Evaluate the Contribution made by feminist and post-structuralist perspectives to a view of gender as socially constructed

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A number of fundamental changes have occurred this century in relation to what it means to be male or female. They emphasize the notion that femininity and masculinity are not necessarily innate categorise which pre-exist in each person and focus more on the idea that they are historically and socially constructed and united categories which are found in social institutions, procedures and practises including those of the home, school and workplace.

Research has shown that what emerges as maleness and femaleness changes in a fundamental way over time, across cultures and in different socio-economic circumstances. Feminists and Post-structuralists have offered an invaluable contribution towards the idea of gender as a socially constructed and I am proposing to look at how they what they view gender as and the implication of their views in relation to education. In 1972 Anne Oakley introduced a new concept into sociology she proposed that “sex ” referred to the “Biological division into male and female” (Anne Oakley: 1972)

And “gender” to the “Parallel and socially unequal division into femininity and masculinity” (Anne Oakley: 1972) Sex is therefore what you are anatomically born with. Biological classifications of sex being either female or male have faced much criticism over the years for its inaccuracy and ambiguity when it comes to defining sex, and also for its failure to highlight the instances when an overlapping of the two sexes occur. There is an immense pressure for individuals in our western world to take on the gender role of female or male depending upon their sexual classification.

Often those born with ambiguous sexual organs have been assigned a sex and successfully become what they were assigned to be, even when the assignment may have later been found to be biologically incorrect. This also works in reverse however where assignment has been incorrectly judged and the individual felt they were the wrong sex. There are also cases outside our western society that do not view gender in the same light as us. The North American Indians Berdache takes part in a ritual to decide their gender.

Therefore can we see gender being a social construction to which we follow in order to become either male or female or does sex dictate what we become? Gender is a harder idea to grasp. It can be viewed as socially constructed aspects of differences between men and women. It is the primary way individuals are identified and identify themselves. “It has more recently been extended to the symbolic level, cultural ideals and stereo types of masculinity and femininity as well as at the structural level to the sexual division of labour in institutions and organisation not just being studies of individual identity. (Gordon Marshall: 1994)

Under the post-structuralists mode of thought the belief is that social institutions such as families, work and education shape women and men’s lives. Through these ideas they look at how and why some groups benefit more than others do from the way society is structured. Foucalt was a controversial but leading post -structuraist whom contributed greatly to sociology in the 70’s. In ‘The history of sexuality’ 1976 he suggests that structures of knowledge can exert power over social ‘things’ including humans.

This idea speculates upon how knowledge and power are organised and supports feminist theory of patriarchy. His post structuralist ideas are therefore popular with feminist as they provide an explanation as to why gender inequality occurs and why it can be seen as a social construction. There is also linguistic structuralism, which refers to Saussure’s, a Swiss linguistic theorist, work on trying to understand the way language is structured and how this affects our experience and position in society.

Language as structure produces two things: subjects who write, speak, and use signs, these individuals are the entities through which language works, and texts which are combinations of signs or signifiers which also serve as bodies through which language works. Subjects hold a large number of positions within the structure of language, two of which are author and reader. Text produces subject position, that is, positions within which readers place themselves as they read a text; these positions direct what the individual understands and interprets, just as the structure of language itself dictates what the individual can possibly say.

So just as languages as a whole creates its subjects, texts create there own readers. A Post structuralist named Jacques Derrida went further than Saussure and questioned the nature of language allowing for the ideas of sex and gender to be explored. Post-structuralists have re-interpreted Saussre’s linguistic structuralism. With regards to gender they proposed that a set of signals are attached to sexually dimorphic bodies and these signals work to create and split social practises and relations into those of male and female and masculine and feminine.

For instance using a handbag would be seen as a signal of femininity/ femaleness yet anyone can use a handbag but may be at risk of being seen as feminine because of it. Therefore gender is a relationship between those who give out the signals as to their gender and those who understand and interpret them. It is a subjective relationship which always directs the interpreter to either a male or female conclusion, or masculine or feminine traits, yet because the interpreter interprets subjectively the connection between the two is not stable and can be altered or weakened or changed.

