Sex and Gender

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Foundation Course

1

Human Rights, Gender & Environment

GENDER
Nivedita Menon∗

One of the key contributions of feminist theory is the making of a distinction between "sex" and "gender", a distinction that has subsequently been developed differently by different strands of feminist thought. We begin with the basic distinction that is made, and its significance. A brief discussion follows on how the rigid male /female opposition is specific to modernity and to western cultures. We then look at four different ways in which the sex/gender distinction has been complicated by different kinds of feminist theory. We conclude with a brief look at an emerging field in feminist theory – the study of masculinity, how it is constructed, and its implications for men in patriarchal society.

Sex is to nature as gender is to culture
The initial move was to use the term sex to refer to the biological differences between men and women while gender indicated the vast range of cultural meanings attached to that basic difference. This distinction is important for feminism to make because the subordination of women has been fundamentally justified on the grounds of the biological differences between men and women. The philosophical reasoning which legitimises various forms of oppression as natural and inescapable, because the oppression arises supposedly from natural and therefore unchangeable factors, is called biological determinism. Racism is a good example of this, as is the caste system, because both ideologies are based on the assumption that certain groups of people are superior by birth, and that they are born with characteristics such as greater intelligence and special skills that justify their power in society. Biological determinism has also been one of the most important legitimising mechanisms of women's oppression over the centuries. The challenge to biological determinism is therefore, crucial for feminist politics. Feminist anthropologists, pre-eminent among whom is Margaret Mead, have demonstrated that what is understood as masculinity and femininity varies across cultures. In other words, not only do different societies identify a certain set of characteristics as feminine and another set as masculine, but also, these characteristics are not the same across different cultures. Thus, feminists have argued that there is no necessary co-relation between the biology of men and women and the qualities that are thought to be masculine and feminine. Rather, it is child-rearing practices which try to establish and perpetuate certain differences between the sexes. That is, from childhood, boys and girls are trained in appropriate, gender-specific forms of behaviour, play, dress and so on. This ∗

Department of Political Science, University of Delhi, Delhi

University of Delhi

BA Programme II

Foundation Course

2

Human Rights, Gender & Environment

training is continuous and most of the time subtle, but when necessary, can involve punishments to bring about conformity. So feminists argue that sexspecific qualities (for example, bravery and confidence as "masculine" and sensitivity and shyness as "feminine") and the value that society attributes to them, are produced by a range of institutions and beliefs that socialize boys and girls differently. As Simone de Beauvoir put it, "One is not born, but is made a woman." In addition, societies generally value "masculine" characteristics more highly than "feminine" ones, while at the same time ensuring that men and women who do not conform to these characteristics are continuously disciplined into the "appropriate" behaviour. For instance, a man who expresses sorrow publicly by crying would be humiliated by the taunt, "auraton jaise ro rahe ho?" (Why are you crying like a woman?) And who does not remember that stirring line of Subhadra Kumari Chauhan - "Khoob ladi mardani, woh to Jhansi wali rani thi." (Bravely she fought, the Rani of Jhansi/She fought like a...
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