Gender and American History since 1890

By Barbara Melosh | Go to book overview
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Barbara Melosh

Sex is announced in the first sentence of our social lives. As a baby is born under the bright lights of a twentieth-century American delivery room, the physician declares, “It’s a boy!” or “It’s a girl!” With recent advances in prenatal testing, some expectant parents can even identify the sex of their growing fetuses. As adults, we experience gender as a fundamental part of identity, inseparable from the self. In much contemporary science, biological determinism is gradually replacing an older emphasis on environment, giving new weight to the view of sexual difference as natural, as proceeding from immutable biological difference.

The authors represented in this anthology reject that view. Even the title proclaims a critical stance, for if sexual difference is natural, it can have no history and requires no explanation. The term “gender,” used by every author in this volume, itself signals a certain position in contemporary debates about sexual difference. In 1975, Gayle Rubin’s influential essay “The Traffic in Women” proposed a usage that has been widely adopted. 1 “Sex,” she argued, should indicate the biological fact of difference: the chromosomes, hormones, and characteristic anatomical differences associated with male and female. “Gender,” by contrast, would signify the cultural elaborations upon sexual difference, “a socially imposed division of the sexes” (Rubin, p. 179). Rubin viewed biological sexual differences as real and necessary, but she argued that cultural interpretations of these differences exaggerated the extent of difference (pp. 178-80). Her distinction at once conceded sexual difference and rejected it as a sufficient explanation for the sexual inequality and female subordination observable in virtually every human society.


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