coauthored by @enbyqueen1
You may be familiar with these tales as old as time: Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. Men are stronger and physically superior, have a higher pain tolerance, and are better suited to dominate certain jobs including physical labor, leadership positions, and STEM fields. Men are rational and think logically rather than act on emotions. Women are passive, emotional, sensitive, caretakers, weaker, less sexual, and not fit for authoritative positions. Historically, men are expected to be the breadwinner and women are to take care of the home and children. The belief is that these stereotypes are rooted in a fundamental biological difference in the sexes, leading them to be more “fit” or prone to such actions, behaviors, or habits. However, “claiming that there are fixed biologically based differences between women and men are a means to justify or reinforce gender stereotypes” known as neurosexism.
Looking more in depth at this article, you can see gender/sex science originated for the purpose of making men look superior due to a biological, unchanging reason. It was thought that women’s menstruation and hormones make them ‘hysterical,’ hence the medical terminology used to describe the uterus from the Latin Greek root word “hysteria.” The origin of this word is historically sexist and targeted towards individuals who have a vagina, as it implies that the womb is defective and only women could be hysterical, causing them to be weak and unreasonable. Sigmund Freud used this word frequently in his work in the late 1800s. He addressed the traumatic roots of hysteria brought on by sexual abuse and extended hysteria diagnosis to include men. The term hysteria has since been excluded from modern psychology, but not officially until 1980.
Focusing so heavily on the science of gender difference is contributing to anti-feminist agendas, as well as transphobia and racism. Those who invested in differentiating the categories between men and women were seeking to maintain men’s status and women’s inferiority by justifying their discrimination through science. Gender essentialism, “the widely discredited and outdated idea that men and women act differently and have different options in life because of intrinsic or essential differences between the sexes” hurts all women, non-binary/gender non-conforming folks, and even men, in the sense that it’s limiting how men and women perceive what they should be or what they’re “made for”. Gender essentialism may fuel unfairness based on the belief that women are inherently not as capable as men. Alok Vaid-Menon, a gender non-conforming activist, writer, and artist, emphasizes through their research the biological differences within the category “women” is a larger margin than the differences and variations between categories men and women—disproving any theory derived from gender essentialism.
Many differences in gender result from societal conditioning. There are multiple theories about how this comes about and how stereotypes are cyclically perpetrated, however, they are often not rooted in any biological certainty. Our current process of socialization is steeped in sexism and patriarchal institutions that engrain these “biological certainties”. If we look more closely, the structures that enforce gender roles may be reproducing them, rather than something that is already innate. Check out Judith Butlers’ theory on Gender Performativity or “Doing Gender” by Candace West and Don H. Zimmerman to learn more about the nuances of social role and expectancy role value theories.
In my Psychology of Women and Gender class, we learn about the ‘File Drawer problem’, an issue in Psychological studies that hides the scientific fact of sex/gender similarity even within a biological framework. If a research study doesn’t conclude noticeable differences between sex/gender than it is mostly considered not-significant, meaning it will not be published. All of the studies (which there are many) that indicate more similarities between men and women than differences are left behind, leading to a bias in the field. If you look up studies that include men and women differences, the options are endless. Influenced by bias in science, media and modern day culture love to highlight what is different, luckily, with feminist psychologists increasing, new developments of science and research (although never fully objective) has shed light on the falsehoods in past gender research. Emily Quinn, an intersex activist demonstrates this eloquently in her Ted-talk, highlighting the myth of sex/gender binaries and the erasure of identities outside of it.
“Ideas of gender, sex, race, and citizenship are constantly being redefined. When it comes to gender and sex, definitions are constantly drawn as a means to exclude us. They used to define sex as what was reflected on an individuals birth certificate. Once that was changeable, they made the definition our genitalia. Once we could change those, the definition switched to chromosomes. Now that there is increasing evidence that chromosomes do not always necessarily align with sex, they are suggesting genetic testing. This is not about science—this is about targeted prejudice.”Alok Vaid-Menon, Beyond the Gender Binary
The point of this blog is not to completely derail differences between something we may perceive as very real, but to understand that by boiling sex and gender down to biology, it completely misses the truth of our complex nature. The factors that all contribute to creating sex/gender constructs do not dismiss anyones identity, but expand what these categories mean. You can be a proud woman and stand in solidarity with other women while recognizing the continuum on which womanhood may fall is much larger than you have learned to know it as. I argue that seeing sex/gender in this way is liberating to all— we are not meant to live in boxes— we thrive off of imagination, a key reason for human’s evolution.
For similar content, check out these ShoutOut posts…