Feminist Perspectives on Sex and Gender

Mark wiens


Feminism is said to be the movement to end womens oppression (hooks 2000, 26). One possible way to understand woman in this claim is to take it as a sex term: woman picks out human females and being a human female depends on various biological and anatomical features (like genitalia). Historically many feminists have understood woman differently: not as a sex term, but as a gender term that depends on social and cultural factors (like social position). In so doing, they distinguished sex (being female or male) from gender (being a woman or a man), although most ordinary language users appear to treat the two interchangeably. In feminist philosophy, this distinction has generated a lively debate. Central questions include: What does it mean for gender to be distinct from sex, if anything at all? How should we understand the claim that gender depends on social and/or cultural factors? What does it mean to be gendered woman, man, or genderqueer? This entry outlines and discusses distinctly feminist debates on sex and gender considering both historical and more contemporary positions.

2.2 Gender as feminine and masculine personality

2.3 Gender as feminine and masculine sexuality

3.2 Is sex classification solely a matter of biology?

The terms sex and gender mean different things to different feminist theorists and neither are easy or straightforward to characterise. Sketching out some feminist history of the terms provides a helpful starting point.

Most people ordinarily seem to think that sex and gender are coextensive: women are human females, men are human males. Many feminists have historically disagreed and have endorsed the sex/ gender distinction. Provisionally: sex denotes human females and males depending onbiologicalfeatures (chromosomes, sex organs, hormones and other physical features); gender denotes women and men depending onsocialfactors (social role, position, behaviour or identity). The main feminist motivation for making this distinction was to counter biological determinism or the view that biology is destiny.

A typical example of a biological determinist view is that of Geddes and Thompson who, in 1889, argued that social, psychological and behavioural traits were caused by metabolic state. Women supposedly conserve energy (being anabolic) and this makes them passive, conservative, sluggish, stable and uninterested in politics. Men expend their surplus energy (being katabolic) and this makes them eager, energetic, passionate, variable and, thereby, interested in political and social matters. These biological facts about metabolic states were used not only to explain behavioural differences between women and men but also to justify what our social and political arrangements ought to be. More specifically, they were used to argue for withholding from women political rights accorded to men because (according to Geddes and Thompson) what was decided among the prehistoric Protozoa cannot be annulled by Act of Parliament (quoted from Moi 1999, 18). It would be inappropriate to grant women political rights, as they are simply not suited to have those rights; it would also be futile since women (due to their biology) would simply not be interested in exercising their political rights. To counter this kind of biological determinism, feminists have argued that behavioural and psychological differences have social, rather than biological, causes. For instance, Simone de Beauvoir famously claimed that one is not born, but ratherbecomesa woman, and that social discrimination produces in women moral and intellectual effects so profound that they appear to be caused by nature (Beauvoir 1972 [original 1949], 18; for more, see the entry onSimone de Beauvoir). Commonly observed behavioural traits associated with women and men, then, are not caused by anatomy or chromosomes. Rather, they are culturally learned or acquired.

Although biological determinism of the kind endorsed by Geddes and Thompson is nowadays uncommon, the idea that behavioural and psychological differences between women and men have biological causes has not disappeared. In the 1970s, sex differences were used to argue that women should not become airline pilots since they will be hormonally unstable once a month and, therefore, unable to perform their duties as well as men (Rogers 1999, 11). More recently, differences in male and female brains have been said to explain behavioural differences; in particular, the anatomy of corpus callosum, a bundle of nerves that connects the right and left cerebral hemispheres, is thought to be responsible for various psychological and behavioural differences. For instance, in 1992, aTimemagazine article surveyed then prominent biological explanations of differences between women and men claiming that womens thicker corpus callosums could explain what womens intuition is based on and impair womens ability to perform some specialised visual-spatial skills, like reading maps (Gorman 1992). Anne Fausto-Sterling has questioned the idea that differences in corpus callosums cause behavioural and psychological differences. First, the corpus callosum is a highly variable piece of anatomy; as a result, generalisations about its size, shape and thickness that hold for women and men in general should be viewed with caution. Second, differences in adult human corpus callosums are not found in infants; this may suggest that physical brain differences actually develop as responses to differential treatment. Third, given that visual-spatial skills (like map reading) can be improved by practice, even if women and mens corpus callosums differ, this does not make the resulting behavioural differences immutable. (Fausto-Sterling 2000b, chapter 5).

