The Invisible Woman: Sexism in Sociology
Who really gives a damn about reading studies, particularly feminist studies, about women, their dilemmas, their problems, their attempts at solution?1
A growing body of literature is currently drawing attention to the disadvantaged position of women in society today. Despite legal changes, smaller families and improved educational and employment opportunities over the last century or so, marked inequalities remain between the social and economic roles of men and women. The revival of organized feminism, in the form of the women’s liberation movement, has attached a powerful polemic to these differences. It seems that the situation we are witnessing is neither the effect of a biological underpinning of sex roles,2
nor can it simply be seen as the persistence of institutional inequalities. Discrimination against women is still, of course, to be found in law, and it is codified in other institutional practices determining sex-differentiated rights and opportunities;3
but a more fundamental source of discrimination lies in the realm of social attitudes and beliefs. The reality of women’s situation is daily constructed out of these attitudes: women are, in part, the way they are because of the way they are thought to be.
Thus one finds discrimination against women not only in society at large, but in the academic domain. This is particularly true of sociology, the ‘science’ that studies social reality. The counterpart to discrimination against women in society is sexism in sociology. In much sociology women as a social group are invisible or inadequately represented: they take the insubstantial form of ghosts, shadows or stereotyped characters. This issue of sexism has a direct relevance to the main topic of this book: a survey of housewives and their attitudes to housework which I carried out in London in 1971. The conventional sociological approach to housework could be termed ‘sexist’: it has treated housework merely as an aspect of the feminine role in the family – as a part of women’s role in marriage, or as a dimension of child-rearing – not as a work role. The study of housework as work is a topic entirely missing from sociology. My survey departs from sociological tradition and takes a new approach to women’s domestic situation by looking at housework as a job and seeing it as work, analogous to any other kind of work in modern society. The discrepancy between this approach and the implicit assumption of much sociological writing on women derives from the basically sexist orientation of the discipline to date. In this introductory chapter I therefore want to connect the two themes of the sociological neglect of housework, and the wider issue of the bias against women in sociology as a whole.
Sociology is sexist because it is male-oriented. By ‘male-oriented’ I mean that it exhibits a focus on, or a direction towards, the interests and activities of men in a gender-differentiated society. The social situations of men and women today are structurally and ideologically discrepant, and the dominant value-system of modern industrialized societies assigns greater importance and prestige to masculine than to feminine roles.4
This bias is reflected within sociology, which tends to adopt the values of the wider society.5
Attempts at ‘objectivity’ – a major premise of the sociological method – may reduce many obvious biases, but they do not seem to have affected the deeply ingrained bias of sexism.
The question of sexism raises the question of feminism. Is not feminism just as much of a bias as sexism? To answer this question it must be noted that in sociology (and elsewhere) a feminist perspective appears to be polemical because it runs counter to the accepted male-oriented viewpoint – a viewpoint which is rarely explicitly articulated. The word ‘feminist’, like the words ‘sexist’, ‘male-biased’, or ‘male chauvinist’, carries heavy polemical implications. Although these are highly political words, we use them because they are the only available ones: conceptually the area of gender-differentiation in sociology is very poorly developed. For these reasons feminist values stand out like a sore thumb. Conventional male-oriented values are buried in the very foundations of sociology and have to be dug up to be seen (but not believed). Wright Mills talks of ‘biases’ rather than ‘orientations’ or ‘perspectives’, but his point stands:
My biases are of course no more or less biases than those I am going to examine. Let those who do not care for mine use their rejections of them to make their own as explicit and as acknowledged as I am going to try to make mine.6
Essentially feminism is a perspective rather than a particular set of prescriptive values. A feminist perspective consists of keeping in the forefront of one’s mind the life-styles, activities and interests of more than half of humanity – women. Many different arguments or blueprints for a sexually egalitarian society can be, and have been, constructed on this basis. Institutional sex equality,7
the overthrow of the capitalist system,8
the abolition of the family, and the revamping of our entire ideology pertaining to gender roles,9
have been variously identified as prerequisites for women’s ‘liberation’. These are all different strands of thought, but their common focus is on making visible the invisible: bringing women ‘out from under’ into the twin spheres of social reality and cultural belief-systems.
This chapter is not a systematic analysis of the areas of women’s invisibility in sociology; rather, it is an attempt to suggest some of the areas and ways in which it is manifested, some of the reasons why it occurs, and why, from the point of view of sociology (and women) it matters.
The concealment of women runs right through sociology. It extends from the classification of subject-areas and the definition of concepts through the topics and methods of empirical research to the construction of models and theory generally.
