THE SOCIAL ROLES OF MEN AND WOMEN
In all societies the obvious biological difference between men and women is used as a justification for forcing them into different social roles which limit and shape their attitudes and behavior. That is to say, no society is content with the natural difference of sex, but each insists on adding to it a cultural difference of gender. The simple physical facts therefore always become associated with complex psychological qualities. It is not enough for a man to be male; he also has to appear masculine. A woman, in addition to being female, must also be feminine.
However, once the contrast between men and women has been increased and accentuated in ...view middle of the document...
However, once they have been developed, they justify and cement it. The masculine and feminine gender roles mutually reinforce each other and thereby perpetuate the inequality on which they are based.
Obviously, this psychological mechanism can operate only as long as the behavior of men and women does not transgress the generally accepted limits. Every society tries therefore to prevent such transgressions by calling the socially defined gender roles "natural", eternal, and unchangeable. Any person who refuses to accept them is persecuted as a deviant and punished as an offender not only against society, but against "nature" itself. An historical example of such deviance is the case of Joan of Arc who, as a young girl, not only led the French army to victory over the English, but also wore male clothing. In her later trial she was promptly accused of having thus violated the laws of nature.
Over the centuries, many people have, of course, wondered why allegedly "natural" roles should need such rigorous social enforcement. After all, if they were truly natural, they would "come naturally" to both men and women. However, it is noteworthy that the advocates of the so-called natural inequality of the sexes resent nothing more than letting "nature" take its course. Yet, if their arguments were true, there would be no need to deny women equal opportunities, since they would be unable to compete with men. If women were "naturally" inferior, men would have nothing to fear. Therefore, the fact that many men do fear such competition raises sufficient doubt as to the validity of their claim.
The truth is that human desires and capacities have a tendency to go beyond the narrow limits of our traditional gender roles. Indeed, it takes a constant combined effort by all social authorities to keep this tendency under control. Such social control appears not only externally, in the form of parental guidance, peer-group pressure, and law enforcement, but also internally in the form of concepts and values which determine the self-image of every individual, and it is in the individual mind where the confusion of sex and gender can create the most serious problems.
For instance, men and women who feel that they do not fit the masculine and feminine stereotypes, or who resent them as too restrictive, may also develop ambiguous feelings about their biological sex. They may begin to wish for different bodies which would allow them to play a role more to their liking. Or, to take another example, since men have been told that women are socially and sexually passive, they are usually gravely disturbed by encountering a woman who is socially aggressive and who takes the initiative in sexual intercourse. Confronted with this "lack of femininity" in a woman, a man may feel tempted to dispute her womanhood. If this contention does not hold up in face of the evidence, he may instead begin to doubt his own masculinity and become sexually dysfunctional....