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Dramatic changes have been wrought over the past century in female–male relationships, in the ways women and men think of themselves and each other, and in the societal norms for feminine and masculine behavior. For example, at the beginning of the 1900s, women did not have the right to vote in any country except New Zealand. With the exception of a few strong monarchs, such as Queen Victoria, women had been largely absent from high-profile political leadership positions. They had, until the last few years of the 19th century, been barred from institutions of higher education and were believed to be unsuited for great intellectual efforts. Women regularly died in childbirth, often as a result of a pregnancy they did not choose but were powerless to prevent.
Today women hold voting rights in most nations of the world and have held the roles of president or prime minister in more than 30 countries. Women have gained access to higher education in large numbers, currently making up the majority of university students in the United States. Advances in medical technology and changes in the laws surrounding contraception and abortion have made unwanted pregnancies less inevitable and far less dangerous, allowing choices for women that were unthinkable 100 years ago.
Yet, in the face of so many transitions, one thing has changed little: the notion that gender is an important dimension in human life, that it is a category to be reckoned with. The division of the human race into females and males has, in many ways, assumed an importance that overshadows other divisions. From culture to culture, the male–female distinction has been assigned meanings and significance that have implications for work, family, leisure, and ritual—virtually all aspects of social life. Yet it is only within fairly recent history that we have begun to stand back from and question the meaning that cultures have placed on femaleness and maleness, femininity and masculinity. It is this process of questioning that both leads to and is nourished by the study of sex and gender.
The study of the differences and similarities between women and men is compelling for both its personal and its political implications. Issues of femininity and masculinity are emphasized strongly in our culture and can be important aspects of individual identity and self-concept. But such issues go far beyond questions of personal self-awareness. Feminist scholarship over the last three decades has made it increasingly apparent that beliefs about the differences and similarities between women and men are both rooted in and help to perpetuate particular social and political arrangements. To appreciate both the personal and political dimensions of gender, it is useful to examine what we know and do not know about the similarities and differences between women and men, where that knowledge comes from, and how that knowledge may itself be shaped and limited by cultural perceptions of femininity and masculinity. It is precisely to this type of examination that this book is dedicated.
Any one person’s attempt to summarize a body of knowledge must necessarily reflect her own values and biases; this book is no exception to that rule. As a feminist social psychologist, I have a conviction that many of the differences in the ways female and male human beings behave can be traced to social factors such as stereotyping, self-fulfilling prophecy, conformity to social pressure, expectancy effects, and different socialization practices for the two genders. Furthermore, although I believe empirical research—research that tests theories against observable facts—is one of the best tools for unmasking and discrediting false assumptions and inaccurate stereotypes about sex and gender, I am also well aware that researchers shape their own truths to some extent and that the biases built into the research process itself affect investigators’ findings and can perpetuate faulty theories and sexist interpretations of data. Thus this book emphasizes empirical research but takes a critical approach to that research.
Knowledge is gathered and opinions formed in a social context. Early research on male–female differences took place in a context in which, for instance, it was often taken for granted that women’s chief purpose in life was to bear children and that men were naturally better suited than women to take on public roles outside the family. Had I written this book 30 years ago, it would have been difficult to find and include a substantial amount of research that examined the social underpinnings of gender roles or challenged the assumption that sex differences in temperament were the inevitable outcome of the anatomical and physiological differences between females and males. It is largely under the impetus provided by the feminist movement that social scientists have begun to consider gender as something that is socially constructed rather than biologically inevitable. Yet our present social context continues to limit the study and understanding of sex and gender, and important gaps remain in the information that is available. Two of these gaps have been particularly noticeable to me as I compiled information for successive editions of this book. The first is the small proportion of research on sex and gender that focuses on or even includes perspectives other than those of Western, White, middle-class females and males. Most of the research is based at universities, and universities have been much more accessible to this group than to any other. This gap is hardly a cause for surprise, but it is cause for concern. If we shape our “feminine” or “masculine” behavior largely in response to social cues and social pressure, it stands to reason that, to the extent that different groups emphasize or are subjected to different patterns of social cues and social pressure, femininity or masculinity in those groups will be associated with different experiences and behavior. For example, although some commonalties certainly exist, the female experience may differ in important ways for African American women, Asian American women, and European American women in the United States; the male experience may differ in important ways for Native American men or for men of
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