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Harriet Bradley

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Harriet Bradley

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Gender issues continue to be a prominent concern of academics and policy-makers, and increasingly arise in various forms to be debated in the public sphere and popular media. But what exactly do we mean by gender? How can we best understand gender differences? How are current gender relations changing? What new paths are 'femininity' and 'masculinity' taking? What would it be like to live in a society in which differences of gender were transcended? In this new edition of her popular and highly lauded book, Harriet Bradley provides an introduction to the concept of gender and the different theoretical approaches which have developed within gender studies. Utilizing life narratives, she investigates processes of gendering in three important spheres of contemporary social life: production, reproduction and consumption. The book highlights the centrality of gender in everyday life and shows how thinking about gender is influenced by changing political contexts. As well as updating the discussion with the latest scholarship, political concerns and economic data, the new edition pays closer attention to intersectionality and hybrid identities, as well as exploring the complexities of contemporary relations of masculinity and femininity in the light of new feminist activities. This lively and accessible book will be of interest to students across the social sciences, as well as anyone interested in contemporary relations between women and men.

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What’s in a Name? Meanings and Usages of Gender
Go back sixty years we did not have the concept of gender. It was sex. It was family. We have invented a whole new vocabulary of which the term gender is a crucial concept. But not a simple concept of gender – probably 500 different definitions of the concept. (Sylvia Walby, speaking at the British Association Annual Conference in 2011)
As Sylvia Walby states, the concept of gender as it is utilized in social science thinking today is relatively new. But the word has a much longer history. Various dictionaries offer the earlier meanings of the word. First, it is a grammatical term, used to categorize nouns as male, female or neuter. Interestingly, the Collins dictionary states that this can be ‘actual or ascribed’, which gives an immediate clue as to the way gender categories have been so central to ways of portraying the world. In the English language, nouns are normally gendered only when they actually refer to biological sex difference: man and woman, stag and hind, dog and bitch. But many languages, including the two great classical and formative languages of European civilization, Latin and Greek, assign gender values to all nouns. This is a basic way in which humans have tended to divide up and categorize the reality we perceive.
The grammatical use of the term seems to have led to two other former usages: one is as a synonym for sex (an issue in gender analysis today); and in another, ‘to gender’ meant to beget or procreate (we might use ‘engender’ today). All three of these linked usages can be seen as relatively technical: there are no disputes about their meaning and the first is a standard part of a grammarian’s vocabulary.
The academic use of the term which we are discussing here is largely a product of the Women’s Studies movement of the 1970s and 1980s. The consciousness of women’s disadvantage and oppression, as uncovered by the second-wave feminist political movement which sprang up on the heels of the social ferment of the 1960s, spawned an academic arm. Many of the young women who were active in the Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) were graduates, some of them starting out on academic careers (see Banks 1981; Bradley 2003; Coote and Campbell 1982; Oakley 1981). They soon noted the absence of women’s experience in the gamut of academic disciplines, from history to literature, from sociology to psychology. The infant Women’s Studies movement, which sprang up first in North America and then in Britain, sought to recover the lost story of women and ‘add women in’ to social and cultural research. To do this, however, they needed to develop their own theoretical framework and set of related concepts, as Walby highlighted in the quotation which started this chapter. The terms ‘gender’ and ‘patriarchy’ were the key tools developed by the second-wave feminists to explore the relations between women and men, seen not as fixed and predetermined but as varied and transformable. It is from this tradition that I have derived my own definition set out in the introduction: gender refers to the varied and complex arrangements between men and women, encompassing the organization of reproduction, the sexual divisions of labour and cultural definitions of femininity and masculinity. It therefore is, at one and the same time, a set of social arrangements determining how women and men live, and a way of thinking which divides people up into two (or sometimes more) social categories. These arrangements and categories constituted the bipolar world in which I grew up, as described in the preceding vignette. Typically they are hierarchal and asymmetrical: men are the dominant gender. Women are those (inferior) people who are ‘not men’.
