Gender and Gender Roles

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GENDER AND GENDER ROLES. As a term, "gender" refers to the social construction of sex or the psychosocial concomitants to sexed identity. Feminists, in particular, have relied on distinctions between sex as biological and gender as cultural to argue that women's oppression is historical and not inevitable. Yet at the beginning of the twenty-first century, in both feminist theory and popular discourse, "gender" has come to replace "sex" as a term referring to sexual difference in a biological sense. This shifting definition is a result, at least in part, of gender's introduction into modern discourse as a medical concept used to explain a person's felt sense of his or her lived identity as a sex. Because Western society seeks biological explanations of almost all social behaviors, distinctions between sex and gender are difficult to maintain.

Gender as a Medical Concept

"Gender," as a term, had been used for centuries as a euphemism for "sex," but never before in the sense of the social or psychosocial counterpart to biological sex. Twentieth-century treatment of intersexuality (hermaphroditism) initiated a change in perception of the sexed body, as well as a change in the linguistic usage of gender as a concept.

People whose bodies manifest anatomical signs of both femaleness and maleness have long fascinated and confounded physicians and lay people alike. Since the nineteenth century, gonadal sex (the existence of either testes or ovaries) was understood to determine sex assignment for people with intersex conditions, but in the mid-twentieth century physicians began to pay more attention to the felt sense of sex, or "psychosocial sex identity," of these patients when determining proper treatment options. The early twentieth-century development of both plastic surgery and endocrinology meant that physicians could treat patients with intersexed conditions so that their bodies would simulate the sexed anatomy and physiology of most males or females. To initiate such treatment, using plastic surgery of the genitals and hormonal preparations, doctors needed a set of protocols that would allow them to override the earlier medical truism that gonadal sex was the most important determinant for sex assignment.

A group of researchers working at Johns Hopkins University in the 1950s developed a protocol using the term "gender" as a way of designating the patient's felt sense of herself or himself as a woman or a man. These researchers, the most prominent of whom was the psychologist John Money, argued that a child's sense of herself or himself as a sex (that is, her or his gender) was not cemented as part of identity until about the age of two; before then, they hypothesized, a child's sex assignment could be changed without undue psychological damage. Money commented much later, in an interview for Omni magazine, that he used the term "gender" because of its prior use in philology (see Stein). In Money's initial usage, gender appeared in the context of a loose understanding of "gender role," a term that borrows from the sociologist Talcott Parsons's important term, "sex role." "Gender role" suggests the subject's enactment of behaviors in relation to role expectations, but links those expectations not to sex (and the body) but to one's felt sense of the self as a member of a sex class.

In the 1960s the psychoanalyst Robert Stoller reoriented the discourses around gender to identity, especially in the context of his work with people who identified as transsexuals. Stoller used "gender identity," however, in much the same way that Money had used "gender role"—to designate a person's sense of herself or himself as a sex. Both Stoller and Money strove to distinguish this sense of the self that develops after birth from the biological components of sex identity (gonads, hormones, internal reproductive structures, external genitalia, sex chromosomes, and secondary sex characteristics). Their emphasis on nurture—the idea that the psychodynamic constituents of the child's environment, including the parents or primary caregivers and the culture at large, were central to the development of gender as an identity—paved the way for the feminist appropriation of their ideas in the service of an examination of women's subordination as a sociocultural affair.

Gender as a Feminist Concept

Three publications from the 1970s set the stage for feminist explorations of gender as a theoretical concept in the 1980s and 1990s. Ann Oakley's 1972 book, Sex, Gender, and Society, inaugurated feminist attempts to theorize the relation between biological sexual difference and the social construction of gender as a historically variable system disadvantageous to women. While accepting that biological sex differences exist and may have an impact on the social behaviors of women and men, Oakley strongly asserts that culture enforces gendered meanings and maintains traditional gendered divisions in areas that might be amenable to transformation. In 1975 Gayle Rubin published her landmark essay, "The Traffic in Women: Notes on the Political Economy of Sex," which, firmly embedded in 1970s structuralist anthropology, Marxism, and psychoanalytic thinking, effectively articulates the connections between the economic, familial, and psychic registers of women's subordination. And in 1978 Suzanne Kessler and Wendy McKenna published Gender: An Ethnomethodological Approach, in which they demonstrate how the belief in only two sexes anchors modern perceptions of gender; bracketing off that belief reveals that assumptions about gender emerge from initial attributions of sex to each person we encounter.

