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The Lenses of Gender

The Lenses of Gender: Transforming the Debate on Sexual Inequality

Sandra Lipsitz Bem
Copyright Date: 1993
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    The Lenses of Gender
    Book Description:

    In this book a leading theorist on sex and gender discusses how hidden assumptions embedded in our cultural discourses, social institutions, and individual psyches perpetuate male power and oppress women and sexual minorities. Sandra Lipsitz Bem argues that these assumptions, which she calls the lenses of gender, shape not only perceptions of social reality but also the more material things-like unequal pay and inadequate daycare-that constitute social reality itself. Her penetrating and articulate examination of these hidden cultural lenses enables us to lookatthem rather thanthroughthem and to better understand recent debates on gender and sexuality.According to Bem, the first lens, androcentrism (male-centeredness), defines males and male experience as a standard or norm and females and female experience as a deviation from that norm. The second lens, gender polarization, superimposes male-female differences on virtually every aspect of human experience, from modes of dress and social roles to ways of expressing emotion and sexual desire. The third lens, biological essentialism, rationalizes and legitimizes the other two lenses by treating them as the inevitable consequences of the intrinsic biological natures of women and men.After illustrating the pervasiveness of these three lenses in both historical and contemporary discourses of Western culture, Bem presents her own theory of how the individual either acquires cultural gender lenses and constructs a conventional gender identity or resists cultural lenses and constructs a gender-subversive identity. She contends that we must reframe the debate on sexual inequality so that it focuses not on the differences between men and women but on how male-centered discourses and institutions transform male-female difference into female disadvantage.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-15425-2
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-x)
    (pp. xi-xii)
    (pp. 1-5)

    Throughout the history of Western culture, three beliefs about women and men have prevailed: that they have fundamentally different psychological and sexual natures, that men are inherently the dominant or superior sex, and that both male-female difference and male dominance are natural. Until the mid-nineteenth century, this naturalness was typically conceived in religious terms, as part of God’s grand creation. Since then, it has typically been conceived in scientific terms, as part of biology’s—or evolution’s—grand creation.

    Consequently, most Americans did not see any inconsistency between commitment to equality and denial of political rights to women until the appearance...

    (pp. 6-38)

    Whether science has ever been—or can ever be—fully objective is the subject of lively debate among feminist scholars.¹ Although challenging the objectivity of all scientific inquiry is not my intent here, I do argue that the biological accounts of male-female difference and male dominance that have emerged since the mid-nineteenth century have merely used the language of science, rather than the language of religion, to rationalize and legitimize the sexual status quo.²

    My argument begins with two case studies from the nineteenth century, one concerning class and national origin, the other concerning the differences between women and men;...

    (pp. 39-79)

    In 1963, when Betty Friedan first wrote inThe Feminine Mystiqueabout “the problem that has no name” (p. 10)—that is, the problem of full-time American homemakers in their mid-thirties suddenly discovering when their last child goes off to school that they have no sense of identity apart from being either Bob’s wife or Mary’s mother and no sense of purpose or direction for the remaining four decades of their life span—she touched a sensitive nerve in millions of women who weren’t satisfied with their lives but who couldn’t yet articulate either the depth or the source of...

    (pp. 80-132)

    Even many feminists commonly assume that if androcentrism and biological essentialism were both eliminated, only sexual difference would remain. In fact, what would remain is gender polarization, the ubiquitous organization of social life around the distinction between male and female. Social life is so linked to this distinction that the all-encompassing division between masculine and feminine would still pervade virtually every aspect of human experience, including not just modes of dress and social roles but ways of expressing emotion and experiencing sexual desire

    Nor is it only social life that is dichotomously organized around the male-female distinction. Gender polarization also...

    (pp. 133-175)

    The theoretical perspectives on the social construction of gender that have dominated the social science literature for the past fifty years have emphasized socialization, situational constraint by the social structure, psychodynamic conflict, or identity construction by the individual. The first and second emphasize something that the culture does to the individual, whereas the third and fourth emphasize something that goes on within the individual’s psyche.¹ In examining these perspectives and then moving beyond them, we move from a cultural analysis of the gender lenses in society, which occupied us in the previous chapters, to a social-psychological analysis of the processes...

    (pp. 176-196)

    Since the second half of the nineteenth century, the question of biological sex difference has been the focal point of virtually all American discussions of sexual inequality. It was at issue when the first American feminists were fighting to get women the most basic rights of citizenship and again when the second major wave of feminists swept onto the scene—and has been part of the discussion ever since. The interest in sexual difference is now so integrated into American culture that it is evident in almost any collection of magazines at the local supermarket. Modern science and modern feminism...

  11. NOTES
    (pp. 197-210)
    (pp. 211-238)
  13. INDEX
    (pp. 239-244)