I would like to sidestep the debate that has been raging on this blog about whether people should raise their children to be gender aschematic, and instead I would like to examine a much older debate. Is our gender stratified society an expression of our biological natures, or alternatively, is the society we encounter each day entirely of our own social making? In other words, is biology destiny?
Early civilizations were gendered, which is to say that in hunter-gatherer societies men and women had very different roles. Some have argued that these distinct roles may have been based on, say, the innate ability of women to produce breast milk. Here, society is created by the reality of our biology. Others emphasize that the structure of society is not dependent on biology and is instead the result of human doings. Whatever biology's "instructions" might be for society, humans find ways of doing what they want. Society, by this logic, is not something given but is instead something formed from a struggle of values and ideas. In fact, this fight of values and ideas continues today on this blog with some bloggers arguing that children should be raised in a gender aschematic environment.
The argument that role specialization is based on biology is a bit out of the ordinary for me because it so sharply contradicts arguments posed by social constructivists. It encourages us to believe that the stratified society we see today is not one of human design but is instead biologically innate, and that position is not one I’m prepared to easily accept. Still the logic is difficult to dispute. If women are the ones who are biologically equipped to bear and breast feed children, which is a task their male counterparts can’t physically do, it makes some sense that the women of earlier societies stayed close to camp so they could feed and rear future generations. While it seems irrefutable that modern society has moved past any practical need to separate men and women, the argument that role specialization has its origins with biology makes some sense.
In a piece about human sex differences, evolutionary psychologist Doreen Kimura claims that “[a] more rational view is that cultural norms arose in conjunction with, and in support of, biological imperatives.” She marshals evidence which suggests that sex differences (i.e., biological) are expressed in gendered norms and practices (i.e., culture). Role specialization, by this logic, is born from innate biological characterists. Not only is it important that only women produce breast milk, but Kimura extends the argument by suggesting that there also exist innate differences in cognition and hormones as well.
Following Kimura, perhaps we can think of gender and its attendant role specialization as something that was created for practical reasons in hunter-gatherer societies, but now, long after it has ceased being practical, it remains with us and has become a basis for inequality.
As I mentioned above, role specialization has been around longer than written history, but so too have people who have fought against role specialization—feminist sociologists, parents who want gender aschematic children, and me, to name only a few. New evidence has emerged to suggest that some women who lived in hunter-gatherer societies 10,000 years ago also fought against the inequality derived from role-specialization.
According to a theory born out of Iowa (here), not only did role specialization begin in hunter-gatherer societies, but opposition to role specialization also has its roots in such societies. This opposition materialized in the form of an attachment to a spear that made weapons easier for women to throw, thereby allowing them to do more of what was considered men’s work.
The theory asserts that the atlatl, which is a stick attached to a spear, was not just an assist to those throwing spears in war or hunting, but it was also an equalizer. The spear itself was a man’s weapon because it required sheer upper body strength to throw and use as a weapon against members of other tribes or large animals. The atlatl made it easier for women to use the spear as a weapon, so it stands to reason that it may have been invented for women either to assist in the hunting activities, or to engage in warfare with other tribes.
Although this type of prehistoric opposition isn’t a mirror-image of today’s opposition, which comes in the form of parents attempting to raise a child in a gender aschematic environment, it does show that resistance to role specialization and gender-based inequality has been around for a long time.
So is biology destiny? My conclusion is, no. Role specialization between men and women may have coincided with biological attributes, but technologies such as the atlatl have long since allowed us to transcend biology. It is not at all clear that that our stratified society was inevitable, and even if it was, it certainly isn’t inevitabile today.
Go Terps and Wenty disagree over whether one can broadly say that gender inequality is subsiding over time. G.T. argues that we’re “constantly improving” and Wenty begs to differ. In a sense, I think there might be some truth to both of these perspectives. In some ways, improvements have been made, and in others, we are still a sharply divided society. Whether society is improving would seem to be debatable, but in a sense, it doesn’t really matter. Shouldn’t we be more concerned with whether gender inequality exists today, and if it does, what we intend to do about it?
