Feminism and Gender Research Paper

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In The Second Sex (first published in 1949), the French feminist Simone de Beauvoir led the way in distinguishing biological anatomy and chemistry from socialized gendered expectations: “One is not born but rather becomes a woman” (de Beauvoir 1953, p. 249). For de Beauvoir, being a female did not constitute being a woman. Rather, one’s biological makeup is subscribed with a social-cultural shaping of one’s gendered characteristics; for women this is the development of appropriate feminine behaviors. Though the term is highly contested and laden with political implications, at its most basic level gender is used to describe socially constructed characteristics of masculinity and femininity, whereas sex is used to describe one’s biological makeup (chromosomes, hormones, and reproductive/ sexual anatomy).

The Second-Wave Feminist Movement

The distinction between sex and gender was an essential element for many issues addressed during the secondwave feminist movement (1960–1995). Though immensely diverse, many feminist schools of thought did agree that characteristics associated with femininity in the United States created norms and roles that oppressed women by limiting their access to public space and economic opportunities. Discussions of gender during the second-wave feminist movement often attempted to overturn what the scholar Harold Garfinkel described as the “natural attitude” towards gender (1967, p. 122)—the common belief that the gender dichotomy is a natural distinction between the two sexes. This assumption, according to activists, perpetuated inequality for women. In understanding the creation of the natural attitude, many feminists turned to the structure of the family and women’s connection to childbearing. Woman’s biological ability to give birth, combined with industrial changes, had led to social expectations of woman as nurturer, domestic caretaker, and other roles traditionally associated with the private sphere. Dichotomously, man’s inability to give birth and his larger physical makeup had led to social expectations to fulfill the role of protector, provider, and roles traditionally associated with the public sphere.

For feminists, these gendered characteristics, complicated by an array of other factors, had perpetuated a division of labor that empowered men and disempowered women. Men’s more active and dominant roles created an unequal relationship between the sexes that gave rise to an oppressive ideology both within the home and, more broadly, within institutionalized sexism. Overall, the most prominent goal of the second-wave feminist movement was to bring about a sense of gender equality. Concerns such as motherhood, beauty regimes, and domestic upkeep were seen as essential components of a public discussion about expectations of femininity that focused on issues of equal access to the workplace, equal pay for equal work, and an overall attempt to allow women to have control over their lives and their bodies. Theories on how to deal with this hierarchal division of labor were vastly varied. For example, Marxist feminists saw the capitalistic economic structure as inherently patriarchal. Thus, attempts at more equal power relations between men and women were reliant upon a restructuring of the economic system. Conversely, more conservative feminists, who constituted the liberal feminist school of thought, looked more closely at ways to reform the current system to allow for more women within the public sphere. These various feminist schools reflect the differences in conceptualization and approach to the concept of gender. Some feminists worked relentlessly to prove that both men and women could be rational, active members of public space, challenging the preconceived notion that masculine gendered characteristics are inherent to men. Others fought to revalorize qualities of femininity, attempting to recognize the power of women’s roles as well as the usefulness of feminine approaches in public space. What united many of the perspectives was a desire to engage in a larger public discussion about issues of masculinity and femininity and how they influence the daily lives of women and men.

Gender and Elitism: Whose “Personal is Political”?

Since the beginning of the second-wave movement, the meaning of the term gender has been disputed. Despite some public understanding of the second wave’s fight for gender equality for women, the movement was fractured, with discontentment from many sides. For example, although Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963) was commended for its attack on women’s limited role as domestic caretaker, her analysis was criticized for its elitism. Although Friedan called attention to the oppression rooted in gendered expectations and roles, her white, heterosexual, middle-class perspectives were specific to a single group of women. Such criticisms called into question the stability of the category woman. Do all women share a similar experience? Questions of race, class, and sexual orientation brought forth recognition that gender expectations and gender identity were not the same for all women, nor were they the same for all men.

