From Believing Is Seeing: Biology as Ideology

i need in this Article to do Rhetorical Analysis


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-grantedness 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

torejustify 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 whom 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

Judith Lorber

Lorber    From Believing Is See ing 727

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.

Until the eighteenth century, Western philosophers and scientists

thought that there was one sex and that women’s internal genitalia

were the inverse of men’s external genitalia: the womb and vagina were

the penis and scrotum turned inside out (Laqueur 1990). Current Western

thinking sees women and men as so different physically as to sometimes

seem two species. The bodies, which have been mapped inside and out for

hundreds of years, have not changed. What has changed are the justifications

for gender inequality. When the social position of all human beings

was believed to be set by natural law or was considered God-given, biology

was irrelevant; women and men of different classes all had their assigned

places. When scientists began to question the divine basis of social order

and replaced faith with empirical knowledge, what they saw was that

women were very different from men in that they had wombs and menstruated.

Such anatomical differences destined them for an entirely different

social life from men.

In actuality, the basic bodily material is the same for females and

males, and except for procreative hormones and organs, female and male

human beings have similar bodies (Naftolin and Butz 1981). Furthermore,

as has been known since the middle of the nineteenth century, male and

female genitalia develop from the same fetal tissue, and so infants can be

born with ambiguous genitalia (Money and Ehrhardt 1972). When they

are, biology is used quite arbitrarily in sex assignment. Suzanne Kessler

(1990) interviewed six medical specialists in pediatric intersexuality

and found that whether an infant with XY chromosomes and anomalous

genitalia was categorized as a boy or a girl depended on the size of the

penis — if a penis was very small, the child was categorized as a girl, and

sex-change surgery was used to make an artificial vagina. In the late nineteenth

century, the presence or absence of ovaries was the determining

criterion of gender assignment for hermaphrodites because a woman who

could not procreate was not a complete woman (Kessler 1990, 20).

Yet in Western societies, we see two discrete sexes and two distinguishable

genders because our society is built on two classes or people,

“women” and “men.” Once the gender category is given, the attributes of





728 CHAPTER 16 Biology

the person are also gendered: Whatever a “woman” is has to be “female”;

whatever a “man” is has to be “male.” Analyzing the social processes that

construct the categories we call “female and male,” “woman and men,” and

“homosexual and heterosexual” uncovers the ideology and power differentials

congealed in these categories (Foucault 1978). This article will . . .

show how myriad physiological differences are transformed into similarappearing,

gendered social bodies. My perspective goes beyond accepted

feminist views that gender is a cultural overlay that modifies physiological

sex differences. That perspective assumes either that there are two fairly

similar sexes distorted by social practices into two genders with purposefully

different characteristics or that there are two sexes whose essential

differences are rendered unequal by social practices. I am arguing that

bodies differ in many ways physiologically, but they are completely transformed

by social practices to fit into the salient categories of a society, the

most pervasive of which are “female” and “male” and “women” and “men.”

Neither sex nor gender [is a] pure [category]. Combinations of incongruous

genes, genitalia, and hormonal input are ignored in sex categorization,

just as combinations of incongruous physiology, identity, sexuality,

appearance, and behavior are ignored in the social construction of gender

statuses. Menstruation, lactation, and gestation do not demarcate

women from men. Only some women are pregnant and then only some

of the time; some women do not have a uterus or ovaries. Some women

have stopped menstruating temporarily, others have reached menopause,

and some have had hysterectomies. Some women breastfeed some of the

time, but some men lactate (Jaggar 1983, 165fn). Menstruation, lactation,

and gestation are individual experiences of womanhood (Levesque-

Lopman 1988), but not determinants of the social category “woman,” or

even “female.” Similarly, “men are not always sperm-producers, and in

fact, not all sperm-producers are men. A male-to-female transsexual, prior

to surgery, can be socially a woman, though still potentially (or actually)

capable of spermatogenesis” (Kessler and McKenna [1978] 1985, 2).