It is not quite clear who first used the word gender in this context. Glover and Kaplan (2000) suggest that it was employed in the 1960s in the then burgeoning area of sexology and the psychology of sex. One book that sprang from this tradition, psychologist Robert Stoller’s Sex and Gender: On the Development of Masculinity and Femininity (1968), is cited by them as the first study to formulate fully the distinction between sex and gender that was commonly used by the feminist writers of the 1970s. Ann Oakley is usually credited with having introduced the distinction to feminism in her extraordinarily influential 1972 text Sex, Gender and Society. She herself drew on Stoller’s work in her account: ‘gender’ refers to the socio-cultural aspects of being a man or woman – that is, how society sets the rules for masculinity and femininity – while sex refers to ‘the base of biological sex differences (“male” and “female”) on which they were erected’ (Andermahr et al. 2000). Thus, put simply, gender is culturally defined and socially constructed, sex natural and biological. Interestingly, in India, where there is only one existing word to cover sex and gender – linga – feminists have used qualifying adjectives to cover this distinction: praakritik linga (biological sex) and saamajik linga (social sex) (Bhasin 2003).
While Stoller used these terms analytically to show how psychological differences between men and women came about, it was Oakley, along with other early feminist writers such as Kate Millett (1971), Juliet Mitchell (1971) and Gayle Rubin (1975), who linked the concept of gender to a theory of inequality and oppression of women. This was the theory of patriarchy, a social system of male dominance (Bradley 1989; Walby 1990), which became for a time the main theoretical framework of gender analysis and which will be discussed more fully in the next chapter. Rubin also coined the term ‘sex/gender system’ to describe such a social system, because, as an anthropologist, she pointed out that it was not necessarily the case that men were the dominant sex; it would also be possible to have a ‘matriarchy’ as an alternate form of sex/gender system. Theoretically, this is logical, although anthropologists have disagreed as to whether any known existing society could actually be described as matriarchal, even though some are matrilocal (where households form around women) (Bamberger 1974; Coontz and Henderson 1986). In an influential paper, Sherry Ortner (1974) claimed that all known societies were characterized by male dominance.
The distinction that Oakley and others made between gender and sex was crucial to the feminist case as a way to contest the view, still widely held today, that gender differences are ‘natural’, arising from genital and genetic differences, and thus inevitable and impossible to change. Such a position, for example, underlay functionalist approaches to the study of gender roles, such as that of Parsons and Bales (1956). Gender role theory had been the dominant sociological perspective in studying relations between women and men before the advent of second-wave feminism. Parsons and Bales suggested that, within the family in a capitalist industrial society, there was a need for role specialization, as different social functions required different personality characteristics. Instrumental roles, carried out by men, involved functioning in the cut-throat world of economic competition. Thus men needed to be aggressive, ruthless and intellectual. By contrast, the family also needed women to carry out expressive roles of caring and nurturing, looking after children and providing for people’s physical and emotional needs. The idea that these sets of roles were mutually incompatible provided the grounds for justifying the type of family that was dominant in the United States in the 1950s: the ‘traditional’ or breadwinner/housewife family. Underpinning this account was a biologistic view that women’s reproductive role and hormones made them ‘natural’ carers. Others, especially the socio-biologists, suggested that men’s primordial role as ‘hunters’ and their male physique and hormones (testosterone) made them ‘naturally’ aggressive and competitive.