I recently watched the documentary, “The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter,” which gives one a sense of the experience of American women during World War II. With men rushing into battle in the Pacific and European theaters, a labor scarcity developed on the home front, and women were encouraged to enter the labor market. Men may have been risking their lives in war, but women were expected to make a different kind of sacrifice for the nation. They demonstrated their patriotism by entering the workforce in order to maintain production in a wartime economy. Staying home was not an easy option for many women, for they risked being accused of not supporting their country and being branded traders.
On the one hand, there were clear improvements in terms of women’s labor force participation, but on the other, the process by which women were encouraged to go into the workforce was a manipulative one. Women were first compelled to demonstrate their nationalism by entering workforce. Then, once the men were back from the war, these same women were expected to prove their patriotism again by abandoning their jobs and returning to the home.
If G.T. and Wenty were to discuss this historical moment, G.T. would likely emphasize women’s growing workforce participation as proof of an improving society, while Wenty would likely insist we can not overlook women’s forced exodus. What is clear is only that anticdotes can be selectively mined from history and pulled out of their larger context in order to make any point one wants to make about the advancement or retreat of gender equality. Therefore, I would like to take a different approach. Irrespective of what happened in this nation’s past and whether a clear trend of improvement can be established, I would like to move the debate forward with a modest proposal: if gender inequality exists today, then it behooves us to work toward ending it.
In short, I think it does exist, and I think we should knock it off.
For starters, women today are still victims of employment-based discrimination, a clear sign that even if our society is improving, we have a long way to go. By and large, women still do not earn as much as equally educated men. In the recent Time article, “Why Do Women Still Earn Less Than Men,” Laura Fitzpatrick reminds us that in 2008 women in the U.S. still earned only 77 cents on the male dollar. When the topic of job discrimination is discussed in the media, it is often framed in terms of race, but gender is an important part of the story even if journalists fail to notice. For example, it is not just Blacks, but Black women especially, who are concentrated in the least paid and lowest status jobs.
Another measurable form of gender inequality is that women continue to be the victims of sexual violence. Each year a large number of women are raped and sexually assaulted. In Carolyn Sprague’s recently published article “Sexual Harassment,” she states what by now should be obvious: “The majority of victims reporting instances of sexual harassment are women, and the vast majority of reported aggressors are men.”
Today–this very minute–one can observe that men regularly feel entitled to interrupt and talk over women. Today, men still feel more entitled to grope women in public. Job discrimination, sexual harassment, groping, interrupting–all of these observations demonstrate that “our” society is still characterized by gender inequality, and there is still work that needs to be done. Go Terps seems to argue that we should simply have faith that life will constantly improve for women, but why would anyone instill so much blind trust in a society with such a bad track record? By now, women have been treated unequally for centuries. If society really has been constantly improving, it is has only been through the direct actions of people. As I look out my window today–right now–I see no compelling evidence for why we should stop fighting for change.
~ Summer Lover
There has been a recent debate in this blog about whether parents should strictly adhere to gender norms by raising masculine men and feminine women. I agree with Lady Lazarus that raising your children to be gender aschematic would in fact be beneficial. I agree with the argument that this would be the most ideal environment for a child and would provide a child with the best mindset. Drizzle’s post clearly disagrees with this sentiment. Instead, Drizzle argues that while this gender aschematic way of living may be possible in one’s home, gender aschematic values and habits might steadily erode as the child grows older and matures. In other words, it’s just not realistic, because once the child goes out into the real world he or she will experience gender categorization from many other institutions of society (e.g., school). It’s not going to work, so why try.
As Lady Lazarus has done (here), one can easily argue against Drizzle with the following logic: the attempt to raise a gender aschematic child—even if we can’t ultimately deter the child from acting in gendered ways—is a worthwhile endeavor. Children who have been exposed to gender aschematic ideas might be better equipped to become independent thinkers. They would be less inclined to simply accept the usual gendered explanations about how the world is supposed to work, and they will grow up having experienced what a world might look like if all people were equal and not stratified by gender. After all, isn’t this what the United States has been aiming toward for centuries?!