Though cross-cultural comparisons were used to draw attention to the socialization of gender roles and expectations, many second-wave feminists still failed to recognize the cultural differences within their own communities. As gender expectations and what it means to be a woman were debated, critics began to question the assumption that all women shared the same experiences. In her 1981 book Ain’t I a Woman, the literary scholar bell hooks discussed the racism that circulated and continues to circulate in feminist literature. She identified the struggle for black women to find a space of visibility within a movement embedded in racism. Her analysis, and those of other critics, draws attention to both the racial and economic advantage embedded in the positions of many noted feminists of the second wave. Theorizing about “women” when in actuality only discussing the experiences of white women exemplified this privileged perspective. Core issues such as beauty and domestic expectations were far removed from racially oppressed women whose economic and social positions typically demanded out-ofhome labor. As hooks pointed out, the racism within the women’s movement coupled with the sexism in the civil rights movement left little to no space for a public debate about the experiences and oppression of black women.

Compounding the criticisms of racial and economic privilege were the objections voiced by members of the lesbian feminist school of thought, who pointed out the homophobia inherent in the women’s movement. The notion of a shared sisterhood of all women provoked anger from those women who felt their experiences differed and their perspectives were silenced. Often, core discussions of gender focused on social expectations of men and women as they function in heterosexual relationships. Lesbian feminists pointed out the institutionalization of heterosexuality and the unwillingness of many heterosexual feminists to challenge this unequal power dynamic.

Overall, there was a sense from critics that discussions of power within the second-wave feminist movement were oversimplified. Many feminists failed to recognize that they could be both oppressed and oppressor, thus ignoring the intersections of race, class, and sexual orientation in a society that privileges white, male, middle- or upperclass status, and heterosexuality.

Complicating and Destabilizing Gender

As gender became a more common topic of discussion in both academic institutions and activist forums, its unstable and complex nature was a frequent part of debate. Attempting to move past the charges of elitism and oversimplification, scholars such as Joan Scott defended the usefulness of gender as an analytic category. Scott maintained that gender is not constant, but rather constantly shifting and changing as it operates in multiple fields (1986). She argued that discussions and studies utilizing gender as an analytic category must be carefully understood based on context and history. Her analysis defended its usefulness while simultaneously complicating the power dynamics that intersect with gender construction.

Similarly, the gender scholar Judith Butler significantly contributed to the complication of a theoretical understanding of gender. Her Gender Trouble (1990) is foundational in pointing out the intricate connection between gender and sexuality. Butler drew attention to the policing of heterosexuality through gender norms, arguing that a core component of the current gender system, which calls women to be highly feminine and men to be highly masculine, is as much about upholding heterosexuality as it is about policing public space. Additionally, Butler is noted for her theory of gender performativity, which holds that gender is maintained through performative acts that naturalize and create an appearance of an internal essence. Her position can be understood as an extreme social constructionist stand that sees both sexuality and gender as constitutive of our practices, policies, language, and overall daily norms.

Both Scott and Butler echo the reflective position taken by many gender scholars in the last decades of the twentieth century. The desire to complicate gender and illuminate its instability is found in works that addressed the realization that gender cannot be equated with woman. Masculinity studies became much more common, and indeed expected when addressing issues of gender, and gender literature and courses more frequently recognized the gendered nature of every individual. Most gender literature focused on femininity and oppression; however, a look towards masculinity revealed the limiting role placed upon many men who are primarily defined by success in the public realm. Expectations of aggression, detachment, and control are problematic for both men and women. The antisexist male activist Jackson Katz has since 1993 created high school and college-based educational programs, which include videos and lectures that focus on the construction of masculinity in the United States and the violence inherent in many male-gendered norms. The aim is to liberate not only women but also men from limited roles and expectations; recognizing that all individuals are gendered allows for a more complete understanding of how the patriarchal system is maintained. Privy to earlier criticisms, scholars studying masculinity are acutely aware of the vast differences in norms and expectations across racial and class divides.

Many gender scholars have called for an understanding of gender that moves beyond basic binary discussions of masculinity and femininity to a greater understanding of transgendered issues and the fluidity of gendered identities. The twenty-first century has brought more frequent discussions and practices that illustrate at least a partial public understanding of “gender bending.” Public populations are often not familiar with the work of Butler who calls for disruptions of gender expectations. However, cross dressing, transexuality, and overall gendered norm violations are infiltrated in media and other mainstream elements of United States culture. Thus, the public is both exposed and often partially aware of transgendered or gender bending practices. Overall, gender has come to be understood as unstable, allowing for resistance, reinforcement, or recreation of gender identity and expectations in a multitude of ways.

