The Construction of Gender Roles

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The inequalities that women face in relation to men has been an important social issue that has lasted for hundreds of years, still affecting women in our contemporary society today. Classifications that are of “particular importance for social image construction are age, social class, ethnicity, sex and sexual preference”, and “our perceptions of women and men are shaped by our symbolic constructs of femininity and masculinity” (Hunter College Women‘s Studies Collective, 1995). Psychologically, gender roles describe appropriate behaviour that is associated with each of the sexes. People who do not conform to normal behaviours of their gender are believed to have atypical gender roles. Throughout history, biological and social factors, both dependently and intertwined with one another, have fundamentally contributed to the construction of gender roles from the beginning of creation.

Biologically women are generally shorter, smaller and weaker than men with some exceptions. Women have been labelled as nurturing, because they have physical capabilities to carry a fetus and breast-feed, thereby providing for their baby’s basic needs during the first life stages. Because a woman’s body has this potential, women have been expected to get married, have children and little or nothing else.

Aristotle was a very influential philosopher and writer in 4th Century B.C., who set the stage for the mistreatment of women, claiming that mentally and physically, women were the lesser of the sexes by nature. Aristotle claimed that women are mutilated or incomplete men, who provide only the necessary nutrition which preserves health, and that men are solely responsible for the creation of a child’s life (Agonito, 1977). This statement reflects the societal views of this time which suggest that the mother’s part in conception is only of physical input. Aristotle devastatingly described that women were biologically inferior to men, because they instinctually behaved in a slave like manner, accepting the rule of their masterful men (pp. 48-49). Although his convictions were harsh, he was not alone in his condemnation of women; the Catholic church was also in favour of these ideas.

200 B.C to 425 A.D. marks a period in history called the rise of Christianity. The Roman Catholic church explains that the first woman, Eve, was created from the rib of the very first man, Adam, and that she was brought onto to Adam to help him on earth (Aristotle, 1977). Because women are created from Adam’s rib, society in general has come to conclusions that Eve was less important than Adam. Extremists who take the word of the Bible literally would believe that this is the truth, and would consider women as gifts to men for procreation. “To promote a woman head over men, is repugnant to nature, and a thing most contrarious to that order, which God hath approved in his commonwealth, which he did institute and rule by his word” (Aristotle, 1977). According to the laws of nature then, women were condemned to a lower class life, there to fulfil man‘s needs. During the rise of Christianity, women lived very private lives, without any contact to the world outside their homes. Teachings directly from the Bible were construed to also support the second class status of women, and this idea was especially dominant during the rise of Christianity.

The life of Jesus Christ occurred during this time and the roles of women were subject to many changes. During the life of Christ, women were treated as equals, and were considered to be created in God’s image, like men. They were allowed to follow alongside their peers (men), with Jesus, and they were allowed to be priests, teachers and prophets and were even sainted. During this time they contributed largely by founding monasteries for women, and Jesus used women in parables to teach faith, humility and charity (Agonito, 1977).

After the crucifixion of Jesus, women were forced to take on very...
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