SEX AND GENDER
Earlier in this book, when discussing the development of human sexual behavior, we have distinguished between a person's
• physical sex (the male or female characteristics of the body),
• gender role (the social role as male or female), and
• sexual orientation (the preference for male or female sexual partners).
At the same time, we have also explained that the term "physical sex" refers to people's maleness or femaleness, that "gender role" refers to their masculinity or femininity, and that "sexual orientation" refers to their heterosexuality or homosexuality. In the present context, we will concentrate on the first two of these concepts as they apply to women. (For a detailed discussion of all three concepts see the introduction to "The Development of Sexual Behavior.")
In our initial discussion we have found that physical sex and gender role are not always in perfect agreement: A person can very well be male and feminine or female and masculine. Furthermore, we have seen that both physical sex and gender role are matters of degree: people are male or female to the degree that they meet certain physical criteria; people are masculine or feminine to the degree that their character and behavior fit certain cultural sterotypes. In determining people's physical sex, i.e., their maleness or femaleness, we examine their bodies; in determining people's gender role, i.e., their masculinity or femininity, we examine their attitudes and the way they express them.
Once we have understood the basic difference between the two concepts of physical sex and gender role, we have taken the first step towards understanding the complexity of being a man or a woman. However, this first step is by no means enough. If we really want to get a grip on the subject, we have to introduce still another distinction: that between "gender role" and "gender identity".
So far, we have defined "gender role" rather loosely as the male or female social role, i.e., as the way in which people show their masculinity or femininity. Now we have to admit that this is an oversimplification, because one can look at any social role from at least two different points of view: Role players can be judged according to how they appear to others and how they appear to themselves. After all, people can perform with or without conviction; they can identify or not identify with their roles.
This is also true of gender roles. For example, children with male bodies are expected to play the masculine role, and most often they will readily do so. However, it is entirely possible that, in some cases, this role playing remains a half-hearted, superficial performance and that, in spite of outward appearances, a male child secretly identifies with the feminine role. Indeed, in the long run this feminine self-identification may prove so strong that both the masculine behavior and the physical male characteristics are gladly abandoned in a so-called sex change. It may then become obvious that, from the beginning, the "boy" would have been better brought up as a girl. (See "Transsexualism".) Fortunately, such cases are rare, but they prove that the ultimate criterion for people's gender is neither their physical condition, nor their overt behavior, but only their self-identification. Therefore, when we talk about "gender", we should distinguish between two different aspects:
• gender role (the social role as male or female), and
• gender identity (the self-identification as male or female).
In most individuals, of course, gender role and gender identity coincide. Thus, for example, most women not only play a feminine role, but truly make it their own. They not only develop and display feminine qualities, but also consider them to be genuine expressions of their "real selves". Many of them may, of course, experience their femininity as crippling and confining, and they may try to broaden its definition, but that does not mean that they do not accept it in principle. They do identify with their roles and only want to see them expanded. Women with genuine gender identity problems are rare. Therefore, when we talk about social issues as they affect women in general, we can usually neglect the correlation between role and identity and simply concentrate on the broader concepts of sex and gender.
As we have seen, "sex" is a biological term, "gender" a psychological and cultural one. Sex is the basis on which gender is built. When babies are born, their sex is quickly determined by a look at their external sex organs, and immediately thereafter the development of their gender begins. At first, the assignment of gender may be demonstrated by nothing more than a male or female first name and a blue or pink blanket. However, soon different parental approaches, caresses, punishments, games, toys, clothes, hairstyles, books, furniture, jewelery, etc. begin to increase the gender differences between boys and girls. Relatives, friends, playmates, babysitters, nurses, and teachers then show that they take these differences for granted and, through their own example, reinforce them whenever they can. Thus, within the first few years of life, children learn not only to identify themselves as male or female, but also to adopt the "proper" masculine or feminine behavior. In short, well before human beings can exercise any rational choice or control in the matter, their gender (i.e. both gender identity and gender role) is "matched" to their sex and becomes permanently established. (For details see "The Development of Sexual Behavior, Infancy and Childhood.")
In theory, the difference between the two genders, need not create any problems and could even be a source of delight, but, as more and more people are beginning to realize, unfortunately in practice it is very often a reflection of injustice and inequality. Most societies, including our own, give females a lower status than males and have less respect for feminine than masculine qualities. Thus, for women, their gender becomes a mark of inferiority. Men, on the other hand, accurately perceive their masculinity as the guarantee of their dominant position. This means that gender also relates to the question of social power and powerlessness. Indeed, in the final analysis it reveals itself as essentially a political issue.
