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1992 Cheryl Miller Lecture

Biology as Ideology
BrooklynCollege and GraduateSchool
City Universityof New York
Westernideology takesbiology as the cause, and behaviorand social statusesas the effects, and
then proceeds to construct biological dichotomies to justify the "naturalness"of gendered
behavior and genderedsocial statuses. Whatwe believe is what we see-two sexes producing
two genders. Theprocess, however,goes the other way: gender constructssocial bodies to be
differentand unequal.Thecontentof the two sets of constructedsocial categories, 'females and
males" and "womenand men," is so varied that their use in researchwithoutfurtherspecification rendersthe resultsspurious.

Until the eighteenthcentury,Westernphilosophersand scientists thought

that there was one sex and that women's internalgenitalia were the inverse
of men's externalgenitalia:the womb andvaginawere the penis and scrotum
turnedinside out (Laqueur1990). CurrentWesternthinkingsees women and
men as so differentphysicallyas to sometimesseem two species. The bodies,
which have been mapped inside and out for hundredsof years, have not
changed.Whathas changedarethejustificationsfor genderinequality.When
the social position of all humanbeings was believed to be set by naturallaw
or was considered God-given, biology was irrelevant;women and men of
different classes all had their assigned places. When scientists began to
question the divine basis of social order and replacedfaith with empirical
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Parts of this article are excerptedfromParadoxesof Gender(New Haven,
CT:YaleUniversityPress, 1994). PreparedwithresearchsupportfromPSC-CUNY668-518and
REPRINTREQUESTS: JudithLorber,Departmentof Sociology, CUNYGraduateSchool, 33
West42nd Street,New York,NY 10036.
Vol.7 No.4, December1993 568-581
?1993 SociologistsforWomenin Society



knowledge, what they saw was thatwomen were very differentfrom men in
thatthey had wombs andmenstruated.Such anatomicaldifferencesdestined
them for an entirely different social life from men.
In actuality,the basic bodily materialis the same for females and males,
and except for procreativehormones and organs, female and male human
beings have similar bodies (Naftolin and Butz 1981). Furthermore,as has
been known since the middle of the nineteenthcentury,male and female
genitalia develop from the same fetal tissue, and so infantscan be born with
ambiguousgenitalia (Money and Ehrhardt1972). When they are, biology is
used quite arbitrarilyin sex assignment.SuzanneKessler(1990) interviewed
six medical specialists in pediatricintersexualityand found that whetheran
infant with XY chromosomesand anomalousgenitaliawas categorized as a
boy or a girl dependedon the size of the penis-if a penis was very small,
the child was categorizedas a girl, and sex-changesurgerywas used to make
an artificialvagina. In the late nineteenthcentury,the presenceor absence of
ovaries was the determiningcriterionof genderassignmentfor hermaphrodites because a woman who could not procreatewas not a complete woman
(Kessler 1990, 20).
Yet in Westernsocieties, we see two discrete sexes and two distinguishable gendersbecause our society is built on two classes of people, "women"
and "men."Once the gender category is given, the attributesof the person
are also gendered:Whatevera "woman"is has to be "female";whatever a
"man"is has to be "male."Analyzing the social processes thatconstructthe
categories we call "femaleand male,""womenand men,"and "homosexual
and heterosexual"uncovers the ideology and power differentialscongealed
in these categories (Foucault 1978). This article will use two familiar areas
of social life-sports and technological competence-to show how myriad
physiological differences are transformedinto similar-appearing,gendered
social bodies. My perspective goes beyond accepted feminist views that
gender is a culturaloverlay thatmodifies physiological sex differences.That
perspectiveassumes eitherthattherearetwo fairly similarsexes distortedby
social practicesinto two genders with purposefullydifferentcharacteristics
or that there are two sexes whose essential differencesare renderedunequal
by social practices.I am arguingthatbodies differ in many ways physiologically, but they are completely transformedby social practices to fit into the
salient categories of a society, the most pervasiveof which are "female"and
"male"and "women"and "men."
Neither sex nor genderare purecategories.Combinationsof incongruous
genes, genitalia, and hormonalinput are ignored in sex categorization,just
as combinationsof incongruousphysiology, identity,sexuality, appearance,


GENDER & SOCIETY / December 1993

and behavior are ignored in the social construction of gender statuses.