When gender assignment is contested in sports, where the categories

of competitors are rigidly divided into women and men, chromosomes are

now used to determine in which category the athlete is to compete. However,

an anomaly common enough to be found in several women at every

major international sports competition are XY chromosomes that have

not produced male anatomy or physiology because of a genetic defect.

Because these women are women in every way significant for sports competition,

the prestigious International Amateur Athletic Federation has

urged that sex be determined by simple genital inspection (Kolata 1992).

Transsexuals would pass this test, but it took a lawsuit for Renée Richards,

a male-to-female transsexual, to be able to play tournament tennis as a

woman, despite his male sex choromosomes (Richards 1983). Oddly, neither

basis for gender categorization — chromosomes nor genitalia — has

anything to do with sports prowess (Birrell and Cole 1990).




In the Olympics, in cases of chromosomal ambiguity, women must

undergo “a battery of gynecological and physical exams to see if she is

‘female enough’ to compete. Men are not tested” (Carlson 1991, 26). The

purpose is not to categorize women and men accurately, but to make sure

men don’t enter women’s competitions, where, it is felt, they will have the

advantage of size and strength. This practice sounds fair only because it is

assumed that all men are similar in size and strength and different from all

women. Yet in Olympics boxing and wrestling matches, men are matched

within weight classes. Some women might similarly successfully compete

with some men in many sports. Women did not run in marathons until

about twenty years ago. In twenty years of marathon competition, women

have reduced their finish times by more than one-and-one half hours; they

are expected to run as fast as men in that race by 1998 and might catch up

with men’s running times in races of other lengths within the next 50 years

because they are increasing their fastest speeds more rapidly than are men

(Fausto-Sterling 1985, 213–18).

The reliance on only two sex and gender categories in the biological

and social sciences is as epistemologically spurious as the reliance on

chromosomal or genital test to group athletes. Most research designs do

not investigate whether physical skills or physical abilities are really more

or less common in women and men (Epstein 1988). They start out with

two social categories (“women,” “men”), assume they are biologically different

(“female,” “male”), look for similarities among them and differences

between them, and attribute what they have found for the social categories

to sex differences (Gelman, Collman, and Maccoby 1986). These designs

rarely question the categorization of their subjects into two and only two

groups, even though they often find more significant within-group differences

than between-group differences (Hyde 1990). The social construction

perspective on sex and gender suggests that instead of starting with

the two presumed dichotomies in each category — female, male; woman,

man — it might be more useful in gender studies to group patterns of

behavior and only then look for identifying markers of the people likely to

enact such behaviors. . . .

Dirty Little Secrets

. . . Technology constructs gendered skills. Meta-analysis of studies of gender

differences in spatial and mathematical ability have found that men

have a large advantage in ability to mentally rotate an image, a moderate

advantage in a visual perception of horizontality and vertically and in mathematical

performance, and a small advantage in ability to pick a figure out

of a field (Hyde 1990). It could be argued that these advantages explain why,

within the short space of time that computers have become ubiquitous

in offices, schools, and homes, work on them and with them has become




Lorber    From Believing Is See ing

730 CHAPTER 16 Biology

gendered: Men create, program, and market computers, make war and

produce science and art with them; women microwire them in computer

factories and enter data in computerized offices; boys play games, socialize,

and commit crimes with computers; girls are rarely seen in computer

clubs, camps, and classrooms. But women were hired as computer programmers

in the 1940s because

the work seemed to resemble simple clerical tasks. In fact, however, programming

demanded complex skills in abstract logic, mathermatics, electrical circuitry,

and machinery, all of which . . . women used to perform in their work.

Once programming was recognized as “intellectually demanding,” it became

attractive to men. (Donato 1990, 170)

A woman mathematician and pioneer in data processing, Grace M. Hopper,

was famous for her work on programming language (Perry and Greber

1990, 86). By the 1960s, programming was split into more and less

skilled specialties, and the entry of women into the computer field in the

1970s and 1980s was confined to the lower-paid specialties. At each stage,

employers invoked women’s and men’s purportedly natural capabilities for

the jobs for which they were hired (Cockburn 1983, 1985; Donato 1990;

Hartmann 1987; Hartmann, Kraut, and Tilly 1986; Kramer and Lehman

1990; Wright et al. 1987; Zimmerman 1983).

