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Many feminists argue that women have a unique way of seeing the world. The question then becomes: is their unique way of seeing based on some essential characteristic of womanhood, or is their sight based on their unique socio-economic and political experiences? Or is there something intrinsically different about women that make their experience in the world unique compared to that of men? I argue that a woman’s unique way of seeing the world is because their “essential characteristics” are defined and constructed by their socio-economic and political experiences as women. I see that “woman,” as a constructed gender, is meant to embody characteristics that societal, economical, and political institutions have prescribed so as to maintain dominant ideologies; masculine superiority, the passivity of women, the Madonna/whore dichotomy, and concepts of femininity. With this paper, I will demonstrate the means in which the socio-economic and political experiences of women creates and perpetuates their essential characteristics and how both function to shape women’s unique way of seeing the world.
I see the social construction of gender as attributing to the ways in which women develop a unique way of seeing the world. The social construction of gender creates expectations of behaviour based on a binary of man or woman (Lorber 14). A man is strong and independent, the breadwinner of the family. Meanwhile a woman is passive and demure, the matron running the domestic sphere, from child-rearing to home maintenance. These expectations carry over into the institutions of economics, with women expected to work “feminine” jobs: secretary, nurse, maid, nanny, caregiver, and men are expected to work more “masculine” jobs: CEO, doctor, surgeon, manual labour. The work of these jobs, divided on constructed notions of gender, shape the experiences of men and women, influencing their feelings and consciousness (14). Gender is seen as one of the major institutions that organize our lives as human beings (15), and it is because of this precedence that I see it as being entwined with defining the essential characteristics women; gender organizes our world, and we see the world based on its organization, by what is made visible or invisible.
It is also through the social construction of gender that women’s socio-economic experiences take on a unique view. It is through the social expectations of gender that women’s work is undervalued and undermined, even when the labour is nearly identical (Lorber 33). The undervaluing of women’s work based on societal ideas teaches women it is not the work that is important, it is what gender does the work. The undervaluation of women’s work reaffirms male dominance (35), and it naturalizes a submissive position for women. From their position, women are given the unique perspective of being a part of society, but also set apart from it. They are a part of society through their work, but they are set apart from society through the devaluation and dismissal of their work; what they do is not as important as what a man does. I see this unique way of seeing the world as formed by their unique socio-economic experience, which is itself shaped by their essential womanly characteristics, which are constructed by society. This cycle of creation and perpetuation shows women’s unique way of seeing the world as not dependant on either their essential characteristics or their socio-economic experiences, but instead relies on simultaneously shaping women’s place in the world.
The intersectionality of women’s experiences of oppression and marginalization plays a key role in their socio-economic and political experiences shaping what is perceived as their essential characteristics. Kimberle Crenshaw, in her paper, "Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics," sees black women as excluded because discourses of theories and policies are, “predicted on a discrete set of experiences that often does not accurately reflect the interaction of race and gender,” (Crenshaw 140). Here, she is arguing that black women are not seen as a unified being, but in parts, either black or woman. Though in her article Crenshaw focuses on the experiences of black women, I believe that in the arguments that she makes reflects how all women are divided into parts, and these parts become their essential characteristics, which both shape and are shaped by their experiences in society as women. The intersectional experiences of women occur because of their position as a woman and a person of colour; a disabled person; a person of low-income, and many other points of discrimination and marginalization, aside from being a woman. Women are discriminated against as poor women, black women, disabled women, uneducated women, but their experiences are recognized either on the basis of woman or another basis, rarely, if ever, on both experiences of discrimination. I feel that it is this multiplicity of discrimination that aides in the definition of women’s essential characteristics. Because society fails to recognize the multi-faceted way women are marginalized, it perpetuates the image of women as weak and passive. They are unable to gain a steady foothold in which to face their oppression as it comes at them from many directions, and thus often they are forced to bend to their oppression, appearing too weak and passive to fight against it.
It is the intersectional experiences of women, an act of double-discrimination, on more than one basis (Crenshaw 149) that create their unique way seeing the world. They are disadvantaged in society because of the perception of their essential characteristics—in this case weak and passive—but it is society that places them in the position to be viewed as such, with its failure to recognize the multiple platforms on which it excludes and misrepresents women. This allows for their unique view of the world as they are able to see and experience many types of discrimination and at varying degrees.
The ways in which society teaches women to see themselves and how society should see women greatly shapes the ways in which women see the world. Women are taught by society there is proper way to behave and an improper way, while at the same time other members of society are taught the same message, and to conform to society’s view is good, and not conforming is bad. It is through these societal rules and visions of right and wrong, good and bad that women are taught how to value themselves and how they are valued (Valenti 18). Jessica Valenti’s chapter “The Cult of Virginity” reflects the ways in which women and society are taught to view the virginity of women, and how society punishes or rewards according to women’s adherence to these views. Society rewards women who internalize these views and uphold them on a pedestal of perceived womanhood, while women who act outside the preconceived notions of “good” virginal behaviour are damned and ostracized (19). Society uses the label of virgin to define chastity as an essential characteristic of women, specifically good women, while the label also shapes women’s experiences in society. A “good” virginal woman is accepted into society, while a “sullied” non-virgin is judged, devalued, and excluded. I see the societal construction of this value and “essential” characteristic, and the way in which this value shapes women’s experiences in society are both equally critical to shaping the unique way women see the world.
A counter argument to the argument I have made in this paper is that women society plays no role in the formation of the characteristics of women, and that women are intrinsically different to man. There are arguments that men are naturally superior to women, a matter of genetics, and such concepts can be seen as naturalized with the scientific language used to describe the egg and the sperm. The role of the sperm is seen to be robust, amazing, and remarkable (Martin 486), while the role of eggs is seen to be more passive, with menstruation a sign of failure, and “losing” something (486). This language, used to describe a natural bodily process, and used by the authority of science, naturalizes the entirety of women as passive. It also naturalizes men as robust, and thus make the differences between man and women biological, not social. Many will argue that since the biology of men and women are different, and their differences are backed by the authority of science, the way in which men and women will see the world will be unique to their gender, the same way their body is.
By looking at the social construction of gender, the role of intersectionality in women’s lives and the way in which society perpetuates and upholds it views, I have argued for they way in which both women’s essential characteristics and their socio-economic experiences shape the unique way women see the world. I have demonstrated the ways in which society constructs their essential characteristics, showing that a woman’s way of seeing the world is not just a matter of the women themselves or society, but a partnership between the two, both equally shaping and being shaped. I believe a woman’s unique view of the world relies on something more than just biological differences to make it unique to a man’s, or else all women would have the same unique view. Just as men and women are unique compared to one another, women amongst themselves are also unique. It is the different ways in which society defines women and and values or devalues them that shapes both their experiences and themselves. Women’s unique way of seeing the world can be seen as reflecting the way in which the world sees them so that they see the margins of society because they themselves are made to occupy the margins.
Crenshaw, Kimberle. “Demarlginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.” The University of Chicago Legal Forum, 1989, pp. 139-164
Lorber, Judith. “‘Night to His Day’: The Social Construction of Gender.” Paradoxes of Gender, Yale University Press, 1994, pp. 13-15 & 33-35.
Martin, Emily. “The Egg and the Sperm: How Science has Constructed a Romance Based on Stereotypical Male-Female Roles.” Signs, vol. 16, no. 3, 1991, pp. 486
Valenti, Jessica. “The Cult of Virginity.” Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women, 2009, pp. 17-40.