Many scholars continue to use Rubin's fruitful concept of the sex/gender system, which she defines as the set of cultural mechanisms by means of which the "raw materials" of sex are made into gender. In addition, Rubin's understanding of the centrality of the exchange of women to women's subordination, as well as to their psychologically invested participation in kinship structures, remains an important contribution to feminist theorists' ideas about how women participate in the very systems that oppress them. Kessler and McKenna's insistence that all representations of sex are in fact gender (because culturally constructed)and their resistance to the "natural attitude" of binary sexual dimorphism presage later deconstructionist approaches. Other cultures recognize intermediary sexes, they argue; thus Euro-American beliefs about only two sexes are the result of the "reality" that we construct daily and therefore create as biological truth. In one example they assert that we recognize established gender identity only when children agree to the gender rules (that gender is invariant and that there are two of them) that adults understand as reality.

Following on the work of Kessler and McKenna, in 1987 the sociologists Candace West and Don Zimmerman laid out the conditions for "doing gender" as an aspect of daily experience. Bob Connell, an Australian sociologist, offered macro-oriented analyses in his book Gender and Power (1987), which examines how gender is produced through three social structures: labor, cathexis (sexuality and emotion), and political power. Connell shows how gender is not necessarily consistent or predictable in its effects. Also in the 1980s the impact of post-structuralist theories on feminist ideas about gender emerged. The film theorist Teresa de Lauretis published Technologies of Gender in 1987; in it the essay "The Technology of Gender" drew on the work of the French philosopher and historian Michel Foucault. Her work suggestively encourages the reader to consider how gender is constructed through representations, even feminist representations. The historian Joan Scott's 1988 book Gender and the Politics of History transformed "women's history" into a scholarly field that examines gender as an organizing framework for articulating relations of power. In "Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis" (initially published in 1986), Scott argues powerfully for a discursive approach to historical study, which means, for her, a move away from "women" as the focus of feminist inquiry and toward attention to "gender" as the production of meanings about being a woman or a man.

All of these works set the stage for Judith Butler's 1990 publication, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Butler's book crystallized and advanced feminist theory's previous developments—the ethnomethodological questioning of the facticity of two sexes and the articulation of the concept of gender as a behavior that is consolidated through daily repetition ("doing gender"), poststructuralist emphases on representation and discourse as technologies that produce gender in the social world, and continued attention to gender as a variable social construction with uncertain effects.

Two ideas stand out, in terms of subsequent influence: Butler's theory of the performative and her deconstruction of the notion that a gender identity is the essence behind which gender expressions emerge socially. In terms of the former, Gender Trouble is somewhat equivocal, as Butler begins with a discussion of performativity as a grammatical concept derived from speech-act theory. In this sense certain kinds of linguistic articulations perform an action in the real as one says the words ("I do" in marriage is the classic example). Butler argues that gender instantiates itself as real in the same way—the social articulations of gender (bodily movements, dress, public sexual orientation; that is, its language)make gender appear to be something inhering in the body and as an identity that exists prior to its articulation, yet the articulations themselves actually create gender as we know it. Consequently, sex cannot be understood as being prior to gender, the biological ground on which gender is socially constructed, because gender as a concept is necessary to understand, to interpret, sex as a biological origin. Thomas Laqueur, in his 1990 Making Sex: The Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud, argued roughly the same thing through a historical register.

Toward the end of Gender Trouble, Butler seems to shift toward a more theatrical understanding of performativity, which is the interpretation picked up by many radical activists and theorists who read the book. She articulates a theory of drag as emblematic of gender's alienated construction (being without identity). Ironically, it may be that this typical reading of Gender Trouble has been the most productive element of the text, in terms of its inauguration of a certain kind of "queer" theory that blossomed in 1990s academic and popular culture. From lesbian and gay theories to the emerging field of transgender scholarship, this notion of performativity caught fire and continues to energize both activist and academic gender projects. Thus, many of Butler's readers abandon her Foucaultian understanding of the constraining nature of social and linguistic structures—she believes they allow for some "subversive repetition," as small resistances to the normative modes of social being, but are not malleable or protean on a large scale—in favor of a celebration of postmodern possibilities of personal transformation.

