Would you please make up your minds?

Jane Taber, in feminist mode:

It is striking to sit in the House of Commons during Question Period and watch how the big issues of the day are divvied up along gender lines.

Consider two of the significant stories of this fall – the H1N1 crisis and the allegations of torture of Afghan detainees. When it came to dealing with H1N1, women MPs asked the questions and the female Health Minister answered. This changed dramatically, however, when the story moved on to guns, war and torture. That’s when the guys took over. For the most part, the women sat quietly in their seats.

Quite. Silly old gender stereotypes. Imagine, in 2009, assigning portfolios according to outdated sex roles:

As a leading expert on women in politics, the University of Toronto’s Sylvia Bashevkin says this is not uncommon – women traditionally deal with the butter issues (social spending, health and the arts) and men with the gun issues.

“What cabinet positions women historically were offered were portfolios that were seen as a logical extensional of a traditional maternal role: health, education, welfare, culture,” Ms. Bashevkin said.

There is a gender bias, too, when the issue is the economy. The Finance Minister is male (and always has been in the federal government) and so are his opposition critics.

So we’re agreed: everyone thinks this is wrong. Everyone, that is, except … other feminists. Or sometimes even the same ones: when it suits them, they will invoke exactly the same stereotypes, only with a feminist twist — how women are more caring and compassionate, while men are confrontational and macho; how if women ran the world, there would be no more wars; how women lead in different ways, by consensus and relationship-building, while men win through brute force. You only have to Google the word “testosterone” to see how often this line of argument is invoked.

Indeed, you can see this same whip-sawing between equality-seeking and difference-invoking going on just in the course of Jane’s story:

Anita Neville, a Winnipeg MP and chair of the Liberal women’s caucus, doesn’t entirely buy in to the women-are-butter-men-are-guns theory…

“I think there tends to be some stereotyping of it, but I don’t think it’s universal,” Ms. Neville said.

She said that she has asked a question about torture in Afghanistan; she sits on the Commons Defence committee and has been to the special parliamentary committee examining the torture issue.

So gender is beside the point; men and women are on the same intellectual and moral plane, right? Uh, no:

Despite their numbers, Ms. Neville remains positive about the impact of women in the House. She said female MPs can play a big role behind the scenes. For example, she said that the Liberal women’s caucus pushed former prime minister Jean Chrétien to resist sending Canadian troops into Iraq.

Sigh. The boys wanted to play with their guns, until the nurturing, peaceloving Gaiawomen stayed their hands. Of course.

The only way to approach this subject is to accept that there is no logic or consistency to it whatever. Sex differences are irrelevant; sex differences are all-explanatory. Women are equals; women need special treatment. Don’t call me a waitress, I’m a waiter; I’m a Mistress of Arts, not a Master; my title is chairperson/chairwoman/chairman/chair. It’s utter chaos out there, and it’s not going to get any better.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.