Feminist theory and arguments in its origin encounter a simple question: what constitutes a woman? Even today, people are still defining what it means to be a woman, though the definition has already been years in the making. In 1949, Simone de Beauvoir wrote The Second Sex, arguing that woman was defined as an apophatic construct to man; everything a man was a woman was the opposite. And more recently in 2016, Sally Haslanger’s Social Construction: Gender and other Social Categories unravels what it means for something to be socially constructed and what that means for gender. Haslanger explains how gender is socially constructed, and how that does not negate the realness of gender and its effect on people. Defining gender and understanding how it came to be is integral in understanding feminism.
Sexist oppression is different than other manifestations of oppression in that women are not a minority. Women make up around half of the population, and this is where it was hard to prove that discrimination on the basis of gender was even real. Defining womanhood is one of the very first steps to understanding the argument of feminist as sexist oppression. Cognizance of how gender and sex are constructed in our society gives insight into how inequality has been formed in the gender binary for women and other non-binary conforming people.
Gender “marks social differences between individuals or about the location of groups within a system of social relations” according to Sally Haslanger’s Social Construction: Gender and other Social Categories. Gender is a function of one’s role in a social framework or identification with someone who typically occupies said “gender role”, which will differ depending on a person’s race, class, ethnicity and more. Haslanger’s definition of gender is apt; it creates space for different cultural interpretation of women and also references the concept of how “woman” has come to be defined historically. One of the most fascinating points that Haslanger makes is how gender is a social construct, but that in itself does not invalidate feelings and sentiments of the individual about gender.
The most interesting question that Haslanger brings up, in my opinion, is how the flaws in the binary sex/gender system should be amended. Should we expand our view of sex/gender to encompass more than one category? Or should we simply expunge any classification based on sex/gender? I feel like in our society today, we have begun to create a space that non-binary genders exist and are respected. Maybe this is because doing away with gender seems to hard an endeavor to successfully accomplish. The use of pronouns is an important part of our language (and many others). I also believe our social construction of gender is rooted so deep, it is hard for many to comprehend the damages that the social construct of gender has had on people. The construct is limiting and detrimental to the freedom that we hope to provide our posterity.
Simone de Beauvoir focuses on the otherness that has historically defined womanhood in her Introduction to The Second Sex. In understanding how a woman is constructed opposite men, Beauvoir demonstrates how the dynamics of power are interlaced in our very understanding of men and women as a binary. She discusses how men “profit… from the otherness” of women. This understanding of how sexism originates from the very construction of gender ties directly into how bell hooks
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