Introduction to Gender and Women Studies
Week 3 Tuesday September 24 Social Constructionism
Grewal and Kaplan Introductory Essay to Part One
One of the primary hallmarks of Western science is the division of the world between nature
and culture. In this division, nature stands for the untouched and unchanging natural world,
while culture stands for changing ways of human beings across time and space.
Europe gained power and authority through the new sciences that supported entire new
industries and technologies. The “new” science opposed practices of magic and superstition,
marking anything that was not seen as “rational” as unscientific and false.
Once difference between the sexes took on a meaning influenced by the “new” science, with
male bodies believed to be completely different from and superior to female bodies, the
position of women in society in general, and in science and medicine in particular, became
increasingly marginal or subject to male control.
Feminist scientists historicize their fields not to discredit science and medicine but to help us see
that these fields are always produced by people – by human beings- who are neutral, objective,
or uninvested in what they do. All science tries to solve problems or raise new questions by
identifying new problems to explore. But problems or questions are cultural; they are human
made – that is political.
Middle of the 19 century in Western culture, while, well-to-do women came to stand as the
symbol of ideal motherhood to propagate the race and the nation, thereby preserving Western
This notion of ideal motherhood became normative in certain societies to the detriment of all
those women who were neither white nor middle class nor heterosexual.
Normative femininity became associated with qualities that supported the two-sex model of
biological differences; normal women were perceived to be less intelligent, less assertive, and
less able than men even as they were supposed to be exceptional in the domestic realm of
home and mothering.
Non normative femininity became associated with perversion, marginality, and non
reproductive sex and increasingly came to be seen as a pathology- something to be cured by
biomedicine. The challenge for late 19 and early 20 century middle-class feminists in the west
was to capture one of the characteristics of non normative femininity- non reproductive sex-
and make it normative, part of middle-class life and marriage.
Margaret Sanger – ‘mother’ of the birth control movement.
Sanger directed her argument for birth control to the group that seemed to have the most
potential to win political power; white, middle class women.
Margaret got arrested: these experiences convinced her that advocating birth control for
middle-class women as a way to enhance their sexuality and increase their independence was
not going to work in a conservative political climate.
Esp in the third world, where population control is a high priority for governments and Western
aid agencies, sterilization has been advocated through coercive means.
For a poor country to become ‘developed’ – that is to become ‘modern’ – it must show that
population control is part of the way a nation-state can look after the welfare of its people. Even in the so-called developed countries, in poor and disenfranchised communities, sterilization is
offered more often that the full range of possible forms of birth control.
One of the biggest problems women around the world face is the way that biomedicine has
turned women’s ability to menstruate, to become pregnant, and to give birth into a medical
condition that requires scientific intervention and control.
The Egg and the Sperm – Emily Martin
By extolling the female cycle as a productive enterprise, menstruation must necessarily be
viewed as a failure.
Medical texts describe menstruation as the ‘debris’ of the uterine lining, the result of
necrosis, or death of tissue. The descriptions imply that a system has done awry, making
products of no use, not to specification, unsalable, wasted, scrap.
“ceasing”, “dying”, “losing”, “denuding”, “expelling”
One of texts that seems menstruation as failed production employs a sort of breathless
prose when it describes the maturation of sperm.
“all of the ovarian follicles containing ova are already present in birth. Far from being
produced, as perm are, they merely sit on the shelf, slowly degenerating and aging like
The text celebrate sperm production because it is continuous from puberty to senescence,
while they portray egg production as inferior because it is finished at birth.
Degeneration continues throughout a woman’s life; by puberty 3000,000 eggs remain, and
only a few are present by menopause.
“during the 40 or so years of a woman’s reproductive life, only 400 to 500 eggs will have
been released” – “ all the rest will have degenerated. It is still a mystery why so many eggs
are formed only to die in the ovaries”
The real mystery is why the male’s vast production of sperm is not seen as wasteful.
Assuming that a man “produces” 100 million (10⁸) sperm per day ( a conservative
estimate) during an average reproductive life of 60years, he would produce well over two
trillion sperm in his lifetime. Assuming over 2 trillion sperm in his lifetime. Assuming that
a woman ‘ripens’ one egg per lunar month, or 13 per year, over the course of her 40
reproductive life, she would total 500 eggs in her lifetime. But the word ‘waste’ implies an
excess, too much produced. Assuming two or three offspring, for every baby a woman
produces, she wastes only around 200 eggs. For every baby a man produces, he wastes
more than one trillion sperm.