In order to distinguish biological differences from social/psychological ones and to talk about the latter, feminists appropriated the term gender. Psychologists writing on transsexuality were the first to employ gender terminology in this sense. Until the 1960s, gender was often used to refer to masculine and feminine words, likeleandlain French. However, in order to explain why some people felt that they were trapped in the wrong bodies, the psychologist Robert Stoller (1968) began using the terms sex to pick out biological traits and gender to pick out the amount of femininity and masculinity a person exhibited. Although (by and large) a persons sex and gender complemented each other, separating out these terms seemed to make theoretical sense allowing Stoller to explain the phenomenon of transsexuality: transsexuals sex and gender simply dont match.

Along with psychologists like Stoller, feminists found it useful to distinguish sex and gender. This enabled them to argue that many differences between women and men were socially produced and, therefore, changeable. Gayle Rubin (for instance) uses the phrase sex/gender system in order to describe a set of arrangements by which the biological raw material of human sex and procreation is shaped by human, social intervention (1975, 165). Rubin employed this system to articulate that part of social life which is the locus of the oppression of women (1975, 159) describing gender as the socially imposed division of the sexes (1975, 179). Rubins thought was that although biological differences are fixed, gender differences are the oppressive results of social interventions that dictate how women and men should behave. Women are oppressedas womenand by having tobewomen (Rubin 1975, 204). However, since gender is social, it is thought to be mutable and alterable by political and social reform that would ultimately bring an end to womens subordination. Feminism should aim to create a genderless (though not sexless) society, in which ones sexual anatomy is irrelevant to who one is, what one does, and with whom one makes love (Rubin 1975, 204).

In some earlier interpretations, like Rubins, sex and gender were thought to complement one another. The slogan Gender is the social interpretation of sex captures this view. Nicholson calls this the coat-rack view of gender: our sexed bodies are like coat racks and provide the site upon which gender [is] constructed (1994, 81). Gender conceived of as masculinity and femininity is superimposed upon the coat-rack of sex as each society imposes on sexed bodies their cultural conceptions of how males and females should behave. This socially constructs gender differences or the amount of femininity/masculinity of a person upon our sexed bodies. That is, according to this interpretation, all humans are either male or female; their sex is fixed. But cultures interpret sexed bodies differently and project different norms on those bodies thereby creating feminine and masculine persons. Distinguishing sex and gender, however, also enables the two to come apart: they are separable in that one can be sexed male and yet be gendered a woman, or vice versa (Haslanger 2000b; Stoljar 1995).

So, this group of feminist arguments against biological determinism suggested that gender differences result from cultural practices and social expectations. Nowadays it is more common to denote this by saying that gender is socially constructed. This means that genders (women and men) and gendered traits (like being nurturing or ambitious) are the intended or unintended product[s] of a social practice (Haslanger 1995, 97). But which social practices construct gender, what social construction is and what being of a certain gender amounts to are major feminist controversies. There is no consensus on these issues. (See the entry onintersections between analytic and continental feminismfor more on different ways to understand gender.)

One way to interpret Beauvoirs claim that one is not born but rather becomes a woman is to take it as a claim about gender socialisation: females become women through a process whereby they acquire feminine traits and learn feminine behaviour. Masculinity and femininity are thought to be products of nurture or how individuals are brought up. They arecausally constructed(Haslanger 1995, 98): social forces either have a causal role in bringing gendered individuals into existence or (to some substantial sense) shape the way we arequawomen and men. And the mechanism of construction is social learning. For instance, Kate Millett takes gender differences to have essentially cultural, rather than biological bases that result from differential treatment (1971, 289). For her, gender is the sum total of the parents, the peers, and the cultures notions of what is appropriate to each gender by way of temperament, character, interests, status, worth, gesture, and expression (Millett 1971, 31). Feminine and masculine gender-norms, however, are problematic in that gendered behaviour conveniently fits with and reinforces womens subordination so that women are socialised into subordinate social roles: they learn to be passive, ignorant, docile, emotional helpmeets for men (Millett 1971, 26). However, since these roles are simply learned, we can create more equal societies by unlearning social roles. That is, feminists should aim to diminish the influence of socialisation.