Perhaps Butler's greatest contribution to the feminist theorization of gender was the way Gender Trouble cemented the constructionist view—that we make gender, and in that making, it makes us as well. Other scholars contributed to this discussion as well; feminist science studies scholars continued their attention to the social construction of sex as a biological category. Cultural and historical examinations of the medical treatment of inter-sexuality and transsexuality demonstrated how mainstream concepts of gender guided medical practice and the theories of gender authorized by biomedicine. In 1998 Suzanne Kessler published another landmark study in gender theory, Lessons from the Intersexed, although this text is more a study of a sociocultural phenomenon than a work of theory. Here Kessler demonstrates how rigid ideas about being a sex constrain the life choices, the social identities, and the embodied experiences of people born with intersex conditions. Lessons also shows us how gender, as a concept, authorizes medical practices on certain unruly bodies that not only damage those bodies in order that they will signify according to rather arbitrary standards of sexual dimorphism, but also consign those embodied subjects to silence, suffering, and marginalization.

During the 1980s and 1990s another set of influences worked to transform gender as a concept. Most of the primary texts of gender theory have been written by white feminists. As Donna Haraway states in her overview "'Gender' for a Marxist Dictionary: The Sexual Politics of a Word," feminist writers of color have long argued that the "category of gender obscured or subordinated all the other 'others'" (p. 144). Critical race theory, as it developed within legal studies and then moved on to other arenas, was linked with feminist theories to produce the hybrid "critical race feminism," in which race and gender are interrogated as connected vectors of experience. Other multicultural and interdisciplinary approaches abounded as feminist scholars attempted to account for the differences within the overarching category "women." For most feminist theorists today, gender as a category is used alongside race, class, and sexual orientation to demonstrate the complexity of any one woman's experience within intersecting oppressions. Yet "gender theory" as a field continues to be dominated by white feminists, as if gender can come into focus as a discrete category of analysis only for those women and men whose race offers them the privilege of forgetting that they have one. Indeed, Oyèrónké Oyewùmí argues, in The Invention of Women: Making African Sense of Western Gender Discourses (1997), that there is something specifically Eurocentric about creating gender as a concept of such distinct importance from other markers of social relations. Oyewùmí's analysis of Yoruba social systems before and after European colonization offers cross-cultural evidence of how gender as a concept falsely universalizes experiences, social practices, and identities, an idea that had been developing in feminist theory since at least the mid-1980s.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, gender theory is in an ambivalent position, as its focus has been, since the late 1990s at least, targeted on intersexuality, transsexuality, transgenderism, and lesbian and gay experiences. That is, the (theoretically) exemplary experiences of gender have moved from women to subjects once thought to be marginal to women's issues. In this movement, gender, as an analytical concept, has become enriched through careful articulations of its relation to other modes of being and experience, such as sexual orientation and race, but the early linkage between gender analysis and the exploration of women's subordination has at times disappeared. Indeed, the pioneer approaches of the historian Joan Scott and the philosopher Judith Butler (among others) favoring gender over women have become so entrenched that it is at times difficult to talk about women at all. (Of course, talking about women often leads to problems concerning which women, that is, problems of exclusion or privilege that go unrecognized; in addition to Butler, see Spelman.) There is also an emerging field of "masculinity studies" or "men's studies" (see Kimmel). Few feminists lament the incredibly rich and developed scholarship that has emerged from the efflorescence of "queer" approaches and critical race theory in the 1980s and 1990s, but there has been a startling dropping off, in terms of the development of gender theory, of the traditional foci of feminist inquiry: domesticity, kinship, equality, the sexual division of labor.

