Most of the conversation was focused on Le Guin's choice to use 'he' for the book -- a choice of pronouns she originally defended in an essay written in 1976, and which, several years later, she recanted in an new version of that essay, in 1987. We spent much of today's class discussing pronouns, job titles that are inherently gendered (see switch from 'stewardess' to 'flight attendant') and started a discussion on whether there are gender traits that are biologically programmed. For example, a few of my students wanted to argue that women are inherently more nurturing, more caring.
I asked them whether, even if it's the case that women are more caring, that might be something culturally inculcated. Whether women are expected / trained / coerced into being more nurturing. When one's parent is aging and needs physical care, is it the son or daughter who helps them bathe? If it's the daughter, why? (Esp. given that the son may well be stronger and more physically capable of lifting an aged parent in and out of a bath.) We talked about Like Water for Chocolate, Laura Esquivel's lovely book / film, which centers on an oldest Mexican daughter who isn't allowed to marry because traditionally, it's the oldest daughter's job to care for the aged parents. I believe my (mostly female) students were not thrilled by that prospect.
We'll be discussing The Left Hand of Darkness all week. If you're interested in more on the book (one of my all-time favorites), here's a good intro.