Social learning theorists hold that a huge array of different influences socialise us as women and men. This being the case, it is extremely difficult to counter gender socialisation. For instance, parents often unconsciously treat their female and male children differently. When parents have been asked to describe their 24-hourold infants, they have done so using gender-stereotypic language: boys are describes as strong, alert and coordinated and girls as tiny, soft and delicate. Parents treatment of their infants further reflects these descriptions whether they are aware of this or not (Renzetti & Curran 1992, 32). Some socialisation is more overt: children are often dressed in gender stereotypical clothes and colours (boys are dressed in blue, girls in pink) and parents tend to buy their children gender stereotypical toys. They also (intentionally or not) tend to reinforce certain appropriate behaviours. While the precise form of gender socialization has changed since the onset of second-wave feminism, even today girls are discouraged from playing sports like football or from playing rough and tumble games and are more likely than boys to be given dolls or cooking toys to play with; boys are told not to cry like a baby and are more likely to be given masculine toys like trucks and guns (for more, see Kimmel 2000, 122126).[1]

According to social learning theorists, children are also influenced by what they observe in the world around them. This, again, makes countering gender socialisation difficult. For one, childrens books have portrayed males and females in blatantly stereotypical ways: for instance, males as adventurers and leaders, and females as helpers and followers. One way to address gender stereotyping in childrens books has been to portray females in independent roles and males as non-aggressive and nurturing (Renzetti & Curran 1992, 35). Some publishers have attempted an alternative approach by making their characters, for instance, gender-neutral animals or genderless imaginary creatures (like TVs Teletubbies). However, parents reading books with gender-neutral or genderless characters often undermine the publishers efforts by reading them to their children in ways that depict the characters as either feminine or masculine. According to Renzetti and Curran, parents labelled the overwhelming majority of gender-neutral characters masculine whereas those characters that fit feminine gender stereotypes (for instance, by being helpful and caring) were labelled feminine (1992, 35). Socialising influences like these are still thought to send implicit messages regarding how females and males should act and are expected to act shaping us into feminine and masculine persons.

Nancy Chodorow (1978; 1995) has criticised social learning theory as too simplistic to explain gender differences (see also Deaux & Major 1990; Gatens 1996). Instead, she holds that gender is a matter of having feminine and masculine personalities that develop in early infancy as responses to prevalent parenting practices. In particular, gendered personalities develop because women tend to be the primary caretakers of small children. Chodorow holds that because mothers (or other prominent females) tend to care for infants, infant male and female psychic development differs. Crudely put: the mother-daughter relationship differs from the mother-son relationship because mothers are more likely to identify with their daughters than their sons. This unconsciously prompts the mother to encourage her son to psychologically individuate himself from her thereby prompting him to develop well defined and rigid ego boundaries. However, the mother unconsciously discourages the daughter from individuating herself thereby prompting the daughter to develop flexible and blurry ego boundaries. Childhood gender socialisation further builds on and reinforces these unconsciously developed ego boundaries finally producing feminine and masculine persons (1995, 202206). This perspective has its roots in Freudian psychoanalytic theory, although Chodorows approach differs in many ways from Freuds.

Gendered personalities are supposedly manifested in common gender stereotypical behaviour. Take emotional dependency. Women are stereotypically more emotional and emotionally dependent upon others around them, supposedly finding it difficult to distinguish their own interests and wellbeing from the interests and wellbeing of their children and partners. This is said to be because of their blurry and (somewhat) confused ego boundaries: women find it hard to distinguish their own needs from the needs of those around them because they cannot sufficiently individuate themselves from those close to them. By contrast, men are stereotypically emotionally detached, preferring a career where dispassionate and distanced thinking are virtues. These traits are said to result from mens well-defined ego boundaries that enable them to prioritise their own needs and interests sometimes at the expense of others needs and interests.

Chodorow thinks that these gender differences should and can be changed. Feminine and masculine personalities play a crucial role in womens oppression since they make females overly attentive to the needs of others and males emotionally deficient. In order to correct the situation, both male and female parents should be equally involved in parenting (Chodorow 1995, 214). This would help in ensuring that children develop sufficiently individuated senses of selves without becoming overly detached, which in turn helps to eradicate common gender stereotypical behaviours.

Catharine MacKinnon develops her theory of gender as a theory of sexuality. Very roughly: the social meaning of sex (gender) is created by sexual objectification of women whereby women are viewed and treated as objectsforsatisfying mens desires (MacKinnon 1989). Masculinity is defined as sexual dominance, femininity as sexual submissiveness: genders are created through the eroticization of dominance and submission. The man/woman difference and the dominance/submission dynamic define each other. This is the social meaning of sex (MacKinnon 1989, 113). For MacKinnon, gender isconstitutively constructed: in defining genders (or masculinity and femininity) we must make reference to social factors (see Haslanger 1995, 98). In particular, we must make reference to the position one occupies in the sexualised dominance/submission dynamic: men occupy the sexually dominant position, women the sexually submissive one. As a result, genders areby definitionhierarchical and this hierarchy is fundamentally tied to sexualised power relations. The notion of gender equality, then, does not make sense to MacKinnon. If sexuality ceased to be a manifestation of dominance, hierarchical genders (that are definedin terms ofsexuality) would cease to exist.

