Gender as a Topic of Study: Necessary Terminology
Terms to Learn
Christine de Pisan's Christine Writing
at her Lectern, 1404-05
One of the first things students in
a gender class must do is begin to think critically about things that have
heretofore seemed to be natural. In other words, one must begin to analyze
things that are most typically taken for granted.
Some of these things are the concepts of sex and gender. These are words
that most people have already heard of but between which people rarely
distinguish. In this class,
however, that difference is very important.
For our purposes, sex will be
used to indicate the biological categories within which people are typically
placed, or the biological difference between males and females. Someone’s genetic makeup, in other words, determines his or
her sex—in an oversimplified type of way. Sex is a physiological concept.
One’s sex is thought to be natural to him or her; it cannot really be changed
(at least without surgery and hormone treatments, and even so, one’s DNA will
still hold the original unaltered code).
on the other hand, is the word we will focus on more closely in this course, as
it means the social significance of the difference in sex. Gender, according to
Professor Lois Self, the Chair of the Women’s Studies Department at Northern
Illinois University, “is the difference the [sex] difference makes.”
Gender is a social concept. Masculinity
and femininity are the usual descriptors of gender, and they refer to a complex
set of characteristics and behaviors that are prescribed for members of a
particular sex category. These
pre-scripted characteristics and behaviors can vary by culture and are seen as
either being learned or being the result of one’s being “nurtured” in a
certain and specific way. For instance, in Europe in the 1700s, “Expensive,
frivolous, non essential items such as snuff
boxes, folding fans, wigs, fur muffs
and cosmetics were
popular with fashionable persons of both genders,” according to costume expert
Dr. Tara Maginnis (http://web.archive.org/web/20021214032032/http://www.costumes.org/pages/fashiondress/18thCent.htm
) of the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, while in America today, men wearing makeup and carrying fans and ornamental
jeweled boxes will probably be treated with scorn, derision, and/or possibly
example brings us to the words role and stereotype.
A role is the pattern of behaviors prescribed for and expected
from a person that corresponds to their position in society. A person may, of
course, have multiple positions in society and multiple role expectations. A
male athlete in our society would be expected to wear loose clothing and be
allowed to behave in a more free, less restricted, manner, possibly indulging in
more personal gestures and invading others’ personal space.
A male athlete would not be expected to wear cosmetics and wigs and carry
fancy snuff boxes. A male athlete
engaging in these types of behaviors would likely be seen as feminine, which
could lead people to stereotype that person as a homosexual.
A stereotype is a composite image of characteristics and
expectations pertaining to some group. This image is present in the social
consciousness, but it is generally not accurate or is skewed in one or more
ways. A stereotype of male
homosexuals might be, then, that they engage in feminine-associated behaviors,
when that may either be entirely false or hold true for only a small percentage
of the members of that category.
difference between sex and gender is important to realize because throughout
history assertions have been made about the “natures” of each sex where
different roles have been prescribed for individuals based on their sex.
A key tenet in this class is the ideal of equality. In the past, the idea
of men and women being equal was seen as ridiculous or impossible because they
are different. Equality, for
our purposes, is the condition of being alike in value, having the same
potential for accomplishment, and having the same inherent worth—in spite of
individual differences. In other
words, even though people are not the same, they can (and should) be considered
and treated as equals. For example,
historically women were not allowed to vote because the culture held the belief
that women were too emotional, too illogical, too morally pure, and attached to
and/or represented by men anyway. These assumptions did not take into account
differences in socialization, education, or training. Differences in their
behavior were attributed to their inherent difference from men. Their sexual
differences prescribed them different roles.
We now understand that those differences were exaggerated or perhaps
created by the culture’s ideologies. For
instance, one of the reasons that Francis Parkman, an influential lawyer,
believed that women should not be allowed to vote was that since women sometimes
sold themselves in prostitution, that they might be likely to sell their votes,
as well. Parkman’s conclusion was
fallacious, certainly; his understanding of the nature of women, however, was
born out of the society in which he lived, a society that offered women few
educational, and thus few employment, opportunities.
the societies that we know of, like Parkman’s nineteenth-century American
society, have tended to be patriarchal. They
are based upon an organizing principle that privileges the males—or the
fathers, specifically, from the Latin patríā family and archós
leader—over the females. In a patriarchy, power is held by and
transferred through men. This can
be through educational and societal restrictions on women or by laws that favor
men. Consider the laws of primogeniture pertaining to the English
aristocracy, which transfers the noble title (Prince, Duke, Earl, etc,) and
entailed property to the first born, usually legitimate, son of the father or
the current American tradition of children being given the
last name of their fathers’, particularly when the parents are married.
One can generally look to all the institutions of power in a culture to
determine whether that culture is patriarchal.
If all or most of the government, business, and religious officials are
male, then there is a good chance the society is patriarchal. Those societies
usually have conditions, laws, or customs that make leadership and educational
opportunities more accessible to or favorable for men than women.
is a concept concerning a role, a position, or a physical image that contains
only the most desirable traits or behaviors.
It can be a standard of judgment, a goal, or both. It can contain ideas
that are actually exclusive of each other, and it is—as a hypothetical concept
of perfection—unobtainable in reality. Currently,
the ideal father in American society is one who is gainfully and successfully
employed, so he can provide for his family, but who can be with his family and
nurture his children whenever the need arises.
Obviously, these two behaviors could be very difficult or impossible to
live up to simultaneously. Likewise, the ideal of equality that this class espouses can
be difficult to live. People are
human and have foibles and may not be able to get past every idea of difference
that they have learned, internalized, or valued about themselves or others;
however, as members of a college community dedicated to education and
humanitarian values, we must try to see all people as valid members of our
Feminism is a philosophy that holds with this ideal of equality. It is the belief that although they are different, men and women are equal. Feminism recognizes that women have been oppressed and repressed in certain societies throughout history. It also carries with it the commitment to change the attitudes and behaviors of those who do not see men and women—all people, really—as equals. This equality should be manifested in economic, political, and social equality for both sexes.
important concept is that of positionality, which recognizes that
people’s perspectives, their perceptions of reality, and their actual
realities—their truths—are dependent
upon where they are positioned in society.
A married fifty-year-old white male member of Congress will likely have a
completely different opinion of the consequences of the withdrawal of funds for
the Head Start pre-school program than will a single sixteen-year old black
female unemployed mother of two young children.
Likewise, a fifty year-old white woman middle-class woman will likely
have different experiences, beliefs, attitudes, and values than a fifty year-old
black middle-class woman. Their differences will have created different
realities for them. Given the effect of positionality, it is easy to see why
patriarchal societies can create misogynists, as misogyny is the hatred
of or hostility toward women. In a
society that subordinates women it is easy to understand that people within that
society would or could hold such beliefs.
In this class we will analyze literature in order to study the ideologies of various cultures—the “hidden” as well as the explicit values that societies and people hold—to see what people have believed about gender and sex.
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Contact Kimberly M. Radek, the instructor of Women in Literature, at Kimberly_Radek@ivcc.edu .
This page was last updated on 21 April 2008 . Copyright Kimberly M. Radek, 2001.