The woman’s role in U.S. society has changed a great deal since the writing of the Constitution. Less than a century ago, women did not have equal rights with men. They did not have the right to vote, and only a few professions were open to women, for example. Specifically, those professions that were open to women were seen as less important than the professions that were traditionally offered to men. It was in 1920, to be exact, when women were given the right to vote, and since then, the rights of women have been increasing ever since. Today, women can not only vote, they can also marry a man of their own choosing, they can attend college, and most, if not all, employment opportunities are now open to women too, and believe it or not, some women have obtained very high positions within the corporate and political world, so it seems that gender wage disparity may even become a thing of the past – or at least this is what ‘they’ would have us believe. In reality, and although we’ve come a long way (baby), we women, as a group, haven’t come nearly far enough.
When thinking about where women have come from, where we are now, and where it is that we might be headed, we might also consider how this system of power and privilege (and likewise oppression and disadvantage) has come into being, how it has changed over time, and how it might continue to evolve. This is because when we think about the differences and similarities between men and women – the main difference is the difference of power and privilege, and therefore also the distribution of resources, between these two social groups.
Now, I know that many readers will be thinking to themselves that I have missed something very important, and that the real difference between men and women is biology, as represented by their different bodies, and most especially their different sex organs. To that, I say, it would seem that way, wouldn’t it? Yet this is not how reality truly is. In reality, human bodies can have a much greater range in physical appearance than a simple binary classification system suggests is possible. In addition to there being males and females, there is about four percent of the human population that can better be classified as what geneticist Anne Fausto-Sterling has termed “herms”, “merms”, and “ferms” (Bender & Braveman, 1995, pp. 234-235.). She explained that “herms” or hermaphrodites have one testes and one ovary, while “merms” have testes and some form of female genitalia but no ovaries, and “ferms” have ovaries and some aspect of male genitalia but no testes. Therefore, it is clear that human bodies can vary in such a way that they do not always fall neatly into either male or female classifications, yet, U.S. culture and language has allowed for human biology to be sorted into only two sex categories.
Classifying people in this binary way has caused us to think in ‘us against them’ terms when thinking about many human differences. We think in ‘opposing’ notions of male or female, strong or weak, and active or passive, for example. Then we begin to classify and sort people by these ‘opposing’ notions and we think of those characteristics as gender. We, for the most part, have come to believe that men are strong, active and dominating and we call this masculine. We also, for the most part, have come to believe that, in opposition to men, women are weak, passive, and submissive and we call this feminine. Yet, just as is the case with sex classifications, life is much more complex than for what these binary categories allow. This is because there are men with feminine characteristics, and likewise women with masculine characteristics, and there are folks with many sexual differences that have characteristics that classify anywhere along this range. Therefore, it is the assumption that there is a binary sexual difference between humans, rather than a range of biological differences among humans, that underpins how we think about the differences between groups of people. The result is that our system of thought has, for the most part, prevented the majority of us from even recognizing or acknowledging this truth about ourselves.
Feminist Stephanie Riger, searching for the truth about gender, explored the notions of “biology as culture” and also “culture as biology” and concluded that “nature versus culture” is a false opposition. Instead of thinking of gender as either a product of culture or as a product of biology or nature, she found that gender is a much more complex identity category that is the product of both biology and culture. Therefore, she concluded that nature has a role and culture has a role in influencing one’s gender identity. Riger explained in her essay, Rethinking the Distinction Between Sex and Gender, that “[w]hat is generally recognized as feminine is frequently the product of powerlessness and low status (Bender & Braveman, 1995, p. 236). This fact is clear in the feminine characteristics of weakness, passivity, and submission. Therefore, Riger concluded from her studies, that both nature and culture have contributed to the notions of a weak, passive, and submissive femininity as being a trait that is specific to female bodies.
Even though humans vary in both sex and gender characteristics that do not always fall into binary and opposing categories, social norms, for the most part, have dictated that we will classify ourselves into binary categories and one of those categories is known as masculinity and the other is known as femininity. Society has also dictated that there are two categories for human sex classifications and it has attached weak, passive, and submissive feminine identity characteristics to the category of women, and social norms require women to comply with this standard. Weak, passive, and submissive feminine identity characteristics attached to women is evidenced throughout history in the Western world, and continues here in the U.S, even today.
The U.S. legal system has historically played a large part in the enforcement and perpetuation of feminine gender role norms for women. Yet, even more than perpetuating gender role norms, the court system has historically used the same exclusionary tactics (citing natural law, nature, history, and stereotyping) toward women (sexism) as they have with perpetuating racism. This has been and is used as a means to deny women access to the power and privileges that men claim for themselves.