So, gender difference for MacKinnon is not a matter of having a particular psychological orientation or behavioural pattern; rather, it is a function of sexuality that is hierarchal in patriarchal societies. This is not to say that men arenaturallydisposed to sexually objectify women or that women arenaturallysubmissive. Instead, male and female sexualities are socially conditioned: men have been conditioned to find womens subordination sexy and women have been conditioned to find a particular male version of female sexuality as erotic one in which it is erotic to be sexually submissive. For MacKinnon, both female and male sexual desires are defined from a male point of view that is conditioned by pornography (MacKinnon 1989, chapter 7). Bluntly put: pornography portrays a false picture of what women want suggesting that women in actual fact are and want to be submissive. This conditions mens sexuality so that they view womens submission as sexy. And male dominance enforces this male version of sexuality onto women, sometimes by force. MacKinnons thought is not that male dominance is a result of social learning (see 2.1.); rather, socialization is an expression of power. That is, socialized differences in masculine and feminine traits, behaviour, and roles are not responsible for power inequalities. Females and males (roughly put) are socialised differently because there are underlying power inequalities. As MacKinnon puts it, dominance (power relations) is prior to difference (traits, behaviour and roles) (see, MacKinnon 1989, chapter 12). MacKinnon, then, sees legal restrictions on pornography as paramount to ending womens subordinate status that stems from their gender.

The positions outlined above share an underlying metaphysical perspective on gender:gender realism.[2]That is, women as a group are assumed to share some characteristic feature, experience, common condition or criterion that defines their gender and the possession of which makes some individuals women (as opposed to, say, men).Allwomen are thought to differ fromallmen in this respect (or respects). For example, MacKinnon thought that being treated in sexually objectifying ways is the common condition that defines womens gender and what womenas womenshare. All women differ from all men in this respect. Further, pointing out females who are not sexually objectified does not provide a counterexample to MacKinnons view. Being sexually objectified isconstitutive ofbeing a woman; a female who escapes sexual objectification, then, would not count as a woman.

One may want to critique the three accounts outlined by rejecting the particular details of each account. (For instance, see Spelman [1988, chapter 4] for a critique of the details of Chodorows view.) A more thoroughgoing critique has been levelled at the general metaphysical perspective of gender realism that underlies these positions. It has come under sustained attack on two grounds: first, that it fails to take into account racial, cultural and class differences between women (particularity argument); second, that it posits a normative ideal of womanhood (normativity argument).

Elizabeth Spelman (1988) has influentially argued against gender realism with her particularity argument. Roughly: gender realists mistakenly assume that gender is constructed independently of race, class, ethnicity and nationality. If gender were separable from, for example, race and class in this manner, all women would experience womanhood in the same way. And this is clearly false. For instance, Harris (1993) and Stone (2007) criticise MacKinnons view, that sexual objectification is the common condition that defines womens gender, for failing to take into account differences in womens backgrounds that shape their sexuality. The history of racist oppression illustrates that during slavery black women were hypersexualised and thought to be always sexually available whereas white women were thought to be pure and sexually virtuous. In fact, the rape of a black woman was thought to be impossible (Harris 1993). So, (the argument goes) sexual objectification cannot serve as the common condition for womanhood since it varies considerably depending on ones race and class.[3]

For Spelman, the perspective of white solipsism underlies gender realists mistake. They assumed that all women share some golden nugget of womanness (Spelman 1988, 159) and that the features constitutive of such a nugget are the same for all women regardless of their particular cultural backgrounds. Next, white Western middle-class feminists accounted for the shared features simply by reflecting on the cultural features that conditiontheirgender as women thus supposing that the womanness underneath the Black womans skin is a white womans, and deep down inside the Latina woman is an Anglo woman waiting to burst through an obscuring cultural shroud (Spelman 1988, 13). In so doing, Spelman claims, white middle-class Western feminists passed off their particular view of gender as a metaphysical truth (1988, 180) thereby privileging some women while marginalising others. In failing to see the importance of race and class in gender construction, white middle-class Western feminists conflated the condition of one group of women with the condition of all (Spelman 1988, 3).

Betty Friedans (1963) well-known work is a case in point of white solipsism.[4]Friedan saw domesticity as the main vehicle of gender oppression and called upon women in general to find jobs outside the home. But she failed to realize that women from less privileged backgrounds, often poor and non-white, already worked outside the home to support their families. Friedans suggestion, then, was applicable only to a particular sub-group of women (white middle-class Western housewives). But it was mistakenly taken to apply to all womens lives a mistake that was generated by Friedans failure to take womens racial and class differences into account (hooks 2000, 13).