The modern feminist movement has, therefore, fong emphasized the political education of women and their participation in public affairs. It has also fought to obtain the vote for women together with other political and legal rights, thereby hoping to change the prevailing power balance between the sexes. Moreover, feminists have also long argued that, once equal rights have been won, men and women will appear to be equal in many other ways. Certain sex differences will, of course, always remain, but the present gender differences may well become much less pronounced and important (indeed, it would be interesting to see whether any of them would be left at all.
HISTORICAL EXAMPLES OF CROSS-DRESSING
The ancient Greek poet Homer reports that the great hero Achilles was brought up as a girl and wore female clothes until he joined the war against Troy. In addition to this and other legendary figures, however, we also know many historical personalities who wore the clothes of the opposite sex. Such examples of cross-dressing range from the pagan Roman emperor Heliogabalus (3rd century) to the Christian Abbe de Choisy (17th century) and from the peasant girl Joan of Arc (15th century) to Queen Christina of Sweden (17th century). It should not be assumed that all of these men and women had the same motivation for their behavior. It would certainly be an oversimplification to describe them summarily as "transvestites". Actually, some of them were probably transsexuals, and others simply enjoyed shocking their contemporaries or adopted their mode of dress for other, non-sexual reasons. Some also turned to cross-dressing only temporarily and then completely abandoned it.
(Above left) Edward Hyde, Lord Cornbury Colonial Governor of New York and New Jersey, Biologically male, he enjoyed wearing female clothing and even appeared in public dressed as a woman. The official portrait shown here testifies to his lack of embarrassment and to the tolerance of his contemporaries.
(Above right) George Sand (Lucille Aurore Dupin) 19th-century French writer. Biologically female, she adopted a man's name and mode of dress. For a while she enjoyed the resulting notoriety and freedom, but eventually resumed a more conventional lifestyle.
(Below) The Chevalier d'Eon 18th-century French diplomat and renowned swordfighter. His biological sex was male, but during his long career he switched back and forth several times between masculine and feminine gender roles, living sometimes as a man (left), at other times as a woman (right). However, he continued to display his fencing prowess in both gender roles.
The basic biological facts are undisputed: Only women can bear and nurse children, and, on the average, men are bigger, stronger, and faster than women. Adult male bodies also contain a higher amount of androgen than adult female bodies. However, people are never content with observing these simple facts; they always jump to conclusions about their psychological meaning. Thus, in our society, the feminine character stands for passivity, submission, weakness, impulsiveness, and sentimentality, while the masculine character represents activity, aggression, strength, self-control, and rationality. Therefore, men are considered better at fighting, moving heavy equipment, lifting weights, solving technical problems, and abstract thinking; women are said to excel in raising and educating children, working with small, intricate tools, decorating, and communicating. These are all highly questionable generalizations, but even if we accept them as true, we have to realize that, at the present time, it is virtually impossible to say whether they reflect biological inheritance or social conditioning. In fact, males and females are treated differently from birth, and as long as this discrimination continues, their "unadulterated" character will remain a matter of conjecture.
At any rate, in the meantime anthropologists have found and described some societies where the masculine and feminine roles were nearly the reverse of our own, i.e., where women appeared as aggressive providers and men as docile homemakers. (See, for example, Margaret Mead's study Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies .) Furthermore, it has been observed that in many "underdeveloped" countries women function as water bearers and are expected to carry heavy burdens over long distances. Many of them also till the soil or catch fish under the "supervision" of men who reserve the easier tasks for themselves.
Ironically, it is not at all unusual for men to let their wives and daughters do all the hard work while claiming at the same time that women are the "weaker sex". Power relationships do not have to make logical sense, and they do not come to an end merely because they do not stand up to reason. After all, in ancient Rome wealthy citizens entrusted the education of their offspring to slaves whom they despised as inferiors, and in more recent times European absolute monarchs used men of "low birth" to help govern their countries and to demonstrate the superiority of aristocratic rule. From a strictly logical point of view it is difficult to justify the specifics of any gender role division or to explain its widespread acceptance. One can only register the fact that the division exists, and that it often implies the denigration and subjection of women.
Male privilege and female subjection, in turn, distort both the masculine and feminine characters. Many men develop a fanatical, anxious pride in their masculinity which colors and restricts nearly all of their actions. This unhealthy attitude, which to others appears both menacing and ridiculous, is perhaps best described with the Spanish word machismo (from macho: male). Women, on the other hand, have to live up to an unrealistic ideal of "pure womanhood" which robs them of all initiative and exposes them to the injustice of a sexual double standard.