Those who would side with Drizzle would like us to acknowledge that Sandra Bem’s gender schema theory is a description of a utopia—which is “of course” a problem because our world is an imperfect one. Utopian ideas don’t work in imperfect societies, so again, why even try?
This bit about our imperfection garners no disagreement from me. Take, for example how people today look toward ads and commercials for clues about how to reach their ideal gendered look. It is as if we are parrots and institutions like the media and the state are our owners. We are a docile lot and easily manipulated. We watch and observe others’ behaviors, and pick and choose which to imitate depending on some advertiser’s notion of perfection.
We’re also imperfect because we’re power hungry. That is, when we’re not being manipulated, we’re attempting to manipulate others. It seems that we look for every instance to be superior, and do so by ridiculing even the smallest behaviors. For example, many times it comes down to how well someone performs their gender. Gendered norms are such a large part of our society and have been in practice for so long. They are are useful for keeping people in line, and they are reinforced by media representations. Surely, gender schema theory is bound to fail. In fact, trying to make it succeed would only be a waste of energy. Perhaps this is why some people feel so threatened by the prospect of raising their children in a gender aschematic environment. Perhaps they’re just convinced they will fail.
But say we make some headway and are able to reimagine what it means to be a woman and what it means to be a man. Say a sizable number of parents adopt this idea of raising their children without the usual gender stereotypes. I suspect Drizzle would still remind us that we are just so imperfect and so power hungry as a society that even if gender ceased to be the means of determining superiority, another trait would likely fill its absence. I imagine Drizzle would shake his/her finger, saying “One cold reality of this world is that people are fond of status hierarchies. Nothing will change that. If not gender, we’ll find another category with which to make ourselves miserably stratified.”
If we adopt Drizzle’s apprehension and if we fail to try simply because we are convinced we are bound to fail, then our fate is sealed. We will almost certainly condemn ourselves to perpetual inequality. But at what point do people stop justifying the status quo because alternatives seem too remote to even contemplate? Even if it is true that we can never escape creating status hierarchies—and I don’t believe this is true—isn’t a better society one that tries to address injustice? In the end, even if we are only able to create a single day free of prejudice and discrimination, isn’t that far better than refusing to try?
~ Country Girl
This essay is written in response to Go Terps remarks about how we are constantly making changes in order to make things right in our society. She provocatively states:
“There will always be problems that individuals will find in the structure of society, but it will get better in time. It is a process. We are only human and mistakes happen, but it seems like our society is constantly practicing trial and error until we get it right. Our social structure has already changed immensely over time, and this should be acknowledged for what it is — very impressive.”
It is true that our society is changing. However, we should not assume that those changes are necessarily good. What is truly important is not change but the kind of change that happens. Go Terps brought up interesting areas in which changes are occurring but fails to demonstrate how these changes will eradicate the gender related problems in our society.
In the 2005 film TransGeneration, we see how difficult it was for transgendered students to discuss their gender with new friends and colleagues. It took them a whole lot of courage to openly explore issues related to their identities and how they feel as human beings. Lets take for instance one of the characters, Raci, who transitioned from male to female. Even though she was born with male genitalia, she didn’t feel that she was a man. She couldn’t live the norms associated with our social construction of gender. She struggled emotionally and physically with how people perceived her, and it was only after the transformation of her gender from man to woman that she was able to live and feel comfortable. This is an example of how problematic our social construction of gender is. I think it is important to be able to live according to how we feel about ourselves and not necessarily by the demands of others.
I feel it is imperative to allow individuals to explore their own identities. We are all created differently by God and have different aspirations in life. And if we want to impose onto others a rigid definition of what constitutes an appropriate gender, then people will suffer. It is important to realize that no matter how we construct gender, there will always be deviations. Therefore, what needs to change is rigidity. A “constantly improving” society is one which demolishes rigid gender categories.
In a recent online post entitled “The Social Construction of Gender,” the author writes that the construction of gender “reveals that gender is not immutable or set in stone. Harmful aspects of our construction of gender can and should be discarded. But beyond that, if gender exists to support hierarchy, then gender, as it is viewed and practiced in our culture, is not only uncomfortable for many people, but a tool of oppression.” This post suggests that gender is not constant and the way we construct it is often offensive or distasteful to others who do not identify with the social construction. As long as we continue to have a rigid gender system, then the system will need to change. Again, the problem is the rigidity of the system, and this is precisely what Go Terps fails to understand.