For example, in Bradwell versus Illinois (1872), in which Myra Bradwell sued the state of Illinois state bar, because they refused to grant her a license to practice law, Justice Bradley of the U.S. Supreme Court concurred that history dictates by common law (which was, of course, dictated by natural law) that “there is a wide difference in the respective spheres and destinies of man and woman” and that “the natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for the many occupations of civil life” and that the “paramount destiny and mission of women are to fulfill the noble and benign offices of wife and mother” and he also added that “this is the law of the Creator” (Bender & Braveman, 1995, pp. 264-265.). In this judgment, Justice Bradley not only excluded women from the protections of the fourteenth amendment to the Constitution, he also perpetuated stereotypes about feminine gender roles, and he used historical examples, cited the natural law, nature, and even God as a method of providing ‘evidence’ for the case in which the lower status of women in relation to men was maintained. Justice Bradley also presumed that a dichotomy of opposite ‘natures’ exists between men and women and it is on this faulty presumption that women were (and still are) denied access to the same privilege and power that men enjoy.
This same mentality toward women, believing in their inferiority in relation to men, has been perpetuated and is present in contemporary society today, almost 150 years later. This is evident in a speech that was given in 2005, by Harvard University president, Larry Summers (who was the Treasury Secretary under President Clinton), when he spoke at a conference concerning academic diversity. Katha Pollitt, in her February 21, 2005 article in The Nation, Summers of Our Discontent, noted that in his speech, Summers presented three reasons (listed in descending order of importance) why tenured women were (and still are) rare in the math and science fields. The reasons he provided were: 1) family commitments did not allow women to fulfill the demanding responsibilities of these important positions, 2) women did not possess the genetic gifts needed to meet the needs of these important positions, and 3) that women were (and still are) discriminated against, but Summers withdrew the last point as he confirmed that if one university discriminated against a women, another would ‘snap her up’. Therefore, in Larry Summers high position of authority, privilege and power, he perpetuated the very same gender role stereotypes about women that Justice Bradley authorized almost 150 years earlier. That is to say, that it was in the nature of things that women should and would prioritize family commitments over careers, and that they did not possess the same mental capacity as men do. Larry Summers obviously also believes in the incorrect presumption that a dichotomy of opposite natures exists between men and women.
What is clear in the example of Larry Summers attitude toward women in regard to their low enrollment in the math and science fields is that the historical denial of women to these professions is also continuing into today, and the reason is not so much the overt discriminatory denial of access to these fields, as it is the culturally situated notions of gender role expectations and norms. Perhaps society has changed so that women are no longer excluded by law, and are no longer discriminately denied access to the same education as men, but social norms do still dictate that women, for the most part, could not or should not pursue such endeavors. The stereotyping of women and feminine gender roles has a very real impact on the choices that girls and women make. The assumptions about what girls and women could do and what they should do becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy because this pattern of socialization for girls limits the opportunities that many women realize later in their life.
Therefore, even though women’s roles in U.S. society have changed a great deal since the writing of the Constitution, they have not changed nearly enough. Although men have now given women the same privilege to vote as they have always held for themselves, and now that courts uphold standards of equality that favor equality of outcome over maintaining notions of sameness and/or difference, there is a different power that is exerting force over women. This power is now structured into the very fabric of society. It is in how we incorrectly choose to classify very different people into binary and opposing categories, and how it has become normal for us to do so. In reality, the differences between people is much too complex to be able to fit neatly into these binary notions of sex and gender, but the dominating and hegemonic force of mainstream U.S. culture now insists that this is the social norm. Therefore, women, it is believed, are weak, passive, submissive, and that it is in the nature of things that women should and will prioritize family commitments over careers, and addition to all that, they also do not possess the same mental capacity as men do. What is more is that because we now believe this myth, for the most part we now turn it into reality.
For these reasons, when thinking about where women have come from, where we are now, and where it is that we might be headed, we might also consider how this system of power and privilege (and likewise oppression and disadvantage) has come into being, how it has changed over time, and how it might continue to evolve. Systemic sexism limits women’s access to power and privilege, and therefore we need to learn to think and act in new ways.
Bender, L., & Braveman, D. (1995). Power, privilege, and law: A civil rights reader. St. Paul, Minn.: West Publishing Company.
Pollitt, K. (n.d.). Summers of our discontent. The nation [Web page]. Retrieved from http://www.thenation.com/article/summers-our-discontent?page=full
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