Sally Haslanger on Gender

How to understand gender is a complicated issue that has not been settled in any conclusive or definitive way. And it is not my goal here to enter this discussion. For now, I wish only to describe roughly how Sally Haslanger understands gender in order to make better sense of her analysis of objectification.

Along with Haslanger, I assume the sex-gender distinction that is common in the feminist literature. According to this picture, “sex” refers to those biologically determined facts about a person that relate to one’s role in sexual reproduction. There are at least two sexes, “male” and “female.” “Gender,” on the other hand, refers to a socially constructed position that a person occupies in society, and there are at least two genders, “man” and “woman,” i. e. those who are “masculine” and those who are “feminine.”  According to the standard way of thinking, these two ideas are connected in that an individual’s perceived sex plays some role in determining his or her gender. This is, for now, very vague, but a more precise account will be sketched later.

Assuming the viability of the sex-gender distinction, there are further questions about how many sexes and genders there actually are. Though my focus is on men and women, I am committed neither to the claim that there are only two genders (or only two sexes) nor the claim that there should only be two genders.

Serious questions do arise about “how far down” socially constructed gender goes and indeed about the stability of the sex-gender distinction itself. I doubt that a clear-cut way to demarcate gender from sex is forthcoming. But there are significant social, political and economic inequalities in our society that correlate with perceived roles in sexual reproduction.

Haslanger has developed a characterization of gender as a social construction.

S is a woman if and only

1. S is regularly and for the most part observed or imagined to have certain bodily features presumed to be evidence of a female’s biological role in reproduction;
2. that S has these features marks S within the dominant ideology of S’s society as someone who ought to occupy certain kinds of social position that are in fact subordinate (and so motivates and justifies S’s occupying such a position); and
3. the fact that S satisfies (i) and (ii) plays a role in S’s systematic subordination, i.e., along some dimension, S’s social position is oppressive, and S’s satisfying (i) and (ii) plays a role in that dimension of subordination.

S is a man if and only if

1. S is regularly and for the most part observed or imagined to have certain bodily features presumed to be evidence of a male’s biological role in reproduction;
2. that S has these features marks S within the dominant ideology of S’s society as someone who ought to occupy certain kinds of social position that are in fact privileged (and so motivates and justifies S’s occupying such a position); and
3. the fact that S satisfies (i) and (ii) plays a role in S’s systematic privilege, i.e., along some dimension, S’s social position is privileged, and S’s satisfying (i) and (ii) plays a role in that dimension of privilege.1

Haslanger’s definitions involve two notions that will need to be elucidated further, the ideas of social positions and structural inequality. I understand social position, as, I believe, does Haslanger, in terms of social structure. And the existence of some positions that are privileged or subordinated relative to others means that the social structure that contains these positions has a structural inequality.

1.Haslanger, Sally. “Gender and Race: (What) Are They? (What) Do We Want Them To Be?” Noûs, Vol. 34, No. 1, (2000): 31-55,  Page 42

1 Comment

Filed under Cissexism, Classism, Feminism, Injustice, Racism, Sexism, The Paper

One response to “Sally Haslanger on Gender

  1. Pingback: Structural Inequality | By The Pin

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