The Social Construction of Gender

“Night to his Day”:
The Social Construction of Gender
Judith Lorber
Excerpts from: Paradoxes of Gender (Chapter 1) by Judith Lorber, ©1994 Yale University
Press. Permission was granted by Yale University Press to include this passage in Seeing
Gender. Originally published with assistance from the foundation established in the memory of
Phillip Hamilton McMillan of the Class of 1894, Yale College.
Talking about gender for most people is the equivalent of fish talking about water. Gender is so
much the routine ground of everyday activities that questioning its taken-for-granted
assumptions and presuppositions is like wondering about whether the sun will come up.1
Gender is so pervasive that in our society we assume it is bred into our genes. Most people find
it hard to believe that gender is constantly created and re-created out of human interaction, out of
social life, and is the texture and order of that social life. Yet gender, like culture, is a human
production that depends on everyone constantly “doing gender” (West and Zimmerman 1987).
And everyone “does gender” without thinking about it. Today, on the subway, I saw a
well-dressed man with a year-old child in a stroller. Yesterday, on a bus, I saw a man with a tiny
baby in a carrier on his chest. Seeing men taking care of small children in public is increasingly
common-at least in New York City. But both men were quite obviously stared at – and smiled at,
approvingly. Everyone was doing gender – the men who were changing the role of fathers and
the other passengers, who were applauding them silently. But there was more gendering going
on that probably fewer people noticed. The baby was wearing a white crocheted cap and white
clothes. You couldn’t tell if it was a boy or a girl. The child in the stroller was wearing a dark
blue T-shirt and dark print pants. As they started to leave the train, the father put a Yankee
baseball cap on the child’s head. Ah, a boy, I thought. Then I noticed the gleam of tiny earrings
in the child’s ears, and as they got off, I saw the little flowered sneakers and lace-trimmed socks.
Not a boy after all. Gender done.
Gender is such a familiar part of daily life that it usually takes a deliberate disruption of our
expectations of how women and men are supposed to act to pay attention to how it is produced.
Gender signs and signals are so ubiquitous that we usually fail to note them – unless they are
missing or ambiguous. Then we are uncomfortable until we have successfully placed the other
person in a gender status; otherwise, we feel socially dislocated. In our society, in addition to
man and woman, the status can be transvestite (a person who dresses in opposite-gender clothes)
and transsexual (a person who has had sex-change surgery). Transvestites and transsexuals
carefully construct their gender status by dressing, speaking, walking, gesturing in the ways
prescribed for women or men whichever they want to be taken for – and so does any “normal”
For the individual, gender construction starts with assignment to a sex category on the basis of
what the genitalia look like at birth.2 Then babies are dressed or adorned in a way that displays
the category because parents don’t want to be constantly asked whether their baby is a girl or a
boy. A sex category becomes a gender status through naming, dress, and the use of other gender
markers. Once a child’s gender is evident, others treat those in one gender differently from those
in the other, and the children respond to the different treatment by feeling different and behaving
differently. As soon as they can talk, they start to refer to themselves as members of their
gender. Sex doesn’t come into play again until puberty, but by that time, sexual feelings and
desires and practices have been shaped by gendered norms and expectations. Adolescent boys
and girls approach and avoid each other in an elaborately scripted and gendered mating dance.
Parenting is gendered, with different expectations for mothers and for fathers, and people of
different genders work at different kinds of jobs. The work adults do as mothers and fathers and
as low-level workers and high-level bosses, shapes women’s and men’s life experiences, and
these experiences produce different feelings, consciousness, relationships, skills – ways of being
that we call feminine or masculine.3 All of these processes constitute the social construction of
Gendered roles change – today fathers are taking care of little children, girls and boys are
wearing unisex clothing and getting the same education, women and men are working at the
same jobs. Although many traditional social groups are quite strict about maintaining gender
differences, in other social groups they seem to be blurring. Then why the one-year-old’s
earrings? Why is it still so important to mark a child as a girl or a boy, to make sure she is not
taken for a boy or he for a girl? What would happen if they were? They would, quite literally,
have changed places in their social world.
