Study Notes

Feminism: Sex and Gender

AQA, Edexcel

Last updated 6 Nov 2018

The distinction between sex and gender is a highly pertinent one when seeking an understanding of feminist ideology.

"Sex" reflects biological differences between men and women whereas "gender" refers to cultural and social distinctions. A consideration of the biological and cultural dimension casts light upon a major point of departure within feminist ideology. Whereas all feminists seek the emancipation of women from the shackles of a patriarchal society, there is considerable disagreement as to the proper means to secure that change.

Certain feminists emphasise the cultural dimension because they see that as the most appropriate means by which to enable women to benefit from empowerment. For them, the main source of female oppression is via the social construct of femininity because “women are not born, they are made” (Simone de Beauvoir). A fundamental change in our conception of gender is essential in order that women escape the confines of patriarchy and journey towards a more fulfilling life.

Essentialists however emphasise biological differences as they see it as more appropriate to the goals of the women’s movement. They believe that women should rejoice in that which makes them biologically different to men (such as giving birth and the ability to breastfeed). These biological abilities are superior to anything a man could ever do. Either way, there is an underlying assumption that women are biologically superior. On this basis, the psychologist Carol Gilligan claims that women adopt a fundamentally different and superior moral psychology to their male counterparts. Under patriarchy, women are under pressure to achieve an unrealistic goal that means suppression of the true self.

Another leading exponent of the essentialist argument is Mary Daly. She claims that women should be proud of the biological differences between women and men (namely motherhood). Rather than adopting an androgynous ideal advocated by socialist and equality feminists, women should seek a woman-only culture untainted by a patriarchal construction of femininity; thereby enabling women to express their “lusty selves”. Post-modern feminists also seek to facilitate women’s voyage of self-discovery, thereby allowing a level of separation from male-imposed identities (i.e. how the marital status of a woman is always a part of their formal identification). Rather than pursue gender equality, women must adopt a degree of separateness to experience true liberation from male oppression.

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