Gender Overview

In 1949 the famous French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir declared, “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” Beauvoir saw humanity and especially women as being constrained by the cultural values and attitudes being attributed to the biological “sex” one is born with.  Refuting the popular Freudian mantra, “Anatomy is destiny,” Beauvoir decided to make a distinction between the fixity of ones anatomical sex and the more fluid concept of “gender,” which can be understood as a set of socially constructed behaviors, actions and roles attributed to both women and men. 

In a patriarchal society, the socially constructed category of “man” is set in a binary opposition to that of “woman.” According to Beauvoir, patriarchal societies oppress women because men are viewed as originating and “superior” subjects, whereas women are considered, “the Other,” or “inferior” objects.  In this scenario, men and women and their gendered masculine and feminine traits are diametrically opposed as seen below:


    Man/Masculinity                                     Woman/Femininity
The Self/Subject The Other/Object
                 The Mind/Reason        The Body/Emotion
                   Master/Owner        Slave/Commodity
                    Production        Reproduction






The rigid binary structure of gender relations such as those shown above has been challenged in recent years by philosophers like Judith Butler who maintains gender identity as an ongoing process, one that we are constantly “performing,” categories that are never fixed or inherently “natural.” Never the less, there is a long history whereby women have been situated in opposition to men and have been viewed (in patriarchal societies) as closer to nature, the body and the non-human animal “Other” due to her ability to reproduce and give birth.  Historically women have been denied the full freedoms and rights associated with personhood, partly based upon their assumed likeness to animals.  Historian Keith Thomas notes that diverse groups of people such as “infants, youth, the poor, blacks, Irish, insane people and women have been considered beastlike” and that:

“Once (they were) perceived as beasts, people were liable to be treated accordingly. The ethic of human domination removed animals from the sphere of human concern. But it also legitimized the ill-treatment of those humans who were in a supposedly animal condition.”

In other words, the marginalization, discrimination, and ill-treatment of human-animals has been exaggerated by the marginalization, discrimination, and ill-treatment of non-human animals who have acted as a foundation that condones further forms of human oppression. It is with these ideas in mind that we will begin to explore the artifacts and images contained within this section of our exhibit.

We will be looking at literature and artifacts from the early 1900s through today with an eye towards how hens and roosters have been feminized and masculinized in popular culture. We’ll see how gendered portrayals have acted to naturalize the exploitation of both women and chickens, and reinforce normative gender roles. Then click on the video below to listen to Carol Adams author of The Sexual Politics of Meat explore these issues further.





Interview with Carol J. Adams

Feminist and animal rights author Carol J. Adams has written extensively on the intersecting oppressions of women and of non-human animals.  She is best known for her book and slideshow presentation The Sexual Politics of Meat.  In this video, Carol discusses the ways our society sexualizes and marginalizes women and chickens.

Comparisons between women and chickens abound in popular culture. Language helps to shape these associations. Linguist Alleen Pace Nielsan notes, “a young girl is called a chick. When she gets old enough she marries and soon begins feeling cooped up. To relieve the boredom she goes to hen parties and cackles with her friends. Eventually she has her brood, begins to henpeck her husband, and finally turns into an old biddy.” Though these terms are generally used in a derogatory manner that objectifies both women and hens by reducing them to their use value, the artists in this section elucidate news ways of imagining women/chicken hybridity and fellow feeling.

[1] Adams, Carol J, and Josephine Donovan. Animals and Women: Feminist Theoretical Explorations. Durham: Duke University Press, 1995. Print.