My recent examination of issues related to women performing combat ops in the U.S. military was actually part of a much broader subject of how one views the sexes, and what the differences between them means for society. Certainly no one denies there to be any difference between men and women. At the very least, physiological differences are acknowledged, even if no others are admitted. However, in conversing over the implications of differences beyond mere anatomical features, some terms must be agreed upon in order to advance the dialogue. The following is an explanation of the terms I have found helpful for discussing the subject:
Egalitarianism - This view holds that the sexes are equal in value, and that this equality has rendered further differences (beyond mere physiological features) to be largely irrelevant. Functions of domestic and societal roles are by and large culturally conditioned. This translates into a functional interchangeability between the sexes as it relates to responsibilities in the home and in society. Domestic roles or occupations outside the home can be pursued by either sex, for there is no rationale by which any role would be considered out of reach, or inappropriate for one or the other. Leadership in the home is the realm of either sex, or it can be shared between the spouses. The egalitarian view would not find a legitimate reason for assigning leadership responsibility to the mother or the father. Equality has rendered traditional roles archaic. Tradition is viewed with suspicion because of the manner in which one sex has unfairly dominated the other in history. Societal evolution and modern enlightenment requires that people progress beyond such paradigms of "inequality." This can be summarized as undifferentiated equality - no different roles for the sexes in home or society can be legitimately entertained because of the equality of the sexes.
Some examples of how this outlook toward humanity has been applied are roles of leadership in church, the home or even military service. The traditional domination of some societal or domestic functions by men is viewed as the unenlightened inequities of yesteryear. In Christian circles, this is seen as the trajectory of biblical ethics made evident by the Apostle Paul's assertion: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female–for all of you are one in Christ Jesus" - Gal 3:28. Egalitarianism is often applied to traditional roles of authority, but is demonstrated also in the proliferation of woman in other roles traditionally reserved for men because of their particular demands (i.e. police, firefighter, military, etc.).
Complimentarianism - This view holds that the sexes are indeed equal in value, but that the differences between them are significant for understanding created purpose. The differences between the sexes "compliment" each other to complete the whole picture and potential of humanity. The differences are not seen as impediments to equality, but instead are to be celebrated in the quest to fulfill the unique benefits of manhood and womanhood in the home and society at large. Men, fulfilling roles seeming to have been particularly assigned to them by creation and history, also champion the necessity and value of women doing likewise. The rationale for these particular roles are taken from both religious texts and historical precedent, but by no means retards the mutual admiration the sexes have for one another. Men fulfill responsibilities that seem "delegated" them to by God, soberly considering the weightiness of these functions, while admiring the particular and vital functions "delegated" to women that they are uniquely gifted to perform. In this manner, neither sex desires to be the other, for they extol the necessity of the opposite sex while embracing the functions of their own. Therefore, this view can be summarized as differentiated equality - the different roles "assigned" to both sexes are equally valuable precisely because of the equality of both sexes.
Some examples of this are in those roles that traditionally have found both men and woman dominant in them (religiously, domestically, socially, culturally, etc.). The folly has been in the slow devaluing of female-dominant roles, forcing woman to seek male-dominant roles to feel equal. The specific applications of the complimentarian model is tricky, for the Bible seemingly addresses differentiated equality primarily with regard to spiritual leadership in the community of faith (be it a home or a church). For this reason complimentarians see the role of spiritual leadership falling normatively upon men (as a burden of service more than a privilege), meaning that among the unchanging qualifications of a pastor are that they be male (ironically, while complimentarians see the role of pastor falling only to men, they have no problem with women performing the comparatively secular roles of President of the United States or British Prime Minister).
Chauvinism - This view is seldom admitted to because so few circles can be found in which it is socially acceptable in western culture. Rare is the man (if they can be found at all) that will confess their chauvinism outright. Instead they will simply speak as though women are inferior in various and sundry ways, that their influence has weakened society and that their contribution is negligible compared to the troubles associated with accommodating them. To this brand of male, women are necessary for sexual gratification and the bearing of children (oh, and throw in some domestic duties for good measure), but little else. They truly do not find women to be of "equal" value to men, but instead see women as functional necessities that must be managed by masculine power. Differentiated inequality best describes this position. To imagine women barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen is a little impractical; since without at least some comfortable shoes to protect her feet, her life of service to him could be interrupted by injury.
Feminism - This view has common ground with chauvinism in that it also holds the opposite sex to be inferior. The ills perpetrated on human history and current society are entirely attributable to male abuse. For this reason, men are seen as a necessary evil for conceiving children, but it would be preferable for medical technology to find an alternative to the traditional method of egg fertilization. Women are superior in their capacity for virtue, with men being more prone to vice. Their macro analysis of the culture finds that man must be progressively marginalized for society to evolve. For this reason women not only can perform all roles traditionally assigned to men, but can most assuredly execute them better. No difference in role is considered because all roles are better filled by women than men. For this reason, feminism is the view of undifferentiated inequality.