This ‘naturalist’ view of masculinity and femininity as a biological ‘given’ was challenged by the sex/gender distinction. While not denying the ‘sexual dimorphism’ of the human species (the bodily and physiological differences between women and men), the feminists stated that since gender was a cultural phenomenon, gendered forms of behaviour were learned – and thus could be unlearned. A large part of Oakley’s book is taken up with discussing the great range of variations in men’s and women’s social roles and in ideas about masculinity and femininity in different societies, past and present. She appropriated another key term from functionalist theory – ‘socialization’ – to explore how this comes about, developing a fuller account of this in another influential book, Subject Woman (1981). For the functionalists, socialization consists of the processes by which we learn how to become human, by acquiring from various sources (the family, school, the media) the rules and norms of appropriate behaviour. Oakley extended this idea to explore processes of gender socialization, showing how in families, schools and workplaces, and through literature and the mass media, girls and boys were taught appropriate behaviour for their gender. All these approaches can be summed up in Simone de Beauvoir’s famous dictum: ‘One is not born, one becomes a woman’ (1973: 301). Or a man.
The sex/gender distinction was central to many early feminist studies throughout the 1980s. A useful summary of this approach comes from the historian Joan Scott: ‘gender is a social category imposed on a sexed body’ (1988: 18). But, as she noted, increasingly this distinction between socio-cultural gender and biological sex has been contested. Once again, this contestation can be seen to arise from the politics of gender and sexuality.
One of the first challenges came from feminist biologists such as Lynda Birke (1986), who argued that sex and biology should themselves not be seen as fixed and static. Birke argues that the human body changes in interaction with the social environment. For example, our body size and shape are different from those of our British ancestors because of dietary change and different physical regimes: a look at clothes in costume museums will quickly confirm the smaller physique of sixteenth-, seventeenth- and eighteenth-century men and women. We could not cram our large modern hands and feet into their dainty gloves and slippers! In a television history programme, Dan Snow suggested that in the late seventeenth century the average height of British soldiers was five foot three (Battlefield Britain, BBC 2, 10 September 2004). The implication is that a sharp distinction between nature and culture is not tenable, as the ‘natural’, too, is in part socially constructed. Thus the gender/sex distinction starts to collapse.
In support of this position, feminists have drawn on the work of French historian and philosopher Michel Foucault, whose important study, The History of Sexuality (1980), highlighted the way in which different sexual categories and identities developed in different centuries, largely because of the work of medical scientists, psychologists and other experts. According to Foucault, the notion of ‘the homosexual’ as a form of fixed sexual identity did not appear until the nineteenth century; before then, the practices we now call ‘homosexual’ were just part of an array of sexual activities in which men and women might engage. Thus for Foucault sexuality, too, is a social construction.
These ideas were taken up and developed by those interested in the natural sciences as a way to challenge naturalistic forms of thinking within them: it is still the case that much scientific and psychological thinking tends to see masculinity and femininity as biologically determined (and thus unavoidable). For example, there have been controversial claims that a ‘homosexual gene’ has been identified. In fact, two major current scientific developments in bioscience – the human genome project (which seeks to identify the determining function of each gene) and neuroscience (which uses complex technology to scan the brain and demonstrate how stimulating particular parts results in certain responses, outcomes and behaviours) – offer the prospect of providing a biological explanation for all human characteristics and behaviours. Using such knowledge, we could design the perfect human being! It is easy to see how such sensational pieces of Big Science can capture the public imagination. In my experience, many first-year undergraduates espouse some elements of such biological explanations of male and female behaviour. These types of research are challenged in a useful book, The Delusions of Gender by feminist psychologist, Cordelia Fine (2010), which exposes the weakness in many of these purportedly scientific findings. However, the continued attraction of biological explanations highlights the political importance for feminists working in the natural sciences of attempting to challenge naturalistic views by using the constructionist position.
