How conceptualisations of masculinities and femininities advance the study of gender


Gender is usually understood as constituting expectations about behaviors and attributes relevant to men and women and about the relations between them. Just like ethnicity and race, gender functions as an organizing principle for the society due to cultural and social meanings given to being male or female. Despite being often overlooked, gender is actually an expression of one’s social identity in the case of both women and men.

In an attempt to assess gender, several studies have been done in both theoretical and practical ways. A lot has been happening and many efforts have been geared towards the promotion of gender equality. Scholars from different fields have contributed to the study of gender. There has been much emphasis on gender studies due the existence of inequality between men and women. Gender inequality has therefore been the main issue for several centuries. Moreover, many efforts have continually been made to address gender disparities in the modern world.

Historically, civilization has been pervaded by patriarchal cultures that glorify male deities. Since the medieval times, men have been dominating leadership positions in religious, political and military circles while women have remained in subjection. In the ancient times women were significantly barred from public life and were made subordinates of men. For example in the Bible, Saint Paul advised Christian women to fully obey their husbands and to avoid in the church. Aristotle, a Greek philosopher saw women as inferior to men.

Crow (2000, p.211) argues that in most societies in the greater part of second millennium, women have been deprived of education, properties and legal status. Some sociologists such as Hildegard of Bingen is known from his work that defined the dominance of male church leaders. Christina de Pisan, an Italian courier and writer, wrote biblical commentaries that typically challenged the patriarchal ideas dominating Christianity in efforts to empower women. This paper focuses on a theoretical and empirical analysis of developments in the study of gender through conceptualization of both masculinities and femininities.


Feminism in academic analysis of gender has played a prominent role in the emancipation of women. Feminism is a collective term which refers to theories and beliefs that give particular attention to a woman’s right as well as upholding the status of women in culture and society. The term is commonly used to refer to women’s right activists and movement which started in 18th century and which continue to this day to advocate for full economic, social and political equality between men and women. There has been a significant development of ideas behind this movement most of which have continued to take effect on the society to this day.

Feminists are brought together by the idea that the position of the women in the society is quite disproportionate to that of men. In addition, they see the society as being structured in a way that benefits men to the economic, social and political detriment of women. However, feminists have used various theories in efforts to explain these inequalities and have also advocated different ways of addressing such inequalities. These diverse means are marked by historical and geographical variations in the nature of feminism.

Based on history, feminist activity and thought can be divided into two waves. The first wave began in early 19th century till 1930s, and was much concerned with achieving equal rights between men and women. The second wave began at around 1960s and continued to advocate for equality. In addition, the second face has developed various approaches and theories that focus more on the difference between men and women and that create attention to the specific needs of women (Stets & Burke 2000a, p. 998).

The first wave of feminism: From early 19th century till 1930s

Though the term ‘feminism’ was not used in gender discourse till the beginning of 20th century, feminist ideas and beliefs took off in the early 18th century. The initial forms of feminism were profoundly concerned with equal rights for men and women. This meant equal status as citizens as well as equal legal status within the home. Most of these ideas were developed in response to the American and the French revolutions. The two revolutions advocated values of equality and liberty.

Feminists in France were of the opinion that the French Revolution’s values of equality and liberty, and of the whole fraternity, are supposed to be applied to all. On the other hand, women activists in America advocated for an extension of the principles American declaration of independence to address women’s needs as far as rights to property and citizenship are concerned.

In England, Wollstonecraft (1988, p. 29) illustrates the contemporary demand for better education and equality for women. In addition, she made the initial sustained critique of various social systems that considered women inferior. At the dawn of 19th century, a group of middle-class women in Britain began to actively advocate for improved legal rights particularly within marriages, better education, and the right to vote and access employment opportunities. John Stuart Mill, a political philosopher, gave a theoretical justification of equal-right feminism in his book entitled ‘The Subjection of Women’, which was partially influenced by his wife, Harriet Taylor.

Since 1850s, the advocacy for equal rights for women was focused on winning the right to vote, also known as women suffrage. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony led the campaign for women suffrage in U.S. the suffrage movement also emerged in Soviet Union, New Zealand, Germany, Australia, Poland and Sweden.