Menstruation,lactation,and gestationdo not demarcatewomen from men.
Only some women arepregnantandthenonly some of the time;some women
do not have a uterusor ovaries. Some women have stopped menstruating
temporarily,others have reachedmenopause,and some have had hysterectomies. Some women breastfeedsome of the time, but some men lactate
(Jaggar 1983, 165fn). Menstruation,lactation,and gestation are individual
experiencesof womanhood(Levesque-Lopman1988), but not determinants
of the social category "woman,"or even "female."Similarly,"men are not
always sperm-producers,and in fact, not all sperm producersare men. A
male-to-femaletranssexual,priorto surgery,can be socially a woman,though
still potentially (or actually) capable of spermatogenesis"(Kessler and
McKenna [1978] 1985, 2).
When gender assignmentis contested in sports, where the categories of
competitorsare rigidlydivided into women and men, chromosomesare now
used to determinein which categorythe athleteis to compete. However, an
anomaly common enough to be found in several women at every major
internationalsportscompetitionareXY chromosomesthathavenotproduced
male anatomyorphysiologybecauseof a geneticdefect. Because thesewomen arewomen in every way significantfor sportscompetition,the prestigious
InternationalAmateurAthletic Federationhas urged thatsex be determined
by simple genitalinspection(Kolata1992). Transsexualswouldpass thistest,
but it took a lawsuit for Renee Richards,a male-to-femaletranssexual,to be
able to play tournamenttennis as a woman, despite his male sex chromosomes (Richards 1983). Oddly, neither basis for gender categorizationchromosomesnor genitalia-has anythingto do with sportsprowess (Birrell
and Cole 1990).
In the Olympics, in cases of chromosomalambiguity,women must undergo "abatteryof gynecological andphysical exams to see if she is 'female
enough' to compete. Men are not tested"(Carlson 1991, 26). The purposeis
not to categorize women and men accurately,but to make sure men don't
enter women's competitions,where, it is felt, they will have the advantage
of size and strength.This practicesoundsfaironly because it is assumedthat
all men are similarin size and strengthand differentfrom all women. Yet in
Olympics boxing and wrestling matches, men are matched within weight
classes. Some women might similarlysuccessfully compete with some men
in many sports. Women did not run in marathonsuntil about twenty years
ago. In twenty years of marathoncompetition, women have reduced their
finish times by more thanone-and-one-halfhours; they are expected to run
as fast as men in that race by 1998 and might catch up with men's running



times in races of other lengths within the next 50 years because they are
increasing their fastest speeds more rapidly than are men (Fausto-Sterling
1985, 213-18).
The reliance on only two sex and gendercategories in the biological and
social sciences is as epistemologically spuriousas the reliance on chromosomal or genital tests to group athletes. Most research designs do not
investigatewhetherphysical skills or physicalabilitiesarereally moreor less
common in women and men (Epstein 1988). They startout with two social
categories ("women," "men"),assume they are biologically different ("female," "male"),look for similaritiesamong them and differences between
them, and attributewhat they have found for the social categories to sex
differences (Gelman, Collman, and Maccoby 1986). These designs rarely
question the categorizationof their subjects into two and only two groups,
even though they often find more significantwithin-groupdifferences than
between-groupdifferences(Hyde 1990). The social constructionperspective
on sex and gender suggests that instead of startingwith the two presumed
dichotomies in each category-female, male; woman, man-it might be
more useful in gender studies to group patternsof behavior and only then
look for identifying markersof the people likely to enact such behaviors.
Competitive sports have become, for boys and men, as players and as
spectators,a way of constructinga masculine identity,a legitimated outlet
for violence and aggression, and an avenue for upwardmobility (Dunning
1986; Kemper1990, 167-206; Messner 1992). For men in Westernsocieties,
physical competence is an importantmarkerof masculinity (Fine 1987;
Glassner 1992; Majors 1990). In professionaland collegiate sports,physiological differences are invoked to justify women's secondarystatus,despite
the clear evidence that gender status overrides physiological capabilities.
Assumptions about women's physiology have influenced rules of competition; subsequentsportsperformancesthen validatehow women andmen are
treatedin sportscompetitions.
Gymnasticequipmentis gearedto slim, wiry, prepubescentgirls and not
to mature women; conversely, men's gymnastic equipment is tailored for
muscular,maturemen, not slim, wiry prepubescentboys. Boys could compete with girls, but are not allowed to; women gymnastsare left out entirely.
Girl gymnasts are just that-little girls who will be disqualified as soon as
they grow up (Vecsey 1990). Men gymnastshave men's status. In women's


