How different are women and men?
It used to be thought that a woman is a woman because of her ovaries alone. As we shall see later, there are many individuals with ovaries who are not women in the strict sense of the word and many with testes who are really feminine in many other respects. (Bell cited in Oudshoorn, 1994: 37)
This quotation may come as a surprise if you have always thought about the biological differences between women and men as clear and beyond question. Bell wrote this in 1916 in a scientific study about what came to be known as sex hormones. The quotation shows the emerging scientific awareness that sex differences were less straightforward than conventionally imagined. Indeed it is one illustration of the fact that how we understand differences between women and men changes historically. This is one indication for sociologists that those differences are not simply ‘natural’. In order to question the naturalness of differences between women and men terminology became important. Initially the term sex described the anatomical and other physical differences. Later, as we will see in Chapter 3, sociologists of the 1970s adapted the term gender to be able to discuss femininity and masculinity as socially produced ways of acting.
To question the ‘natural’ basis of sex differences is to take part in a wider debate about whether human beings are a product of biological processes or of the social environment. This is known as the nature/ nurture debate. Most people agree that both the natural and the social shape us as individuals but some suggest that the natural is more important while others, including most sociologists, argue that social factors are most influential in making us who we are. A sociological approach sets out to examine how differences between women and men are socially constructed; that is, how those differences are made and shaped by the social environment.