Towards the last part of 19th century, another strand of feminist thinking emerged. It largely questioned various social attitudes towards women. These attitudes were manifested through representations of women particularly in literature and other forms of social rules and art for women’s behavior. At the beginning of the 20th century, the media in Europe and North America became preoccupied with the idea of the “new woman”. The main focus of this woman was to challenge patriarchy by not only demanding equal civil rights but also fighting against social conventions and determining her lifestyle.

The second wave of feminism

During the 1920s, feminists started to focus their attention away from equality between men and women. Instead they concentrated on issues that concerned women. For example, they advocated for improved welfare provision particularly for mothers and children. These issues were given more attention in the second wave of feminism.

The original drive for the so called second wave of feminism emerged from the antiwar protests and civil rights movement. This started in the 1960s in North America as well as social protests in Australia and Europe. Stets & Burke (2000b, p. 231) explain that the women liberation movement, which began in the United States, merged liberal, right-based concerns for equality between men and women demanding for a woman’s right sexuality, identity and destiny. The two issues of ideology were highlighted in the seven demands of this movement, introduced between 1970 and 1978. These include equal pay, financial and legal independence, equal opportunities at work and equal education, free contraception and abortion on demand, free-hour day care forth children, freedom from violence and sexual coercion, and a woman’s right to define her own sexuality.

The second-wave of feminism expresses the idea that individual women do not suffer oppression through segregation alone; instead it is due to wider-reaching political and social systems. This ideology was significantly influenced by American feminist Kate Millet and French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir who closely examined how women were oppressed by the structure of western society. Mill (1993, p. 102) is of the opinion that the Western culture regards women as an aberration of everyone else while men are regarded as normal. Mill examined the pervasiveness of the patriarchy and various ways in which it was developed through the culture and the family particularly in literature. The consciousness of the widespread nature of the patriarchy inspired the feminist idea of worldwide sisterhood that operates on the grounds that women from all backgrounds and cultures can be unified by commonality of oppression.

The second-wave emphasized both psychological and physical differences between men and women. Some feminists strongly criticized traditional psychoanalysts like Sigmund Feud who is known for his work, in which some of the assumptions made contain gender bias. Those feminists were more concerned with the way in which various perceptions on women are determined by particular nature of women’s body and their reproduction childbearing roles.

In France, feminist theorists, Luce Iriagray and Helene Cixous explored ways of advancing Knowledge from the viewpoint of female body with an aim of examining history from female point of view. This form of feminism also became known as radical or cultural feminism. It mainly focused on differences between men and women that they believe would bring out women superiority. However, it strongly advocated cultural practices that are in favor of women. Most of its opponents criticized it for being what they referred to as ‘essentialist’, which means reducing women to bodies and assuming that all women are the same.

Feminism and sexuality

The issue of feminism and sexuality has resulted in a strong strand of feminism that is largely concerned with the way in which men have taken control and subordinated women bodies. For example, Sterba (2008, p. 202) argues that patriarchy significantly coerces women towards heterosexuality. She further illustrates that there is much use of violence to suppress women’s sexuality and powers. Feminists have further argued that both domestic violence and sexual harassment are not isolated incidents; instead are key to the subordination by patriarchy.

Feminists have strongly written against the pornography view it as a means women’s exploitation. In response to this, feminists affirm women’s legal rights to their own bodies including the significance determine their own motherhood. They have further examined the ways in which women can use their motherhood as means of persuading other generations and as source of strength rather than as a way of reproducing patriarchy. Some feminists have advocated for various forms of parenting within lesbian relationship or as single mothers.

Contemporary schools of feminism

Various schools of feminism have emerged in recent times. This is motivated partly by diverse forms of women oppression among women and partly by regional and cultural differences in the world. Women have had varied experiences as far as exploitation, suppression and oppression by men are concerned. The schools referred to here are liberal, radical feminism, and black feminism.

Liberal feminism

This school examines gender inequality in social, cultural and political aspects. Contrary to radical and social feminists, liberal feminists perceive women’s subordination as not part of the larger system; instead they concentrate more on rights, education, voting, sexual harassment, fair compensation at work, access to abortion, and affordable healthcare. They also bring light to the frequency of the domestic and sexual violence against women.

