From Believing Is seeing: Biology as Ideology
Judith Lorber is an internationally renowned scholar and one of the most widely read gender theorists writing today. She is a professor emerita of sociology and women’s studies at Brooklyn College and the Graduate School, City University of New York. Her acclaimed book Gender Inequality: Feminist Theories and Politics is currently in its fourth edition (2009). This essay is reprinted from a 1992 lecture, and in it, she explains an idea central to her research: that the behaviors we think of as “natural” to men and women, and that often make men and women seem like opposites to each other, are actually cultural inventions. Lorber, along with other sociologists of gender, argues that most of the ideas we hold about men’s and women’s “oppositional” attributes are not traceable to biological differences but are the result of a social need to justify divisions of labor and activity. Further, she notes that this division of assumptions about men and women most often favors traits perceived to be masculine over those perceived to be feminine. In this essay, she uses examples from sports and technology and what she calls the “bathroom problem” (think about where the lines are longest!) to help us reconsider our assumptions about gender.
In all her writing, Lorber is interested in helping her readers see with fresh eyes the many small cultural activities we engage in every day that reproduce these oppositional gender categories so that they come to seem natural. She argues, “It is the taken-for-grandness of such everyday gendered behavior that gives credence to the belief that the widespread differences in what women and men do must come from biology” (para. 9). Here, she opens with some historical background on changing understandings of biological differences between male and female humans, noting that as those understandings changed, we can see culture stepping in to rejustify gender differences, even if they do not make sense biologically. So, for example, Lorber asks us to rethink our assumptions about who should compete against those in athletic competitions. (For some sports, weight class may be a better categorization method than sex parts, for example.) She also helps us revisit any assumptions we might have about who might be “naturally” better at technology, offering historical examples that reveal why certain gender myths are launched at particular moments in history, to open or close doors of opportunity to particular groups.
As you read, pay attention to places where Lorber anticipates skeptical readers, as in paragraph 12, where she clarifies: “I am not saying that physical differences between male and female bodies don’t exist, but that these differences are socially meaningless until social practices transform them
into social facts.” Lorber’s point is that gender assumptions are so central to our understanding of what is “normal” that it can be confusing—even downright frightening — to reimagine the world without these limiting stereotypes in our heads. In particular, if the male body is still the universal standard, as she argues (para. 14), what might the world look like if we free ourselves from the assumption that masculine standards are best? A world of possibility might open up for both men and women to imagine ourselves as humans, instead of lumping ourselves into limiting categories of “men” and “women.” Lorber’s examples offer ways to think about what such a future could look like for all of us.
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