Gender and gender differences are sometimes seen to be derived from differences in biological sex and thought of as ‘natural’. Indeed in everyday usage, the terms ‘gender’ and ‘sex’ are frequently used interchangeably. However, gender refers to the ideological and material relations which exist between men and women. The terms ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ do not describe natural characteristics, but are gender terms. In all societies and in all cultures there are certain emotional and psychological characteristics which are held to be essentially ‘male’ or ‘female’. Similarly, while sex and gender do not coincide naturally, individuals who are born as biological males or females are usually expected to develop ‘masculine’ or ’feminine’ character traits and behave in ways appropriate to their gender.
In the 1920s and the 1930s social scientists, regarded gender as personal attribute and the study of gender was largely confined to the study of character traits and sex role. According to them, sex roles was developed as a way of describing the social functions fulfilled by and seemingly appropriate to men and women. Social scientists generally speaking supported the common sense view that men and women had particular characteristics which made them well suited to the performance of social roles and believed that they were closely connected.
In the 1960s feminist argued that sex roles were assigned by society. They argued that male-identified roles were frequently seen to be more important and deserving of greater social rewards than female-identified roles. Therefore, the status accorded to men and women within societies was unequal. Feminists pointed out that rather than reflecting the personality traits of men and women, ideas about gender were used to justify unequal treatment and thus provided an important ideological justification for a specific form of social inequality. Historically, the idea that women possessed certain gender traits, for example that they were more passive, emotional and sensitive than men, and that men, by contrast, were aggressive, objective and logical, had been used to justify female subordination.
Feminists condemned the subordinate status assigned to women and argued that theories which explained women’s particular status in terms of either their natural or essential characteristics were ideological, serving to legitimize an unjust social order which valued men more highly than women. However, feminist believed that the subordinate social position of women was rooted in socially assigned sex roles. By the 1970s, feminist had become aware that the route to sexual equality and women’s liberation lay in challenging conventional sex roles was no easy matter. Sex roles were deeply entrenched. The ascription of gender involved a highly complex system of stereotyping which was in turn supported by a whole range of social institutions and practices. Women and men were not only created by society but conformity to the characteristics held to be specifically masculine and feminine was rigidly enforced. Individuals found themselves under a great deal of social pressure to conform to gender-stereotypical behavior.
By this stage, feminists had more interest in power relations. Feminist analysis was increasingly directed towards the ways in which biological differences became strongly linked to socially construct masculine and feminine traits, and how these were used to justify unequal relations between men and women. Gender came to be viewed as a socially constructed inequality between men and women. As its simplest from this analysis pictured women and men as social blocs linked by direct power relations and led to the notion that women as a group shared a common interest in challenging the prevailing gender order.
Some feminists argued that gender roles followed rather than preceded a hierarchical division of labor between the sexes and transformed previously existing anatomical differences into different relevant for social practices. Gender came to be understood in social and political terms as a relationship which had meaning within social practices which structured and supported social institutions. This view of gender shifted feminist thinking away from a preoccupation with sex roles, to a concern with how gender was constituted by the structure of various social institutions and practices which tied gender into intricate patterns of domination.
In the 1970s and 1980s radical feminists argued that gender should be seen as a collective phenomenon and not just an aspect of personal identity or personal relations. They directed their attentions to the social dynamics which underpinned the creation and maintenance of sex gender system. That is, system which institutionalized male control over women. Indeed, they argued that the state itself had to be seen as a patriarchal power. The state was not an entity with an independent existence, but was a dynamic entity which was constantly being made and remade. It was constituted by the very practices and processes it engaged in and patriarchy –male dominance- was embedded in the procedures and practices of the state.
In contemporary social sciences, gender is frequently seen in terms of interweaving of personal life and social structures. These approaches avoid the pitfalls of voluntarism –the idea that people exercise free choice over their actions- and various form of determinism –the suggestion that human behavior is wholly conditioned by constraints- and allow gender to be seen in historical context, rather than as a historical structure which arises out of the sexual dichotomy of the male and female body.
A number of feminist thinkers have found the usefulness of Foucault’s work in explaining aspect of women’s oppression in ways which suggested that sexuality was the effect of historically specific power relations. They seen gender as the discursive of the cultural means by which ‘natural sex’ is produced and establish as pre-discursive or prior culture. In this view, to sustain patriarchal power on the large scale requires the construction of a hyper-masculine ideal of toughness, dominance, and images of physical beauty of women. Thus the male or female body does not confer masculinity or femininity on the individual; it takes on meaning through social practices. This process has a power dimension in that meanings in the bodily sense of masculinity concern, the superiority of men than women, and the exaltation of hegemonic masculinity over other groups of men which is essential to the dominance of women.
However, what is clear from this discussion is that gender is not synonymous with sex and is social rather than natural constructed, despite there is a widespread agreement that gender is best understood in terms of power. As a woman, I dream that this male domination world will come to the end soon, whereas the people, especially men, will recognize and regard us as the similar “political entity” as them. That women’s rights are should be recognized, be fulfilled, and be best protected. Whereas talking about gender equity is not more important nor is struggling for that unnecessary. Addressing the issue of gender equity means more on dealing with how advocacy should be able to answer the question that rose at the level of shaping the meaning of invisible power , since gender is more as cultural norms which is really a social constructed in terms of power. It could be done by doing empowerment strategies that target the social and political culture as well as individual consciousness to transform the way people perceive themselves and those around them.
The advocacy at this level will shape the psychological and ideological boundaries of participation. Significant problems and issues are not only kept from the decisionmaking’ table, but also from the minds and consciousness of the different players involved, even those directly affected by the problem. It will also shape people’s beliefs, sense of self, and acceptance of their own superiority and inferiority.
Note: This was a reflection paper on WEDPRO’s Round Table Discussion on Feminist Movement: A Lesson Learned of How Advocacy should be Addressed at the Level of Shaping the Meaning of Invisible Power. I had the opportunity to involve in some advocacy activities with different NGOs in the Philippines during SEACA-IPD Advocacy Strategy and Techniques Development Internship, back in 2005, from March 15 to May 10.