These feminists make a lot of efforts in establishing equality legislation and other legal, democratic and legitimate ways. Liberal feminists operate in the existing systems in efforts to advocate against inequality hoping that these laws will help eradicate discrimination and subordination, instead of causing revolutionary changes. For example, some feminists in this school contributed in formation of equal pay act of 1970 as well as the sex discrimination act of 1975 in the U.K.

According to liberal feminists, neither men nor women benefit from gender inequality. They further argue that a lot of women with potential to be educated and become successful members of the society end up not utilizing their talent to the fullest due to lack of opportunity while men, on the other side, are denied opportunity to socialize with their children. Such a situation is analyzed as being not much associated with institutions and structure of the society, but rather, to individual and cultural attitudes. Generally, liberal feminism bases the equality between women and men through legal and political reforms. However, Anzaldúa, (1990, p.56) explains that they work for the eradication of various institutional biases and implementation of better laws.

In many developed countries, particularly Britain and U.S.A, liberal feminists have had some success. In most countries, there have been constitutional reforms to incorporate policies that give women opportunity in decision making hence active involvement in development process. In most societies, women suffrage has been implemented. Currently, many women have actually volunteered and succeeded in high-level political leadership in many countries.

Radical feminism

Radical feminists view patriarchal gender relations as the cause of women oppression, as opposed to the legal systems. Feminists in this school view the theory of patriarchy as a system of power that coordinates the society as integrated and complex relationships grounded on the assumptions of male supremacy that are used to undermine and oppress women. Early radical feminists argue that the main causes of all sorts of inequality are merely the oppression of women. Other radical feminists have acknowledged the intersecting and simultaneous impact of other independent categories of oppression. These other categories according to Davis (1983, p. 92), consist of oppression based on race, gender identity, social class, sexual orientation, perceived attractiveness, and physical abilities.

The main aim of radical feminism is to challenge and overthrow patriarchy through opposing basic and standard gender roles as well as male oppression of women. In addition, it calls for radical reorganization of the society. In Western societies, radical feminists assert that their society is patriarchic, where women have been viewed as tools for use by males. This has been found to systematically lead to women being more oppressed, undermined and marginalized. These feminists argue that the best means to deal with oppression and patriarchy of all forms is to address the key causes of these problems through a revolution. In addition, they believe that men use social systems and other means of control to suppress non-dominant men and women. To them elimination of patriarchy and other systems which perpetuate the dominance of one group over another, will eventually liberate everyone from the unjust society. Some of the proponents of the radical feminism include Judith Brown Redstockings, Shulamith Firestone, Carol Hanisch, Ellen Willis, Kathie Sarachild, and Ti-Grace Atkinson.

In 1968, as explained by Kimmel, (2000, p. 104), radical feminists forcefully protested against the Miss America show by throwing high heels and other feminine accessories into a freedom garage bin. In 1970, they dramatized a protest at the ‘Ladies Home Journal’. Furthermore, they held straight talks and spoke out on various topics such as domestic violence, rape, social inequality, and pornography (Kimmel 2000, p. 107).

Black Feminism

Black feminism was developed largely due to dissatisfaction with other schools of feminism. It is grounded on the idea that class oppression, sexism and racism are jointly bound together. Black feminism involved women who theorize the ideas and experiences shared ordinarily by black women that provide a unique aspect of vision on self, community and society. Hernandez & Rehman (2002, p. 68) argue that various forms of feminism that struggle to overcome class oppression and sexism but ignore race can result to discrimination of many people, including women, through racial biases.

This school indicated that black women mostly experience rather different and more intense forms of oppression as compared to white women. Black feminism, according to Connell (1987, p. 164) the liberation of black women involves freedom of all people, because it would require the end of sexism, class oppression and racism. The black feminist movement emerged around 1970s and faced a lot of difficulties from both the culture they were challenging and their adjustment to their susceptibility within it.