Therefore since those giving the signals can be divided only into male or female /masculine or feminine it leaves gender open and those pieces that cause us to view gender as stable can be played around with. Whether post structuralism focuses on social structures or structures of meaning the point is that structuralism emphasise how individuals are constrained by greater forces that can influence the construction of gender. “The question of gender is a question of language. “(Barbara Johnson: 1987)

Barbara Johnson’s concise writings and ideas of the connection between gender and language assist the approach taken by a group of feminists who use post-structurlist ideas to support their own. This feminist work takes as its starting point the principle that gender difference lies in language rather than in any thing else, therefore there is nothing “natural” about gender itself. In placing their emphasis on language, however, these feminists are not suggesting a move towards a world of only words and language.

They are however saying language means that materiality is not taken to be an obvious category, and language itself is understood as significantly marked by the materiality of gender. The poststructuralist focus on language raises the vital questions that extend beyond just our use of language and expand our understanding of writing and the body, as a site where the material and the linguistic meet. The development of feminism has meant the subordinate position women have held for many years in society is being paid attention to and that steps are being taken to discover why women are in this position.

A number of types of feminist exist all with different yet overlapping views on the gender as a social construction idea. They have had much to offer on the ideas behind gender and its origins. Primarily we must ask ourselves are men and women different? Naturally they are different anatomically, but are they different in any other ways? Do their hormonal differences influence their behaviours and attitudes and do they process information differently? For many years feminist have been campaigning for a negative response to the notion of men and women being different.

Radical feminists maintain that the differences between men and women are mostly the result of socialization in male-dominated societies, and that it is patriarchal oppression that has relegated women to feminine gender roles. Feminists often see the family as being at the root of this oppression. Hegemonic masculinity furthers the problem of inequality faced by females here men maintain a higher power than women through social inequalities institutions and power relations which they have the central most important role in, and ensure they remain in this role by supporting one another in achieving this.

Biology is said to have little to do with abilities or sex roles in our society. Some feminist writers actually believe that the idea of “two sexes” male and female is a myth. Dr. Anne Fausto- Sterling, ” says that western culture is defying nature by maintaining a “Two-party sexual system, for biologically speaking, there are many gradations running from female to male; and depending on how one calls the shots, one can argue that along the spectrum lie at least five sexes-and perhaps even more. ” (Anne Fausto-Sterling:)

Feminists believe that to be born a man or a woman in any society is more than a simple biological fact. It is a biological fact with social implications. We receive messages from the day we are born about what is appropriate for a male and a female. Cards celebrating the birth of a baby often reflect desirable gender stereotypes – pink, bows and bracelets for a baby girl, puppies, balls and scraped knees for a boy. Advertising, toys, clothing and popular media additionally re-iterate notions of what is right for girls and women and what is right for men and boys

Women constitute an individual social group, and the character of that group, has nothing to do with feminine nature. Feminism views gender as a term now widely used to refer to those ways in which society reformulates what initially began as a fact of nature; our sexual organs. The biological sexes are redefined, represented, appreciated, and channelled into different roles in a variety of culturally dependent ways. This has originated from the masculine conception of woman, giving rise to ideals and norms that strongly influenced the behaviour of women who lacked the power to challenge the male view of their sex.

Through patriarchy the suppression of women has continued and through social construction the role of women developed into that of the weaker sex who has suffered a lower status than men in society. Feminist realise there are more physical and mental similarities between men and women than differences and therefore cannot comprehend why our concentration lies mainly with the differences and why we discriminating because of them. If we look at studies of intersex it becomes clear that gender is not as clear-cut as purely masculine and feminine for instance the case of Agnes.

Here Garfinkel carried out ethnography of an individual called Agnes who was born male yet at the age of nineteen-resumed life as a female. She had to learn female traits and actions in order to become a complete female. There were no innate characteristics here she learnt them all through observation and copying and successfully became her 100% female. When we look at education it is clear that gender differences, positive and negative, do exist in our current system.

Any approach taken by schools to try and provide an equitable education needs to begin with an understanding about how boys and girls become males or females. From the day a child is born they are exposed to some sort of stereotyping by the toys they are brought and the games they are encouraged to play. Girls are given dolls that may encourage the stereotype of women being the mother or carer. Boys are also encouraged to be more active and outdoor they also more likely to receive toys such as bricks or Lego encouraging the idea of building which may immediately provide an advantage in areas of physics or maths.

