Looking Beyond Normalcy: The Construction of Gender Roles

Looking Beyond Normalcy: The Construction of Gender Roles Nature versus nurture is an ongoing debate in modern society. This debate is especially important in the area of feminist anthropology. One of the aims of feminist anthropology is to discover how biology and the environment affect gender, as well as gender roles. While some believe that biology plays the largest factor in the differences between men and women, others believe that the environment constructs the gender roles which are so rigidly enforced in society. The idea that gender roles are more culturally constructed than based on biology is becoming more prominent. This paper aims to look at how society, but more specifically patriarchal society, has shaped and defined gender roles. Gender roles have become rigid and this inability to change creates gender inequalities. Differences between men and women become used as excuses for one gender to be raised and seen as more superior than the other. Because society as a whole is largely patriarchal, the male gender role is raised above the female role. This can have severe implications which not only affect individuals, but women in general. Patriarchal society has culturally constructed gender roles in such a way that gender inequality has become normalized, leading to severe consequences which are difficult to reverse.

Patriarchy’s Integral Role in Culturally Shaping Gender Roles

Patriarchal society is a term used to describe society where males are dominant and hold the most power (Bartky 48). Claude Levi-Strauss’s research for his book, The Elementary Structures of Kinship, discovered that patriarchal society has existed since early civilization sedentary. His research showed that early civilizations which existed as a result of early sedentary succeeded by giving gifts to neighbouring tribes so that one would not establish enemies with the other clan, but relations of familiarity. Strauss explained that the best gift was the gift of a woman because a woman not only established a friendly relationship, but kinship relationships as well. Women exchange last names as men exchange them - from father to husband (Strauss 126-152). I believe that this creates a hierarchy whereas women are seen as underneath, or belonging to, men. They are not autonomous individuals and are seen in relation to a man whether that be a father or a husband. This directly links to the idea of patriarchy because a male is dominating over a woman by limiting her autonomy. Because of the research Claude Levi Strauss conducted, I can conclude that patriarchy has existed since early sedentary.

The link between patriarchal society and biological gender roles can be traced back to Ancient Greece where separate spheres were created in order to separate men from women because of the idea that they were biologically different. The public sphere, where men were expected to participate, was the sphere where culture, intellectual stimulation and political discussion existed. Women, on the other hand, were expected to remain in the private sphere - a sphere in which household duties were held above all else (Rotman 669). Women were not allowed to participate in the public sphere because women did not naturally have reason of authority, unlike men who had complete reason of authority (Aristotle 48). The idea that women are naturally, and therefore biologically, below men has only grown from Aristotle’s time. Gender roles were created based on the belief that women were biologically different, however I believe there was little scientific proof to support this claim. Because patriarchal society constructed and developed gender roles based on the idea that the sexes are biologically different, shows that the existing gender roles are a result of construction rather than biology.

Margaret Mead is a cultural anthropologist who, in 1930, travelled to Papua New Guinea to research and discover if gender differences are culturally constructed rather than innate. After two years of research, her findings produced results which made a groundbreaking contribution to anthropology. Mead studied three tribes: the Arapesh, Mundugumor, and Tchambuli. She discovered that in the Arapesh tribe, both men and women were gentle in nature. They were caring, cooperative and responsive. The Mundugumor, on the other hand, were quite the opposite. Both men and women were aggressive, violent and desiring power. The women of Tchambuli were, unlike Western culture, dominant, controlling and lacking nurturance. The men were more dependent, emotional and not in control. All three cultures are very different from each other regarding gender roles (Mead). This demonstrates that gender roles (including temperament) must be culturally constructed instead of innate.

Margaret Mead’s research clearly demonstrates that gender roles are not necessarily biological. Had gender roles been biological, all three of the societies she studied would have had similar gender temperaments. Therefore, it can be concluded that gender roles are not necessarily innate, and the rigid gender roles existing in patriarchal society have been socially constructed. As well, because the majority of the world has been, and is patriarchal, I can infer that patriarchal society has socially constructed gender roles, rather than just society in general.

The Resulting Inequality Between Men and Women

The construction of gender roles has led to a binary which exists between the genders whereas men and women are seen as opposites. Rotman confirms this in “Separate Spheres? Beyond the Dichotomies of Domesticity” by stating, “Gender relations are often de?ned as public versus private, production versus consumption, active versus passive, culture versus nature, and men versus women” (667). Unfortunately, within binaries, one group is always held above the other. In patriarchal society, men are held above women. Male and female become a pairing of opposites, rather than just two categories of gender (Rotman 669). This gender binary stretches as far back as patriarchal society itself. Aristotle, one of the world’s most well known philosophers and thinkers, had strong views regarding the differences between men and women in Greek society. He believed that women were the ‘mutilated male’, and further went on to state that women could never reach the level of man because they could never have the power of reason with authority (Aristotle 48). This idea that women can never reach the full potential of man has only grown from Aristotle’s time. Patriarchal society today expects that women should be passive, subservient, and submissive, quite opposite to the expectations men should live up to; active, in control, and dominant (Silva 89). While women are gaining more rights, there is still a deeply entrenched view that women are not equal to men, which, I believe, largely stems from the ideals that patriarchy has created. Now, this binary between the genders is not solely due to male-dominated society, however because the majority of the world is, or has been patriarchal, I can conclude that the binary between genders is largely a result of expanding patriarchy.