Joan Williams, a feminist legal theorist, has attempted to return feminist gender theory to its attention to women's experiences and subordination. In Unbending Gender, Williams's approach to gender theorizing is both pragmatic and theoretical, and attends to the concrete situations of domesticity that define gender in the late twentieth-century United States. In examining why so many working women "choose" to stay at home after they have children, Williams argues that domesticity operates as a "force-field" to pull women back into traditional gender norms, norms that eventually hurt women as the high rate of divorce leads to their relative impoverishment. Her multifaceted analysis includes a discussion of how gender norms articulate a language of class and race privilege and an elucidation of the ways in which divorce and custody agreements purposefully ignore the family work that women do both during and after the marriage in order to facilitate men's ideal worker status. The higher wages available to "ideal worker" men are not shared routinely with exspouses and children, although it is the flow of family work that makes that status possible. Williams further argues that feminists should rethink domesticity as "drag," in Butler's sense of a performance that does not mandate any particular identity as its origin. The value in this strategy is the acknowledgment, at least in the United States, that the full commodification model of feminism (outsourcing all domestic duties, including child care)has not worked as a political strategy to make women equal in the workplace, and has led to the unnecessarily antagonistic relations between those who embrace domesticity and those who repudiate it. Articulating domesticity as "drag" is one way of "unbending gender" by cutting the ties between domestic labor and women's supposed nature.

What Williams offers, then, is to take gender out of the stratospheric abstractions in which it has recently been articulated and to focus on the concrete situations in which women and men find themselves. Her conclusions around gender are equally concrete and encouraging, and she explicitly works against the notion that all women cohere around a particular gender identity or sensibility. Rather, her theory argues that women can come together through differences if they recognize how particular social structures (like the lack of well-remunerated part-time work)create circumstances negative for all women, regardless of the individual choices that women make. She articulates a theory of gender in relation to the structure of domesticity in American society, and argues that women's seemingly free choices concerning work and family must be interpreted within the constraints domesticity confers. Thus, gender, for Williams, operates as the power of domesticity; it also provides, through feminism, a way to analyze and transform women's choices by changing women's relation to domesticity and its implied origins in female identity.

Gender in American History

The history of gender in America is of a social institution that both constrains and produces womanhood and manhood throughout the centuries. Women are not only manipulated by gender norms: they create, negotiate, and transform those norms as well. The norms are racialized and linked to class status, and women, even though engaged in producing them, do not control either the economic structures or the meaning-making apparatuses that signify their power. Thus, for all their complicity with making gender, women are also disadvantaged by its operation. The specificity of that disadvantage is not stable, but its effects are enduring.

Most approaches to gender in American history examine the changing nature of women's and men's roles and relationships throughout the more than four centuries of European domination of North America. And while there may be a general story to tell about the differences between Puritan beliefs in hierarchy within community and later Enlightenment stresses on autonomous individualism, there are myriad other stories about how region, race, and religion affected how gender operated in any given historical period or geographical location. Careful attention to gender in American history demonstrates that it is produced through changing configurations of labor, kinship, racialization, and class distinction. Gender roles articulate social expectations about men's and women's proper duties and cultural practices, particularly in relation to reproduction, economic activity, and sexuality.

Men were in charge of colonial households in America, and those households were composed of family members as well as hired and indentured servants or slaves. Puritan women experienced religious equality with men, but wives were subject to the rule of their husbands. Women suffered "legal death" when they married, under the doctrine of coverture, which stipulated that women could not own property in their own right or conduct business in their own name. In the South, colonial households were generally far apart and, significantly, far from churches; women might have had more autonomy in contexts where they did not experience the direct oversight of the religious community that was common in the north. Quaker women, in addition, had more active roles in their church than women of other Protestant denominations.

Colonial white women did not experience the separation of motherhood from economic activity that became common in the domestic ideal of the nineteenth century, because the home was, in the earlier period, the center of economic life. Likewise, fathers were not estranged from the daily workings of home life, and often were responsible for the education of the children, especially sons. Linda Stone and Nancy McKee argue, in Gender and Culture in America, that colonial white women were able to integrate three roles of adult womanhood—economic activity, motherhood, and sexuality—in ways that are difficult for contemporary women. This is in part because the nineteenth century ushered in a set of social ideals that identified white women with self-sacrifice, nurture, and the home, and white men with autonomous individualism and the world of capitalist commerce.