The broad subject-divisions current in modern sociology appear, at first sight, to be eminently logical and non-sexist. Social stratification, political institutions, religion, education, deviance, the sociology of industry and work, the family and marriage, and so on: these are, surely, just descriptions of different areas of human social life. To examine whether or not this is so one needs to ask three questions. First, to what extent are the experiences of women actually represented in the study of these life-areas; secondly, how does this representation compare with the empirical role of women in social life; and, lastly, do the subject categorizations themselves make sense from the perspective of women’s particular situation? These represent different criteria of visibility. The position of women as subjects in sociology may give a distorted impression of social reality. Or the experiences and social importance of women may be particularly misrepresented through the need to fit them into predefined male-oriented sociological categories. This last criterion is more problematic than the other two. Male-orientation may so colour the organization of sociology as a discipline that the invisibility of women is a structural weakness, rather than simply a superficial flaw. The male focus, incorporated into the definition of subject-areas, reduces women to a side-issue from the start. For example, a major preoccupation of sociologists has been with the cohesive effect of directive institutions through which power is exercised – the law, political systems, etc. These are male-dominated arenas; women have historically been tangential to them. The more sociology is concerned with such areas, the less it is, by definition, likely to include women within its frame of reference. The appropriate analogy for the structural weakness of sociology in this respect is the social reality sociologists study: sexism is not merely a question of institutional discrimination against women, but the schema of underlying values is also implicated.
Taking the major subject-areas of sociology, such as those listed above, it should in theory be possible to chart the areas in which women are most invisible. The procedure would be to identify discrepancies between the extent to which women are studied in each subject-area, and their actual role in the sphere of social life that the subject-category represents. For example, in the case of housework the omission of this topic from both family sociology and the sociology of work clearly conveys a distorted impression of women’s situation. No account is taken of the importance of housework to women, either in terms of the simple amount of time women spend on domestic-care activities, or in terms of the personal meaning of housework to women (which may, of course, vary with different social locations). Using such a critical procedure, two indices could be constructed: an index of women’s sociological visibility and an index of their social presence. Lack of correspondence between the two indices would suggest a failure of sociology to take into account women’s experience. It might also point to more appropriate ways of re-classifying subject areas so that the perspectives of both genders are represented. The value of taking this kind of critical stance to the subject-classifications of sociology can be illustrated by taking a brief look at five areas: deviance, social stratification, power, the family and marriage, and industry and work.
Patterns of deviance in women are ‘lonely, uncharted seas’10
of human behaviour. Very little of the empirical data collected by sociologists relates to women and, of that which does, a main focus concerns sexual offences. Theories of deviance may include some passing reference to women, but interpretations of female behaviour are uncomfortably subsumed under the umbrella of explanations geared to the model of masculine behaviour.11
Even where there is some attempt to account for female/male differences in deviant behaviour, the explanation may simply resort to the simplistic notion that sex roles are generally differentiated.12
One reason why women are under-represented in this area is undoubtedly that the sociology of deviance has, until recently, concentrated specifically on criminal
behaviour. Since far fewer females than males commit crimes, this preoccupation has been one main source of sexism.
There is no doubt that women are
less deviant than men, according to various criteria such as official crime statistics, suicide figures, data on vagrancy, and so on. Eight or nine men are convicted of crimes for every single female.13
Male suicides generally exceed female suicides (although the ratio is reversed for attempted suicide).14
Some of this lower deviance in women may be an artefact of the definition or administration of the law. There are some crimes for which women cannot be convicted (e.g. homosexuality, rape); courts may deal more leniently with females, and a proportion of female crime may remain undetected because the police are less sensitive to it. Nevertheless, even allowing for these factors, women are almost certainly more conformist than men.
Cultural notions of feminine behaviour probably act to conceal deviance in women. The Wolfenden Committee, reporting on prostitution in Britain, recommended measures to reduce its social visibility (although allowing the phenomenon itself to persist). This ‘sweeping under the carpet’ syndrome as applied to female deviance reflects the congruency of the sociologist’s values with those of the wider society.
But the invisibility of women in the sociology of deviance is not simply a mirror of reality. Women’s social presence in this area, as shown by crime statistics, is far greater than their sociological visibility would suggest. For example, in 1970 there were 15,623 occasions on which British women aged between seventeen and twenty were found guilty in court. Over the decade from 1960 to 1970 the rate of all offences committed by females in this age group doubled, while the comparable male rate increased by less than a half.15
These facts highlight the substantial and increasing importance of female deviance. Moreover there is a well-established pattern of gender-differentiated criminal behaviour. Female shoplifting offences exceed those of men, but women commit only a small percentage of sexual crimes and crimes of violence.16
The female offender is characteristically older than her male counterpart. Females are less likely to be juvenile delinquents, and sexual promiscuity is the female adolescent behaviour-pattern which is most liable to merit the attention of the authorities. The feminine pattern of crime has the uniformity and degree of constancy which usually attracts the attention of sociologists, yet despite the fact that the sex difference far outweighs any other variable associated with criminal behaviour,
No one seems to have any idea why; but hardly anyone seems to have thought it worth while to try to find out ... While there have been a few studies of women offenders, investigators have generally looked upon the difference between masculine and fem...