"It's a Boy!" "It's a Girl!" Birth announcements with these headlines commonly appear in North American newspapers. Birth and adoption announcements sent through the mail to family and friends frequently signal the sex of the child by their use of the traditional colors–pink for a girl and blue for a boy–so that recipients know the sex even before they read the baby's name. Indeed, most of us would find it unsettling if the announcing parents did not inform us of the newborn or newly adopted child's sex. The importance we place
on the sex assigned to a newborn baby indicates just how significant this differentiating category remains in our culture. Many would argue that gender is the most fundamental of the multitude of categories employed in all cultures in all historical periods to divide individuals into distinct groups. To a greater or lesser degree our sex assignment at birth shapes our prospects in life and determines how we and others see ourselves.
Even today, most people in North America and around the world accept the validity and the stability of gender difference without questioning it, simply seeing it as "natural." Indeed most parents and others who participate in shaping a child's identity do not consciously reflect on their contribution to what sociologists and psychologists call socialization. "Boys will be boys," or "girls will be girls," people say, when boys hoot and holler and shoot at each other with toy guns, or when girls sit quietly playing with dolls. On the other hand, as researchers have pointed out, when girls engage in rough, noisy activities or boys play quietly with stuffed animals, the same people will either not notice such violations of gender stereotypes, or explain them away as exceptions to a general rule.
However, while its impact even in North America has been limited, there has been a revolutionary change in scholarly thinking about the differences between men and women, and about the role that child-rearing practices play in producing those differences. This profound change came about because of the rise of feminism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. During the "second wave" of the women's movement in the 1960s, feminism, especially in North America, emerged as a strong political force and, for the first time, had a significant influence on scholarly investigation in history and the social and biological sciences. The decade of the 1970s represents a high point, as the creative energy of feminist scholarship called into sharp question complacent notions about the immutability as well as the utility of our culture's gender roles. These new scholars, along with feminist and gay and lesbian political activists, articulated the insight that masculinity and femininity (like race or class or ethnic identity) are shaped primarily by culture, rather than biology.
With these new directions, new concepts emerged. The use of the word gender as a category of analysis was a key development. The term is now used in scholarly literature to point to the contrast between biological sex and learned behavior. "Gendering," the title of this entry, asks us to notice that newborns identified as female or male do not on their own develop into feminine and masculine adults: gendering is a major task of socialization which begins at the moment of birth. Parents, extended family, and caregivers all contribute to providing the cues that encourage the baby to adopt feminine or masculine patterns, and so also does the wider culture, which includes television, motion pictures, children's stories, toys, and clothing, and institutions like government, religion, and schooling.
Definitions of appropriate masculine and feminine behavior vary cross-culturally and over time. However, most cultures, to a greater or lesser degree, have favored males, who have throughout much of human history had more power and prestige than women. Historically, male power and dominance has affected the treatment of children. In ancient Greece, notably in Athens, unwanted infants were often left to die, and a large majority of such exposed infants were female. A Victorian Englishman could write explicitly and without guilt about his deep disappointment that his first child was not a boy. In rural China in the 1980s, a grandfather would refer to the birth of a boy as a "big happiness," whereas the birth of a girl was only a "small happiness." In cultures past and present, when there is a shortage of food, girls and women get less to eat than boys and men.
In all cultures, children adapt to or attempt to resist the gender roles appropriate to their culture by learning through example. Through explicit as well as unspoken messages, girls are encouraged to model themselves on their mothers and other women they know or encounter in stories, schoolbooks, and television programs. Boys are encouraged to model themselves on their fathers and other male figures. In cultures where dominant beliefs unequivocally define women as wives and mothers and restrict them to nurturing roles and narrowly defined definitions of appropriate work, the lessons a child learns will be explicit. Middle- and upperclass Victorian girls, for example, were given dolls and encouraged to mother them, and moreover they were taught to sew dolls' clothing, thus learning to "use their needle," a skill then thought to be essential to womanliness. They were, however, rarely allowed to study Latin or Greek, subjects that marked the educated man. In many Muslim cultures today, children are taught traditional gender roles in family and in school. In all settings, including those parts of the twenty-first century world where ideologies about gender are changing and gender roles themselves are more flexible, it is still the case that women nurture more and men less, and men are more visible in public roles and exercise more public power. Boys and girls alike do not fail to notice these differences.
Many people, including some who do scholarly work on gender, maintain that such inequality is justified because males are "naturally" smarter, more assertive, more creative, and physically stronger than women, whereas women are "naturally" more gentle, submissive, and nurturing. As two generations of gender historians have demonstrated, the supposed naturalness of gender difference has been used as a justification for continuing male privilege and male dominance throughout human history. For much of this history, religious beliefs have served as the primary justification for gender inequality, whereas legal codes have served as the primary enforcer.
