We live in a world that is divided by gender in every way. Gender is a constant part of who and what we are, how others treat us, and our general standing in society. Our bodies, personalities, and ways of thinking, acting, and feeling are gendered. Because we are gendered from birth by naming, clothing, and interaction with family, teachers, and peers, our identity as a boy or girl, and then as a man or woman, is felt as, and usually explained as, a natural outcome of the appearance of our genitalia, the signs of our biological sex. The assumption is that it is biology that produces two social categories of different people, “females” and “males,” and that it is inevitable that societies will be divided along the lines of these two categories and that the people in those categories will be different.
It’s a twentieth-century doxa – that which “goes without saying because it comes without saying” (Bourdieu 1977: 167; emphasis in original). Despite its taken-for-grantedness, the search for the biological sources of gender differences fuels the glut of scientific studies on genetic, hormonal, or other physiological origins for all sorts of gendered behavior (Jordan-Young 2010; Van den Wijngaard 1997). Actually, there are very few gender differences, as meta-analyses of compilations of those studies has shown. One research team (Zell, Krizan, and Teeter 2015) had 106 meta-analyses, incorporating data from 12 million people. Most of the gender differences they found were small, with few that were medium (11.9%), large (1.8%), or very large in size (0.8%).
Yet we live in societies structured by gender differences, so, since they are not natural, they need to be constructed. Gender divides people into contrasting social categories, “girls” and “boys” and “women” and “men.” In this structural conceptualization, gendering is the process and the gendered social order the product of social construction. Through interaction with caretakers, socialization in childhood, peer pressure in adolescence, and gendered work and family roles, people are divided into two groups and made to be different in behavior, attitudes, and emotions. The content of the differences depends on the society’s current culture, values, economic and family structure, and past history. The resultant gendered social order is based on and maintains these differences. Thus there is a continuous loop-back effect between gendered social institutions and the social construction of gender by individuals (West and Zimmerman 1987). In societies with other major social divisions, such as race, ethnicity, religion, and social class, gender is intricately intertwined with these other statuses (West and Fenstermaker 1995). Despite these crosscutting statuses, the contemporary western world is a very bi-gendered world, consisting of only two legal categories – “female” and “male.”
For individuals, gender is a major social status that is intersected with other major social statuses (racial and ethnic group, social class, religion, sexual orientation, etc.) and so gender is actually not a binary status, even though it is treated as such legally, socially, and in most social science research. On an individual basis, gender fragments; from a societal perspective, gender overrides these multiplicities and simply divides people into two categories.
The binary divisions of gender are deeply rooted in every aspect of social life and social organization in most societies. Although the binary principle of gender remains the same, its content changes as other major aspects of the social order change. The gendered division of work has shifted with changing means of producing food and other goods, which in turn modify patterns of childcare and family structures. Gendered power imbalances, which are usually based on the ability to amass and distribute material resources, change with rules about property ownership and inheritance. Men’s domination of women has not been the same throughout time and place, but varies with political, economic, and family structures. In the sense of an underlying principle of how people are categorized and valued, gender is differently constructed throughout the world and throughout history. The prevailing tenet is that men dominate women, although the extent of domination fluctuates.
As pervasive as gender is, because it is constructed and maintained through daily interaction, it can be resisted and reshaped by gender troublemakers (Butler 1990). The social construction perspective argues that people create their social realities and identities, including their gender, through their interactions with others – their families, friends, colleagues. Gender is a constant performance, but its enactment is hemmed in by the general rules of social life, cultural expectations, workplace norms, and laws. These social restraints are also amenable to change, but not easily, because the social order is structured for stability (Giddens 1984). Many aspects of gender have been changed through individual agency, group pressure, and social movements. But the underlying binary structure has not.
Gender is built into the western world’s overall social system, interpenetrating the production of goods and services, kinship and family, sexuality, emotional relationships, and the minutiae of daily life. Gendered practices have been questioned, but the overall legitimacy of the gendered social order is deeply ingrained and currently bolstered by scientific studies on supposed inborn differences between females and males. The ultimate touchstone is pregnancy and childbirth. Procreative and other biological differences are part of the constructed gendered social order, which is so pervasive that the behavior and attitudes it produces are perceived as natural, including women’s greater predisposition to nurturance and bonding. This belief in natural – and thus necessary – differences legitimates many gender inequalities and exploitations of women.
As the concept of gender has developed in the social sciences, it has moved from an attribute of individuals that produces effects in the phenomenon under study (e.g., men’s and women’s crime rates, voting patterns, labor force participation) to a major building block in the social order and an integral element in every aspect of social life (e.g., how crime is conceptualized and categorized is gendered, political power is gendered, the economy and the labor force are gender-segregated and gender-stratified). Feminist social scientists have mapped out the effects of gendering on daily lives and on social institutions and have produced reams of data on how these processes maintain inequality between women and men.
Feminist theories have linked gendered social structures with gendered personalities and consciousness. Nancy Chodorow (1978) links the division of parenting in the heterogendered western nuclear family to the objectification and emotional repression in men’s psyches and the emotional openness and nurturance of women’s psyches. Both emerge from the primacy of women in parenting. Boys’ separation from their mothers and identification with their fathers and other men leads to their entrance into the dominant world but also necessitates continuous repression of their emotional longings for their mothers and fear of castration. Girls’ continued identification with their mothers makes them available for intimacy; their heterosexual coupling with emotionally dissatisfying men produces their desires to become mothers and reproduces the gendered family structure from which gendered psyches emerge.