To explain why gendering is done from birth, constantly and by everyone, we have to look not
only at the way individuals experience gender but at gender as a social institution. As a social
institution, gender is one of the major ways that human beings organize their lives. Human
society depends on a predictable division of labor, a designated allocation of scarce goods,
assigned responsibility for children and others who cannot care for themselves, common values
and their systematic transmission to new members, legitimate leadership, music, art, stories,
games, and other symbolic productions. One way of choosing people for the different tasks of
society is on the basis of their talents, motivations, and competence – their demonstrated
achievements. The other way is on the basis of gender, race, ethnicity – ascribed membership in
a category of people. Although societies vary in the extent to which they use one or the other of
these ways of allocating people to work and to carry out other responsibilities, every society uses
gender and age grades. Every society classifies people as “girl and boy children,” “girls and boys
ready to be married,” and “fully adult women and men,” constructs similarities among them and
differences between them, and assigns them to different roles and responsibilities. Personality
characteristics, feelings, motivations, and ambitions flow from these different life experiences so
that the members of these different groups become different kinds of people. The process of
gendering and its outcome are legitimated by religion, law, science, and the society’s entire set of
Western society’s values legitimate gendering by claiming that it all comes from physiology –
female and male procreative differences. But gender and sex are not equivalent, and gender as a
social construction does not flow automatically from genitalia and reproductive organs, the main
physiological differences of females and males. In the construction of ascribed social statuses,
physiological differences such as sex, stage of development, color of skin, and size are crude
markers. They are not the source of the social statuses of gender, age grade, and race. Social
statuses are carefully constructed through prescribed processes of teaching, learning, emulation,
and enforcement. Whatever genes, hormones, and biological evolution contribute to human
social institutions is materially as well as qualitatively transformed by social practices. Every
social institution has a material base, but culture and social practices transform that base into
something with qualitatively different patterns and constraints. The economy is much more than
producing food and goods and distributing them to eaters and users; family and kinship are not
the equivalent of having sex and procreating; morals and religions cannot be equated with the
fears and ecstasies of the brain; language goes far beyond the sounds produced by tongue and
larynx. No one eats “money” or “credit”; the concepts of “god” and “angels” are the subjects of
theological disquisitions; not only words but objects, such as their flag, “speak” to the citizens of
a country.
Similarly, gender cannot be equated with biological and physiological differences between
human females and males. The building blocks of gender are socially constructed statuses.
Western societies have only two genders, “man” and “woman.” Some societies have three
genders-men, women, and berdaches or hijras or xaniths. Berdaches, hijras, and xaniths are
biological males who behave, dress, work, and are treated in most respects as social women; they
are therefore not men, nor are they female women; they are, in our language, “male women. “4
There are African and American Indian societies that have a gender status called manly hearted
women – biological females who work, marry, and parent as men; their social status is “female
men” (Amadiume 1987; Blackwood 1984). They do not have to behave or dress as men to have
the social responsibilities and prerogatives of husbands and fathers; what makes them men is
enough wealth to buy a wife.
Modern Western societies’ transsexuals and transvestites are the nearest equivalent of these
crossover genders, but they are not institutionalized as third genders (Bolin 1987). Transsexuals
are biological males and females who have sex-change operations to alter their genitalia. They
do so in order to bring their physical anatomy in congruence with the way they want to live and
with their own sense of gender identity. They do not become a third gender; they change
genders. Transvestites are males who live as women and females who live as men but do not
intend to have sex-change surgery. Their dress, appearance, and mannerisms fall within the
range of what is expected from members of the opposite gender, so that they “pass.” They also
change genders, sometimes temporarily, some for most of their lives. Transvestite women have
fought in wars as men soldiers as recently as the nineteenth century; some married women, and
others went back to being women and married men once the war was over.5 Some were
discovered when their wounds were treated; others not until they died. In order to work as a jazz
musician, a man’s occupation, Billy Tipton, a woman, lived most of her life as a man. She died
recently at seventy-four, leaving a wife and three adopted sons for whom she was husband and
father, and musicians with whom she had played and traveled, for whom she was “one of the
boys” (New York Times 1989).6 There have been many other such occurrences of women
passing as men to do more prestigious or lucrative men’s work (Matthaei 1982, 192-93).7
Genders, therefore, are not attached to a biological substratum. Gender boundaries are
breachable, and individual and socially organized shifts from one gender to another call attention
to “cultural, social, or aesthetic dissonances” (Garber 1992, 16). These odd or deviant or third
genders show us what we ordinarily take for granted – that people have to learn to be women and
men. Men who cross-dress for performances or for pleasure often learn from women’s
magazines how to “do” femininity convincingly (Garber 1992, 41-51). Because transvestism is
direct evidence of how gender is constructed, Marjorie Garber claims it has “extraordinary
power… to disrupt, expose, and challenge, putting in question the very notion of the ‘original’ and
of stable identity” (1992, 16) …
For Individuals, Gender Means Sameness
Although the possible combinations of genitalia, body shapes, clothing, mannerisms, sexuality,
and roles could produce infinite varieties in human beings, the social institution of gender
depends on the production and maintenance of a limited number of gender statuses and of
making the members of these statuses similar to each other. Individuals are born sexed but not
gendered, and they have to be taught to be masculine or feminine.8 As Simone de Beauvoir said:
“One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman…; it is civilization as a whole that produces this
creature… which is described as feminine” (1952, 267) ….