Science, however defined, has also played a role. In the ancient world, men like the philosopher Aristotle or the physician Galen articulated theories about male superiority and female inferiority based on their understanding of human biology. Galen for example believed that women were less perfect than men because they were colder. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries in many parts of the world, religion and law have continued to buttress gender inequality. However, especially in Europe and North America, serious discourse about sex and gender has come to be associated with science. On the one side are researchers like behavioral psychologist Doreen Kimura, whose Sex and Cognition sets out to prove that there are significant differences in cognition between men and women, and that these differences are based in biology. On the other side are researchers like geneticist Richard Lewontin, whose work emphasizes biological and genetic diversity. Lewontin points out the onedimensional thinking of those on the "nature" side of the debate who fail to take account of the complex relationship between biology and nurture when they assert that gender, race, and class differences rest fundamentally on biology.
The contemporary "nurture versus nature" debate is about politics as well as science, with those on the nurture side tending, like Lewontin, to support social policies designed to rectify inequalities, whereas researchers like Kimura tend to be politically conservative. Researchers who look for biological differences in temperament between the sexes do find some evidence of them, though any differences that have been found are small, and even diehard supporters of "nature" accept that "nurture" or culture can have a significant influence.
For this reason, we can assert that biology, while it may play a role, is not destiny. If it were, we would not see the great variation in the way in which seemingly universal gender norms manifest themselves. For example, many cultures believe that sexual appetites differ in males and females, but the definition of such difference varies. In medieval and early modern Europe women were thought to be more highly sexed than men but by the late nineteenth century people assumed that men had ungovernable passions and that women were passionless. In sixteenth-century England, men with money dressed to show off their bodies, wearing as much lace and embroidery as they could afford and sporting hose that displayed the shape of their legs. By the nineteenth century, ornamented or revealing dress for men was considered to be unmanly. A particularly telling example of varying patterns of gendering in childhood has to do with dress and appearance. Today, few North American parents, even those who support flexibility in gender roles, would dress a boy in a frilly pinafore or give a girl a boy's haircut. Yet in Europe and North America right up until the twentieth century babies and small children were dressed alike: both were put in petticoats and both had long hair. It was only when a boy reached the age of six or seven that he was put into britches (breeched), the ritual signifying that he was from then on to assume masculine gender roles.
Comparative work done on twentieth-century Japan and the United States reveals contrasting points of view about certain traits that are independent of gender and reinforces the importance of socialization, rather than biology, in shaping masculine and feminine behavior. In Japan, cooperation and acceptance of dependence on others (a trait that many North Americans would associate with femininity) is valued in both males and females, and the Japanese socialize their children accordingly, even though Japanese culture remains more committed to traditional gender differences than American culture and remains more male dominated. In contrast, in the United States since the founding of the Republic, individualism and autonomy have been valued and these traits have been fostered in both sexes, although more explicitly and extensively in boys.
In conclusion then, a culture's ideology about gender and its assignment of authority, responsibility, and privilege to men or women determines the way in which babies and children learn about gender. Cultures that remain unequivocally patriarchal foster sharp gender divisions, whereas more egalitarian cultures offer greater role flexibility for both males and females. Those who support genuine equality of opportunity should not however be complacent about what has been achieved in more "advanced" secular cultures. Even in early twenty-first century North America and Europe, where feminism has brought about meaningful changes for the better in women's legal status, it is still the case that most child care and early childhood socialization remains the responsibility of women, be they mothers, caregivers, or teachers. On the other hand, most powerful leaders in government or the work world are men. Some people believe that only when parents nurture equally will we achieve gender equality. Only then will assertiveness in girls and gentleness in boys be valued in our culture, and only then will men and women share power and authority equally in public and in personal life.
In addition to offering comparative work on the definitions of gender, and on changes in these concepts, historians have undertaken research on categories of children who are less clearly gendered or are deliberately cross-gendered. Sometimes these arrangements are designed to provide certain kinds of workers in an otherwise gendered labor system. Finally, historians work on changes in the importance of gendering in childhood socialization. While twentieth-century emphasis on gender remains stronger than many adults realize, it seems less sweeping than was true in the nineteenth century. Less emphasis is placed on separate educational tracks or on separate emotional arsenals. Shifts in the level of significance of gendering is a vital, and not simply contemporary, facet of the history of childhood.
See also: Boyhood; Breeching; Girlhood.
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Dinnerstein, Dorothy. 1996. The Mermaid and the Minotaur: Sexual Arrangements and Human Malaise. New York: Harper and Row.
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Lewontin, Richard; Steven Rose; and Leon J. Kamin. 1984. Not in Our Genes: Biology, Ideology, and Human Nature. New York: Pantheon Books.
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