GENDER & SOCIETY / December 1993

basketball,the size of the ball and rulesfor handlingthe ball change the style
of play to "a slower, less intense, and less exciting modificationof the 'regular'or men's game"(Watson1987,441). In the 1992 WinterOlympics,men
figure skaterswere requiredto complete threetriplejumps in theirrequired
program;women figure skaterswere forbiddento do more than one. These
rules penalized artistic men skaters and athletic women skaters (Janofsky
1992). For the most part,Westernsportsarebuilton physicallytrainedmen's
seemtobe theessenceof sports.Womenarenaturally
so conceived.
inferiorat "sports"
Butif womenhadbeenthehistorically
sex, ourconceptof sport
flexibilwouldno doubthaveevolveddifferently.
televisionandoffersalariesin six figures.(English1982,266, emphasisin
Organizedsportsarebig businessesand,thus,who has access andat what
level is a distributiveor equity issue. The overall statusof women and men
athletes is an economic, political, and ideological issue that has less to do
with individualphysiologicalcapabilitiesthanwith their culturaland social
meaning and who defines and profits from them (Messner and Sabo 1990;
Slatton and Birrell 1984). Twentyyears after the passage of Title IX of the
U.S. Civil RightsAct, which forbadegenderinequalityin any school receiving federal funds, the goal for collegiate sportsin the next five years is 60
percent men, 40 percent women in sports participation,scholarships,and
funding(Moran 1992).
How access anddistributionof rewards(prestigiousandfinancial)arejustified is an ideological, even moral,issue (Birrell 1988, 473-76; Hargreaves
1982). One way is thatmen athletesareglorifiedandwomenathletesignored
in the mass media. Messner and his colleagues found that in 1989, in TV
sports news in the United States, men's sportsgot 92 percent of the coverage and women's sports 5 percent, with the rest mixed or gender-neutral
(Messner, Duncan, and Jensen 1993). In 1990, in four of the top-selling
newspapersin the United States, stories on men's sportsoutnumberedthose
on women's sports23 to 1. Messnerandhis colleagues also foundan implicit
hierarchyin naming, with women athletes most likely to be called by first
names, followed by Black men athletes, and only white men athletes routinely referredto by their last names. Similarly,women's collegiate sports
teams arenamedor markedin ways thatsymbolicallyfeminize andtrivialize
them-the men'steamis calledTigers,the women'sKittens(EitzenandBaca
Zinn 1989).



Assumptions about men's and women's bodies and their capacities are
craftedin ways thatmake unequalaccess and distributionof rewardsacceptable (Hudson 1978; Messner 1988). Media images of modernmen athletes
glorify their strength and power, even their violence (Hargreaves 1986).
Media images of modernwomen athletes tend to focus on feminine beauty
and grace (so they are notreally athletes)or on theirthin,small, wiry androgynous bodies (so they are not really women). In coverage of the Olympics,
loving and detailedattentionis paid to pixie-likegymnasts;special and
extendedcoverageis givento gracefulanddazzlingfigureskaters;thecamera
of swimmersanddivers.Andthen,
in a blindingflash of fragmentedimages,viewerssee a few minutesof
volleyball,basketball,speedskating,trackandfield, and alpineskiing,as
televisiongives its nod to the mereexistenceof theseevents.(Boutilierand
1983, 190)
Extraordinaryfeats by women athleteswho were presentedas matureadults
might force sports organizersand audiences to rethinktheir stereotypes of
women's capabilities, the way elves, mermaids, and ice queens do not.
Sports,therefore,constructmen's bodies to be powerful;women's bodies to
be sexual. As Connell says,
Themeaningsin the bodilysenseof masculinity
concern,aboveall else, the
of mento women,andtheexaltation
of hegemonicmasculinity
of women.(1987,85)
othergroupsof menwhichis essentialforthedomination
In the late 1970s, as women enteredmore andmoreathleticcompetitions,
supposedly good scientific studies showed that women who exercised intensely would cease menstruatingbecausethey would not have enough body
fat to sustain ovulation (Brozan 1978). When one set of researchersdid a
yearlong study that compared 66 women-21 who were training for a
marathon,22 who ran more tharian hour a week, and 23 who did less than
an hourof aerobicexercise a week-they discoveredthatonly 20 percent of
the women in any of these groups had "normal"menstrualcycles every
month (Prior et al. 1990). The dangers of intensive training for women's
fertilitythereforewere exaggeratedas women began to compete successfully
in arenasformerlyclosed to them.
Given the association of sports with masculinity in the United States,
women athleteshave to manage a contradictorystatus.One studyof women
college basketball players found that although they "did athlete" on the
court-"pushing, shoving, fouling, hardrunning,fast breaks, defense, obscenities and sweat" (Watson 1987, 441), they "did woman"off the court,
using the locker room as their staging area:


GENDER & SOCIETY / December 1993

While it typicallytook fifteen minutesto preparefor the game, it took

fifteenminutesafterthegameto showerandremovethesweat
of an athlete,andit tookanotherthirtyminutesto dress,applymake-upand
stylehair.Itdidnotseemto matterwhethertheplayersweregoingoutintothe
publicor gettingon a vanfor a longridehome.Averagedressingtimeand
Anotherway women managethese statusdilemmasis to redefine the activity or its result as feminine or womanly (Mangan and Park 1987). Thus
women bodybuildersclaim that"flex appealis sex appeal"(Duff and Hong
1984, 378).
Such a redefinitionof women'sphysicalityaffirmsthe ideological subtext
of sports that physical strength is men's prerogativeand justifies men's
physical andsexual dominationof women (Hargreaves1986; Messner 1992,
164-72; Olson 1990; Theberge 1987; Willis 1982). When women demonstratephysical strength,they are labeled unfeminine:
one'sfemininity,to be
to one'stakeability,
Tobe ableto resistrape,notto commustrongandphysicallyself-possessed.
withone'sbody,to holdone'sbodyforusesandmeanings
whatbeinga womanmeans.(MacKinnon
122,emphasisin original)
Resistance to that transformation,ironically,was evident in the policies of
Americanwomen physical educationprofessionalsthroughoutmost of the
twentiethcentury.They minimizedexertion,maximizeda feminine appearance and manner,andleft organizedsportscompetitionto men (Birrell 1988,
461-62; Manganand Park 1987).
As sports construct gendered bodies, technology constructs gendered
skills. Meta-analysisof studies of gender differencesin spatial and mathematical ability have found that men have a large advantage in ability to
mentally rotate an image, a moderateadvantagein a visual perceptionof
horizontalityand verticalityand in mathematicalperformance,and a small
advantagein ability to pick a figure out of a field (Hyde 1990). It could be
arguedthatthese advantagesexplain why, withinthe shortspace of time that
computershave become ubiquitousin offices, schools, and homes, work on
them and with them has become gendered:Men create,program,andmarket
computers, make war and produce science and art with them; women
microwirethemin computerfactoriesandenterdatain computerizedoffices;



