish false barriers to what can and should be. Certainly there are societal roles that more women prefer, and that more men prefer, and that therefore fall along neat gender lines. I would not do well in combat. I would not pass the rigorous tests required to get myself there. But neither would many men I know. And if I were so suited and capable, I would surely want the chance to do the thing I felt called to do, regardless of my gender. As would any person. Gender roles fail us when we recast them as gender absolutes and allow no exceptions. Just ask the sheephead, who, in its secret wisdom, can go either way. Ask the male seahorse, tenderly delivering his babies into the deep. Ask the women warriors, free at last to pursue their destiny.

These are the opinions of Valerie Schultz, not necessarily those of The Californian. Email her at vschultz22@gmail.com.

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