Patriarchy exploits the differences between men and women in order to maintain the view that men are superior to women. Aristotle exploited male and female reproductive differences in order to imply that women have no soul, unlike men who have soul. Aristotle discusses this by stating, “The reason is that the female is as it were a deformed male; and the menstrual discharge is semen, though in an impure condition: i.e. it lacks on constituent, and one only, the principle of soul” (48). This exemplifies the concept that men are superior than women. More recently, however, patriarchy uses the differences (ironically constructed by patriarchy itself) between the sexes to explain why women should not be in the work force, or be educated.

When a woman enters the work force, she is often met with distaste because women are expected to remain in the private sphere - their home. Amber Gazso discusses this in “Women's inequality in the workplace as framed in news discourse: refracting from gender ideology” and states that, “[w]orkplace cultures uphold stereotypical assumptions that centre on the idea that women are fundamentally different than men and so do not fit into a man’s work world” (451). Those that do enter the work force are not treated equally to men - the pay is substantially less than a man’s salary and she is often restricted and limited to careers that are thought to be within her capability, which, in most cases, are careers that reflect domesticity. Bartky confirms this and argues that, “In many typical women’s jobs, graciousness, deference, and readiness to serve are part of the work” (34). Women are thought to be incapable of having well paid, highly respected careers. Men, on the other hand, are thought to be capable of holding these respected positions. Those women that do hold high ranking positions are seen as more masculine and male-like. Her ability to hold a a high ranking position is thought to be because she is naturally more masculine (Gaszo 452). However, I believe that it isn’t the capability, or biology, of one to hold these positions. Rather, it is the opportunities, or environment, given to one that determines their ability to reach higher paying and more respected careers. Unfortunately, women are not given the same opportunities that men are given (Phillips 9-14). I believe that had women been granted similar or equal opportunities that men were given - such as equal education - the equality gap in the workplace would be narrowed.

Women rarely get the same opportunities as men do because of the rigid gender division created and exploited by patriarchal society. Education is one area which, up until recently, women have not been included in. It was previously thought that women should stay in the home, and not be educated. Even as women began to get educated, they were still restricted so much so that they were banned from applying and enrolling in post-secondary school institutions such as Harvard. Edward Clarke, a former professor of medicine at Harvard, claimed that women could not, and should not, be educated because of biological differences. Clarke explained that there is a finite amount of energy in our bodies. There are two areas in which the energy can be distributed; the brain and the uterus. The energy in the body of a man goes to the brain while the energy in a woman directs itself to the uterus. If a woman is being educated, than the energy is being redirected to the brain which affects her ability to reproduce. She could become sterile. Clarke played on one of the biggest fears women had in that age - becoming sterile (Clarke 113-116). The fear of being sterile can be linked to being constructed by patriarchy because patriarchy has historically placed heavy emphasis on a woman’s ability to bear children. Clarke severely limited and restricted the want for higher education in women by exploiting women’s fears. Rather than discussing how holding women back from intellectual stimulation has prevented them from reaching full potential, patriarchal society still blames biology for the differences between the sexes, especially with relating these differences to education.

The work force and education are both areas in which patriarchy deems biology the main reason for incompetence, further deepening rigid inequalities. Rather than looking at why women may not necessarily succeed, society assumes that it is just biological - women cannot move up in the work force because they are not capable or intelligent enough. This is particularly detrimental because any difference between the genders is seen as biological, rather than socially constructed by patriarchy. What’s worse, is that, I believe, these ideals become normalized. When women resist these norms, patriarchy creates new methods of domination. Bartky discusses how, “[a]s modern industrial societies change and as women themselves offer resistance to patriarchy, older forms of domination are eroded. But new forms arise, spread and become consolidated.” (49). Efforts to disable women’s resistance - such as reaffirming that women cannot do math or science - are even to this day being implemented in order to silence women and maintain patriarchy. Because of this, adjusting the gender hierarchy so that both are genders become equal grows increasingly difficult.

