Why are Gender Relations Important to Include in the Study of Politics and Society?

By Michael Rose
Interstate - Journal of International Affairs
2015, Vol. 2015/2016 No. 1 | pg. 1/2 |

Politics has been given many different definitions, ranging from something as solid as “the activities associated with the governance of a country,” to a more abstract designation such as “the principles relating to or inherent in a sphere or activity.”1 For the sake of this essay the study of politics will be related to the study of the latter definition. This essay will deconstruct the idea of political and societal study in order to assess the reason why gender relations are an important aspect of it.

Politics covers a vast range of notions, however this essay will first focus on the study of ideology and define the distinction between the public and private spheres as these aspects are used to construct the foundation of political and societal study. The essay will then turn to a discussion of religion, poverty, and then finally war in order to demonstrate the importance of gender relations in the study of politics and society. These three notions will be considered primarily as they represent aspects of politics that affect all nations and therefore every political populace.

Gender and Sexuality

It must first be explained what is meant by the term ‘gender’ and how it differs from ‘sex’. Although often viewed as synonymous, the World Health Organisation defines sex as the biological and physical differences between males and females; females menstruate and males have testicles for example.2 However “gender” is defined through the terms male and female. These socially constructed labels prescribed with particular characteristics, which although assumed to be universal, require more nuance.

Alternatively, gender refers to the manner in which individuals define themselves, based on a scale of feminine to masculine. The title ‘man’ has been socially constructed to describe the masculine end of the spectrum, just as the term ‘woman’ has been to describe the feminine. Throughout history, the two titles have been seen as tantamount to sex. From birth what is called a male is then dubbed a man (or boy) and what is called female is called a woman (or girl). Not only is the notion of gender enforced from birth, but the true gender of the child, which most likely is not at the extreme end of the spectrum, is also suppressed.

The simplest examples can be used to show how children are exposed to gender socialisation. From the moment they’re brought into their bedrooms for the first time, children encounter a room decorated blue if they are a ‘boy’ and pink if they are a ‘girl’. Another obvious example would be that of a clothing store in which ‘men’s’ fashion and then ‘women’s’ fashion are separated clearly within the shop, meaning that individuals are forced to accept the gender description assigned to them through a uniform.

This thinking has evolved however, and now the term trans-gendered is used to describe those whose self-identity does not conform to the gender assigned to them at birth. This is as opposed to cyst- gendered, where the individual feels they do conform to their gender assignment.3 Although this marks some distancing between sex and gender, it is again attempted through socially constructed titles, and does not accept the fact that an infinite number of unlabelled genders exist. With this distinction between sex and gender clear, it is possible to understand and assess the relevance of gender relations in the study of politics and society.

Ideologies and Feminism

Politics in its basic philosophical sense is studied through the scrutiny of ideologies. With the somewhat recent prominence of Feminism, gender relations have become an extremely important aspect of this scrutiny. Each ideology has therefore taken its own stance on the notion of gender, thus the Feminist debate is a crucial aspect to the understanding of different ideological lenses. Each perception of what gender is and its importance stems from the foundations of each lens. Conservatives for example emphasise the importance of traditional gender divisions as they “imply that the sexual division of labour between women and men is natural and inevitable.”4

Conservatives encourage the hierarchy in gender relations deeming it to be a consequence of the organic nature of society. Ecologists on the other hand, such as Françoise d'Eaubonne, believe the patriarchal hierarchy to be the unnatural order. Ecologists believe that the patriarchy dominates nature and women in the same way. There is a notion within Ecology that suggests that there is an intrinsic link between women and nature, due to what is accepted by some ecologists as the “traditional ‘female’ values...reciprocity, cooperation and nurturing.”56

Socialists, such as Friedrich Engels, believe that gender divisions are relevant in terms of the class struggle, and that therefore the patriarchy is an inevitable result of Capitalism.7 Liberals however, specifically the more classical faction, believe each person to be an individual, and are therefore gender blind; they regard all individuals to be entitled to political and legal rights. Gender differences are believed by liberals to be an entirely private matter, and therefore further than the granting of public rights, the state plays no role.8

Private and Public Women

The notion of the public man, private woman is a stereotype and therefore be seen as an irrelevant supposition. However it is relevant to acknowledge the arguments of those who propose these ideals merely for the sake of rebuttal. The notion of the private woman is derived from the females’ reproductive capacities and an idea therefore that a female’s purpose is to become a mother. Women have been expected to stay at home for the purpose of child rearing, whilst the man ‘supports society’ (as though raising a child does not fulfil this characteristic).

These are stereotypes constructed by society and in no way reflect the gender of all males and females. However whilst society still distinguishes between the public man and the private woman, all ideologies make some consideration as to where the private sphere ends and the public begins. Typically the private sphere is seen as a-political, and this is due to liberal ideology. Liberalism, especially classical liberalism, proposes that the state remains solely as an aspect of the public sphere, acting, as Robert Nozick suggests in his ‘Anarchy, State, and Utopia’, as a ‘night-watchman state’.9 Initially this meant that gender relations were only relevant to the state in terms of formal legal rights – such as suffrage.

However, as liberalism has developed in the Western world, generating more socialist tendencies through theorists such as John Rawls, the public sphere has slowly engulfed much of the private sphere, with the introduction of laws regarding the private lives of the individual.10 Including the criminalisation of rape within a marriage in 1991. However, there remains a large sector of society within the private sphere, and this helps to maintain the patriarchal culture.