In this essay, I would like to argue that Lady Lazarus is wrong about how problematic our society is in terms of being "catalogued and ranked" by a rigid gender category. She states, “gender also creates a stratification system within our society which gives men a higher status than women. In order to eradicate these issues, we need to rethink our rigid ideas about gender and recognize that more than two types of gender are possible.” I believe that our society makes changes and adjustments whenever an issue arrises. Our ideas are not so rigid, and in fact, they are constantly changing. Lady Lazarus does not give our society enough credit by acknowledging how much we have improved. I believe our society has been flexible, and while there may be some problems, our society has the capacity for reform. We are constantly changing, reevaluating our norms, and improving. There will always be problems that individuals will find in the structure of society, but it will get better in time. It is a process. We are only human and mistakes happen, but it seems like our society is constantly practicing trial and error until we get it right. Our social structure has already changed immensely over time, and this should be acknowledged for what it is – very impressive.
In the book Manliness and Civilization, Gail Bederman writes about the history of white men lynching blacks. For instance, if a black man had relations with a white woman the black man would be hung. These actions by white men were normative in the past and were accepted. Currently, these sorts of behaviors are rare and forbidden. Our society has realized how barbaric lynching is and has made drastic changes for the better. Today, blacks and whites commingle daily and are equal under law. Furthermore, there are now interracial relationships and marriages that occur constantly and that are widely accepted. Lastly, we even have a black president which would have never happened in the past.
In the past, our society was not accepting of homosexuals. Most individuals were afraid to come out of the closet because they might be killed and they were afraid they would bring shame to their families. I am not saying that our society has become extremely accepting of homosexuality, but it is improving. Recent discussions have arisen about incorporating education on homosexuality in elementary schools. For example, a few schools in New York and Massachusetts incorporated a “Gay and Lesbian Pride” day for elementary students where they openly talked to elementary school children about gay and lesbian families. In the past homosexuality was never discussed or brought up in front of children because it was believed to be inappropriate. Furthermore, several states have begun discussing same sex marriages and some states have even passed laws allowing these marriages. Also, in some doctors offices one can find “transvestite” as a gender category on patient registration forms, and it was recently reported that changing rooms and bathrooms at New York Universtiy are now being designated as gender-neutral. Our society is beginning to realize that it is unfair to ban openly gay and lesbian people from enlisting in the army, and President Obama is now trying to pass a law to this effect. These examples demonstrate that society is changing, although it is a process.
Another issue in the past which is now changing is the way women are discriminated against. In the book Queer theory, Gender Theory, by Riki Wilchins, she discusses the position of women in society when she was in elementary school. “This was a time when girls didn’t grow up to go into politics, practice medicine, work construction jobs, become soldiers, or play rock and roll. Nor did they jog, play basketball or pump iron” (6). She also states that women “were considered socially and psychologically incomplete until they had a man to marry, bear children with and make a home for” (6). I would argue that this social system is completely different now. We have female politicians, doctors, soldiers, and more. According to the United States Department of Labor, in 2008 “women accounted for 51 percent of all workers in high-paying management, professional and related occupations.” Our society has managed to change from one with relatively few women laborers to one where the majority of high-paid management and professional positions are held by women. President Obama is even trying to pass a law that ensures women receive the same amount of money as men for comparable jobs. Furthermore, in our society women no longer have to get married and have children if they don’t want to. It is becoming less of a social norm.
As you can see, our society has made drastic changes. Society is constantly adjusting in an effort to make everyone equal and to make life fair. Of course it is a process and our society has its problems, but we are constantly evolving and trying to change for the better. Our socially constructed system keeps improving and perhaps the generations to come will not have to worry about the issues our society is dealing with now. If you compare our past to the system we have today, it is plain to see we have come a long way.