These toys may also affect children’s aspirations therefore altering their commitment to education. Women may feel they just want to become a mother therefore not see education as important Research has shown that children do not learn how to be female or male passively they actively become gendered individuals through learning from the messages and practises they are exposed to. They may actively use some of the messages they receive and reject others; some may be altered in order for them to feel they fit in.

They may choose ways that actually limit their lives and their positions may alter greatly depending upon the context, but all in all the role of language is essential in all of these processes. As the post-structuralist position shows language shapes how we learn. It also places limits on what we can learn. Throughout our education language is shaping and giving meaning to our lives. The way teachers talk about girls and boys has significant results in the construction of gender for instance Walkerdin (1994) showed how teachers talk about high achieving girls often drawing upon assumptions about femininity.

Bright girls being often described as nice and hardworking but rarely being seen as having potential, unlike boys who are often labelled with this tag. Girls are often given powers of authority in the classroom, for example a monitor or prefect, yet although this could be viewed as appositive steps towards equity it often occurs because these positions are seen suitable for females as opposed to males therefore totally devaluing it.

Boys display much more aggression and dominance in the classroom through physical power and aggression, teenage boys are often crude to girls of a similar age and use their bodies to undermine or dominant them. School is a place where gender construction has to virtually be over highlighted by the individuals experiencing it to ensure no deviance from either their assigned male or female occurs so group acceptance is achieved. Research conducted by Lobban in 1974 showed that within the early years reading books a large majority of the stories stars or those who came out on top were heroic males.

Men always had the more active tasks in the stories and women remained in their role as carer. More recent research by Best re-iterates this fact. In older children’s books this theme continues John Abraham found in maths and French textbooks that gender stereotypes existed. Girls tend to receive less criticism from their teachers in comparison to boys, this can cause problems as girl’s have little constructive criticism to act upon and improve with.

Teachers have been shown to remember boys more easily than girls they also have shown through investigations by Stanwoerth to hold pre-conceived ideas about what their female pupils would end up becoming these pupils also chose their future carers through what hey perceived as being women’s jobs for example nurses opposed to doctors secretaries rather than mangers etc. girls have a tendency to not even consider some types of work as they are seen as men’s jobs such as plumber mechanic and so on.

Anne Colley in her investigations into subject choices 1998 concluded Adult male and female social roles and the abilities and attributes assigned to males and females on the basis of these roles in the gender stereotypes of academic subject areas. The information contained in these stereotypes is acquired during socialisation and reinforced by prevailing beliefs observations of the status quo and educational practises which themselves are influenced by the same stereotypes” (Colley: 1998) From the eighteenth century feminist have been campaigning for equality for women they campaigned tirelessly for access for women to vote and to be allowed to have an education.

The second wave of feminism that began in the sixties involves different types of feminists however they overlapping ideas and have collectively had a profound impact upon women’s rights within our education system. By highlighting the concepts of gender patriarchy and sex roles they have developed theories upon why gender inequality occurs. By gaining the opportunity to publish why girls are treated differently in schooling they are enabling society to recognise this and act upon it.

To some extent this is working as girls are and have been for some time rising above boys in academic achievement. Girls are also encouraged to participate in more activities that perhaps have not been viewed as girl’s subjects such as engineering wood and metal technology and particularly sports that traditionally involved only men. Employment opportunities have increased for women thanks to part time work and all this has actually caused an alteration in the way girls think.

In Sue Sharpe’s research in the 1990s she found that girls no longer attached a great importance to marriage and family but placed more emphasis upon work and being self-sufficient. So already feminist have managed to alter the social construction of gender through written and verbal education. The problem however still comes back to gender being a social construction. Feminist and post-structuralist I feel have successfully shown that gender is something that we are not merely born with it is something we learn from the day we are born.

Sadly this means it is an ongoing vicious circle that is very tricky to overcome as all generations learn through social construction how to bring up a boy or a girl and how to distinguish between the two when they are born through relying on the social construction of sex. There is an immense fear attached to those who deviate from the norm of gender so often we are prevented from doing anything that may be see as not a social norm in respect to our gender roles.

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