Many cultures go beyond clothing, gestures, and demeanor in gendering children. They inscribe
gender directly into bodies. In traditional Chinese society, mothers once bound their daughters’
feet into three-inch stumps to enhance their sexual attractiveness. Jewish fathers circumcise their
infant sons to show their covenant with God. Women in African societies remove the clitoris of
prepubescent girls, scrape their labia, and make the lips grow together to preserve their chastity
and ensure their marriageability. In Western societies, women augment their breast size with
silicone and reconstruct their faces with cosmetic surgery to conform to cultural ideals of
feminine beauty. Hanna Papanek (1990) notes that these practices reinforce the sense of
superiority or inferiority in the adults who carry them out as well as in the children on whom
they are done: The genitals of Jewish fathers and sons are physical and psychological evidence
of their common dominant religious and familial status; the genitals of African mothers and
daughters are physical and psychological evidence of their joint subordination.9
Sandra Bern (1981, 1983) argues that because gender is a powerful “schema” that orders the
cognitive world, one must wage a constant, active battle for a child not to fall into typical
gendered attitudes and behavior. In 1972, Ms. Magazine published Lois Gould’s fantasy of how
to raise a child free of gender-typing. The experiment calls for hiding the child’s anatomy from
all eyes except the parents’ and treating the child as neither a girl nor a boy. The child, called X,
gets to do all the things boys and girls do. The experiment is so successful that all the children in
X’s class at school want to look and behave like X. At the end of the story, the creators of the
experiment are asked what will happen when X grows up. The scientists’ answer is that by then
it will be quite clear what X is, implying that its hormones will kick in and it will be revealed as
a female or male. That ambiguous, and somewhat contradictory, ending lets Gould off the hook;
neither she nor we have any idea what someone brought up in a totally androgynous manner
would be like sexually or socially as an adult. The hormonal input will not create gender or
sexuality but will only establish secondary sex characteristics; breasts, beards, and menstruation
alone do not produce social manhood or womanhood. Indeed, it is at puberty, when sex
characteristics become evident, that most societies put pubescent children through their most
important rites of passage, the rituals that officially mark them as fully gendered – that is, ready
to marry and become adults.
Most parents create a gendered world for their newborn by naming, birth announcements, and
dress. Children’s relationships with same-gendered and different-gendered caretakers structure
their self-identifications and personalities. Through cognitive development, children extract and
apply to their own actions the appropriate behavior for those who belong in their own gender, as
well as race, religion, ethnic group, and social class, rejecting what is not appropriate. If their
social categories are highly valued, they value themselves highly; if their social categories are of
low status, they lose self-esteem (Chodorow 1974). Many feminist parents who want to raise
androgynous children soon lose their children to the pull of gendered norms (Gordon 1990,
87-90). My son attended a carefully nonsexist elementary school, which didn’t even have girls’
and boys’ bathrooms. When he was seven or eight years old, I attended a class play about
“squares” and “circles” and their need for each other and noticed that all the girl squares and
circles wore makeup, but none of the boy squares and circles did. I asked the teacher about it
after the play, and she said, “Bobby said he was not going to wear makeup, and he is a powerful
child, so none of the boys would either.” In a long discussion about conformity, my son
confronted me with the question of who the conformists were, the boys who followed their
leader or the girls who listened to the woman teacher. In actuality, they both were, because they
both followed same-gender leaders and acted in gender-appropriate ways. (Actors may wear
makeup, but real boys don’t.)
