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Gender as a Topic of Study: Necessary Terminology

Terms to Learn

Sex
Gender
Role
Stereotype
Equality
Patriarchy
Ideal
Feminism
Positionality
Misogyny
Ideology

 


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). 

Gender, 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 violence.  

This 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.  

The 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.  

Most of 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.  

An ideal 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 community.  

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.

Another 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.