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  In its everyday usage, gender (from old French gendre, derived from Latin genus, ‘[biological] type’) refers to the distinction between females and males according to anatomical sex. Women and men are assumed to be distinct biological entities. But anthropologists, feminists and sociologists use the term in a completely different way. They focus on cultural variations in the construction of gender, looking at concepts of the body, ideas of sexuality, procreation and reproduction, and the way gender roles are conditioned by society. In these terms, gender does not refer to the biological and physical differences between the sexes, but to to socially constructed notions of femininity and masculinity. Even despite this work, the old notion that biology defines sexuality (which in turn defines gender roles) still surfaces from time to time, for example in the idea (common among male thinkers) that the female personality is determined by anatomy and by women\'s reproductive function, or the idea (common among female thinkers) that the male sex hormone testosterone is associated with a male propensity to violence.

The discrediting of biological theories has led to many studies of how gender differences develop. Gender socialization begins the day a child is born, and continues as a learned strategy of adaptation or repression, depending entirely on the way each person sees herself and himself (and others) in relation to changing (or unchanging) circumstances. In early anthropological studies of gender roles, a major (though at first unrealized) problem was that research was carried out by men, and that they often relied exclusively on the explanations given by men about social systems. To redress the balance, an ‘anthropology of women’ set out to elicit what were called women\'s ‘muted models’. The problem, however, lay deeper, in presuppositions (by people of both sexes) that certain roles and behaviour were ‘natural’ for women or for men. Feminism opened the debate in anthropology about whether women could be considered universally subordinated and if so, whether their subordination was due to their biological nature or was the product (as Engels suggested in the mid-19th century) of specific social institutions linked to the way labour was divided. Leaving aside gender politics, exactly similar questions can be asked about men.

At this stage in human history, it is almost impossible to untangle the knot of cultural conditioning, motivations and politics which underlie the assignment and acceptance of roles in society. Cutting the knot is, as many feminists claim, perhaps the only way forward. Anthropologists, by contrast, see the problems as not political but scientific, concerned with the nature and interpretation of evidence. To give just one example: studies of gender roles in different societies show that they are not always asymmetrical, but are often seen as complementary within the society and—furthermore, that they are not always predicated on biological difference. This evidence undermines notions of the universal subordination of women, and indeed of the existence of a universal category of ‘women’ which can be assumed to be the same in all societies.

The range of socially constructed gender roles is diverse, often based on occupation rather than social activity. In industrialized societies women are under-represented in positions of power and influence; their average wage is considerably below that of men; they take a disproportionate share of responsibility for domestic work and childcare. In agricultural societies the situation is often entirely different. Some societies even create ‘in-between’ categories, or ‘third genders’. The eunuchs of India, for example, who are frequently invited to bring spiritual blessings at the birth of a baby, are often not perceived in terms of gender at all. Such categories challenge the idea of a universal opposition between female and male. In sum, the evidence suggests diversity rather than universality; the only thing it seems to do for sure is dissolve categories based on notions of a ‘natural’, biological gender essence.

Feminist theorists bypass or dismiss all such matters, as irrelevant to the main issue. They argue that the imposition of gender ideology is particularly oppressive to females, because the characteristics linked with femininity are usually negative and passive. Feminists argue that women\'s oppression is a result of men\'s categorization of women as an inferior class. Some see femininity as a wound inflicted upon women. For Shulamith Firestone, for example, the battlefield of gender is not just about partriarchy but also about reproduction. Other feminists have celebrated women\'s gender difference and taken the nonaggression of femininity as a political position.

French feminist thought is strongly concerned with language. Hélène Cixous, for example, has shown how language itself is built on a structure of oppositions that assign the negative to femininity: sun/moon, activity/passivity. French feminists use the term écriture féminine to describe women\'s writing that emphasized the body and tries to break free of the oppositional structure of language, through plurality and fluidity. Although the term describes women\'s writing, it is not a biological definition but is used as a metaphor to describe that which lies outside the dominant ‘phallocentric’ discourse and does not depend upon the presence of a female body.

Many contemporary feminists use psychoanalytical theory to help identify the construction of gender difference in the process of infant development. Nancy Chodorow, for example, rejects the Freudian notion that gender roles are assigned through the Oedipus complex and stresses the role of mothering in the formation of gender differences. She argues that, given female parenting, girls internalize the caring role and boys reject the aspects of caring and empathy. Other feminists point out that some gender theories do not adequately explain femininity in men and masculinity in women. Contemporary lesbian theorists ask the question: if we are genderized into femininity and heterosexuality then how do we account for ‘femme’ lesbians, heterosexual ‘butch’ women and bisexuals? Clearly, theories of gender are still problematic and a vital area of enquiry. DA TK CL KMcL

See also culture; division of labour; evolutionism; field work; kinship; norms; primitivism; ritual; role; social conflict; social construction of reality; socialization; sociobiology; social stratification; sociology of knowledge; typifications.Further reading Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity; , P. Caplan (ed.), The Cultural Construction of Sexuality; , C. MacCormack and , M. Strathern (eds.), Nature, Culture and Gender; , A. Oakley, Sex, Gender and Society; , S. Weitz, Sex Roles; Biological, Psychological and Social Foundations.



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