For human beings there is no essential femaleness or maleness, femininity or masculinity,
womanhood or manhood, but once gender is ascribed, the social order constructs and holds
individuals to strongly gendered norms and expectations. Individuals may vary on many of the
components of gender and may shift genders temporarily or permanently, but they must fit into
the limited number of gender statuses their society recognizes. In the process, they re-create
their society’s version of women and men: “If we do gender appropriately, we simultaneously
sustain, reproduce, and render legitimate the institutional arrangements …. If we fail to do gender
appropriately, we as individuals – not the institutional arrangements – may be called to account
(for our character, motives, and predispositions)” (West and Zimmerman 1987, 146).
The gendered practices of everyday life reproduce a society’s view of how women and men
should act. Gendered social arrangements are justified by religion and cultural productions and
backed by law, but the most powerful means of sustaining the moral hegemony of the dominant
gender ideology is that the process is made invisible; any possible alternatives are virtually
unthinkable (Foucault 1972; Gramsci 1971).10
For Society, Gender Means Difference
The pervasiveness of gender as a way of structuring social life demands that gender statuses be
clearly differentiated. Varied talents, sexual preferences, identities, personalities, interests, and
ways of interacting fragment the individual’s bodily and social experiences. Nonetheless, these
are organized in Western cultures into two and only two socially and legally recognized gender
statuses, “man” and “woman.”11 In the social construction of gender, it does not matter what
men and women actually do; it does not even matter if they do exactly the same thing. The
social institution of gender insists only that what they do is perceived as different.
If men and women are doing the same tasks, they are usually spatially segregated to maintain
gender separation, and often the tasks are given different job titles as well, such as executive
secretary and administrative assistant (Reskin 1988). If the differences between women and men
begin to blur, society’s “sameness taboo” goes into action (Rubin 1975, 178). At a rock and roll
dance at West Point in 1976, the year women were admitted to the prestigious military academy
for the first time, the school’s administrators “were reportedly perturbed by the sight of
mirror-image couples dancing in short hair and dress gray trousers,” and a rule was established
that women cadets could dance at these events only if they wore skirts (Barkalow and Raab
1990, 53).12 Women recruits in the U.S. Marine Corps are required to wear makeup – at a
minimum, lipstick and eye shadow – and they have to take classes in makeup, hair care, poise,
and etiquette. This feminization is part of a deliberate policy of making them clearly
distinguishable from men Marines. Christine Williams quotes a twenty-five-year-old woman
drill instructor as saying, “A lot of the recruits who come here don’t wear makeup; they’re
tomboyish or athletic. A lot of them have the preconceived idea that going into the military
means they can still be a tomboy. They don’t realize that you are a Woman Marine” (1989,
If gender differences were genetic, physiological, or hormonal, gender bending and gender
ambiguity would occur only in hermaphrodites, who are born with chromosomes and genitalia
that are not clearly female or male. Since gender differences are socially constructed, all men
and all women can enact the behavior of the other, because they know the other’s social script:
“‘Man’ and ‘woman’ are at once empty and overflowing categories. Empty because they have
no ultimate, transcendental meaning. Overflowing because even when they appear to be fixed,
they still contain within them alternative, denied, or suppressed definitions” (Scott 1988a, 49).
Nonetheless, though individuals may be able to shift gender statuses, the gender boundaries have
to hold, or the whole gendered social order will come crashing down…
Gender as Process, Stratification, and Structure
As a social institution, gender is a process of creating distinguishable social statuses for the
assignment of rights and responsibilities. As part of a stratification system that ranks these
statuses unequally, gender is a major building block in the social structures built on these
unequal statuses.
