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Gender Ideology

Gender Ideology




Like race, masculinity and femininity are socially constructed concepts that convey values and social status. Gender ideology works in two ways. First, it prescribes proper behavior and demeanor for boys and girls, men and women. There are different prescriptions for masculinity and femininity in societies that are racially and ethnically diverse, and the gendered behavior and demeanor of some of the members of less valued groups may violate the dominant group’s ideas of what is proper. Thus, boys and girls and women and men who adopt different ideas of how to behave, look, walk, dress, and relate to others may be doing what is tabooed by the dominant group’s gender ideology, justifying their devaluation and discrimination against them. Second, these negative responses are reinforced by demeaning stereotypes about women and men of different racial and ethnic groups, which usually do not represent the behavior of most of the members of these groups.

The mixture of stereotypes and behavior often produces contradictory racial imagery of masculinity and femininity. In the United States in the nineteenth century, African-American enslaved men were considered sexually dangerous for Southern white women, who were supposedly sexually pure and physically vulnerable. Yet the enslaved men had no status as full-fledged men; they were “boys” and were expected to be deferential to any white person. Enslaved African-American women were all “body”—sexually vulnerable breeders and wet nurses in service of their white masters or physically strong field hands—not “women.” The racial and gender contradictions of the time were aptly summed up in Sojourner Truth’s famous speech, “Ain’t I a Woman?” She was an African-American former slave and preacher who made the speech at a women’s rights convention in Akron, Ohio, in 1851. Challenging the stereotypical view of women as helpless and dependent, which was proper behavior for upper- and middle-class white women, she said:

That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man—when I could get it—and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman? (Internet Modern History Sourcebook)

Late twentieth and twenty-first century views of masculinity and femininity in the United States are equally complicated by racial differences and produce similar contradictions of what it is to be a man or woman. In popular views and the mass media, diversity of behavior within the group is often ignored, and a stereotypical imagery of masculinity and femininity predominates. The stereotypes reflect beliefs about the group and justify their oppression and subordinate status, even when only a small percentage of the group has gendered cultural patterns that differ from middle-class whites, the dominant group in the United States. In addition to African Americans, gender ideologies reinforce racial stereotypes for Latinos, Asians, Arabs, and other nondominant groups. The bulk of the research on institutionalized racism, however, is on black-white relations.


Machismo, first used to describe the masculinity of Latinos, has become a generalized term for “doing masculinity.” Black macho is a phrase that is the essence of the gender ideology surrounding black masculinity. It depicts a young, swaggering, defiant, bold, cool competitor for physical space and the upper hand—for respect, most of all. He is sexually attractive and physically adept, but there is an undertone of repressed violence that can emerge in fights, rapes, and homicides. He is street-smart rather than book-learned, and somewhat contemptuous of black college graduates working in corporations or professions, whose demeanor is likely to mirror white middle-class manners. The physical strengths and aggressive competitiveness are valued by sports recruiters and team owners, especially for football, basketball, and boxing, and may lead to upward mobility and even great wealth and adulation for a few successful professional athletes.

Aspects of the gender ideology of black masculinity include sexual prowess with many women and fathering several children, but not long-term relationships or emotional closeness with children. In actuality, many black men are hard-working, responsible fathers. Leonard Pitts Jr., a Miami Herald journalist who interviewed African-American men about their troubled relationships with their fathers, says that for him and others there were always role models: “fathers, black men, family men who came up on hard streets, sired by disappointing dads, yet get up every morning and do the hard work of raising and supporting their children” (1999, p. 198).

The machismo or cool pose of young African-American men is a form of defiance against their subordinate position in the U.S. stratification system, which disadvantages them economically and educationally. The pose enables them to establish a confident masculine identity but may also prevent them from full participation in a racist society that sees their swaggering as hostile and dangerous. White boys may admire and adopt their style of dress, music, walk, and attitude, but to adult white men they defy proper middle-class demeanor. Thus the masculinity that may command respect on the street limits the chances for upward mobility in the white-controlled work world, except through the venues of sports and music. Movements such as the Promise Keepers have tried to shift the ideology of black masculine identity from personal aggrandizement to valorizing the husbands and fathers who take on the commitment of life-long emotional and financial support of their children and their children’s mothers. Even under slavery, black family life was strong; but gender ideology has not been supportive of family men as an image of black masculinity.