Ironically, the feminist would acknowledge there exists roles that only women can perform, but would not acknowledge the existence of any roles that only men can perform. Mothers are absolutely necessary for child rearing, but fathers are an unnecessary luxury. A woman in political leadership can supposedly relate to all people, but a man in the same position is said to be unable to relate to women. A woman who preaches supposedly reaches a broad audience, but the male preacher is said to easily alienate the women in attendance.
These four views fall on a continuum (borrowing common terms of "right" and "left" to connote socially conservative and liberal trends respectively (click to view larger image):
Along this line chauvinism falls to the "far right," while feminism lands on the "far left." The middle ground is occupied by complimentarianism and egalitarianism in that they share the assertion of equality between the sexes. The continuum is necessary not only for the sake of a visual aid, but also because clear lines of demarcation separating these categories can be very difficult to discern.
Some that are called "feminists" are actually egalitarians. They are desirous of equal rights for women to vote, receive promotions based on their merits and achieve unfettered success in the areas they pursue, but do not actually view men as inferior to women. For this reason, many men are egalitarians that mistakenly call themselves "feminists." They believe in undifferentiated equality, and champion women participating in any role they choose, regardless of how historical traditions have addressed a particular issue.
To confuse the matter further, many complimentarians are accused of being "chauvinists." Because the egalitarian (to say nothing of the feminist) cannot accept a category of differentiated equality, the complimentarian's assertion that the sexes can be both equal and designed to fulfill different roles is seen at best as nonsense, and at worst as promoting inequality. To counter this the complimentarian strongly asserts differentiation, which sounds like chauvinism to those "left" of the center. However, the complimentarian understands that there still exists those to the right of them on the continuum. Real chauvinists still populate some religious and secular circles alike. They can be detected in church, in seminary or in any other gathering where they feel safe to share their true feelings about women. Knowing that chauvinists both believe in the inferiority of women and make life much more difficult for them, complimentarians bristle at their continued existence. Seeing the equality (albeit differentiated) of women as a cause worth fighting for, complimentarian men challenge chauvinists' perceptions and seek to limit the damage they can cause.
Parenthetically, the men of my church are complimentarian in that they appear to champion differentiated roles for the sexes, but will not countenance a chauvinist. Never has a single critical word been spoken at The Pipe Club concerning wives, for indeed it seems likely that the men present to hear it would, rightly indignant, set upon the erring brother with strong rebukes for his folly. Such reactions were observable from seminary professors who often so strongly asserted the value of the feminine influence in the Church that they seemed almost egalitarian to me. When I asked them if they were, their response was, "No. I'm complimentarian in my outlook of humanity. I'm just reacting to the chauvinist jerks that still seem to slither into this school now and then."
As a complimentarian, I'm not above personalizing the issue, seeing egalitarianism as devaluing roles that my wife (as a woman) is uniquely designed to perform, and chauvinism as devaluing her altogether. The egalitarian, I simply want to help gently correct their folly. The chauvinist, I'd like to correct not quite as gently.
Theologically, chauvinism and feminism share a common heresy: the belief in concentrated depravity. The effects of the great fall of humankind are universal. No one is exempt from the need for a Savior and to be redeemed from the effects and consequences of sin. The depravity of man touches all and influences all: this is the classic doctrine of "universal depravity." No one is more or less in need of saving than anyone else. We're all crooked deep down. The chauvinist sees the female as experiencing more of "the Fall's" degenerative effects. Consequently, they see the world as better managed when the negative influence of women is marginalized. Likewise, the feminist views the male similarly. Both see depravity as more "concentrated" in the opposite sex than in their own. This is also the root of racism: the intuitive assumption that the depravity of man is more concentrated in another race than in one's own.
Dismissing chauvinism and feminism for the gross errors that they are, a civil conversation should ensue between the remaining categories since both egalitarians and complimentarians agree on the equality of the sexes. Where they diverge is whether the differences inherent in those sexes translate into differentiated roles for certain spheres of responsibility in society. Will the egalitarian believe that the complimentarian they're conversing with is NOT a chauvinist simply for asserting differentiated roles? Will the complimentarian extend the courtesy to the egalitarian they're talking to NOT to assume that they're a rabid feminist simply because they desire undifferentiated roles? Civility is a prized condition for these conversations. If we could agree on some terms with which to have the conversation, that might go far in achieving a dialogue beneficial to all.
In the meantime, it is truly difficult to know what someone means when they say they strive for "equality." The feminist says they desire "equality" for women, but in truth likely sees the superiority of women far better (since men are indeed inherently inferior). The chauvinist speaks of "equality" for women in that they should also be allowed basic human services (the servant to the male must be kept fully functional after all). The egalitarian calls for "equality" between the sexes, confusing value and function, and desiring interchangeability between them (since some roles seem more important that others, denying a woman any of the more "important" roles is to perpetuate inequality). The complimentarian, however, sees "equality" of value among diverse functions (both mothers and fathers are equally necessary in their unique roles), and roles that seem gender specific are to be celebrated for demonstrating the necessity of either sex... This is the way the world best works.