As a process, gender creates the social differences that define “woman” and “man.” In social
interaction throughout their lives, individuals learn what is expected, see what is expected, act
and react in expected ways, and thus simultaneously construct and maintain the gender order:
“The very injunction to be a given gender takes place through discursive routes: to be a good
mother, to be a heterosexually desirable object, to be a fit worker, in sum, to signify a
multiplicity of guarantees in response to a variety of different demands all at once” (Butler 1990,
145). Members of a social group neither make up gender as they go along nor exactly replicate
in rote fashion what was done before. In almost every encounter, human beings produce gender,
behaving in the ways they learned were appropriate for their gender status, or resisting or
rebelling against these norms. Resistance and rebellion have altered gender norms, but so far
they have rarely eroded the statuses.
Gendered patterns of interaction acquire additional layers of gendered sexuality, parenting, and
work behaviors in childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. Gendered norms and expectations are
enforced through informal sanctions of gender-inappropriate behavior by peers and by formal
punishment or threat of punishment by those in authority should behavior deviate too far from
socially imposed standards for women and men.
Everyday gendered interactions build gender into the family, the work process, and other
organizations and institutions, which in turn reinforce gender expectations for individuals.14
Because gender is a process, there is room not only for modification and variation by individuals
and small groups but also for institutionalized change (Scott 1988, 7).
As part of a stratification system, gender ranks men above women of the same race and class.
Women and men could be different but equal. In practice, the process of creating difference
depends to a great extent on differential evaluation. As Nancy Jay (1981) says: “That which is
defined, separated out, isolated from all else is A and pure. Not-A is necessarily impure, a
random catchall, to which nothing is external except A and the principle of order that separates it
from Not-A” (45). From the individual’s point of view, whichever gender is A, the other is
Not-A; gender boundaries tell the individual who is like him or her, and all the rest are unlike.
From society’s point of view, however, one gender is usually the touchstone, the normal, the
dominant, and the other is different, deviant, and subordinate. In Western society, “man” is A,
“woman” is Not-A. (Consider what a society would be like where woman was A and man
The further dichotomization by race and class constructs the gradations of a heterogeneous
society’s stratification scheme. Thus, in the United States, white is A, African American is
Not-A; middle class is A, working class is Not-A, and “African-American women occupy a
position whereby the inferior half of a series of these dichotomies converge” (Collins 1990, 70).
The dominant categories are the hegemonic ideals, taken so for granted as the way things should
be that white is not ordinarily thought of as a race, middle class as a class, or men as a gender.
The characteristics of these categories define the Other as that which lacks the valuable qualities
the dominants exhibit.
Societies vary in the extent of the inequality in social status of their women and men members,
but where there is inequality, the status “woman” (and its attendant behavior and role allocations)
is usually held in lesser esteem than the status “man.” Since gender is also intertwined with a
society’s other constructed statuses of differential evaluation – race, religion, occupation, class,
country of origin, and so on – men and women members of the favored groups command more
power, more prestige, and more property than the members of the disfavored groups. Within
many social groups, however, men are advantaged over women. The more economic resources,
such as education and job opportunities, are available to a group, the more they tend to be
monopolized by men. In poorer groups that have few resources (such as working-class African
Americans in the United States), women and men are more nearly equal, and the women may
even outstrip the men in education and occupational status (Almquist 1987).
As a structure, gender divides work in the home and in economic production, legitimates those in
authority, and organizes sexuality and emotional life (Connell 1987, 91-142). As primary
parents, women significantly influence children’s psychological development and emotional
attachments, in the process reproducing gender. Emergent sexuality is shaped by heterosexual,
homosexual, bisexual, and sadomasochistic patterns that are gendered-different for girls and
boys, and for women and men – so that sexual statuses reflect gender statuses.
When gender is a major component of structured inequality, the devalued genders have less
power, prestige, and economic rewards than the valued genders. In countries that discourage
gender discrimination, many major roles are still gendered; women still do most of the domestic
labor and child rearing, even while doing full-time paid work; women and men are segregated on
the job and each does work considered “appropriate”; women’s work is usually paid less than
men’s work. Men dominate the positions of authority and leadership in government, the military,
and the law; cultural productions, religions, and sports reflect men’s interests.
