What is gender? (Pt2) The otherness of women and patriarchy

The word gender has never been more popular.

Yet, many people struggle to understand the concept of gender within the field of social justice. No, gender is not just about women. But yes, understanding the plight of women is essential for anyone looking to understand the concept of gender.

The “What is gender?” article series come as an attempt to demystify gender and all associated jargon for humanereflections.com readers.

In the first article of the “What is gender?” series we explored the concept of Gender Binary and the Social Construction of Gender. In this second article we will explore the theory of the “otherness of women” and patriarchy.




The thought that women are and exist in comparison to men permeates many religious and philosophical writings.

The Bible, in the Genesis, states that the creation of  Woman, from one of  Man’s bones, was fashioned by the necessity of keeping him company. Aristoteles famously states “For females are weaker & colder in nature, and we must look upon the female character as being a sort of natural deficiency” therefore characterizing women as deformed men. Confucius believed that law of nature established that women should be held under the dominance of men.

In social imagination, women are commonly categorized as being less rational, aggressive, ambitious and intelligent than men. Thus,  leading women to be more emotional, docile, dependent and subservient in comparison with men. These gender expectations carry the assumption that women have a higher ethics of care and are therefore better inclined to uphold caretaking roles within family and professional life.

Undoubtedly,  comparison is a valuable tool in remarking the particularities of an object or subject. Part of the definition of ‘that’ is actually ‘that in contrast to the other’. But, the qualities that define women must surely be more than the lack of male qualities or the opposite qualities to those of a man.  So what are women?


The otherness of women

Beauvoir’s work regarding the theory of the other seems unescapable when proposing to define what are woman. The theory of the other suggests that women are placed in a position of inferiority as they are defined as the otherness that we can extract from the subject men. “He is the Subject, he is the Absolute- she is the Other”.

 The  theory of the other, also known as the otherness of women translates the sentiment of definition by opposition. Meaning that the concept of women, as women themselves,  are only understood when juxtaposed against our understanding of men

Accepting, the notion that a woman is by force of not being man undoubtedly places men in a position of dominance relegating women to a place of submission and obedience.

In fact, the consolidation of gender norms, within most societies, entails the establishment of a power relation of men over women.  This power relation is reproduced and maintained by various societal institutions including in marriage.

 Some authors such as Stuart Mill, hold controversial and provocative views on the matter of marriage. Mill argues that the power of a man over his wife in marriage is comparable and somehow worse than the relation between a master and its slave. While a slave is only a slave in the hours he is working for his master  through the bond of marriage the woman is a slave to her husband at all hours.

Women’s entire past and affiliations, whether geographical, cultural, social, and religious are intimately intertwined with the oppressor with whom she shares the bed at night. Perhaps that is the reason, that unlike other oppressed/oppressor relations women have not rebelled against men. The history of women is intertwined with the history of men.

Beauvoir  wrote “Proletariat says WE. Negroes also… But women do not say we except at some congress of feminist or similar demonstration” So why don’t women say WE?

Well, women are not a homogenous group.

Women are not a homogenous group with factors like race, economic class, sexual orientation, cultural and educational background varying greatly amongst each other.

However, all women share the commonality of oppression by men. Likewise, men also do not share a commonality amongst the entire gender, except for the fact they hold a position of dominance upon the women of their cast. Without further commonalities women and men don’t have a “We” beyond the role they play the power dynamics.


Frontispiece and Title Page of The Compleat Housewife or Accomplish’d Gentlewoman’s Companion by Eliza Smith. 14th Edition, 1750. (First published 1727)

Patriarchy and the disenfranchisement of women

As we saw in the previous “What is gender?” article: Gender is performative.  However, there are also a variety of processes that are established to maintain the status quo of women’s disenfranchisement.

The patriarchal culture is a direct consequence of the binary gender and women’s otherness. Patriarchism encompasses and defines other phenomena such as the male model of politics and male corporate model. These processes co-exist, inter-shape and solidify each other.

The notion of patriarchy which etymologically emanates from the expression “head of the tribe” denotes the power play that is so characteristic of gender relations. The affirmation of patriarchy entails the vision of women as the nurturers, the sex objects and the help.  Men are in the first instance the entity, which must be nurtured, sexually attended and aided in its pursuits.

Patriarchy in family is evident by the disparaging comparison between women and man’s unpaid labour in the household. Women tend to assume the role of primary care giver to infants, and assume most of the domestic labour.


Household labour is often considered to be women’s primary labour, because it is the one that seems immutable to their condition. Women’s second labour, the one they perform in their places of employment, where they are underpaid in contrast to their male comrades, undoubtedly suffers from the dual burden. The vertical move in employment is also further complicated by societal expectation of women as the helpers which may be also one of the reasons why women are so often stuck in secretarial and administrative jobs.

Since societal gender expectations also entail a collective societal imagination women are relegated to the backburner causing the political and corporate fields to be men’s playground.

Traditional social expectations and imagination do not encompass the vision of women leaders; what men do in the political and corporate field herald as good and women’s way of doing as wrong, this situation creates a male model of politics and business and contributes to the marginalization of women.


What is Gender? Gender Binary & Socially Constructed Gender

The Gender Series: Pt1. What is Gender? Gender Binary & Socially Constructed Gender

The word gender has never been more popular.

Within the past few years, gender and all associated jargon, have been heavily used within the field of human rights.

