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

                     Civilized

                  Human/Culture

       Primitive

      Non-human/Nature

 

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 no