~ Go Terps
In order to explore the ways in which the concept “gender” structures contemporary society, I will first discuss how gender is constructed. I will also address how a binary system of gender is maintained in society and the problems that consequently arise from this organization. To do so, I will use an intersectional lens to illustrate how gender interacts with other socially constructed categories.
In her essay, “The Social Construction of Gender”, Judith Lorber opens up with a metaphor about gender, stating that “talking about gender for most people is the equivalent of fish talking about water” (13). The main point she is trying to make by using such a metaphor is that gender is everywhere. It is so pervasive in our society it seems natural and most individuals make the assumption “it is bred into our genes” (13). Lorber does not accept this idea of naturalness, but instead posits that gender is a socially constructed category. The construction of gender starts as early as the womb. Once parents are informed of a child’s sex, they buy gender-typed toys and paint their child’s bedroom in a gender appropriate color. Gender is not natural or inherent and thus should not be thought of in terms of biology. Instead, gender can be regarded as a historical and ideological process. Ideas about gender change over time and what may be considered masculine or feminine in this century will likely be different in the next.
Baby Franklin D. Roosevelt
The image of Franklin D. Roosevelt as a child on the cover of Life Magazine can be used as a prime example of how the definition of masculinity has changed over time. When the image was shown to our class, most people assumed that it was of a girl because the child was wearing a lacy dress and mary janes. By today’s standards, this type of dress would be considered feminine, but during the time in which the photograph was taken, this was normal apparel for little boys.
In the chapter, “Learning Gender in a Diverse Society”, Susan Shaw and Janet Lee discuss how making gender seem natural is key to upholding a stratification system within our society which gives men higher status in relation to women. Shaw and Lee state that “the differences between femininity (passive, dependent, intuitive, emotional) and masculinity (strong, independent, in control, out of touch emotionally) are made to seem natural” (126). In society, masculine traits are given greater value and since masculinity is often equated with maleness, males are given higher status than women. Shaw and Lee define gender as a “process by which certain behaviors and performances are ascribed to women and men” or in other words, gender “can be understood as the social organization of sexual difference” (124). This idea that gender has been socially constructed has been a pervasive argument within feminist discourse because if gender is not intrinsic or biological, then gender as a social institution can be restructured.
With this said, an important question to consider is, if we have constructed gender then why does it look the way it does? The answer to this question is power. The idea of power addresses both how gender is maintained in contemporary society and also why this structure is problematic. The way that gender is constructed in contemporary society highlights hegemonic masculinity and emphasized femininity. In her article “Hegemonic Masculinity and Emphasized Femininity”, R.W. Connell states that “hegemonic masculinity is always constructed in relation to subordinated masculinities and femininities” (183). Women as a whole are subordinate to men, but within the male population, there is a division or hierarchy of masculinities. The basis for division is based on various categories including sexuality, sexual orientation, race etc. The main problem with this system of categorization is that every individual assumes the role of both victim and oppressor. As Patricia Hill Collins states in her essay “Toward a New Vision”, “each one of us derives varying amounts of penalty and privilege from the multiple systems of oppression that frame our lives” (69).
Another major problem lies in the way that society assigns gender. Males are taught that they should prescribe to masculine traits while females are taught to act in a feminine manner. In a society that gives higher value to masculine traits, males are given higher status than women. Also, when individuals transgress gender boundaries, there can be severe consequences for their behavior. Take for example the case of South African runner Caster Semenya. Caster outran her competition in the 800 meter world championships by more than two seconds. This coupled with her masculine physique caused people to call Caster’s sex into question. Caster was subjected to several “gender tests”, media scrutiny, and ridicule. This really took a toll on Caster’s psychological health and at one point she was even on suicide watch.
As we can see, our society's binary categorization system of gender is problematic for several reasons. By structuring gender the way we do, individuals are forced to abide by prescribed sets of behaviors or face consequences if they transgress these boundaries. Gender also creates a stratification system within our society which gives men a higher status than women. In order to eradicate these issues, we need to rethink our rigid ideas about gender and recognize that more than two types of gender are possible.
~ Lady Lazarus
The Class Blog Project, or CBP, is a blog featuring undergraduate students forming a critical dialogue with each other around ideas related to the sociology of gender.