The history of gender
Classic sociology and other social theory contain little attention to the social differences between women and men. Marx, Weber and Durkheim are not noted for their insights into ‘sex’ inequality (the word gender was not known to them in its present usage) and in fact tended mostly to consider women’s subordinate social role as a natural ‘given’ (Sydie, 1987). Durkheim thought of modernity’s greater distinction between ‘sex roles’ as a functional, biologically based evolution resulting from the progressive forces of a shift to organic solidarity. To translate, he argued that as society became more complex, more distinct differences in body and mind emerged between women and men; they specialized in their roles and this made the division of labour more efficient and society stronger. Weber also saw women’s dependent social position as fundamentally determined by ‘the normal superiority of the physical and intellectual energies of the male’ (Weber cited in Sydie, 1987: 59). This marred an otherwise interesting analysis of traditional power as patriarchal — in the pre-feminist sense of older males exercising traditional
domination through the family (Sydie, 1987: 51—87). It seems slightly odd that these thinkers should view ‘sex roles’ as naturally determined, given that they were busy stressing how social forces affected everything else. It also seems a little odd given that Weber’s wife Marianne was a notable German feminist and Marx’s daughter Eleanor was involved in feminist politics. Nevertheless these thinkers failed to examine ‘sex’ as an important social division and this view was long dominant within sociology (Oakley, 1974). However, this does not mean that inequalities between women and men were entirely ignored. Marx recognized inequality between the sexes as a problem, albeit a problem of secondary importance to capitalist exploitation of workers. Marx’s friend and collaborator Frederick Engels did attempt a Marxist explanation of women’s subordination (see Chapter 4). There was also a tradition of women writing about women’s social position. There was Mary Wollstonecraft (1985/1792) in the eighteenth century (see Chapter 4), and Harriet Martineau, in the nineteenth century, who also produced the first book on sociological methods (see Hill and Hoecker-Drysdale, 2001). In addition the highly influential Chicago School of sociology contained at least a dozen women from its establishment in the 1890s, including the well-known sociologist Jane Addams. These women were professional sociologists actively researching and writing on a range of issues, including many relating to women’s place in society (Delamont, 1990: 139—159).Yet little or no reference is made to these women and more recent understandings of gender are often seen as beginning with Simone de Beauvoir’s (1988/1949) philosophically based treatise, The Second Sex. In her famous statement that ‘[o]ne is not born, but rather becomes, a woman’ (de Beauvoir, 1988/1949: 295), she established a core principle of most subsequent efforts to understand gender inequalities. It was not nature but society or ‘culture’ that made women (and men) what they were.
In the 1950s and early 1960s Functionalism was largely dominant within sociology and it contributed to sociological understandings of differences between women and men as socially constructed. While social construction involves structures such as class systems and institutions, the term principally refers to the processes by which ideas about how things should work are made into social reality. Before the concept of‘gender’ came into sociological usage in the 1970s, mid-century functionalists talked about ‘sex role differences’.Their argument could be summarized as claiming that sex role differences continue to exist because they function to promote social stability. Whether this was an intended (manifest) or unintended (latent) function of sex role differences did not seem to be of major interest to functionalists.
The focus of functionalist work was on understanding the ‘complementary roles’ performed by women and men as they function to keep society
running smoothly. American sociologist Talcott Parsons is the major figure within twentieth century functionalism. It is Parsons’s (see Parsons and Bales, 1956) views of women and men’s ‘complementary roles’ that are taken as the key statement of functionalist ideas about gender. Writing in the 1950s, Parsons argues that modern social life, and in particular the modern organization of work as separate from home, means that someone needs to stay home to care for young children and perform the important early socialization of human infants. For highly complex and not entirely clear reasons associated with the workings of social groups, this emotional ‘expressive’ role is assigned to women and the rational and ‘instrumental’ (goal-focused) role of paid work is associated with men. These different ‘sex roles’become the social norms and Parsons carefully describes how children become socialized into them. Therefore, Parsons’s theory is very much sociological in looking not to nature but to social groups and social processes such as socialization to explain women’s and men’s different social positions. In the 1950s and 1960s, others using his work to understand sex roles tended to ignore this sociological position and assume that the expressive/instrumental dichotomy was in some form an expression of natural differences (Connell, 2002: 123). Though Parsons may have gone beyond this, his work offered more of a description of current gender expectations than an explication of the inequalities accompanying the differing sex roles. Parsons describes the ideal American family of the 1950s and does so in a way that justifies, rather than is critical of, this very historically and culturally specific example of gender roles. Parsons implies that this is the best way of organizing family life in response to modern social conditions, but for whom is it best? Since Parsons, much sociology of the family has focused more on how the breadwinner/housewife model of family life has been restrictive for many women. For others, it has remained a luxury they cannot afford because only those families where the men earn high wages could afford for the wife to stay at home. Other alternatives to the nuclear family are similarly ignored or devalued. Although Parsons himself does not discuss other cultures in any detail, he draws on the work of fellow contributors to the book to back his claim that a nuclear-style family still seems to function well and maintain social stability within many other societies (Parsons and Bales, 1956).The fact that the content of sex roles is different in other cultures does not necessarily challenge Parsons’s overall argument that it is complementarity — the fact that one sex is assigned opposite tasks to the other — which is functional. However, as discussed in Chapters 1 and 2, anthropological research can illustrate that in some other cultures women’s and men’s roles are similar not opposite (for example both women and men may contribute to child rearing), and such an arrangement can also support stability. Parsons’s focus on the way in which the sexes complement each
other also fails to consider how and why the different roles have come to be valued differently. Functionalism does not explain why instrumental roles are more highly regarded within modern western society. The need for social stability was seen as justification of the continuance of such sex roles, and though changes in those roles were explored they were often construed as threatening that stability. The idea that ‘stability’ may not be beneficial to women constrained within traditional roles did not seem to occur to the functionalists. The importance attached to social stability prevented functionalists from developing a real analysis of how some social actors and groups might not benefit from the continuance of the sharply defined roles identified. Various feminist sociologists began systematically to examine differences between women and men as socially produced. It is from this key departure point in the 1970s that this book begins its travels.
It is hard for today’s students of gender, faced with mountains of relevant books, to imagine the paucity of decent literature about women thirty to forty years ago. Into this void the new ‘wave’ of feminists began to launch their considerations of the causes and state of inequalities between women and men (see Chapter 4 and Chapter 6). It is also often difficult to comprehend how many changes have taken place for women even since the 1960s. Equal Pay legislation has been passed, women have more control over if and when they reproduce, a university education is more than a way for middle class women to meet a husband, job opportunities have improved, and so on. But are women and men equal now?