This position has since been pushed a stage further by those who argue, under the influence of French philosopher Jacques Derrida, that all forms of binary categorization (which, as we pointed out earlier, have been very central to western thinking) are in themselves oppressive, since they put limits on what we are expected, and thus able, to do. To call somebody a ‘woman’ or a ‘man’, or to call them ‘black’ or ‘white’, is to compel them to act and be in certain ways (Haraway 1990). This philosophical doctrine of deconstructionism (the breaking down of binary categories) was very attractive to a new generation of feminists who were influenced by the ideas of postmodernism and post-structuralism (which will be discussed further in chapter 3). Thinking in terms of binary categories was seen by feminists to be part and parcel of an oppressive, patriarchal, western scientific mode of thinking often labelled the ‘mainstream’ or ‘malestream’. New perspectives of thought, such as feminism, gay and lesbian theory or postcolonial theory, saw themselves as challenging such orthodoxies of scientific academic discourses.
Subsequently many postmodern feminists, most notably Judith Butler (1990, 1993a), have argued that the distinction between sex and gender is no longer sustainable and should be collapsed. Butler sees no difference between sex and gender, as they are inextricably linked and both, in her view, are created in tandem through daily acts of ‘playing out’ male or female identity. Butler argues that we should understand gender/sex in terms of performativity: in our daily lives we repeatedly ‘do gender’, act out being a man or woman in ways that give the illusion of stability and fixity: ‘Gender is the repeated stylization of the body, a set of repeated acts within a highly regulatory frame that congeal over time to produce the appearance of substance, of a natural sort of being’ (1990: 33). As a lesbian, Butler argues that the route to gender liberation is through challenging the rules of performance to create ‘transgressive’ gender activities and identities. Thus she advocates drag and cross-dressing, adopting individualized and mixed forms of sexual identity, as ways in which we can break down binary thinking on gender. We will explore this further in chapter 3.
The existence of ‘third sex’ categories is indeed an important way in which to challenge the view of the sexes as inherently ‘opposite’ and distinct that I discussed earlier. Some individuals are born with genital features of both sexes or with indeterminate sexual features (hermaphrodites). Others choose to disalign their gender and their sexuality from their genital and bodily characteristics (transvestites, gays and lesbians). Others undergo bodily changes to alter their sexual or gender identities (eunuchs, transsexuals). Some cultures openly acknowledge a third sex, the ‘berdache’ or popularly termed ‘ladyboys’ of countries such as Brazil and Thailand. On a more mundane level, many women display patterns of behaviour that are popularly identified as masculine, while many men display attributes described as feminine. For example, there is a current debate about whether men and women adopt different styles of behaviour when they become managers. Men are said to be more authoritarian, more aggressive and ruthless in their behaviour and to favour bureaucracy and hierarchy. Women are said to possess a softer, more caring and consultative style, encouraging democracy and participation. But in fact it is easy enough to identify examples of autocratic, ruthless women and caring, consultative male managers. While we may associate these styles as typically masculine and feminine, it is clear that men and women can choose to employ either of these approaches or indeed a mix of both.
Butler and her followers have thus revealed the complexity and fluidity of sex and gender categories. Many contemporary feminists, therefore, see no use in making a sharp distinction between sex and gender, since in their view we create the illusions of fixed gender and sexual identities through means of embodied actions. For example, when we engage in a heterosexual sex act, we are simultaneously affirming our gender identities as women or men. In contemporary western societies gender identities are so deeply imbued with heterosexual meanings as to be virtually indistinguishable. The cultural and social processes which create gender are tied up with our physical beings.
While this has been a very influential position, some feminists see it as being politically problematic. The complete deconstruction of the gender/sex distinction reopens the possibility of anti-feminists explaining gender differences in terms of biology. While Butler’s ideas about transgressive gender acts have appealed to artists and performers, such as Annie Sprinkle and Grace, whose acts include the manipulation and parading of sexuality and gender identity (Annie openly displays her vagina to her audience, Grace has grown a moustache), they have little resonance for the majority of people who are happy to accept a given sexual identity and to enjoy the experiences of conventionally sexed/gendered bodies.