It is the taken-for-grantedness 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. To take one ordinarily unremarked

scenario: In modern societies, if a man and woman who are a

couple are in a car together, he is much more likely to take the wheel than she

is, even if she is the more competent driver. Molly Haskell calls this takenfor-

granted phenomenon “the dirty little secret of marriage: the husbandlousy-

driver syndrome” (1989, 26). Men drive cars whether they are good

drivers or not because men and machines are a “natural” combination

(Scharff 1991). But the ability to drive gives one mobility; it is form of

social power.

In the early days of the automobile, feminist co-opted the symbolism

of mobility as emancipation: “Donning goggles and dusters, wielding tire

irons and tool kits, taking the wheel, they announced their intention to

move beyond the bounds of women’s place” (Scharff 1991, 68). Driving

enabled them to campaign for women’s suffrage in parts of the United

States not served by public transportation, and they effectively used

motorcades and speaking from cars as campaign tactics (Scharff 1991,

67–88). Sandra Gilbert also notes that during World War I, women’s ability

to drive was physically, mentally, and even sensually liberating:

For nurses and ambulance drivers, women doctors and women messengers,

the phenomenon of modern battle was very different from that experienced by

entrenched combatants. Finally given a change to take the wheel, these post-

Victorian girls raced motorcars along foreign rods like adventurers exploring

new lands, while their brothers dug deeper into the mud of France. . . .




Retrieving the wounded and the dead from deadly positions, these oncedecorous

daughters had at last been allowed to prove their valor, and they

swooped over the wastelands of the war with the energetic love of Wagnerian

Valkyries, their mobility alone transporting countless immobilized heroes to

safe havens. (1983, 438–39)

Not incidentally, women in the United States and England got the vote for

their war efforts in World War I.

Social Bodies and the Bathroom Problem

People of the same racial ethnic group and social class are roughly the

same size and shape — but there are many varieties of bodies. People have

different genitalia, different secondary sex characteristics, different contributions

to procreation, different orgasmic experiences, different patterns

of illness and aging. Each of us experiences our bodies differently, and

these experiences change as we grow, age, sicken, and die. The bodies of

pregnant and nonpregnant women, short and tall people, those with intact

and functioning limbs and those whose bodies are physically challenged

are all different. But the salient categories of a society group these attributes

in ways that ride roughshod over individual experiences and more

meaningful clusters of people.

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. West Point Military Academy’s

curriculum is designed to produce leaders, and physical competence

is used as a significant measure of leadership ability (Yoder 1989). When

women were accepted as West Point cadets, it became clear that the tests

of physical competence, such as rapidly scaling an eight-foot wall, had

been constructed for male physiques — pulling oneself up and over using

upper-body strength. Rather than devise tests of physical competence

for women, West Point provided boosters that mostly women used — but

that lost them test points — in the case of the wall, a platform. Finally, the

women themselves figured out how to use their bodies successfully. Janice

Yoder describes this situation:

I was observing this obstacle one day, when a woman approached the wall in

the old prescribed way, got her fingertips grip, and did an unusual thing: she

walked her dangling legs up the wall until she was in a position where both

her hands and feet were atop the wall. She then simply pulled up her sagging

bottom and went over. She solved the problem by capitalizing on one of women’s

physical assets: lower-body strength. (1989, 530)

In short, if West Point is going to measure leadership capability by physical

strength, women’s pelvises will do just as well as men’s shoulders.

The social transformation of female and male physiology into a condition

of inequality is well illustrated by the bathroom problem. Most




Lorber    From Believing Is See ing

732 CHAPTER 16 Biology

buildings that have gender-segregated bathrooms have an equal number

for women and for men. Where there are crowds, there are always long

lines in front of women’s bathrooms but rarely in front of men’s bathrooms.

The cultural, physiological, and demographic combinations of

clothing, frequency of urination, menstruation, and child care add up to

generally greater bathroom use by women than men. Thus, although an

equal number of bathrooms seems fair, equity would mean more women’s

bathrooms or allowing women to use men’s bathrooms for a certain

amount of time (Molotch 1988).

