Why gender is a social construct

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The myth that there are only two genders is still widely believed, the binary division of gender defines our lives. In the traditional nuclear family, consisting of father, mother and children, the father is supposed to be the primary breadwinner, while the mother spends most of her time at home doing housework. Conservatives try to tell us that this is natural, that men and women are inherently different and a binary division is the logical solution. By trying to make up “biological” differences between men and women, they try to justify women doing all the unpaid labor that is necessary to keep the system running. In reality, the binary division of gender into male and female is nothing natural, in fact it hasn’t even existed for a long time.

Origins of the gender binary

Pre-industrial societies were much more egalitarian. Divisions of labor existed; however, the different roles were not seen hierarchically. With the industrial revolution and the invention of private property – the rise of capitalism – the breadwinner model arose in western cultures. In this model, families are centered around one “breadwinner”, one person who earns money to support the others. The other person is doing unpaid reproductive labor – the labor that is necessary for the family to survive, such as cooking, childcare or birth. Productive labor vs. reproductive labor, male vs. female – gender in our society is defined by how labor is divided up.

Through colonialism and imperialism this European gender binary – the patriarchy – spread throughout the globe and was violently imposed onto cultures that had different gender norms. In many pre-colonial societies gender was not binary, and today as well, different cultures have different gender systems. One example would be the Bugis people in Indonesia, who have socially constructed five genders. Those five genders are distinguished by how labor is divided among the Bugis people. This shows that the gender binary is nothing natural, but a social construct based on material conditions of the people and on the division of reproductive labor.

Patriarchal violence

As we see, the patriarchy is an essential tool for capitalism, as it keeps half of the population doing unpaid labor with the justification that it is “natural” for women to take care of others. Therefore, it has to be protected and enforced somehow, and the way this happens is through sexualized violence. Sexual violence is part of women’s daily life, and it appears in countless different forms. From mansplaining and sexist jokes to mental and physical abuse and rape – everyone who isn’t a cisgender man has experienced forms of patriarchal violence. Especially those who don’t fulfil the gendered norms, such as non-binary and gender-nonconforming people, face extreme levels of abuse. The hate that trans people are confronted with in their every-day lives has serious effects on their mental health. A Danish study from 2023 shows that trans people have 7.7 times the rate of suicide attempts than the broader Danish population. 60% of transgender people experienced abuse in the form of bullying or harassment, and 30% experienced physical violence. Amongst other limitations, this study only captured the number of trans people who applied for a legal change of gender – the actual percentages will most likely be much higher.

Dismantling the patriarchy

The patriarchy and the gender binary are deeply ingrained in our culture; however, for most of the time that humanity existed, these systems of oppression did not. There was a time before the patriarchy and its strictly binary gender system existed and there can be a time after it. However, the dominating feminist approach right now concentrates on superficial solutions, advocating for more diversity in companies, for more female entrepreneurs and CEOs. Representation matters and while it is important to fight for diversity, a diverse team of oppressors is still a team of oppressors – a working-class women who gets paid minimum wage won’t profit of having a female instead of a male boss. None of us are free until all of us are free – the objective of feminism shouldn’t be to empower some already privileged women, but to dismantle all systems of oppression.

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