My own view is that, while Butler’s work poses an important corrective to views of gender as a fixed identity, the obstinacy of bodies and genital difference is underplayed in this type of theory. The facts of menstruation, conception, pregnancy, lactation and menopause have powerful effects on women’s lives which are distinct from male experiences. The prevalent threat of sexual violence, especially in conflict zones, puts constraints on women’s actions which men evade. As I have indicated, battles to show that gender is socially constructed are far from won. The sex/gender distinction remains a vital instrument for explaining the construction of difference. It is instructive to see that this position is shared by many Indian feminists, such as Bhasin. Where society’s gender awareness is very low, collapsing the social back into the biological is a dangerous strategy. So in this book I take gender to be something different from either biological sex or sexuality and the subsequent discussion is grounded in this distinction. We might paraphrase and expand on de Beauvoir: one is born with a body that is immediately ascribed a male or female identity (usually on the basis of fairly unambiguous physiological evidence, the possession of a penis or a vagina), but one becomes a man or a woman through social interactions within a set of cultural understandings about femininity and masculinity.
However, one very important contribution of recent thinking about gender is the recognition of how individual women and men are actively involved in ‘doing gender’. Our identities as gendered and sexual beings are not simply imposed on us, but are something which we are constantly engaged in creating and recreating, even at quite a basic physical level. Consider, for example, how much work and effort girls and women put into creating the bodily appearance of being feminine. Writers on adolescence highlight the enormous amount of labour teenage girls put into presenting themselves as maturing sexual beings: learning about make-up and trying it out, experimenting with hairstyles, trying out different fashions, learning how to walk in high heels, moderating their voices to be ‘sexy’, decking themselves up for clubs and parties, decorating their bodies with piercings and tattoos, shaving bodily hair, improving skin tone with all sorts of creams and potions. As radical feminist Andrea Dworkin puts it:
In our culture, not one part of a woman’s body is left untouched, unaltered. No feature or extremity is spared the art, or pain, of improvement. … From head to toe, every feature of a woman’s face, every section of her body is subject to modification, alteration. The alteration is an ongoing, repetitive process. It is vital to the economy, the major substance of male-female differentiation, the most immediate physical and psychological reality of being a woman. From the age of 11 and 12 until she dies a woman will spend a large part of her time, money and energy on binding, plucking, painting and deodorising. (Dworkin, quoted in Bordo 1993: 21)
Similarly, boys and men labour (if perhaps not quite so consciously) to develop an adult masculinity by repetitive action to enhance muscularity and macho appeal. The ‘new men’, with their cosmetics, interest in fashion and exercise and gym routines, are only exemplifying a more consumerist version of what David Jackson so tellingly describes in his account of how young boys, through constant activity, build up their superiority (over girls) in sport. As a rather small boy with ‘delicate’ limbs, he had to strive the harder to accomplish the masculine physical ideal:
What seemed like innate physical superiority to girls in sporting matters like learning to throw balls becomes critically exposed as the result of very different social practices and power relationships. … Whereas my sisters had been trained for domestic labour, childcare, homemaking and servicing other people (including me), with very little time, positi...

Table of contents

  1. Cover
  2. Key Concepts series
  3. Title page
  4. Copyright page
  5. Preface to Second Edition
  6. Introduction: The Concept of Gender
  7. 1 What’s in a Name? Meanings and Usages of Gender
  8. 2 Gender and Modernity
  9. 3 Gender and Postmodernity
  10. 4 Gendered Worlds: Production
  11. 5 Gendered Worlds: Reproduction
  12. 6 Gendered Worlds: Consumption
  13. Conclusion: What the Future Holds – Gender, Theory and Politics
  14. Questions for Discussion
  15. Glossary
  16. References
  17. Index
Citation styles for Gender

APA 6 Citation

Bradley, H. (2013). Gender (2nd ed.). Wiley. Retrieved from (Original work published 2013)

Chicago Citation

Bradley, Harriet. (2013) 2013. Gender. 2nd ed. Wiley.

Harvard Citation

Bradley, H. (2013) Gender. 2nd edn. Wiley. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).

MLA 7 Citation

Bradley, Harriet. Gender. 2nd ed. Wiley, 2013. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.