Gender inequality – the devaluation of “women” and the social domination of “men” – has social
functions and a social history. It is not the result of sex, procreation, physiology, anatomy,
hormones, or genetic predispositions. It is produced and maintained by identifiable social
processes and built into the general social structure and individual identities deliberately and
purposefully. The social order as we know it in Western societies is organized around racial
ethnic, class, and gender inequality. I contend, therefore, that the continuing purpose of gender
as a modern social institution is to construct women as a group to be the subordinates of men as a
group. The life of everyone placed in the status “woman” is “night to his day-that has forever
been the fantasy. Black to his white. Shut out of his system’s space, she is the repressed that
ensures the system’s functioning” (Cixous and Clement [19751 1986, 67)…
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). For humans, the social is the natural. Therefore, “in its
feminist senses, gender cannot mean simply the cultural appropriation of biological sexual
difference. Sexual difference is itself a fundamental – an scientifically contested – construction.
Both ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ are woven of multiple, asymmetrical strands of difference, charged with
multifaceted dramatic narratives of domination and struggle” (Haraway 1990, 140).
1. Gender is, in Erving Goffman’s words, an aspect of Felicity’s Condition, “any arrangement
which leads us to judge an individual’s.. . acts not to be a manifestation of strangeness. Behind
Felicity’s Condition is our sense of what it is to be sane” (1983, 27). Also see Bern 1993; Frye
1983, 17-40; Goffman 1977.
2. In cases of ambiguity in countries with modern medicine, surgery is usually performed to
make the genitalia more clearly male or female.
3. See Butler 1990 for an analysis of how doing gender is gender identity.
4. On the hijras of India, see Nanda 1990; on the xaniths of Oman, see Wikan 1982, 168-86;
on the American Indian berdaches, see Williams 1986. Other societies that have similar
institutionalized third-gender men are the Koniag of Alaska, the Tanala of Madagascar, the
Mesakin of Nuba, and the Chukchee of Siberia (Wikan 1982, 170).
5. Durova 1989; Freeman and Bond 1992; Wheelwright 1989.
6. Gender segregation of work in popular music still has not changed very much, according to
Groce and Cooper 1989, despite considerable androgyny in some very popular figures. See
Garber 1992 on the androgyny. She discusses Tipton on pp. 67-70.
7. In the nineteenth century, not only did these women get men’s wages, but they also “had
male privileges and could do all manner of things other women could not: open a bank account,
write checks, own property, go anywhere unaccompanied, vote in elections” (Faderrnan 1991,
8. For an account of how a potential man-to-woman transsexual learned to be feminine, see
Garfinkel 1967,116-85, 285-88.
9. Paige and Paige (1981, 147-49) argue that circumcision ceremonies indicate a father’s
loyalty to his lineage elders – “visible public evidence that the head of a family unit of their
lineage is willing to trust others with his and his family’s most valuable political asset, his son’s
penis” (147). On female circumcision, see El Dareer 1982; Lightfoot-Klein 1987; van der Kwaak
1992; Walker 1992. There is a form of female circumcision that removes only the prepuce of the
clitoris and is similar to male circumcision, but most forms of female circumcision are far more
extensive, mutilating, and spiritually and psychologically shocking than the usual form of male
circumcision. However, among the Australian aborigines, boys’ penises are slit and kept open,
so that they urinate and bleed the way women do (Bettelheim 1962, 165-206).
10. The concepts of moral hegemony, the effects of everyday activities (praxis) on thought and
personality, and the necessity of consciousness of these processes before political change can
occur are all based on Marx’s analysis of class relations.
11. Other societies recognize more than two categories, but usually no more than three or four
(Jacobs and Roberts 1989).
12. Carol Barkalow’s book has a photograph of eleven first-year West Pointers in a math class,
who are dressed in regulation pants, shirts, and sweaters, with short haircuts. The caption
challenges the reader to locate the only woman in the room.
13. The taboo on males and females looking alike reflects the U.S. military’s homophobia
(Berubé 1989). If you can’t tell those with a penis from those with a vagina, how are you going to
determine whether their sexual interest is heterosexual or homosexual unless you watch them
having sexual relations?
14. On the “logic of practice,” or how the experience of gender is embedded in the norms of
everyday interaction and the structure of formal organizations, see Acker 1990; Connell 1987;
Smith 1987.
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