The national Black Feminist Organization (NBFO) was founded in 1973. The organization focused largely on the interconnectedness of much discrimination that the African American Woman faced. According to Herrman & Abigail (1994, p.110) this discrimination includes sexism, classism, racism, lebophobia and homophobia. Black women dealt with sexism as much as they did racism. This school of feminism has been criticized for being ethnocentric. It claims to address issues concerning women at large but concentrate on women’s incidents derived from the perspective of white supremacy.

There are other schools of feminism; socialist feminism largely connects women’s oppression to labor, exploitation and oppression while postmodern feminists argue that gender and sex are socially constructed. They are of opinion that it is impossible to stereotype women’s experiences across histories and cultures and that politics and traditional gender are too limiting.


Baier (1994, p. 102) views masculinity as a vital element in the study and understanding of gender. Generally masculinity can be depicted to as properties of a male sex. It may also mean trait of behaving in a manner considered to be typical of men. Some sociologists have manliness as the alternative term. Scholars have suggested that equality and integrity are the main masculine values in male-male relationships, whereas manliness dominates in male-female relationships. Quite a lot is currently known about the advancement of masculine characteristics as well as the process of sexual differentiation particular to reproductive system of mankind.

Among many cultures, displaying characteristics different from one’s gender can be a social problem for an individual. In sociology, such conditioning and labeling is refereed to as gender assumptions which is an aspect of socialization to better the mores of a culture. Some substantial behaviors among men are seen as a sign of homosexuality, which generally goes contrary to the cultural understanding of masculinity. When sexuality is examined in terms of object choice like in early sexology studies, homosexuality in male is interpreted as a feminine sexuality. The resultant social condemnation of excess masculinity can be termed as testosterone poisoning or machismo.

The relative significance of roles of genetics and socialization in the advancement of masculinity continues to be debated. While it is obvious that social conditions play a key role, some sociologists hold that particular aspects of masculine and feminine identity exist in most cultures. Occasionally boys and young men have been presented in a manner that propagates harmful concepts of masculinity. Men’s rights activists argue that the contemporary society does not give serious recognition to the men’s right issues, whereby men are sometimes presented in negative light especially in advertising.

In 1987, some researchers did studies on masculinity and came up with the idea of masculine stress (Connell 1995, p. 201). They formulated several mechanisms that are associated with masculine gender role which result in emotional stress. These included being perceived as emotional, the need to feel adequate in respect to financial status and sexual matters, and the emphasis on prevailing institutions that require body fitness.

Connell (1995, p. 203) further illustrates that masculinity has increasingly been challenged particularly towards the end of 20th century. This has happened with the development of women’s rights as well as advancement of the role of the women in the society. Recently, masculinity manifestos and man’s laws have been significantly published as a means of re-affirmation of masculinity by men. One of the widely known examples is the Miller Lite Man laws, which provide all manner of rules, for example, ‘real men do not instruction manuals’. Despite these rules being presented in a humorous way, their main aim is to define masculinity and advocate that proper gender is performed and taught rather than acquitted.

Sociology scholars have debated on whether the concept of masculinity followed by its historical backgrounds should be applied. Ashe (2007, p. 96) argues that masculinity has impacted negatively on issues like gender-based violence. It has further been seen as tool for disempowering and impoverishing women and perseverance of gender inequalities through men’s violence as well as reduction of men’s self-esteem and dignity when they are found to have behaved violently Alexander, and Lisa. (1998, p.282).

Masculine overcompensation

In study of gender, masculine overcompensation is viewed as an explanation for different behaviors from small to world-changing. For example, according to Bradsher (2002, p. 518), men purchase luxurious sport cars at the begging of the mid-life crisis. Despite the pervasiveness in popular culture especially in the western culture, its empirical validity remains in question. This theory was originally derived from the Freud’s notion of reaction formation. Recently, the review of Freudian defense mechanisms by various sociologists has found substantial support for reaction pattern in the contemporary social psychology literature.  The masculine compensation theory reasons that men who respect themselves to have inadequate masculinity usually act uniquely. They usually compensate by acting in extreme masculine attitudes and behaviors designed to create the impression that they are essentially masculine.

In modern social science, the masculine overconsumption theory is well associated with the pricey gender literature on masculinity. According to Bradsher (2002, p. 518), many theories on identity asserts that individuals usually demonstrate overconsumption form of behaviors with the aim of protecting identities that are key to them.