boys play games, socialize, and commit crimes with computers;girls are
rarelyseen in computerclubs, camps,andclassrooms.But women were hired
as computerprogrammersin the 1940s because
theworkseemedto resemblesimpleclericaltasks.Infact,however,programelectricalcirmingdemandedcomplexskillsin abstractlogic, mathematics,
all of which... womenusedto performin theirwork.
it became
wasrecognizedas "intellectually
to men.(Donato1990,170)
A woman mathematicianand pioneer in dataprocessing,Grace M. Hopper,
was famous for her workon programminglanguage(PerryandGreber1990,
86). By the 1960s, programmingwas split into more and less skilled specialties, and the entryof women into the computerfield in the 1970s and 1980s
was confined to the lower-paidspecialties.At each stage, employersinvoked
women's and men's purportedlynaturalcapabilitiesfor the jobs for which
they were hired (Cockbur 1983, 1985; Donato 1990; Hartmann 1987;
Hartmann,Kraut,and Tilly 1986; Kramerand Lehman 1990; Wrightet al.
1987; Zimmerman1983).
It is the taken-for-grantednessof such everyday genderedbehavior that
gives credence to the belief that the widespreaddifferencesin what women
and men do must come from biology. To take one ordinarilyunremarked
scenario:In modernsocieties, if a man and woman who are a couple are in
a car together,he is much more likely to take the wheel than she is, even if
she is the more competentdriver.Molly Haskell calls this taken-for-granted
phenomenon "the dirty little secret of marriage:the husband-lousy-driver
syndrome"(1989, 26). Men drive cars whetherthey are good driversor not
because men and machines are a "natural"combination(Scharff 1991). But
the ability to drive gives one mobility; it is a form of social power.
In the early days of the automobile,feminists co-opted the symbolism of
mobility as emancipation:"Donninggoggles anddusters,wielding tire irons
and tool kits, taking the wheel, they announced their intention to move
beyond the bounds of women's place" (Scharff 1991, 68). Driving enabled
them to campaign for women's suffrage in parts of the United States not
served by public transportation,and they effectively used motorcades and
speakingfromcarsas campaigntactics(Scharff1991, 67-88). SandraGilbert
also notes thatduringWorldWarI, women's ability to drive was physically,
mentally,and even sensually liberating:
of modembattlewasverydifferentfromthatexperienced
Finallygivena chanceto takethewheel,thesepostVictoriangirlsracedmotorcars


GENDER & SOCIETY / December 1993

new lands, while their brothersdug deeper into the mud of France.... Re-

hadatlastbeenallowedto provetheirvalor,andtheyswoopedover
of thewarwiththeenergeticloveof Wagnerian
countlessimmobilizedheroesto safe havens.
mobilityalone transporting
Not incidentally,women in the United States and Englandgot the vote for
their war efforts in WorldWarI.


People of the same racial ethnic group and social class are roughly the
same size and shape-but there are many varietiesof bodies. People have
differentgenitalia, differentsecondarysex characteristics,different contributions to procreation,differentorgasmicexperiences,differentpatternsof
illness and aging. Each of us experiencesour bodies differently,and these
experienceschange as we grow, age, sicken, anddie. The bodies of pregnant
and nonpregnantwomen, short and tall people, those with intact and functioning limbs and those whose bodies are physically challenged are all
different.But the salientcategoriesof a society groupthese attributesin ways
thatride roughshodover individualexperiencesand more meaningfulclusters of people.
I am not saying thatphysical differencesbetweenmale and female bodies
don't exist, but that these differences are socially meaningless until social
practices transformthem into social facts. West Point Military Academy's
curriculumis designed to produceleaders,and physical competence is used
as a significant measure of leadershipability (Yoder 1989). When women
were acceptedas West Pointcadets, it becameclear thatthe tests of physical
competence,such as rapidlyscaling an eight-footwall, had been constructed
for male physiques-pulling oneself up and over using upper-bodystrength.
Rather than devise tests of physical competence for women, West Point
providedboostersthatmostly women used-but thatlost them test pointsin the case of the wall, a platform.Finally,the women themselves figuredout
how to use theirbodies successfully. JaniceYoderdescribesthis situation:
I wasobservingthisobstacleone day,whena womanapproached
theold prescribed
way,got fingertipsgrip,
walkedherdanglinglegsupthewalluntilshewasin a positionwherebothher
handsandfeet were atopthe wall. She thensimplypulledup her sagging