Take the egg and the sperm. It is remarkable how ‘femininely’ the egg behaves and how
‘masculinely’ the sperm.
Egg and the sperm do interact on more mutual terms, making biology’s refusal to portray
them that way all the more disturbing.
What we are seeing is that; the importance of cultural ideas about passive females and
heroic males into the ‘personalities’ of gametes. This amounts to the “implanting’ of social
imagery on representation of nature so as to lay a firm basis for reimporting exactly that
same imagery as natural explanations of social phenomena.
The Biological Connection – Anne Fausto-Sterling In analyzing male/female differences these scientists peer through the prism of veryday culture,
using the colors so separated to highlight their questions, design their experiments, and
interpret their results.
Women’s Brains – Stephan Jay Gould
Broca believed that women had smaller brains than men and therefore could no equal them in
His arguments rested upon 2 sets of data; the larger brains of men in modern societies, and a
supposed increase in male superiority through time.
His most extensive data came from autopsies performed personally in 4 parsian hospitals. For
292 male brains, he calculated on average weight of 1325grams; 140 female brains average
1144 grams for a different of 181 grams, or 14 percent of the male weight. Broca understood,
ofcourse, that part of this difference could be attributed to the greater height of males. Yet he
made no attempt to measure the effect of size alone and actually stated that it cannot account
for the entire difference because we know, a priori, that women are not as intelligent as men (a
premise that the data were supposed to test, not rest upon):
o We might ask if the small size of the female brain depends exclusively upon the small
size of her body. Tiedmann has proposed this explanation. But we must not forget that
women are, on the average, a little less intelligent than men, a difference which we
should no exaggerate but which is, nonetheless, real. We are therefore permitted to
suppose that the relatively small size of the female brain depends in part upon her
physical inferiority and in part upon her intellectual inferiority.
In 1879, Gustave Le Bon, chief misogynist of Broca’s school, used these data to publish what
must be the most vicious attack upon women in modern scientific literature.
Le Bon concluded: in the most intelligent races, as among the Parisians, there are a large
number of women whose brains are closer in size to those of gorillas that to the most developed
male brains. This inferiority is so obvious that no one can contest it for a moment: only its degree
is worth discussion. All psychologists who have studied the intelligence of women, as well as
poets and novelists, recognize today that they represent the most inferior forms of human
evolution and that they are closer to children and savages than to an adult, civilized man. They
excel in fickleness, inconstancy, absence of thought and logic, and incapacity to reason. Without
doubt there exist some distinguished women, very superior to the average man, but they are as
exceptional as the birth of any monstrosity, as, for example, of a gorilla with two heads:
consequently we may neglect them entirely.
Le Bon was horrified by the proposal of some American reformers to grant women higher
education on the same basis as men.
The best modern data I can find (from American hospitals) records a full 100 gram difference
between death by degenerative arteriosclerosis and by violence or accident.
Manouvrier tried to measure this elusive property in various ways and found a marked
difference in favor of men, even in men and women of the same height. When he corrected for
what he called “sexual mass,” women actually came out slightly ahead in brain size.
Maria Montessori discussed Manouvrier’s work at length and made much of his tentative claim
that women, after proper correction of the data, had slightly larger brains than men. Women, she concluded, were intellectually superior, but men had prevailed heretofore by dint of
Sex and The Body – Nelly Oudshoorn
Medical texts from the ancient Greeks until the late 18 century described male and female
bodies as fundamentally similar. Women had even the same genitals as men, with one
difference: “theirs are inside the body and not outside it.” In this approach, characterized by
Thomas Laquer as the “one-sex model,” the female body was understood as a “male turned
inside her self,” not a different sex, but a lesser version of the male body.
It was only in the 18 century that biomedical discourse first included a concept of sex that
is more familiar in our present day interpretations of the male and the female body.
The female and the male body now became conceptualized in terms of opposite bodies with
“incommensurable different organs, functions, and feelings.
Following this shift, the female body became the medical object par excellence, emphasizing
woman’s unique sexual charac