Whilst the state refuses to acknowledge ‘the bedroom’ as political, women are forced to remain, in a large part, a-political. The inability, for example, for females to get an abortion in much of the world, forces the female into the private sphere as a mother. Furthermore with the absence of ‘paternal leave’ the female is forced into the gender role assigned by society. The distinction between the public and private spheres is an issue in all ideologies, and as second wave feminism campaigned, ‘the personal is political’.11

Religion and Feminism

Religion and politics are intertwined throughout society and policy; interconnected to create cultures and the definition of man as a mechanism of progress. Even in Western societies where religion has become much more secular, religious traditions remain in political structures. Gender relations are prevalent throughout most aspects of all religions, from the use of the pronoun ‘he’ to describe ‘Gods’, to the separation of genders in places of worship. Religion consistently maintains the hierarchic relation between genders; with the masculine being dominant; with the most obvious examples being those from the Abrahamic religions, where Eve (the first woman) was created by God using one of Adam’s (the first man) ribs.12

If religion is accepted as a key aspect of political study then the prevalence of gender hierarchy within religion exacerbates the importance of gender relations. In the United States, where the first amendment decrees that separation between church and state is a fundamental factor of their politics, Christianity seeps into the policies of their government. Abortion in the United States is not illegal federally, however each state has the ability to create its own laws on the issue. Much of the pro-life support is founded on Christian values, and owing to the fact that since the last two elections Republicans have taken over more state legislatures, there has been an increase in state-by-state abortion bans.13 14

The legal status of abortion is inherent in gender relations; if a female is forced to have to child it affects all economic, professional and social prospects. The female is forced into the socially constructed role of the woman as mother. The religious association is much more obvious in Ireland, and although the law has been updated to permit abortion in life-threatening cases, its general illegalization is founded in the “cozy relationship” between the Catholic Church and the Dáil.15 Remnants of Christianity are not only found in the Political institutions of Ireland and the United States, but also in the United Kingdom where 26 bishops sit in the House of Lords, and also in the European Parliament, where the Christian Democrats are the largest party with 214 seats.16

Religion plays an even larger role in the Political commentary of the non-secular nations of the Middle East. In the Arab nations where Sharia law exists, “Islamic jurisprudential texts—which define the terms of the sharia—treat women as second-class citizens and place them under men’s domination.”17 Religion and politics intertwine throughout the world. Since gender relations plays such a dominant role in the laws and traditions of so many religions, it is clearly as key to the study of politics as religion itself is.

Feminism and Poverty

Previously, Sharia law banned the education of women, and although that has changed to some extent, an education gender gap remains throughout the world. The education gender gap is a severe problem and is not helped by the encouraged premature evacuation by many women from the education system. As well as this education is divided by gender. Male education traditionally differs dramatically from female education, with male education involving preparation for the public sphere through the teaching of science and maths, whilst the female educational services involve preparation for life in the domestic sphere.

An example was set in a study from 2007 that showed that at A-level in the UK, girls’ most popular subject was English, while boys’ was Maths.18 Psychology, Art and Design, Sociology and Media/Film/Television Studies were amongst the 10 most popular choices for girls (but not boys), while Physics, Business Studies, Geography and Physical Education were in the top 10 for boys (but not girls).”19

This inequality in education is one of the disastrous causes of the feminisation of poverty and the masculinisation of wealth. The study of society involves an examination of the distribution of wealth and the global wealth gap. To this extent the question of poverty is vital, yet its feminisation is ignored. It is true that “worldwide, women are more likely to be poor, employed in precarious, low-paid labour, and less likely to have access to land, credit and education.”20 Although the gender pay gap is maintained as an unjustifiable notion in society, the connective between poverty and gender relations is not purely a case of wage disparities.

By this it is meant that equalising wage between the genders would not stop the feminisation of poverty, it may merely reduce the masculinisation of wealth. Gender relations play a role in poverty through a variety of manners other than wage disparity, for instance, through the sexualisation of women in the professional sphere. This not only makes it more difficult for women to progress on the professional ladder, but in much of the world it has forced women into sexual labour; a profession that not only has the patriarchy made illegal, but one which in this setting encourages subservience, and possesses extreme health risks, such as the contraction of the HIV/AIDS virus.21

But further than this, the power relations between genders within the domestic sphere have meant that domestic economics has been and remains masculinised, resulting in feminine dependence upon men. The man is still seen as the ‘bread winner’, which means that many women possess no independent wealth. Additionally, the expected role of the feminised gender as the ‘domestic servant’ has resulted in many women leaving education early to undertake their domestic duties. This is evident by the fact that illiteracy rates are still highest amongst women worldwide.22

The expected role of the woman includes child-care, which results in ‘time poverty’. The general exclusion of paternal leave as an option for parents means that women are forced to leave the public sphere by society to raise their child. This means that there is a disparity in the relation between the genders and the amount of time available for women to earn as much as the masculinised gender. One of the worst aspects of the feminisation of poverty is the dependency created upon men, which means that sexuality becomes a vital aspect within this issue. A family is nearly forced, in much of the world, to include at least one male due to an economic dependency. Gender relations are therefore a required aspect of the study of politics, for if they are ignored, poverty will continue to be feminised.

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