Busting Bogus Biology and Beliefs
By On The Issues M... on July 31, 2009
by Mahin Hassibi
The simplified male-female concept of “gender” has never been
simple. Unrelated to individual capabilities, “gender roles” throughout
most of human history have subordinated the female to the male. In more
recent years, reexaminations of “gender identity”
along with developments in science and society have resulted in new
understandings about what gender means to individuals. These
developments, in turn, may reshape “gender roles.”
The binary categorization of genderas male-female is based on observed external male and female sexual characteristics.
the binary categorization has very little to do with gender roles and
the universal subordination of women to men. The subordination appears
to derive from the difference in physical power of men and women. This
was, of course, desirable for men, as well.
Pregnancy made it difficult for even young and physically strong
women to resist physical domination by men. Men also made and utilized
various weapons for hunting animals, extending their ability to
subjugate and exploit women. Since the timing of pregnancy was not
controllable for each individual woman, no collective, coordinated
resistance was possible.
Subjugation by Myth
Cultural myths and religious beliefs reinforced and justified this
division. For centuries, social constructs held that women owed
allegiance and obedience to their husbands; children were the property
of their fathers, who owned the children’s mothers.
More complex cultures developed more complicated reasons for
maintaining the systems by which men subjugated women. Women were not
only viewed as morally, intellectually and even emotionally inferior to
men, but they became the agent of men's “downfall.” Pandora opened the
box full of trouble; Eve was the author of the original sin.
Enlightenment and the Age of Reason did not rethink or re-examine the
prevalent ideas about women. Humanists did not question the inferior
status of women. Even in Thomas More's Utopia,
the women remained naturally inferior to men. Even though they were
granted the ability to engage in constructive employment, that is, hard
physical labor, the women were supposed to prostrate themselves before
Studies of chromosomes in the second half of
the19th century and the discovery and synthesis of sex hormones in the
early 20th century seemed to put sexual differentiation on a solid
biological ground. Freud relied upon these ideas to develop his
theories of psychology, in which the inferior status of women did not
Modern Times Shake Up Old Notions
feminist movement in the early 20th century began to raise serious
questions about the cultural root of male supremacy. Then, following
the civil rights movement of the '60s and inspired by feminist
militancy, gays and lesbians began to refuse to accept the way in which
same-sex sexual attraction and desire had been pathologized and
declared a sickness that required various forms of treatment.
news from the biological field also became more confusing and complex
during the decades of the ‘50s and ‘60s. Studies of sex chromosomes
that is, women who have one or more extra X chromosomes in each cell,
making them triple X, or more rarely four or five Xs. Biologists also
identified males with one extra X chromosome: they carried the genotype of XXY, or, more rarely, XXXY, XXXXY or XY/XXY mosaic.
Furthermore, psychologists and psychiatrists knew that some
individuals experience deep and persistent dissatisfaction with their
biological sex and undergo years of pain and suffering, as well as
extensive medical and surgical intervention, to change their sex.
Starting with the Second World War when women replaced men in heavy
industry and hazardous jobs, the rigid ideas of gender roles became
untenable. The loosening of sex-based criteria for jobs, including in
the armed forces, provided evidence that women's place was not divinely
designated, but literally manmade.
Recently, the last remnant of gender-specific function, that is, reproductive specialization,
has undergone significant changes. People with a desire for parenting
are now able to procure eggs and sperm from unrelated, and even
unknown, individuals. Individuals can rent-a-uterus to nourish the
lab-fertilized eggs to delivery. Advances in cloning, however
controversial, may dispense with some steps in this process, as well.
It is also not inconceivable that the uterine environment can be
replicated in vitro, in the not too distant future, and the whole of
reproduction processes take place outside the human body.
converging developments will leave no solid basis in culture, society
or psychology for gender role differentiation. Biologically, the
majority of human beings will still be born with male or female sexual
organs and sexual hormones, and it is likely that the hormonal
differences will prove to have subtle influences on the brain and on
psychological characteristics of the individuals, but the utility of
maintaining the concepts of gender identity and gender roles will
New categories and divisions will have to
be made. Interpersonal relations will have to be based on factors other
than the age-old customs, a revision that may create the new men and
women so desired by utopian visionaries.
Mahin Hassibi is a Professor of Clinical Psychiatry (Ret.) at New York Medical College.