Gender is a category of social structure by which we govern how humans interact. It is a social construction based on beliefs about differences between the sexes, male and female bodies (Holmes 2007:2). These social beliefs construct ideas about the actions, roles, and abilities of male and female bodies in societies. Social ideas about gender determine much of what we perceive as natural difference. Rules about the proper behavior of men and women determine the ways that our bodies move through the world (Crawley 2007:5). Social ideas about what is masculine and feminine determine how we experience our worlds. For example, boys who stray away from ideas of what it means to be masculine because they are gay, or effeminate, can be ridiculed, verbally abused ,or even physically attacked (Connell 2009:6).
Although gender is based on beliefs about biological differences, gender theory argues that differences between male and female bodies are more social than biological. Many structuralist theories of gender, steeped in Marxist analysis, argue that our understanding of gender is based on economic needs and systems of production. Capitalism, the system, determines the physical and social roles of men and women because it depends on the work of women inside the home to take care of paid laborers, males, and create a future labor force through sexual reproduction (Holmes 2007:66). In essence, there were two social spheres, the realm of men (associated with labor and production) and the realm of women (associated with care and the home). Although there were not many texts that developed a formal theory of gender during the late 19th and early 20th century, Olive Schreiner wrote Women in Labour in 1911 arguing for all spheres of labor to be open to women (Conell 2009:6).
Linguistic structuralist theories of gender focused on the meaning of difference constructed through language, another product of the social world. One way we make sense of the world is through binary oppositions – light vs. dark. In doing so, we often gloss over the similarities of the objects in the binary because we value one over the other. In the case of gender, these theorists have argued that society is patriarchal, valuing male over female (Holmes 2007:68). Women are defined by everything that men are not, or do not wish to be. These theorists point toward the parts of the system that are patriarchal, benefiting men more than women, calling for organizing and political action to correct inequalities (Holmes 2007:68).
Post-structuralist theories of gender are interested in fluidity and fragmentation. Identities are multiple and have the ability to shift (Holmes 2007:82). They argue that gender is about representation and is a social performance with no real basis. One important concept developed in post-structuralist thought in regards to gender is androgyny, a mixture of both masculine and feminine characteristics. Individuals within society are able to choose how to blend these characteristics, creating their own gender identity (Connell 2009:34). Post-structuralist theory works toward ending gender binaries and decentralizing heterosexism in gender discussions, subverting the primacy of masculinity (Holmes 2007:64).
Gendered ideas about men and women’s roles in society influences the traditions of religion, often times controlling female bodies sexually and the conserving of patriarchy. In Islamic societies, women are often veiled and covered so that they will not become a distraction sexually to Muslim men. In the Christian tradition, women are excluded from leadership positions and read out of the Bible. For example, biblical teachings about Jesus having only twelve disciples, all males, exclude women because of perceived gender roles. This is in spite of Mary Magdalene and Martha often being present with Jesus while he traveled and also present with him during his crucifixion. They are not credited as his disciples although it is likely that they were (Tuyizere 2007:21). The exclusion of women continues in the Christian church. Although women make up the majority of the membership in Protestant churches, they remain a small minority in positions of power and leadership within their congregations (Tuyizere 2007:27).
Connell, Raewyn. Gender. 2nd edition. Cambridge: Polity, 2009.
Crowley, Sara, et. all. Gendering Bodies. First edition. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2007.
Holmes, Mary. What is Gender? Sociological Approaches. Los Angeles: SAGE, 2007.
Tuyizere, Alice P. Gender and Development. The Role of Religion and Culture. Kampala, Uganda: Fountain Publishers, 2007.