People And Pigeonholes

Is "truth in labeling" a contradiction in terms?

One of the articles in Gender (IC#16)
Originally published in Spring 1987 on page 35
Copyright (c)1987, 1997 by Context Institute

Janie Matrisciano lives in Belmont, Massachusetts. She writes: "For nearly 20 years I’ve been exploring the questions raised here in the context of my own life and the lives of my friends. In households of up to eight adults (and smaller numbers of children), we’ve dealt with issues of gender, sex and sexuality, and sex roles as important pieces of a larger puzzle, finding, if not the answers, at least betters ways to ask the questions."


I GOT MY FIRST BASEBALL GLOVE when I was 9. It was a floppy, ratty, ancient thing cast off by my male cousin, who was a year younger than I was. I used it for a couple of years, then asked my dad for the money to buy a glove of my own. He refused on the grounds that I would grow out of wanting to play baseball soon anyhow, since I was a girl. I joined a women’s softball team when I was 13, using my younger brother’s glove for the tryouts. I became the catcher on that team, and the manager provided a catcher’s mitt. I didn’t have a glove of my own until I bought one to play on my departmental softball team in grad school.

* * *

My mother, a skilled seamstress, made me a bathing suit when I was 13. It was a modest one-piece with a blousy top; I liked the cut and style of it. My father predicted that I wouldn’t wear such a thing by the time I was 18, the implication being that it wasn’t sexy enough (though that wasn’t a word said aloud in our puritanical household). My father was wrong. I never did learn to care about sexiness in the "normal" sense of the word.

* * *

My father has his due share of human inconsistency. To his credit, he unfailingly encouraged my love of math and science and saved pennies for years to send me to a top-notch university to study astronomy. His sexual stereotyping did not extend to education, which he had never had a chance to sample and which he idolized beyond reason – luckily for me. He was deeply disappointed when I graduated with a degree in literature and went on to get a Ph.D. in English.

* * *

Doing volunteer admissions work for my college, I find that 20 years later, young girls are still fighting battles with parents and teachers over whether it’s "necessary" or fitting for a girl to like math or science quite as much as I did. I see how lucky I was in my choice of a father after all, and I see that the girls who fight the battles are lucky, too. Many others have been so brainwashed so early that they’re sure they hate math and/or can’t do it, never even having given it a try.


From Danaan Parry, IN CONTEXT #1, p. 22:

"I think…there are two distinct circles generated in an intentional community. One is populated almost entirely by women and one almost entirely by men, and they operate very differently. [My emphasis]

"…It is true that each of us possesses aspects of the other sexual pole. I am sure that some of the men in Jimmy’s group would have felt more at home with a ritual more similar to that of the women, and vice versa. However, I am beginning to understand for myself that the integration of my feminine nature is absolutely necessary, but not an end-point in my male growth journey. It is a vital stepping stone on my path to claiming the fullness of my maleness. I also feel that a parallel journey is occurring for women. In other words, androgyny is not the final goal; rather, the goal is fully alive, complete women and men."

From Charles Johnston, IN CONTEXT #10, p. 8:

"…Sexual equality offers something very different from sexual equivalence. Wholeness in a woman results in a whole woman; in a man, it results in a whole man. One of the most striking things that occurs in the process of personal integration – a woman finding her masculine, a man his feminine – is a marked increase in the intimacy that a person feels with his/her own body. One then finds one’s experience increasingly rooted in the essential gift of gender. From this new place, one can leave behind sexual stereotypes, and at the same time be moved by the particular sorts of beauty and power to which being embodied as a man or a woman can offer special access. New possibilities of complementarity and mutual appreciation are opened, based not on roles, but on our most intimate experience of ourselves."


Danaan Parry’s point was lost on me two or three years ago. The experiences I’ve described, and many others like them, did not make me a feminist; instead they made me painfully aware of the limitations placed on all of us by our human habit of thinking in terms of categories, stereotypes, and pigeonholes. They also made me realize, gradually and over many years, that I don’t really think of myself as female – though neither do I think of myself as male. My image of myself at the deepest levels I’ve reached simply does not operate in terms of labels, even such fundamental ones as "male" and "female". I can’t stop seeing myself as a complex, richly detailed individual, and most of the time I see other people in much the same way.

Several recent experiences, including the birth of my first child, have given me a new sense of what it means to be female. I had unique feelings bearing Jamie – the most closely connected I’ve ever felt to life and the universe, the nearest I’ve ever been to mysticism. My sense of myself has changed a bit, and I am perhaps more in touch with the biological essences of being female, but I still don’t think of myself as a mother/female and Jamie as a baby. We are two richly individual people sharing our lives for a while.

So maybe I’m moving closer to understanding Parry’s point of view, but I still have fundamental questions about what we’re all made of.


One of my questions echoes Danaan Parry’s use of the phrase "almost entirely" and his speculation that some of the men in his friend’s group might have felt more comfortable with the women’s ritual and vice versa. Parry implies a belief that each of us is fundamentally either male or female, with a secondary intermixture of the other gender, something like Jung’s anima and animus. What I wonder is this: are some of us fundamentally mixtures, even at the deepest levels?