Gender ideology depicts black women through a variety of contradictory femininities—sexy Jezebels, nurturant mothers, domestics, welfare recipients, and domineering matriarchs. Each of these is one-dimensional and objectifies and demeans black women who, like black men, are diverse in social class, education, family status, and occupation.

The imagery of the sexually available black woman and the loving mammy, nursemaid, nurse, and general caregiver is both positive and negative. Stereotypes of black beauty place value on elements of sexual attractiveness, especially large breasts and buttocks, but devalue black facial features and hair. The conventional ideal of black feminine beauty is lush curves, thin lips and noses, light skin, and straightened hair or elaborate cornrows. For black women, achieving these standards may mean intensive dieting, cosmetic surgery, and long, painful hours at the beauty salon.

The imagery of sexual attractiveness and availability, with early pregnancy or sex work as a possible outcome, has been countered by black parents who urge daughters to put off sexual activity and concentrate on their school-work. Like adolescent girls in many other racial ethnic groups, young black women face an either-or dilemma: either to remain aloof or to seek emotional relationships that will render them vulnerable to sexual pressure. The conventional gender ideology does not offer positive images of educated black women in prestigious occupations and professions; rather, such women are accused of emasculating black men.

The most contradictory racialized gender ideology surrounds motherhood. Under slavery, black women with qualities valued by masters—good health and strength— were encouraged to breed with black men; they were also raped by white owners and their sons and overseers. None of the children they bore belonged to them. After slavery, many black mothers left their children with kin to obtain work in white homes as maids and nannies for white children. Poverty and men’s relocation for jobs made it difficult to keep families intact, and many mothers cared for their own and others’ children. After a fight to obtain welfare benefits, black women who used that means of support to stay home with their children were condemned as lazy and shiftless, and welfare reforms have mandated work requirements to keep receiving benefits. Black mothers who work and those on welfare are both blamed for sons not doing well in school and getting in trouble with drugs and crime, daughters getting pregnant, and black men’s low self-esteem. Yet many of these same mothers join together in grassroots fights for better local social conditions for their families.

The conventional gender ideology of black femininity is blind to black women’s successful efforts at raising daughters and sons who stay in school, go on to college, and are upwardly mobile. It does not acknowledge black women who have stable marriages, raise well-adjusted children, and hold middle-class jobs throughout their lives, or competent single mothers who are heads of households for extended families and often are grassroots activists. Yet these women are the Sojourner Truths of the early twenty-first century— strong, self-reliant, political, and assertive role models for their sons and daughters.

SEE ALSO Feminism and Race; Sexuality.


Collins, Patricia Hill. 2000. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment, rev. ed. New York: Routledge.

Connell, R.W. 2005. Masculinities, 2nd ed. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Hobson, Janell. 2005. Venus in the Dark: Blackness and Beauty in Popular Culture. New York: Routledge.

Kimmel, Michael S. 2006. Manhood in America: A Cultural History, 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press.

Landry, Bart. 2000. Black Working Wives: Pioneers of the American Family Revolution. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Majors, Richard, and Janet Mancini Billson. 1992. Cool Pose: The Dilemmas of Black Manhood in America. New York: Lexington Books.

Melhuus, Marit, and Kristi Anne Stølen, eds. 1997. Machos, Mistresses, Madonnas: Contesting the Power of Latin American Gender Imagery. New York and London: Verso.

Messner, Michael A. 1992. Power at Play: Sports and the Problem of Masculinity. Boston: Beacon Press.

Naples, Nancy A. 1998. Grassroots Warriors: Activist Mothering, Community Work, and the War on Poverty. New York: Routledge.

Pitts, Leonard Jr. 1999. Becoming Dad: Black Men and the Journey to Fatherhood. Atlanta: Longstreet.

Truth, Sojourner. “Ain’t I a Woman?” Internet Modern History Sourcebook. Available from

Wallace, Michele. 1990. Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman. London: Verso.

Judith Lorber

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