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Gender oppression is defined as oppression associated with the gender norms, relations, and stratification of a given society. Modern norms of gender in western societies consist of the dichotomous, mutually exclusive categories of masculinity and femininity. Developing in tandem with industrial capitalism and the nation-state, they had particular consequences for women and men. While masculinity was to consist of rationality, autonomy, activity, aggression, and competitiveness (all qualities that made men the ideal participants in the emerging public sphere of economy and polity), femininity was defined in contrast as emotionality, dependency, passivity and nurturance – all qualities that deemed women’s place” in the private sphere. These naturalized views of gender categories were embedded in burgeoning disciplines such as biology and sociology. However, not only were they premised on a dichotomous conception of sex and gender, they were also premised on heterosexuality, middle-class status, and European ethnic origin. As such, the gender oppression embedded therein is associated not only with the category with less power in the binary (femininity), but also with subjects that somehow deviate from either category.
Mainstream sociology initially ignored gender as well as gender oppression, marginalizing feminist sociologists in the early years. The subsequent period of structural functionalism excused and even supported dichotomous gender norms and their oppression, arguing that gender roles and identities served some functions in society. Sociological recognition and theorization of gender oppression thus required the denaturalization of the concept of gender itself within the discipline. A first step occurred in the 1970s, with debates regarding the extent to which differences between the sexes” were biological. While this exchange enabled a limited discussion of gender oppression, the next set of debates allowed a greater role for the social” – moving from sex differences to sex roles and socialization
Studies of gender relations in societies around the world have demonstrated that almost everywhere in the modern era, though in culturally specific ways, femininity is associated with a domestic sphere while masculinity is associated with a public sphere. At the macro level, dichotomous and naturalized views of gender are evident in the gendering of economic, political, and other institutions, where especially elite men dominate every major institution in most societies around the world. Ultimately, this gendering shapes the experiences of different groups of women globally and is expressed in higher levels of poverty; lower levels of formal political power; trivialization and sexual objectification in media; gender-specific health issues such as eating disorders, greater risk of AIDS, inadequate food/health care, and ongoing challenges to reproductive autonomy; greater levels of fear; and greater risk of interpersonal violence, to name a few.
Presently, the sociological approach to gender is even more socialized,” and gender is now recognized as a thoroughly social entity as well as a central organizing principle in all social systems, including work, politics, family, science, etc. As such, understanding of its complexity and scope has increased as well. Hence, a central area of interest in recent years has been the intersection of gender with other dimensions of experience and oppression, including race, class, culture, sex, and sexuality. Otherwise stated, while the above perspective elaborated the gender oppression of those who fit” the dichotomous gender categories of masculinity and femininity, this lens is particularly useful for understanding the gender oppression of those who do not or cannot fit” these categories. For example, the static and mutually exclusive norms of sex and gender that emerged in modernity denied the existence or personhood of the inter-sexed and the transgendered. Premised on hetero-sexuality, they denied the personhood of gays, lesbians, and bisexuals. Further premised on a masculine public sphere, working-class women who necessarily transgressed this space have also been made deviant. Moreover, these norms are fundamentally racialized in that they emerged in the context of the conflict-ridden contact between different peoples from the sixteenth century onwards. As European travelers in this period especially encountered racial and cultural others,” with their varying gender practices, European gender norms became a symbol of civilization, the deviation from which became a sign of racial and cultural inferiority. In this fashion, gender became a central vehicle for constructing racial and cultural hierarchy.
- Ferree, M. M., Lorber, J., & Hess, B. B. (eds.) (2000) Revisioning Gender. Altamira Press, Oxford.
- Peterson, V. S. & Runyan, A. (1999) Global Gender Issues. Westview Press, Oxford.