As for the sources of women’s oppression, multicultural and postcolonial feminists claim that there are complex systems of dominance and subordination, in which some men are subordinate to other men, and to some women as well (Collins 2000; Trinh 1989). All men may have a “patriarchal dividend” of privilege and entitlement to women’s labor, sexuality, and emotions, but some men additionally have the privileges of whiteness, education, prosperity, and prestige (Connell 1995). A gender analysis sees gender hierarchies as inextricable from other hierarchies, but conversely argues that hierarchies of class, race, and achievement must be seen as substantively gendered (Acker 1999; Glenn 1999). In this sense, difference is expanded from men versus women to the multiplicities of sameness and difference among women and among men and within individuals as well, these differences arising from similar and different social locations (Braidotti 1994; Felski 1997; Frye 1996).
Despite these intersecting multiplicities, the western social world is divided into only two genders, and the members of each of these categories are made similar enough to be easily identifiable and different enough from the members of the other category to be allocated separate work and family responsibilities, and to be economically rewarded and culturally valued in significantly non-equivalent ways.
Social constructionist structural feminist theory argues that the gendered social order is constantly restabilized even when disrupted by individual and collective action, while postmodern feminism has shown how individuals can consciously and purposefully create disorder and categorical instability, opening the way to change (Flax 1987). The social order is an intersectional structure, with socially constructed individuals and groups ranged in a pyramidal hierarchy of power and powerlessness, privilege and disadvantage, normality and otherness. Because these social statuses and the rationales that legitimate their inequality are constructed in the interaction of everyday life and in cultural representations and solidified in institutional practices and laws, they can all be subverted by resistance, rebellion, and concerted political action.
But most people do gender all the time, usually without thinking. Whether they are privileged or oppressed, people do gender because not to do so is to be shamed as unmanly or unwomanly. In this dual sense of doing and done to lies the power of gender as a socially constructed system of inequality. This power is enormously strengthened by the invisibility of gender processes, the lack of reflection in doing gender, and the belief that the gender order is based on natural and immutable sex differences.
This bi-gendered social structure is what is currently being fragmented in multiple ways – by choosers of non-binary identities and those who queer or question its foundations and by transgender people who may straddle traditional understandings of women’s and men’s identities, by intersex activists and athletes, and by those erasing gendered language use. At the same time, bi-gendering is being upheld by beliefs in the biological source of gendered brains and behavior, research based on only two gender categories, standpoint stances that valorize women, hegemonic masculinity, the #MeToo movement, gender-based violence, and sexualities dependent on gendered partners.
Ethnomethodological insights into gender construction
Gender as a construct first appeared in Harold Garfinkel’s Studies in Ethnomethodology (1967) in the story of Agnes. Agnes was a 19-year-old with fully developed breasts, penis, and testicles who came to a UCLA center for the study of people with “severe anatomical irregularities.” She presented as intersexual but in actuality was a normal boy who had been taking female hormone pills stolen from her mother since the age of twelve. What was important to Garfinkel was the way that Agnes achieved the gender display of a “natural, normal female” through voice pitch, gestures, dress, and other mannerisms that today we would call “emphasized femininity.” We never hear from Agnes, but the construction of gender identity by transgender people has subsequently been described in many of their own accounts and is now a staple of the constructionist literature (Bolin 1988; Devor 1997; Ekins 1997).
Buried in Garfinkel but subsequently spotlighted by gender studies analysts is the idea that it is not only transgender individuals who create a gender identity; everyone produces a version of masculinity or femininity socially and culturally acceptable enough to meet the expectations of normality in the eyes of others in their social groups. Building on Garfinkel, Suzanne Kessler and Wendy McKenna, in Gender: An Ethnomethodological Approach (1978), showed that gender is produced as a social fact by presenting a self that is acceptable to others. Gender attribution reproduces the gender binary by ignoring anomalies and assuming anatomical congruence with outer appearance. Genitalia may be the signs used in the initial assignment of an infant to a sex category, but in gender attribution, the genitalia under clothing are assumed; Kessler and McKenna call them “cultural.” In their ethnomethodological account of gender construction, Kessler and McKenna focus on the role of the “other” in the validation of gender, but they end their book by coming back to the doer: “All persons create both the reality of their specific gender and a sense of its history, thus at the same time creating the reality of two, and only two, natural genders” (1978: 139).
Garfinkel did not address the question of the extent of consciousness and complicity in the construction of gender because he did not know until years after that Agnes had been lying about the source of her bodily anomalies (breasts and a penis). In a feminist re-analysis of the story of Agnes, Mary Rogers (1992) argued that Garfinkel was an unwitting “gender collaborator” who displayed the masculinity Agnes needed as a contrast. Although most cisgender people present themselves as women or men without the deliberate impression management of transgender people, there were times when Garfinkel was well aware that he played up to Agnes’s emphasized femininity by a complementarily emphasized masculinity – holding doors open, seating her in a car, and so on. What were below the surface of his awareness, according to Rogers, were the power differentials in his relationship with Agnes. He was older, a professional, in control of the interview sessions, and with the other men in the research/clinic situation, the ultimate decider of whether Agnes would get the sex-change surgery she desired. And so, like other western women in the 1950s, Agnes had to be manipulative and secretive to get what she wanted from men who had power over her.
Constructionist feminist theory and research subsequently focused on how girls and women consciously learn heterosexual gender displays and subservient behavior as strategies to attract a husband, but seemed to assume that boys and men absorbed the attitudes of patriarchal privilege much less consciously. Since consciousness raising was at one time a radical feminist political strategy, it would seem that without the “click” of self-awareness, women are no more conscious of the gender construction of their lives than men are.
The use of Agnes in the feminist literature as a model of the production of femininity by...