The bathroom problem is the outcome of the way gendered bodies are

differentially evaluated in Western cultures: Men’s social bodies are the

measure of what is “human.” Gray’s Anatomy, in use for 100 years, well

into the twentieth century, presented the human body as male. The female

body was shown only where it differed from the male (Laqueur 1990, 166–

67). Denise Riley says that if we envisage women’s bodies, men’s bodies,

and human bodies “as a triangle of identifications, then it is rarely an equilateral

triangle in which both sexes are pitched at matching distances from

the apex of the human” (1988, 197). Catharine MacKinnon also contends

that in Western society, universal “humanness” is male because

virtually every quality that distinguishes men from women is already affirmatively

compensated in this society. Men’s physiology defines most sports, their

needs define auto and health insurance coverage, their socially defined biographies

define workplace expectations and successful career patterns, their

perspectives and concerns define quality in scholarship, their experiences and

obsessions define merit, their objectification of life defines art, their military

service defines citizenship, their presence defines family, their inability to get

along with each other — their wars and rulerships — define history, their image

defines god, and their genitals define sex. For each of their differences from

women, what amounts to an affirmative action plan is in effect, otherwise

known as the structure and values of American society. (1987, 36)

The Paradox of Human Nature

Gendered people do not emerge from physiology or hormones but from

the exigencies of the social order, mostly, from the need for a reliable division

of the work of food production and the social (not physical) reproduction

of new members. The moral imperatives of religion and cultural

representations reinforce the boundary lines among genders and ensure

that what is demanded, what is permitted, and what is tabooed for the

people in each gender is well-known and followed by most. Political

power, control of scarce resources, and, if necessary, violence uphold the

gendered social order in the face of resistance and rebellion. Most people,

however, voluntarily go along with their society’s prescriptions for those of

their gender status because the norms and expectations get built into their




sense of worth and identity as a certain kind of human being and because

they believe their society’s way is the natural way. These beliefs emerge

from the imagery that pervades the way we think, the way we see and hear

and speak, the way we fantasize, and the way we feel. There is no core

or bedrock human nature below these endlessly looping processes of the

social production of sex and gender, self and other, identity and psyche,

each of which is a “complex cultural construction” (Butler 1990, 36). The

paradox of “human nature” is that it is always a manifestation of cultural

meanings, social relationships, and power politics — “not biology, but culture,

becomes destiny” (Butler 1990, 8).

Feminist inquiry has long questioned the conventional categories of

social science, but much of the current work in feminist sociology has not

gone beyond adding the universal category “women” to the universal category

“men.” Our current debates over the global assumptions of only two

categories and the insistence that they must be nuanced to include race

and class are steps in the direction I would like to see feminist research go,

but race and class are also global categories (Collins 1990; Spelman 1988).

Deconstructing sex, sexuality, and gender reveals many possible categories

embedded in the social experiences and social practices of what Dorothy

Smith calls the “everyday/everynight world” (1990, 31–57). These emergent

categories group some people together for comparison with other

people without prior assumptions about who is like whom. Categories

can be broken up and people regrouped differently into new categories for

comparison. This process of discovering categories from similarities and

differences in people’s behavior or responses can be more meaningful for

feminist research than discovering similarities and differences between

“females” and “males” or “women” and “men” because the social construction

of the conventional sex and gender categories already assumes differences

between them and similarities among them. When we rely only

on the conventional categories of sex and gender, we end up finding what

we looked for — we see what we believe, whether it is that “females” and

“males” are essentially different or that “women” and “men” are essentially

the same.


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………………….Answer Preview………………………

Judith Lorber is an internationally acclaimed professor of sociology and women studies at the Brooklyn College, the graduate school and the City University of New York (Collins, 1990).  Her book Feminist Theories and Politics tries to explain that the behaviors that come natural to both men and women and often make them two genders different are actually cultural inventions. This essay is derived from her 1992 lecture which tries to shed some light on the above subject (Donato, 1990).


 Alongside other sociologists, she claims that the opposite……………………..


953 Words

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