Masculinity also changed over the course of the nineteenth century, from an ideal of manliness that connoted honorable character to a masculinity defined by an embodied virility associated with working-class muscularity. Femininity was defined by the "cult of true womanhood," as the historian Barbara Welter identified the interconnected ideals of domesticity, piety, submissiveness, and purity that dominated public discourses about femininity in the period. The cult of true womanhood was largely a northern, middle-class, white ideal, for southern white women were less likely to be constrained by northern notions of feminine domestic labor; slaves, of course, were unable to control their experience in order to live out the doctrine, as Harriet Jacobs explains in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.

Jacobs demonstrates that educated female slaves, exposed to Euro-American ideals of female behavior, did try to use the cult of true womanhood to defend themselves against sexual assault and to define their lives in terms of virtue and piety, but also shows how difficult it was for black bondswomen to argue for themselves with the racialized ideals of true womanhood. Part of the difficulty here was the presumed frailty of white women, a perceived physical trait that justified their confinement to the domestic sphere, while black slave women and other working women (often not considered fully white by the middle and upper classes) could not, because of the daily expectations of bodily labor, assert this defining marker of femininity.

Yet the nineteenth century was not just about white women's confinement to the home and their submission to male authority. Married women's property acts were enacted in the mid-nineteenth century. In New York State two acts, in 1848 and 1860, made it legal for women to own property, although it was only after the second act that they had a right to their own earnings and the right of joint guardianship of their children. White women's increased moral authority in the home, concomitant to their consignment to domesticity, led many reformers to argue for their necessary involvement in public affairs. The logic was that if individual white women were to provide a softening, civilizing force against the competitive aggressivity of capitalism's effect on their men folk, then as a group white women should bring their civilizing influence to society as a whole. This was one rationale for suffragism; the more radical rationale was that white women were citizens and were as entitled to vote as men were. The difference argument—that women constituted a special moral voice that is essential for a healthy civil society—has coexisted since the nineteenth century with the equality argument—that men and women are essentially the same politically and thus require equal rights. If in the nineteenth century the difference argument was bolstered by the cult of true womanhood and the powerful moral suasion of domestic femininity, the equality argument has dominated most of twentieth-century feminism, at least until the waning decades of the century, largely due to changing requirements of the capitalist workforce and the need for two incomes to sustain middle-class status for individual families.

The twentieth century saw an expansion of women's rights and opportunities (emblematized by the achievement of female suffrage in 1920), and thus an enlargement of their social roles as women, but many gender expectations remain. For example, as more and more women enter the workforce, women's relation to domesticity has been loosened but not cut completely. Women are still largely responsible for domestic labor, even when they work outside the home, leading to the phenomenon sociologist Arlie Hochschild calls "the second shift" (in a book of the same name). In the late nineteenth century the rise of companionate marriage and middle-class women's increasing control over their fertility seemed to indicate important advances for women. Certainly the gradual acceptance of family planning and birth control over the course of the twentieth century has been integral to the increasing freedoms that many American women experience (although variably) over their reproductive lives and, consequently, their lives in general. Yet companionate marriage and individual reproductive control have also influenced the development of new gendered expectations about women's marital sexuality and their relation to husbands (intensified) and to children (loosened, by nineteenth-century, middle-class standards). Second-wave feminism emerged in the turbulent 1960s in response, at least in part, to the stereotyped treatment of women in the student and civil rights movements. At the forefront of the early radical feminist goals was the achievement of sexual freedom for all women. Some feminists argue that women's desire for sexual freedom was exploited by men who articulated a rhetoric of freedom in the service of increased sexual access to women.

As in the antebellum period, sexual roles for women are understood culturally in relation to race and class categories, and are linked to the other main social roles for women: mothers and workers. Black women, argue Stone and McKee, have always combined work and motherhood, so white feminists' ardent desires to attain waged positions did not always define black feminist goals. Directly after emancipation, black women strove to mother their own children and be in the home as a way of resisting white oppression and the white demand that black women provide their services as underpaid domestic servants. Employment discrimination against black men made black mothers' domestic goals impossible for all but the most privileged among them, however, since black families desperately needed the wages of black women to make their households economically viable. This pattern continues in the present. But because the dominant American ideal is a domestic mother, black women have suffered socially as the economic structure, maintaining white interests, continues to mandate their absence from the home. Black women as mothers have also been treated differently from white women by welfare authorities and in public media; this differential treatment both produces and is an effect of negative views about black women as mothers and the widespread perception of black women as overly sexual (see Solinger and Roberts).

