Eachof sociology’s major theoretical paradigms addresses the significance of genderin social organization.

Functionalist,conflict, inter-actionist, and feminist theories offer alternative explanationsfor gender inequalities.

Functionalist Explanations

Functionalistsview inequality as a product of the traditional division in human societies.Men tend to attend to more instrumental (objectively rewarded) tasks such aswage earning and women attend to more expressive (subjectively rewarded) taskssuch as those involved in child rearing. While both types of labor arefunctional (indeed vital) for society’s survival, the instrumental tasks,looked after by men, always have been more highly rewarded than the expressivetasks looked after by women. Men and women are taught these traditional rolesand have tended to conform to their requirements. Functionalists point outthat, while gender roles and their accompanying inequalities have changedsomewhat in industrialized societies, traditional arrangement remains in forcein most societies. The persistence of the traditional division of labor,according to functionalist view, testifies to the usefulness for humansocieties.

Conflict Explanations

Conflicttheories deny the historically inevitability and necessity of the traditionaldivision of labor between men and women. The arrangement may have been morefunctional in non-industrialized societies, where physical strength wasrequired by many tasks. However, industrialization has changed the situation.The continuance of the traditional gendered division of labor and the socialinequality that it produces merely contributes to unnecessary social conflictand therefore is dysfunctional.

Capitalismintensifies male domination because:

• Capitalism creates morewealth, which confers greater power on men as owners of property and as primarywage earners.

• An expanding capitalisteconomy depends on turning people – especially women – into consumers andencouraging them to seek personal fulfillment through buying and usingproducts.

• To support men in thefactories, society assigns women the task of maintaining the home.

• The double exploitationof capitalism lies in paying low wages to male labor and no wages at all forfemale work.

Inter-actionist Explanations

Inter-actionisttheories of gender inequality focus on how inequality is perpetuated by thetransmission of traditional cultural definitions of masculinity and femininityfrom generation to generation. For example, learning these definitionsinfluences people’s expectations about the types of statuses that women and menare capable of occupying and the types of roles they are capable of performing.Compared with functionalist and conflict theories, inter-actionist theories areoptimistic as to the prospects of reducing if not eliminating suchinequalities. Since gender roles and division of labor that they support arethe products of what each generation teaches the next generation, we can changethem by teaching different gender roles and different ideas about division oflabor. Greater gender equality can be achieved; therefore, without having towait for the massive restructuring of society implied by functionalisttheories, which process might take several generations. Neither is it necessaryto resort to revolutionary strategy to achieve gender equality as proposed bysuch conflict theorists as Marx and Engels.


Feminismis the advocacy of social equality for men and women, in opposition topatriarchy and sexism. In this perspective there is a general emphasis on thecrucial contribution of patriarchy (male domination) to gendered inequalities.For example they challenge the functionalist idea that men are rewarded morethan women simply because men have traditionally performed the more highlyrewarded instrumental tasks while women have performed less highly rewardedexpressive tasks. But why are women paid less than men for performing the sameinstrumental tasks? The proposed answer is patriarchy.

Feminismviews the personal experiences of women and men through the lens of gender. Howwe think of ourselves (gender identity), how we act (gender roles), and how oursex’s social standing (gender stratification) are all rooted in the operationof our society.

Basic feminist ideas

Althoughpeople who consider themselves feminist disagree about many things, mostsupport five general principles:

1. The importance of change. Feminist thinking is decidedly political, linking ideas to action.

Feminismis critical of the status quo, advocating change toward social equality forwomen and men.

2. Expanding human choice. Feminists maintain that cultural conceptions of gender divide the fullrange of human qualities into two opposing and limited spheres: the femaleworld of emotions and cooperation and the male world of rationality andcompetition. As an alternative, feminists propose a “reintegration of humanity”by which each human can develop all human traits.

3. Eliminating gender stratification. Feminism opposes laws and cultural norms that limit the education,income, and job opportunities of women. For this reason feminists advocatepassage of the Equal Rights Laws.

4. Existing sexual violence. Today’s women’s movement seeks to eliminate sexual violence.

Feministsargue that patriarchy distorts the relationships between women and men,encouraging violence against women in the form of rape, domestic abuse, sexualharassment, and pornography.

5. Promoting sexual autonomy. Feminists advocate women’s control of their sexuality and reproduction.Feminists support the free availability of birth control information. Mostfeminists also support a women’s right to choose whether to bear children orterminate pregnancy, rather than allowing men – as husbands, physicians, andlegislators – to control women’s sexuality. Many feminists support the gaypeople’s efforts to overcome the many barriers they face in a predominantlyheterosexual culture.

Opposition to Feminism

  • Feminism provokescriticism and resistance from both men and women who hold conventional ideasabout gender. Some men oppose feminism for the same reasons that may whitepeople have historically opposed social equality for the people of color. Theywant to preserve their women privileges. Other men and women, including those whoare neither rich nor powerful, distrust social movement (especially its radicalexpressions) that attacks the family and rejects time-honored patterns thathave guided male-female relationship for centuries.
  • For some men, feminismthreatens the basis of their status and self respect: their masculinity. Menwho have been socialized to value strength and dominance feel uneasy aboutfeminist ideas of men as gentle and warm. Similarly women whose lives center ontheir husbands and children may see feminism as trying to deprive them theircherished roles that give meaning to their lives.
  • Resistance to feminismalso comes from academic circles. Some Sociologists charge that feminismwillfully ignores a growing body of evidence that men and women do think and actin somewhat different ways (which may make gender equality impossible). Alsofeminism downgrades the crucial and unique contribution women make to thedevelopment of children – especially during the first years of life.
  • Finally, there is thequestion of how women should go about improving their social standing. The idea is thatwomen should have equal rights, but women should advance individually,according to their abilities.

Womenshould expect to get ahead on the basis of their own training and qualifications.

Observations about the likely stateof gender

Movementtoward gender equality has progressed ahead. Industrialization has bothbroadened the range of human activity and shifted the nature of work fromphysically demanding tasks that favored male strength to jobs that requirehuman thought and imagination, putting the talents of women and men on equalfooting. Additionally, medical technology has given control over reproduction,so women’s lives are less constrained by unwanted pregnancies.

Manywomen and men have also deliberately pursued social equality. Sexual harassmentcomplaints now are taken much more seriously in the workplace. And as morewomen assume positions of power in the corporate and political worlds, socialchanges in the 21st century may be as great as those we have already witnessed.

Genderis an important part of personal identity and family life, and it is deeplywoven into the moral fabric of the society. Therefore, efforts at change willcontinue to provoke opposition. On balance, however, while changes may beincremental, the movement toward a society in which men and women enjoy equalrights and opportunities seems certain to gain strength.

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