Playing the Gender Game

Okay class, which of these two poems was written by a man and which by a woman? That question (and the poems themselves) made for an exciting opening salvo for a class on the distinction between gender and sex. Here are the poems I used:

Those lines that I before have writ do lie,
Even those that said I could not love you dearer;
Yet then my judgment knew no reason why
My most full flame should afterwards burn clearer.
But reckoning Time, whose million’d accidents
Creep in ‘twixt vows and change decrees of kings,
Tan sacred beauty, blunt the sharp’st intents,
Divert strong minds to the course of altering things;
Alas, why, fearing of Time’s tyranny,
Might I not then say ‘Now I love you best,’
When I was certain o’er incertainty,
Crowning the present, doubting of the rest?
Love is a babe; then might I not say so,
To give full growth to that which still doth grow?


How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

In order for the exercise to work, I had to bet on the students NOT knowing the authors of these poems already. Turns out only one student had read either of these poems in high school. Midway through our blind attempt to discern which poem a woman had penned, this student “revealed” her knowledge and “helped” the rest of the students decipher the mystery. Ironically (perhaps fittingly) this student had misremembered the identity of the author, thereby plunging the class deeper into the abyss of unknowing. The students thought the exercise would be a cake walk. All the expected arguments were made and the common stereotypes bandied about, but the more we spoke the more arbitrary our decision seemed to be.

After revealing the true identity of the authors (Shakespeare and Browning, respectively) we discussed why we thought it would be easy. Wouldn’t one expect people of different genders to express the fundamental truths about human love in radically different ways? I mean Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus, right? I think the fruit for the class (at least the lowest hanging fruit) was the discovery that men and women might be more similar than we thought. Different, yes, but not aliens from distant planets. Shakespeare and Browning express fundamental experiences of love, beauty, and goodness in unique ways, but not incommensurate ways.

For part II of this class session I ask the students to split up into men and women. Working together, they come up with a list of the ten most annoying characteristics of the opposite sex. (I borrowed this exercise from David Cloutier.) A representative of each group then proclaims these attributes and the fun begins. In addition to garnering laughs, this exercise tends to ruffle the feathers of students’ assumptions about sex and gender. Why? Because after the initial discussion about whether the attributes are true, false, or exaggerations, I ask each gender/sex group to work together again state which of the attributes are entirely socially constructed and which are entirely biological. Inevitably, the students come back from their attempt befuddled. It turns out that arguing for the complete social constructivist theory of gender is a lot harder than they thought. At the same time, the entirely biologically-centered theory of gender falls on equally hard times. Students come away seeing the relationship between biological sex and the category of gender in a much more nuanced way than they had before.

Thoughts? How do you introduce gender theory?


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