bottomand went over. She solved the problemby capitalizingon one of

In short,if West Point is going to measureleadershipcapabilityby physical
strength,women's pelvises will do just as well as men's shoulders.
The social transformationof female and male physiology into a condition
of inequalityis well illustratedby the bathroomproblem.Most buildingsthat
have gender-segregatedbathroomshave an equal numberfor women and for
men. Wheretherearecrowds, therearealways long lines in frontof women's
bathroomsbut rarelyin frontof men's bathrooms.The cultural,physiological, anddemographiccombinationsof clothing,frequencyof urination,menstruation,and child care addup to generallygreaterbathroomuse by women
than men. Thus, althoughan equal numberof bathroomsseems fair, equity
would mean more women's bathroomsor allowing women to use men's
bathroomsfor a certainamountof time (Molotch 1988).
The bathroomproblem is the outcome of the way gendered bodies are
differentially evaluated in Western cultures: Men's social bodies are the
measureof what is "human."Gray'sAnatomy,in use for 100 years, well into
the twentiethcentury,presentedthe humanbody as male. The female body
was shown only where it differed from the male (Laqueur 1990, 166-67).
Denise Riley says that if we envisage women's bodies, men's bodies, and
humanbodies "as a triangleof identifications,then it is rarelyan equilateral
trianglein which both sexes are pitched at matchingdistancesfrom the apex
of the human" (1988, 197). CatharineMacKinnon also contends that in
Westernsociety, universal"humanness"is male because
menfromwomenis alreadyaffirmavirtuallyeveryqualitythatdistinguishes
needsdefineautoandhealthinsurancecoverage,theirsociallydefinedbiographiesdefineworkplaceexpectationsand successfulcareerpatterns,their
andconcernsdefinequalityin scholarship,
of life definesart,theirmilitary
servicedefinescitizenship,theirpresencedefinesfamily,theirinabilityto get
definesgod, andtheirgenitalsdefinesex. Foreachof theirdifferencesfrom
women,whatamountsto an affirmativeactionplanis in effect, otherwise
andvaluesof Americansociety.(1987,36)
knownas thestructure
Genderedpeople do not emerge from physiology or hormones but from
the exigencies of the social order,mostly,fromthe need for a reliabledivision


GENDER & SOCIETY / December 1993

of the work of food productionand the social (not physical) reproductionof

new members.The moralimperativesof religionandculturalrepresentations
reinforce the boundarylines among genders and ensure that what is demanded,whatis permitted,andwhatis tabooedfor the people in each gender
is well-known and followed by most. Political power, control of scarce
resources,and, if necessary,violence upholdthe genderedsocial orderin the
face of resistanceand rebellion.Most people, however,voluntarilygo along
with theirsociety's prescriptionsfor those of theirgender statusbecause the
norms and expectationsget built into their sense of worth and identity as a
certainkind of humanbeing and because they believe their society's way is
the naturalway. These beliefs emerge from the imagery that pervades the
way we think,the way we see and hearand speak,the way we fantasize,and
the way we feel. There is no core or bedrockhumannaturebelow these endlessly looping processes of the social productionof sex and gender,self and
other,identityandpsyche, each of whichis a "complexculturalconstruction"
(Butler 1990, 36). The paradoxof "humannature"is thatit is always a manifestation of cultural meanings, social relationships,and power politics"notbiology, but culture,becomes destiny"(Butler 1990, 8).
Feministinquiryhas long questionedthe conventionalcategoriesof social
science, but much of the currentwork in feminist sociology has not gone
beyond adding the universal category "women"to the universal category
"men."Ourcurrentdebatesover the global assumptionsof only two categories and the insistence that they must be nuancedto include race and class
are steps in the directionI would like to see feminist researchgo, but race
and class are also global categories (Collins 1990; Spelman 1988). Deconstructingsex, sexuality,andgenderreveals manypossible categoriesembedded in the social experiencesandsocial practicesof whatDorothySmithcalls
the "everyday/everynightworld"(1990, 31-57). These emergentcategories
groupsome people togetherfor comparisonwith otherpeople withoutprior
assumptionsaboutwho is like whom.Categoriescan be brokenup andpeople
regroupeddifferently into new categories for comparison.This process of
discoveringcategoriesfrom similaritiesand differencesin people's behavior
or responsescan be more meaningfulfor feminist researchthandiscovering
similaritiesanddifferencesbetween"females"and"males"or "women"and
"men"because the social constructionof the conventional sex and gender
them. When we rely only on the conventionalcategories of sex and gender,
we end up finding what we looked for-we see what we believe, whetherit
is that "females"and "males"are essentially differentor that"women"and
"men"are essentially the same.



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JudithLorber is Professor of Sociology at BrooklynCollege and The GraduateSchool,

City Universityof New YorkShe is the authorof WomenPhysicians:Careers,Statusand
Power (New York:Tavistock,1984) and co-editor,with Susan A. Farrell, of The Social
Constructionof Gender(Sage, 1991).