Native Americans' gender roles have also been affected by white expectations about their labor. At European conquest, native Indian women were not economically dependent on men. Tribal interactions with Europeans instituted ideas about women's necessary and natural dependence on men. For example, treaties between whites and tribal leaders often disrupted women's access to land, enforcing their dependence on men in their tribes. Men's spheres were affected as well; Stone and McKee write that the European stress on farming as a "civilized" occupation often left native men, whose gender roles were circumscribed to hunting and warfare, without distinct roles in their changing societies (pp. 78–80).

Asian Americans and Latinos or Hispanic Americans have different histories with regard to gender. Stone and McKee examine what they call the "patriarchal core" of Latino culture: domination by men, machismo, and women's sole responsibility in the domestic realm (even when they work outside the home). The Chicana lesbian feminist Cherrie Moraga writes about the entanglements of race, nationality, and sexuality in her classic essay "A Long Line of Vendidas," in which she claims, at one point, "My brother's sex was white. Mine, brown." Asian Americans are perhaps the most diverse group collected under one minority label. Immigration laws in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries limited Asian immigration and, especially, the immigration of Chinese women. The internment of Japanese Americans and immigrant Japanese citizens during World War II affected men and women distinctly; the dislocation diminished men's authority within the family, while it tended to loosen gender roles and offer women relief from domestic burdens (Stone and McKee, p. 119). Often called the "model minority," Asian Americans struggle with a variety of stereotypes inflected by Euro-American gender expectations; in the sexual realm these include the compliant and exotic Asian woman and the emasculated Asian man.

Women of color often claim that the mainstream women's movement is oriented toward white women's experiences, perceptions, and needs; this claim demonstrates not only the way white women have dominated the discourses defining feminism but also the way in which dominant conceptions of gender apply to white, middle-class women's aspirations and situations. Lesbians and gaymen have also challenged feminism's implicit privileging of heterosexual women, arguing that gender norms, expectations, and social practices do not just perpetuate sex discrimination but also operate to subordinate homosexuals. Radical feminist activists initially targeted constraining gender roles as the cause or perpetuation of oppression; however, currently some radical activism celebrates role-playing as long as it is engaged in voluntarily and is distinguished from identity or essence. Lesbian, gay, and feminist scholars continue to debate the significance of gender roles in the history of lesbianism, which in the 1950s and 1960s was comprised, at least in part, of a vibrant working-class bar culture that developed and enacted butch-femme roles. Lesbian feminists of the 1970s largely repudiated butch-femme roles in favor of an expressive politics of androgyny, although in the early 1980s the "sexuality debates" within feminism critiqued lesbian feminism for denigrating the erotic potential of earlier lesbian cultures. Annual gaypride marches that occur around the United States each June to commemorate the 1969 riots at New York City's Stonewall Inn, in which lesbian, gay, and transgender patrons protested a routine police shakedown, are testimonials to the expanding performative politics of gender disruption. Parade participants flaunt gender conventions as well as norms of sexual orientation, demonstrating the tight linkage between gender and sexuality in the construction of personhood in America.

Since the mid-1970s, as ideas about gender have proliferated, American women have experienced increasing freedom from overt discrimination and exclusion. Perhaps that is why gender as a concept has become more synonymous with sex, identifying a conservative national desire to see nature and culture in agreement on fundamental differences between women and men that explain the social subordination of female human beings. Radical emphases on alternate genders, combining or transgressing genders, may indicate increasing freedoms from the constraining binaries of historical configurations, or they may only represent utopian desires to transcend the difficulties of producing truly egalitarian, political solutions to existing inequalities of gendered power and privilege.


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Bernice L.Hausman

See alsoGay and Lesbian Movement ; Women in Churches ; Women in Military Service ; Women in Public Life, Business, and Professions ; Women's Rights Movement ; Women's Studies ; andvol. 9:Human Rights Not Founded on Sex ; Letters of Abigail and John Adams ; NOW Statement of Purpose ; On the Equality of the Sexes ; The Theory of the Leisure Class ; What If I Am a Woman?

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