Breaking the Gender Binary

Patriarchy has existed since sedentary, and is so deeply rooted in social institutions - education and the work force for example - that it may appear to be nearly impossible to eliminate the culturally constructed gender roles. When a group rises up to try and reverse the rigid gender roles, patriarchy finds new methods to disable the group in order to maintain patriarchy (Bartky 49). While it may be difficult to change gender roles, and while one may come across resistance, I believe that it is not impossible.

Women workers in Lancashire had to confront Victorian patriarchy and thus, gender hierarchy. Men made up the majority of weavers during the Victorian era. However, as the Napoleonic wars demanded more men, and the demand for cloth rose, the number of female weavers grew. Employers broke societal norms by recruiting women as factory workers. Women were paid equally to men, which lead to the interdependence of wage earnings. This encouraged men to include women in labour organizations. As more women entered the work force, the number of collaborative protests grew. Such protests included the 1842 Plug Plot, 1848-9 opposition to the relay system and the 1853-4 strike over waves. These protests helped to solidify permanent organization for women. Unconventional female identities resulted from women working. Young women could support themselves, they could hold jobs after marriage and a fertility limitation existed. Following this, mass education was implemented and this greatly narrowed gender differences in literacy. The percentage of women signing the marriage register grew from twenty-seven to ninety-four, only four percent away from the number of boys that could sign the marriage register. Women now had more intellectual resources and could compete with men intellectually. However, many husbands thought that their wives were becoming too independent as they grew more intelligent. Literacy also lead to greater education about birth control. Women no longer felt that they had to bear and raise children. The woman’s sphere began to widen as women stepped into the public and began to include themselves in politics, an area which was largely thought to be only for men. Following the widening of the woman’s sphere, middle class feminists began to increase contact with factory women which enabled the women’s suffrage movement. The Lancashire female cotton workers emancipated themselves from domesticity through decades of confronting and challenging patriarchy (Benenson 613-633). This example shows that it is not impossible to change the culturally constructed gender roles that patriarchy has created and enforced. While gender roles seem to be so deeply rooted within society that changing them appears to be nearly impossible, the Lancashire women provide a glimmer of hope for the future because their hard work shows that it is possible to change the gender roles.

Culturally constructed gender roles have been largely created by patriarchal society so much so that the inequality between both genders has become normalized, which, more often than none, leads to severe consequences which are quite difficult to change. Patriarchy culturally constructed gender roles based on the idea that gender is biological. While many argue and pick a side in the nature versus nurture debate, nature versus nurture is a term which suggests that it is either biology or the environment that has the largest influence on human life. However, it should not necessarily be either biology or the environment, rather it should be biology and the environment. While patriarchal society does socially construct gender roles, one cannot dismiss the role that biology plays. Instead of debating whether nature or nurture plays the most important role in the development of gender roles, how nature and nurture work together in order to shape and define gender roles would be more appropriate because either way, women are still treated differently than men. In a world where change, equality an opportunity are praised, society is still creating and reaffirming gender roles. Women need to rise up and challenge society in order to get the equal rights that they deserve.

Works Cited / Further Reading

Aristotle. Excerpts from “The Generation of Animals”. In Renaissance Women: A Sourcebook. Ed. Kate Aughterson. New York: Routledge, 1995. 44-48. Print.

Bartky, Sandra. “Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power.” Reading Women’s Lives. Eds. Kim Verwaayen and Erica Lawson. London; 2009. 27-53. Print.

Benenson, Harold. "Patriarchal Constraints on Women Workers' Mobilization: The Lancashire Female Cotton Operatives 1942-1919." The British Journal of Sociology 44.4 (1993): 613-633. Web. Nov 3. 2009.

Clarke, Edward. “Sex in Education: A Fair Chance for the Girls.” Reading Women’s Lives. Eds. Kim Verwaayen and Erica Lawson. London; 2009. 113-116. Print.

Gazso, Amber. "Women's inequality in the workplace as framed in news discourse: refracting from gender ideology." Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology 41.4 (2004): 449-473. Print.

Levi-Strauss, Claude. The Elementary Structures of Kinship. Trans. James Harle Bell, John Richard von Sturmer, and Rodney Needham. Boston: Beacon P, 1969. Print.

Mead, Margaret. Sex and temperament in three primitive societies. New York: Morrow, 1963. Print.

Phillips, Anne. “‘Really’ equal: opportunities and autonomy.” The Journal of Political Philosophy 14.1 (2006): 18-32. Web. 3 Nov. 2009.

Rotman, Deborah. “Separate Spheres? Beyond the Dichotomies of Domesticity.” Current Anthropology 47.4 (2006): 666-674. Web. 3 Nov. 2009.

Silva, Elizabeth. "Gender, home and family in cultural capital theory." The British Journal of Sociology 56.1 (2005): 83-103. Web. 3 Nov. 2009.

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