This last week a good friend of mine, and a graduate student in psychology, sent me a copy of some of the gender research he is investigating. The philosophical nature of such research has led me to ponder: What is gender? What is sex? and Is gender biological or cultural? I think the information my dear friend shared is certainly fascinating and mentionable. So I will share with you some heavy philosophical perspectives on gender in hopes to inspire your own pondering on such critical topics.
This friend of mine presents the historic debate of Biological Essentialism versus Social Constructivism.
Biological: of or relating to biology or living organisms
Essentialism: the belief that things have a set of characteristics that make them the way they are, and that the task of science and philosophy is their discovery and expression
Social: of or relating to society or its organization; society-created
Constructivism: a style or movement in which assorted mechanical objects are combined into abstract mobile structural forms
Biological Essentialism: the belief that characteristics (of a person) are essentially biological in nature.
Social Constructivism: the belief that non-biological characteristics (of a person) are reflections of culturally-created constructs that people identify with.
Concerning gender and sex, then, Biological Essentialists would claim that gendered characteristics (e.g. women are more kind, men are aggressive) are due to the biological essence of a woman or a man. Literally, gender norms are directly connected to the biological woman or man. Social Constructivists, on the other hand, would argue, although there are obvious biological distinctions between women and men, gender characteristics are a construct of society—malleable and independent from the being.
It seems necessary to explore the difference between gender and sex. The contemporary trend of social scientists is to make the Social Constructivist assumption that sex is biological while gender is socially constructed. Such beliefs do avoid many dangers that Biological Essentialism presents in regards to gender; namely: attributing gender-specific characteristics (which vary across culture, time, and between-persons) can lead to sexist beliefs, abandonment of responsibility for such beliefs, and unhealthy expectations of others based on their gender. While it seems obvious the dangers of assuming Biological Essentialism, are there any potential dangers in assuming that gender is wholly a creation of one’s environment, infinitely changeable and temporary? Here a deeper investigation of Social Constructivism is warranted.
The assumption that gender traits are due solely to environment presents three issues with Social Constructivism: first, gender is infinite in flexibility, yet individual gender is denied; second, such flexibility eventually leads to gender neutrality as the ideal; and third, gender neutrality usually is masked by masculinity. When I say Social Constructivists see gender as flexible, this means that they view gender traits as characteristics or expectations that change over time and space. This, I believe, is an appropriate assumption, however, they also assume that individuals can never truly have a gender, as gender is merely an idea presented by an individuals’ culture with no biological or psychological basis. In some cases I think this assumption holds true. Surely, women are not more biologically or psychologically fit to iron, vacuum, or cook. However, denial of individuals’ gender has led to the Social Constructivists belief that there is nothing gender-specific about women and men—we are all just people. If theory were to stop here, I think we would find ourselves in a very gender-equal place. If we disassociate gendered-traits from the people who display them and believe that all men and women have the same psychological framework, I could still be comfortable with where this theory stands. But, as Agacinski (2001) illustrates, in our world gender neutrality equals masculinity as the norm. She states: “[T]he freedom extolled by the philosopher is paid for by an absurd denial of nature, of maternity, and of the feminine body in general.”(Agacinski, 2001, p. 42). Therefore, the freedom from gender leads to the abandonment of femininity while dually placing masculine traits on the pedestal of gender neutrality and equality. Agacinski continues:
The erasure of one sex never gives way to neutrality, but to the other sex. We only forget this because we have already situated the masculine and its models in the place of the universal…any conception or figuration of the human calls for a masculine or feminine determination… we cannot represent a human being, even schematically, without including the traits that make him or her a man or a woman. There is no asexual human archetype but only two fundamental types [with which] variable characteristics are associated. When we claim not to recognize division, we have already opted for one of the two models, and, traditionally, chosen the masculine. [This] has not overcome traditional androcentrism… it is the modern form of androcentrism” (Agacinski, 2001, pp. 65-66; italics added).
Such powerful words illustrate what has traditionally been the case: universality is usually gendered male; and while the Social Constructivists’ hope is that some day gender-specific assumptions will dissolve, Agacinski hints at a more meaningful and realistic approach to gender. Specifically, she connects the female body to the gendered nature of maternity. Following this lead, I think recognizing the maternal and paternal nature of women and men is the beginning of appreciating the gender differences between men and women. In so doing, we must also encourage individual differences in personality expression that are not tied to gender stereotypes.
It is my proposal that we view gender as more family oriented. If within our family we see mothers and fathers caring more about each other, less about themselves, and more about what goes on within the walls of their homes then on the television or at the office, gender will find its equilibrium. In this family, men and women will not find themselves gendering tasks, such as child-care and authority, but together will join in the strengthening of their family. Gender will be significant in that each partner will recognize the essential nature of the other—they need each other, as a woman and man, not just as a male and a female. As Agacinski stated, women and men are the “two fundamental types”… both different, but both essential. Here, in the home, is where the example of gender-equality must begin, as our society is merely a reflection of its families.