Identity theory

Freud (1894, p.149) categorizes identity theory of gender identification as either feminine or masculine encourages the behavior of the associated gender such as  men who identify as masculine may behave in a more competitive or dominant style. Research on identity theory indicates that there may be some risk for people perceived to have gender-inappropriate identities. This includes insults and the resultant low self-esteem. Individuals who have already adopted a peculiar identity usually behave in a manner to uphold that identity even at the time of threat. Social identity theory, according to Anderson, (1999, p.291) argues that group identification depends on being concurrently prototypical of an individual social group and different from the out-group. Therefore, in respect to gender identity, men mostly find it necessary to propagate masculinity and avoid being associated with femininity.

Impact of masculine sentiments on the feminist thought

To a significant extent feminist thinking has succeeded in drawing public attention to existence of inequality between men and women. They see various structures within the society to be what work against and belittle women. It has led to more recognition of the role of women in the workplace, which has yielded formulation of policies that promote equal opportunities and equal pay. In addition, it has identified and somehow tackled the problem of sexual harassment particularly at the work place. Feminism has also largely succeeded in changing the perception of women’s skills where women are now engaging in non-traditional fields of female employment like the construction industry. Ashe (2007, p. 102) notes that feminist thinking has profoundly influenced culture, which has resulted to more coverage of women’s concerns and interests, especially by the mass media. Feminist thinking has diversified and adapted in tackling contemporary issues such as HIV/AIDS, technology, homophobia and warfare.

Biblical gender-based criticisms

In late 20th century, feminism developed a form of criticisms against bible. The criticisms then became a trend among academic scholars of the bible. According to Kimmel (2000, p. 108), gender criticisms were initiated by the work of feminist theologians between 1960s and 1970s who were much concerned about the way women were presented and how this reinforced discrimination in the contemporary society. Barker & Kuiper. (2010, p.390) is of opinion that this strategy sought to clarify how various biblical narratives perceive and justify power relationships within the society. Feminists argue in support of the gender criticism by pointing out that the narrator of the most stories in the bible is inherently male. The relations of women and men in such stories do not necessarily reflect the actual image of gender relations. In addition, stories as such mostly reflect male desires, projections and interests. While feminists have explicitly advocated for religious concerns to reform the theological discourse, the inference of gender criticisms have gone beyond the theological circles. Perhaps in response, some bible translations have strongly sought to apply some level gender conscious-language.

Understanding gender

Both masculinities and femininities have contributed greatly to the advancement of the study of gender. The ideas raised from the two movements have enabled examination of gender in numerous and diverse perspectives. As each school of thought advocates for its ideas, a robust platform has been created from which gender is studied. Their differential and contradicting ideas have put the study on gender at the core of various aspects of society including political, social-cultural, and institutional aspects.

The conceptualization of feminine and masculine issues has also incorporated the study of gender from a grammatical perspective. According to Baumgardner, & Amy (2000, p.221), currently there is political consciousness in the identification of the sex of an individual particularly if both women and men are targeted. In reference to gender, feminists argued that masculine pronouns have been used to refer to both women and men. It is crucial to note that the grammatical category of gender has never been a language universal. Some languages are gender sensitive while others are not. The grammatical category of gender is not common in English as compared to Greek. In Greek, all nouns have gender; a noun can be feminine, muscular, or neutral Beauvoir, (1974, p. 56).


This paper has focused on how the theoretical and empirical conceptualization of both masculinities and femininities advance the study of gender. Gender criticisms by masculinity and feminism in various fields have resulted to essential means of understanding the foundation of economic, social, cultural and power relationships in the modern society. Both masculinities and femininities have enhanced study of gender in various perspectives in regard to various issues such as prostitution, abortion, homosexuality, power relations, inequality, and self-esteem. They have also brought to light the practical and strategic needs and clearly shown their importance in the study of gender. In summary, study of gender has become a multidisciplinary subject that ought to be incorporated into other disciplines. Since the late 20th century, femininities and masculinities have significantly contributed to both theoretical and empirical advancement of study of gender.







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