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Until recently, the words sex roles and gender roles were used interchangeably to describe female and male characteristics, attitudes and inclinations. Now, at least in an academic environment, a distinction has been drawn between these terms. Sex roles can be defined as the biological differences between the sexes, such as the ability to become pregnant or nurse a child. Gender roles, on the other hand, refer to culturally-derived, socially-created assumptions about what it means to be masculine or feminine. The unfortunate braiding together of these two roles has been termed the Sex-Gender System. Author Jean Lipman-Blumen argues that this system sets up an unevenly-sided power struggle between the sexes, and that this relationship has become the blueprint for all other power relationships. The inability to control or foresee the future causes a great feeling of helplessness and insecurity in both women and men. We struggle to gain some measure of control over our lives, and it is within these methods of maintaining the illusion of control that the Sex-Gender System comes into play.
The Sex-Gender System combines biological sex roles and socially-created gender roles to form a set of rules or guidelines for human behavior. Over time, this makes determining the differences between sex and gender roles much more difficult. Gender begins to exaggerate our biological differences, so that eventually it becomes difficult to realize that a characteristic attributed to female or male behavior is not biological, but a culturally derived notion. Inside gender roles we find accepted wisdom about self-concepts, psychological traits, family roles, occupational and political roles and expectations of behavior. Gender roles tell women to be passive, nurturing and dependent, while men are expected to be aggressive and independent. While some of these roles may have been useful in the earliest civilizations, technology has rendered them obsolete. For example, it may have been necessary for a mother to stay close to home and protected when she was the only source of nourishment for her child, but with the development of formulas this is no longer true. Unfortunately, the existence of gender roles over time becomes evidence that these differences are biological, and are therefore justification for the sexual stratification in which they result. Evidence that the Sex-Gender System is not a biological imperative can be found by examining gender roles in other cultures or times. Concurrently, roles assigned to women in one society are considered masculine in another. Further evidence is the existence of individual choice. Even in biological roles we have choices; a women may choose not to rear a child. Our choices are limitless beyond gender roles, yet the pressure from family and society to follow the rules is powerful. Being confined to these artificial roles, however, puts women at a significant disadvantage because male traits such as competitiveness and aggression are considered much more valuable than female characteristics. As differences are interpreted as more or less valuable, this notion of difference becomes the rationale for the power differential between the sexes.
The perceived differences set in place by with the Sex-Gender system results in a power relationship between the sexes; a relationship that, according to author Jean Lipman-Blumen, has become a blueprint for all other power relationships. The struggle for control between women and men is the original power struggle. Relationships divided by race, religion and political issues are all derived from this blueprint. Lipman-Blumen argues that gender roles are guarded because these other power roles depend upon their existence. What is unique to the male-female power struggle is that it is the only situation where one would fall in love and live with one s oppressor. But why is this struggle for power so important?
The human need for power and controls stems from the uncertainty of life. We want to control the unforeseeable future, and our inability to do so causes feelings of helplessness and anxiety. The uncertainty of our ability to control our own future causes us to seek out ways to bring some measure of order or control into our lives. We want to know that in our future awaits good things, or we want to learn how to improve ourselves to gain more control. Even if all control is an illusion, studies have shown that part of maintaining good mental health is feeling in control of one s life. Therefore it is no wonder we seek relief from this anxiety. Typically, there are four methods we turn to in an attempt to relieve our fears: entrusting ourselves to an all-powerful deity, submitting to secular institutions, submitting to a more powerful person or control over others.
We entrust our lives to an all-powerful, unseen and irrefutable deity in order to feel safe in an uncertain world. Paradoxically, we feel better about our lack of control by giving it up to god. He rewards us for following certain rules, and by following these rules our ultimate destiny becomes known to us. With religion comes comfort that the future is secure. When the religion involves participation in a church this further enforces this feeling of protection. This belief in a greater power sets up the first requirement of a power relationship. Shrouding this relationship in religion gives it a sacredness many are much too frightened to protest.
Many of us, however, need a more tangible solution to our fears, and therefore we turn to secular institutions such as the economy or family. When we submit to the economy s rules we are rewarded with a paycheck and, supposedly, job security. When we sign a contract for employment we are convincing ourselves that we have some control over our future, and we feel our anxiety lower. Women in particular are likely to submit to marriage for safety and security. Within these institutions roles are enacted that promise security and order. With these roles come certain rules, and these rules are designed to maintain the power of the secular institution.
If this is not enough security, we will often submit our lives to the control of a seemingly benign human ruler. We are protected by this more powerful entity, whom we feel has more wisdom and understanding about our lives. The trade-off for this protection is unquestioning loyalty and faith in this ruler. Sometimes our ruler is not our own choice. As children, we put our complete faith and trust in our parents, but as we grow older we begin to question their ultimate authority and the security crumbles. In traditional marriages the wife submits to her husband for his protection. Again, if she comes to realize he is not the wisest of rulers the relationship is in danger of falling apart. When choosing our spouse our choices are limited to the available candidates. Individuals who have more power are the natural choice. We seek a husband who is taller, richer and smarter – all qualities that reflect power and wisdom.
For many of us, submitting our lives to others is simply not enough security, and we seek to ease our anxiety by wielding control over other people. This is characteristically a male strategy. The protector convinces himself (along with his protectors) that he is in control. He is given the incredible power to define and label, and to rank order and behavior. Women are often coerced into supporting their controlled status. They are convinced by the male authority that he is filled only with good intentions. But even if the dominant male truly has his spouse s best interests are heart, he may not know what those best interests are.
These methods of relieving anxiety about our future are more often than not used in tandem with one another. Rarely does one turn to religion or family exclusively for security. These methods are intertwined and, within each of them, are rules regarding sex and gender roles. Within our refuge we are bombarded with the fallout of the Sex-Gender System, in which women are made to feel of lesser importance than men. And, as Lipman-Blumen argues, these roles will always be fiercely protected as the blueprint for all power relationships.
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