For women who identify with the third wave of feminism, this unstable and complex view of gender is central. Though there still is dispute over whether or not a new wave has indeed emerged, many young women active in gender discussions claim a third wave of feminism whose focus is on creating a solidarity that recognizes difference. In its discussion of difference, coalitions, and popular culture, this third wave, thought to have begun in the mid1990s, both veered away from and built upon the second-wave movement. Although “third wavers” are as diverse in their positions as the feminists who preceded them, there is a general sense that the movement needs to be privy to difference and to build coalitions with other activist movements, because many gendered issues entail struggle against racism, homophobia, class privilege, and imperialism simultaneously. Additionally, although earlier movements criticized popular culture and many of the feminine-gendered expectations, some third wavers distinguish their understanding of gender by claiming power in their sexuality and femininity, seeking ways to co-opt patriarchal ideologies for their own empowerment. This is exemplified in debates over wearing high heels and makeup and embracing one’s feminine sexuality. Some third wavers argue that the pop star Madonna does not represent female oppression, but rather sexual agency. This position strays from the second wave’s desire to free women (typically and critically, mostly white women) from such beauty expectations.

Globalizing Gender

Twenty-first-century feminism is as diversified as ever, but earlier charges of elitism, both national and international, have produced feminist schools of thought that seek to better understand gendered issues on a global scale. Many postcolonial feminist scholars seek ways to create a feminist solidarity that addresses global concerns while recognizing racial, economic, regional, national, and religious differences. A leader in academic discussions about transnational gender issues is feminist postcolonial theorist Chandra Talpade Mohanty. In Feminism without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity (2003) she provides a summary of her feminist position, which argues for economic stability worldwide for all individuals. Her vision is antiracist and anticapitalist and seeks to create democratic participation through a more complex and reflective solidarity.

Also illustrating a global commitment to gender equity are the many transnational feminist networks such as the Women’s Environment and Development Organization, which “advocates for women’s equality in global policy. It seeks to empower women as decision makers to achieve economic, social, and gender justice, a healthy, peaceful planet, and human rights for all” (2004). This desire to address issues of gender globally comes with a great deal of cultural reflexivity and international collaboration. Global scholars and transnational feminist networks seek to acknowledge and manage issues of difference that arise in multicultural coalitions. Despite these challenges, twentyfirst-century gender scholars and activists find it increasingly difficult to ignore globalization and the fact that worldwide gender inequity involves a multiplicity of economic, environmental, ethnic, and many other postcolonial factors.

Although gender research has followed numerous threads, the intellectual compass seems to be pointing toward a focus on global issues. This recent direction is frequently freighted with a complicated theory of power and difference that requires a highly reflective researcher who can represent such issues without colonizing the voices of those they study. Despite shifts in the focus of gender research, the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have proven the importance and longevity of gender as an essential topic of political and social discussion.


  1. Beauvoir, Simone de. [1949] 1953. The Second Sex. Trans. H. M. Parshley. New York: Knopf.
  2. Butler, Judith. 1990. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge.
  3. Connell, Robert W. 2002. Gender. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers.
  4. Friedan, Betty. 1963. The Feminine Mystique. New York: Dell.
  5. Garfinkel, Harold. 1967. Studies in Ethnomethodology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
  6. hooks, bell. 1981. Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism. Boston: South End Press.
  7. Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. 2003. Feminism without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
  8. Scott, Joan W. 1986. Gender: A Useful Category for Historical Analysis. American Historical Review 91 (December): 1053–1075.
  9. Tong, Rosemarie. 1998. Feminist Thought. 2nd ed. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
  10. Whelehan, Imelda. 1995. Modern Feminist Thought: From the Second Wave to “Post-Feminism”. New York: New York University Press.
  11. Women’s Environment and Development Organization. https://wedo.org/.
  12. Wood, Julia T. 2005. Gendered Lives: Communication, Gender, and Culture. 6th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.


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