Is it true that we might all go down the same path of integrating our opposite-sex component and then grounding ourselves in our own essential gift of gender? Or are some people mixed at a more basic level than others? With full realization that we’re not really talking about something quantifiable, I ask for purposes of argument: Is everyone really 90% their body’s gender and 10% the other, or are some 90/10 and others 50/50 and others 10/90 (these latter being the ones who get sex-change operations)? Are Johnston and Parry talking about a path that’s right for everyone or for most people or only for some people, and, if the latter, is anyone exploring and charting paths for the more "difficult" mixtures?


In some contexts, it may be valid and useful to talk as though there are just two kinds of people. The counterbalancing view says that there are lots of kinds of people, that thousands of "pairs" of personal qualities (if even here we can talk validly in terms of twos rather than groups or multitudes) should really be plotted as spectra. Most women are shorter than most men, but some women are taller than some men, and some women are taller than most men. It seems to me that if there are any sure bets at all about the characteristics of individual men and women, they have to do with the physical body: anatomy, childbearing ability or the lack of it, and so on. It may be that these differences can be extrapolated into other areas, but I’m not so sure.

It is not easy to take each individual as an individual. It’s hard to think honestly and clearly and fairly about other people and to avoid the convenient slide into stereotypes and pigeonholes. We need to make a constant and faithful attempt to see people clearly in all their rich variousness and complexity. More subtly, we need to learn about contexts, to get clear on when looking at ourselves in categories (whether men and women, blacks and whites, Christians and Jews, Americans and Russians and Ethiopians) is useful, and when looking at ourselves as individuals made of jumbles of qualities is useful. Ultimately, we need to rejoice in both directions: in what we share in common with other people and in our diversity as individuals irrespective of categories.

Perhaps when we’re all Zen masters, each mode will be operative in the appropriate contexts. But that day is far off for most of us. Until then, the emphasis should be very much on recognizing individuality and perhaps on the intermediate step of integrating the masculine into people with women’s bodies and vice versa. Then we can start looking for ways to empower Danaan Parry’s "powerful inner broadsword." You don’t land a plane on the runway until the cement is dry. You don’t learn calculus until you’ve learned arithmetic and algebra, whether it takes years or days. You go very carefully with notions about the male’s "powerful inner broadsword" in a world of Rambo fans. (On the other hand, it’s not a bad idea to have Parry’s meditations, like a good calculus text, around for anyone who’s ready).


Early in my first pregnancy I was surprised to find that everyone in my household, including me, was protecting me more – from worrying about my bike riding to driving more carefully when I was in the car. This was the first gut-level clue I had ever had as to how sex roles and stereotypes arose. In prehistoric times, pregnant and lactating women presumably did not do the tiger hunting; the instinct was, on some fundamental level, to protect the new and coming life.

This thought has led to an occasional meditation about what will happen over time, the long range of evolutionary time, if/as the population stays at a level where many women bear only one child and many more than now bear none at all. What will happen to maleness and femaleness then? How much connection is there between those rock bottom physiological functions and what Parry is talking about? My own presumption is that there is a great deal, so that there will also be profound changes as we alter the way we exercise these physiological functions. On the surface, the change would seem to relate mostly to women, but in fact we are all part of a dynamic, interlocking system, and changes at this fundamental level will affect all people.


Dear Janie,

I receive many responses to my ideas about growth in male and female consciousness, and perhaps surprisingly, your response is one that I agree with more than most. I, too, am a celebrant of the wonderful diversity we humans display. I am committed to my own growth as an individual and to our collective growth (the two are intimately entwined, I believe).

I would take issue with only one point of yours, and that is your separation of the concept of individuality from other areas of who I am. Isn’t my unique connection to my collective culture a part of my individuality? Isn’t my unique expression of my gender also a part of my individuality? The problem, it seems to me, comes when I deny my uniqueness: my unique maleness, my unique humanness.

Do I pigeonhole myself when I call myself a human and work on becoming a more conscious human? Only if I try to live up to some stereotype of what a human is supposed to be. So it is with gender. The fact is that I am the vehicle for an amazing conglomerate of feelings, hormones, physical attributes, genes, psyche, etc., that seem to be male. And, I notice that the reality of maleness is present in the world in what seems like an almost infinite variety of expression. So is femaleness. So is humanness.

As I observe myself living my commitment to personal and collective growth, I see that the journey is most productive when I am willing to look at the totality of me, not just parts. It would be easier to see myself simply as a "person," or perhaps a "spirit," a "light being," beyond the need to include my sex, my sexuality, in my growth process as an individual. It is not that I am fundamentally male; it is that maleness, and the way I choose to express it, is one of the very important variables in who I am. Ignoring that aspect of myself is staying asleep to a part of who I am, as an individual and as a part of the human species.

My work is bringing me into contact with women and men who are on the journey of exploring the question "What is womanness, what is manness, beyond roles and stereotypes and myth, even beyond integration of opposites?" The question, still unanswered, is leading them, us, into uncharted areas beyond our personal psyches, where your last paragraph, Janie, has great meaning for me. The co-creative forces of male and female are not simply to make human babies; they are the stuff of the universe.

Quantum physics shows us that consciousness exists as a hologram; each part mirrors the whole. Our journeys in male and female consciousness are an intimate holographic part of our journey in individuality. To become aware of how we uniquely express our sex is to become aware of a great part of who we are as individuals.