Spelman further holds that since social conditioning creates femininity and societies (and sub-groups) that condition it differ from one another, femininity must be differently conditioned in different societies. For her, females become not simply women but particular kinds of women (Spelman 1988, 113): white working-class women, black middle-class women, poor Jewish women, wealthy aristocratic European women, and so on.

This line of thought has been extremely influential in feminist philosophy. For instance, Young holds that Spelman hasdefinitivelyshown that gender realism is untenable (1997, 13). Mikkola (2006) argues that this isnt so. The arguments Spelman makes do not undermine the idea that there is some characteristic feature, experience, common condition or criterion that defines womens gender; they simply point out that some particular ways of cashing out what defines womanhood are misguided. So, although Spelman is right to reject those accounts that falsely take the feature that conditions white middle-class Western feminists gender to condition womens gender in general, this leaves open the possibility that womenquawomen do share something that defines their gender. (See also Haslanger [2000a] for a discussion of why gender realism is not necessarily untenable, and Stoljar [2011] for a discussion of Mikkolas critique of Spelman.)

Judith Butler critiques the sex/gender distinction on two grounds. She critiques gender realism with her normativity argument (1999 [original 1990], chapter 1); she also holds that the sex/gender distinction is unintelligible (this will be discussed in section 3.3.). Butlers normativity argument is not straightforwardly directed at the metaphysical perspective of gender realism, but rather at itspoliticalcounterpart: identity politics. This is a form of political mobilization based on membership in some group (e.g. racial, ethnic, cultural, gender) and group membership is thought to be delimited by some common experiences, conditions or features that define the group (Heyes 2000, 58; see also the entry onIdentity Politics). Feminist identity politics, then, presupposes gender realism in that feminist politics is said to be mobilized around women as a group (or category) where membership in this group is fixed by some condition, experience or feature that women supposedly share and that defines their gender.

Butlers normativity argument makes two claims. The first is akin to Spelmans particularity argument: unitary gender notions fail to take differences amongst women into account thus failing to recognise the multiplicity of cultural, social, and political intersections in which the concrete array of women are constructed (Butler 1999, 1920). In their attempt to undercut biologically deterministic ways of defining what it means to be a woman, feminists inadvertently created new socially constructed accounts of supposedly shared femininity. Butlers second claim is that such false gender realist accounts are normative. That is, in their attempt to fix feminisms subject matter, feminists unwittingly defined the term woman in a way that implies there is some correct way to be gendered a woman (Butler 1999, 5). That the definition of the term woman is fixed supposedly operates as a policing force which generates and legitimizes certain practices, experiences, etc., and curtails and delegitimizes others (Nicholson 1998, 293). Following this line of thought, one could say that, for instance, Chodorows view of gender suggests that real women have feminine personalities and thattheseare the women feminism should be concerned about. If one does not exhibit a distinctly feminine personality, the implication is that one is not really a member of womens category nor does one properly qualify for feminist political representation.

Butlers second claim is based on her view that[i]dentity categories [like that of women] are never merely descriptive, but always normative, and as such, exclusionary (Butler 1991, 160). That is, the mistake of those feminists Butler critiques was not that they provided the incorrect definition of woman. Rather, (the argument goes) their mistake was to attempt to define the term woman at all. Butlers view is that woman can never be defined in a way that does not prescribe some unspoken normative requirements (like having a feminine personality) that women should conform to (Butler 1999, 9). Butler takes this to be a feature of terms like woman that purport to pick out (what she calls) identity categories. She seems to assume that woman can never be used in a non-ideological way (Moi 1999, 43) and that it will always encode conditions that are not satisfied by everyone we think of as women. Some explanation for this comes from Butlers view that all processes of drawing categorical distinctions involve evaluative and normative commitments; these in turn involve the exercise of power and reflect the conditions of those who are socially powerful (Witt 1995).

In order to better understand Butlers critique, consider her account of gender performativity. For her, standard feminist accounts take gendered individuals to have some essential propertiesquagendered individuals or a gender core by virtue of which one is either a man or a woman. This view assumes that women and men,quawomen and men, are bearers of various essential and accidental attributes where the former secure gendered persons persistence through time as so gendered. But according to Butler this view is false: (i) there are no such essential properties, and (ii) gender is an illusion maintained by prevalent power structures. Firs.

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