Some excitedly talk about ‘gender sensitive projects’ that aim to foster ‘gender inclusion’ and ‘gender equality’ through a carefully planned ‘gender mainstreaming’ strategy.

And to further the confusion, as if the jargon wasn’t complicated enough, most of the listeners do not even fully understand the concept of gender.

Many believe gender, is a polite form of saying ‘women’ and therefore that the talk is about ‘women’s sensitive projects’ that aim to enhance women’s equality (face to men) and the inclusion of women (in whichever area that might be) through a carefully planned ‘women’s mainstreaming strategy’ (whatever the word mainstreaming means?). This belief is the biggest misunderstanding about the word gender.

So, what is gender?

Gender Binary & Socially Constructed Gender

“One is not born rather becomes a woman”

Simone de Beauvoir

The Social Construction of Gender is a popular theory within feminism.

It proposes that gender is an ever-evolving concept formulated within culture and society. In fact, gender is inseparable from culture and most cultures display a binary construction of gender. Gender binary is a system based on the separation of humans into two categories: female and male. Gender binary affirms the existence of only two genders. As such, it is exclusionary of other ways to be gendered. In the past few years, the term ‘non-binary’ has been used by those who do not subscribe to traditional gender binary. Non-binary people might identify as both genders; no gender; one gender with a non-traditional sexual orientation (homosexual, bisexual, pansexual etc…) or might simply ideologically disagree with gender binary.

Gender creates the expectation that that women should exhibit feminine features such as docility, submissiveness and emotionality. Paradoxically, it also creates the expectation that men should exhibit masculine features such as independence, aggressiveness, rationality etc…

The Social Construction of Gender theory proposes that, gender expectations do not arise from any biological differences between men and women. Rather, that gender expectations encourage men and women to behave differently. Simone De Beauvoir famously claimed in the Second Sex “One is not born but rather becomes a woman”. Beauvoir defends that women are pressured, by the burden of expectation and upbringing, to conform to their socially disenfranchised roles.

File:Sewing class Algeria (6959837641).jpg
Algeria, 1958. Sewing Class for girls age 9-13 y.o  https://www.flickr.com/photos/mennonitechurchusa-archives/6959837641/

Another relevant aspect is that, as Judith Butler (in Gender Trouble) defends, gender is performativity. Rather than merely behaving or performing as a set gender, the way we act produces effects that consolidate gender roles. The consolidation of these concepts enhances gender power disparity and the disenfranchisement of women. However, it is difficult for individuals to rebel against the gender status-quo. Sexed bodies who refuse to behave in a gendered way are reprimanded and chastised by society. These reprimands are especially harsh on transsexuals, transvestites and other non-binary people.

The theory of The Social Construction of Gender is best translated by the maxima “sexed bodies and culturally constructed gender”. This expression by Judith Butler conceptualizes gender while creating a sharp contrast with sex. It translates two main ideas:

  • Gender is a socially constructed concept that depends on NURTURE. It establishes ‘what is man?’ and ‘what is woman?’ as well as the derived notions of masculinity and femininity.
  • SEX is defined by a combination of biological traits created by NATURE. These traits result in having male or female sexual organs.

However, these initial understandings could induce us to error. It is wrong to believe that gender depends entirely on nurture and sex solely on nature. In fact, both gender and sex require nature and nurture.

Gender is not solely dependent on nurture since it is attributed to people according to their sex; which we assume is given by nature.

Therefore, when expectant parents are informed that their fetus has male genitalia and, subsequentially buy blue baby clothing and a mini football, they are reproducing and nurturing a societal expectation about the preferences and behavior of a baby boy. However, this gender expectation was only attributed onto the unsuspecting fetus based on physical characteristics created by nature.

Sexed bodies also depend on nurture because they are identified by gendered people. Therefore, expectant parents might identify the baby as male because in the gender binary all those possessing only male chromosomes and genitalia are men. Intersex people, those who display genital and chromosomal ambiguity, are a nuisance for the gender binary system. Therefore, it is common for intersex infants to undergo sex assignment surgery, which can constitute a serious human rights violation.

Hijra Protest By Arunreginald at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7591197

Although gender binary is the norm in most societies it is not the case for all. Examples of third genders are found in populations of various regions of the globe (eg. the ‘hijra’ in India; the ‘two-spirit’ people in South American tribes; ‘sworn virgins’ in the Balkans etc.). Feminist authors such as Anne Fausto-Sterling also theorized about the existence of various genders, however, there is not an agreement on the number of genders that exist.

In sum, in most societies, when a human is born, the parents or doctors will observe its physical characteristics and then categorize that human as female or male. According to this initial labelling, society creates an expectation of the newborn’s temperament and aptitude based on the newborn’s gender. The assigned gender, either female or male, will impact the societal importance that the newborn carries into the world ignoring all other ethnic, religious and socio-economic factors. As the infant grows up, society will encourage the infant to uphold its expectations. If the infant grows up to deviate from notions associated to its gender, it will be reprimanded.

Gender Binary, although common, is limiting, faulty and exclusionary.


Cited books:

Beauvoir, Simone. The Second Sex. New York: Vintage Books, 1989

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. New York-London: Routledge, 1999

If you are interested in this topic, besides the cited books I also recommend reading Feminist Political Theory by Bryson (1992). National Geographic has also produced an interesting documentary called a Gender Revolution hosted by Katie Couric which is fully available on youtube through this link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7u3YO2CJNcg.