More than two hundred years ago, early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft wrote a treatise entitled “Vindication of the Rights of Woman” in which she argued that men and women are essentially the same. She suggested that the roles played by the two sexes are largely constructed by society. Since the treatise’s publication, fierce debate has pitted social constructionists such as Wollstonecraft against essentialists, who argue that the differences between the sexes are biologically determined. Many people involved in this debate contend that deciding who is right could have an enormous impact on male/female relations.
Essentialists argue that gender differences are encoded in the brain and in the body’s chemistry. Many essentialists claim that brain structure accounts for most of the differences between men and women. Neuroscientists have discovered, for example, that women’s brains have a larger corpus callosum, which carries messages between the right and left hemispheres. Because the emotional right hemisphere and the verbal left hemisphere in women’s brains can communicate more easily than in men’s, women are generally more intuitive and better at expressing their emotions.
In addition to brain differences, many essentialist theorists argue that hormones play a large part in explaining the disparities between men and women. Testosterone, the pri15 mary male hormone, floods a boy’s body at puberty and induces the growth of body hair, the deepening of the voice, and the development of muscles. Testosterone is also responsible for aggressiveness, sexual desire, and competitiveness. Both men and women produce testosterone, but women produce about 70 percent less than men. Thus, according to journalist Iain Murray, “Testosterone is crucial in making men men—literally.”
Similarly, women produce a large quantity of a hormone called oxytocin, which promotes bonding and affiliation. According to researchers, both men and women produce oxytocin, but women produce it in greater quantities. Moreover, researchers contend that testosterone counteracts the effect of oxytocin, while estrogen, the primary female hormone, enhances it. Oxytocin promotes affection within relationships, but it is most known for enhancing the maternal instinct. Scientists maintain that oxytocin is released during childbirth and breastfeeding and is responsible for creating a strong bond between mother and child. The fact that women are more affected by oxytocin than men, according to experts, helps explains why women are often better nurturers and caretakers than are men.
Other experts dispute the theory that gender differences are attributable to biology. These experts contend that culture shapes roles for men and women, and they argue that children are born into societies that have preexisting gender norms and expectations. According to this view, known as social constructionism, boys and girls are socially conditioned to adopt gender-specific behaviors that society considers appropriate. Family, peers, and the media constantly reinforce these stereotypes. According to law professor Deborah L. Rhode,
Whatever children’s predispositions, they also receive frequent signals from parents, peers, teachers, and the media. In countless ways, our culture encourages boys to be assertive, competitive, and independent—to make things work and happen. We tell girls to be nice, caring, and dependent—to worry about how they look and what others feel. Females learn how to get along; males learn how to get ahead. And children of both sexes learn, above all, that gender matters.
The social cues that help construct gender, these analysts claim, are present from the beginning of children’s lives. For example, many parents decorate their babies’ rooms in gender-specific wallpaper, such as adventure-theme paper depicting planes for boys and passive themes such as daisies for girls. Some studies have indicated that adults handle female and male infants differently. Boys are jiggled more whereas girls are coddled, and adults typically support a female infant’s head more than a boy’s. Even as infants, boys are considered sturdier than girls. These disparate treatments do not stop at infancy. Parents continue to treat boys differently from girls, many experts argue, as evidenced by the different chores assigned to children. Boys are often required to perform chores outside, such as mowing the lawn, whereas girls are usually asked to help inside with the cooking and cleaning. Many experts point out that children learn most of what they know about gender expectations by watching role models, usually their parents, who are most likely modeling dichotomous gender roles at home.
Although many people remain untroubled by traditional gender roles and see no need to question their origins, others argue that accepted gender roles must be reexamined, and that to do so requires an understanding of how gender identity is formed. Many of these analysts assert that gender dichotomy strains relations between the sexes. Author John Gray describes the emotional gulf between men and women in the title of his popular book, Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. Journalist Anna Quindlen, in her essay “Between the Sexes, a Great Divide,” visualizes this difference as the empty space on a dance floor, where boys stand on one side and girls on the other, each group afraid to talk to the other. Quindlen notes that a friend once articulated a similar conception by exclaiming, “I swear to God we are different species.” The popular saying, “men and women simply speak a different language,” suggests that many people perceive gender dichotomy as a barrier to understanding between the sexes. Indeed, women report being frustrated by what they perceive as men’s linear thinking, their inattention to household chores, and their emotional distance. Men complain that women nag them about chores and smother them emotionally.
In the eyes of many, traditional gender roles lead to discord between the sexes. For this and other reasons, determining where notions of gender come from has become the subject of intense debate. The authors in Male/Female Roles: Opposing Viewpoints address this and other issues relating to gender in the following chapters: How Are Gender Roles Established? What Roles Should Women Embrace? What Should Men’s Roles in Society Be? How Can Male/Female Relations Be Improved? Whether biologically determined or socially constructed, gender unquestionably shapes interactions between men and women, for better or ill.