One of the first things I remember learning when I began my studies in English literature was the difference between sex and gender — two concepts that are often intertwined. Sex is purely biological — the two sexes are separated primarily by their physiology and evolutionary functions (no one sex is greater than the other, they are simply different). Gender, on the other hand, is a purely social construct — it is the association of certain character traits with each sex. While the female (sex) differs from the male in terms of biology, women (gender) and men are perceived to be completely different in personality, lifestyle, tastes, codes of conduct, interests, etc. — essentially every aspect of civilised society.
So where did gender come from? And how did it evolve into the distinct, internalised, gender-based inequalities we see today?
There are several theories aimed at understanding sex-based gender roles and the power dynamics that have developed with them. Although the origin of gender itself is still debated, an early theory of evolutionary psychology attributed the evolution of gender (and gender inequality) to sex-related behaviours and psychological dispositions. Since early human males had to compete for a female, they evolved to become more aggressive and dominant — females favoured more protective males, and this allowed them to become more dependent and risk-averse. These traits were passed down genetically and thus resulted in the (generally) polarised character traits between men and women, and the power structures that developed from there.
This theory was widely discredited, as it clearly serves to legitimise gender inequality (the ‘weaker’ sex and other such nonsense). Furthermore, it does not take into account other important factors such as varied environments, sex ratios, pathogen pressure, resource availability and cultural contexts that played a pivotal role in shaping the power dynamics between the two sexes.
The biosocial model, on the other hand, explains gender as a product of sex-based division of labour. As humans became more and more civilised, sex-based limitations played a large part in the division of labour between males and females. Females are naturally more involved during the early stages of child rearing (from pregnancy to breastfeeding, child care, etc.). Because of this, females taking care of children were unable to take on labour that involved being away from their progeny. The more children a female had, the less time she had for tasks that did not involve them.
This meant that males became more proficient in skills that involved venturing out of the domestic circle. However, this division of labour does not outwardly appear to be the root cause of gender inequality — here, the roles each sex plays are different, but both are equally important. The work in itself does not justify the dominance of one gender over the other. In fact, there is evidence of several hunter-gatherer societies that possessed relatively egalitarian gender dynamics while following such sex-based division of labour.
So what was it that planted the seed of inequality that would grow to become the normalised social framework we conform to today?
The answer: money.
Domestic tasks have no monetary value in a civilised world, whereas venturing out of the home presents many opportunities for the same. And since men were the ones who were moving outwards, they ended up making money. With money came power, status and most importantly, control.
A new paradigm was created — one that would withstand thousands of years of human history.
Now, this dynamic has percolated so deeply into our society that gender is indoctrinated right from a child’s birth (all those gender reveal parties we keep seeing on social media are a strong example of this). Clothes also play an important role in reinforcing gender — women’s clothes favour appearance over practicality, while menswear leans towards utility. (This is why the women of the first wave of feminism discarded their ‘feminine’ garb for a more ‘masculine’ appearance — they were using clothes to empower them to have more opportunity.)
However, it is important to note that gender dynamics are by nature, dynamic. While patriarchy has been the norm around most of the world for thousands of years, the framework of this power structure has in fact been evolving. A study conducted a few decades ago showed that men on an average valued a woman’s physical appearance above anything else, while women valued financial status, with appearance being secondary — as a result, women were groomed to focus only on their appearance while men focused on financial and social gain. However, a study conducted more recently in USA, China and Brazil all revealed financial prospects to be the most important thing for both sexes — men no longer attached as much value to domestic skills or virginity.
When it comes to gender inequality, we seem to be in a rare situation wherein the problem is also the solution — money created an imbalance, and money can restore it. With women possessing the same opportunities and earning the same income as men, they immediately gain more status, which leads to more power, which gives women the agency to possess freedom of choice — choice of lifestyle, preferences, careers, interests, and everything else. If women are capable of existing completely independently, the need to conform to gendered roles shatters — and we experience a paradigm shift.
You can see why the Patriarchy is doing everything within its power to stop this from happening.
In patriarchal propaganda, women are seen as an antithesis to men; if women are empowered that means men must become subordinates (the mere suggestion is enough to incite violence). The Patriarchy will have us believe in an ‘us or them’ world — one sex must dominate the other. That is not true. Gender equality is not a threat to men — it simply allows women to have the same basic rights and opportunities as men. The only thing it threatens is a system designed to oppress half of its population.
When gender equality becomes a reality, it will be the end of the Patriarchy — and I can only hope that I live to see that day.
Maglaty, Jeanne. “When Did Girls Start Wearing Pink?” Smithsonian Magazine. April 7th, 2011. Web. <https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/when-did-girls-start-wearing-pink-1370097/> as seen on January 17th, 2021.
Zhu, Nan and Lei Chang. “Evolved but Not Fixed: A Life History Account of Gender Roles and Gender Inequality” Frontiers in Psychology. July 23rd, 2019. Web. <https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01709/full> as see on January 17th, 2021.