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Religion and gender

30 November, 1999

From the Veritas ‘Into the Classroom’ series: Sandra Cullen explores the role of gender in religious experience in general and in Christianity in particular. She also highlights women’s contribution to the development of religious traditions.

221 pp, Veritas, 2005. To purchase this book online, go to www.veritas.ie


Series Introduction
Chapter One – Gender, Society and Religion
1.1 Gender and society
1.2 The place of women and men in the sacred texts and living traditions of different religions

Chapter Two – Gender and Christianity
2.1 Women and men in the Hebrew Scriptures
2.2 Women and men in the Christian Scriptures
2.3 Changing perspectives on Mary, mother of Jesus
2.4 Gender perspectives on empowerment and exclusion

Chapter Three – Women’s Stories
3.1 Feminist theologies and spiritualities
3.2 The contributions of women


From the Veritas eleven Book Series Into the Classroom designed for second-level teachers beginning tghe new Leaving Certificate Religious Education Syllabus jointly edited by Eoin G. Cassidy and Patrick M. Devitt. Religion and Gender aims to develop knowledge and understanding of the role of gender in religious experience and tradition; and to explore the relationship between gender roles in societies and religions, in particular the Christian traditions.  It also highlights the particular contribution of women to the development of religious traditions.

CHAPTER 1: Gender, Society and Religion

1:1 Gender and society

In a recent argument five-year-old Conor maintained that boys were better than girls. His reasoning went along the lines that boys are stronger and faster than girls. His sister Aisling’s retort: ‘So why is that better?’, soon stopped him in his tracks. This exchange brings into focus some of the gender assumptions and stereotypes we have inherited and continue to perpetuate.

If we wish to have an understanding of the significance of gender for personal, social and religious experience in contemporary society, as well as an understanding of the dynamic nature of gender roles, then we must have some agreed upon concept of what we are referring to when we speak of gender. At the outset it is necessary to state that there is no clear, unambiguous and widely agreed upon definition of the word gender. The use of the term gender was introduced in the behavioural and social sciences to distinguish it from the concept of sex. In general, sex is understood to be biologically defined, while gender is culturally constructed.

For a variety of reasons gender studies tend to have a woman centred focus. The justification for this is the growing awareness of the ways that women have been silenced throughout history This awareness has led to women investigating the effect of this denigration of women’s experience on how human beings construct reality, knowledge, society, politics and religion and culture. As women began claiming back their voices they began to construct their own history or ‘herstory’. The place of men did not seem to be in need of exploration, as it appeared to be so selfevident. This is probably not really so much the case any more, as many of the anthropological assumptions we have taken for granted are being questioned. There is an increasing awareness that gender is a significant category in the construction of the notion of person, self and society, and necessarily includes both women and men.

In general, gender refers to the differentiation, usually on the basis of sex, between social roles and functions labelled as masculine and feminine. All societies make some sort of gender distinctions. One constant feature is that, for the most part, women have always had a lower status than men; but the extent of the gap between the sexes varies across cultures and time. The definition of gender adopted in official Irish policy states: ‘Gender is a concept that refers to the social differences, as opposed to the biological ones, between women and men that have been learned, are changeable over time and have wide variations both within and between cultures’ (1).

The meanings of gender
The best-selling status of books with titles such as Why Men Don’t Listen and Women Can’t Read Maps and Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, indicates something of the fascination we have with the differences between men and women. The reasons for this difference have been the subject of much debate and research. In recent times scientific approaches to this question have predominated, though perspectives from sociology and psychology also need to be taken into consideration if we are to come to any coherent understanding of the term gender.

When we attempt to define gender in terms of biology we initially think of the physical characteristics that determine our sexual identity as male or female. However, determining sexual identity, the objective categorisation of a person’s physiological status as male or female, is not as simple as looking at body parts! Science demonstrates that there are at least six differentials in establishing the sexual differentiation process: genes and chromosomes, sex glands, sex hormones, differentiation of internal reproductive tract, differentiation of external genitalia and the differentiation of some brain areas.

The development of neuroscience – the study of the brain – has allowed for further understanding of the way the brain itself may be gendered. The use of neuroscientific methods such as the volumetric measurement of brain parts, functional imaging, and advanced scanning equipment, allows researchers to visualise in 2D and 3D what parts of the brain are active when a variety of tasks are being performed. Finally, advances in post-mortem techniques allow for research into quantitative differences between male and female brains. Among the key differences to emerge are that, in general, female brains are stronger in the left hemisphere, which is where language is processed; whereas the male brain is more oriented to the right hemisphere, which is the physical and spatial centre. Recent studies, though contested, suggest that these two hemispheres are better connected in the female brain. From this, it would seem that there are significant differences between the way women and men estimate time, judge speed, carry out mental calculations, visualise objects in 3D, process language, express emotion, recognise emotional overtones and carry out tasks.

Edward Wilson, a leading proponent of what has come to be termed sociobiology, says that human females tend to be higher than males in empathy, verbal skills, social skills and security seeking; while males tend to be higher in independence, dominance, spatial and mathematical skills and rank related aggression. Biologists are divided as to the causes of these findings; but agree that gender differences are apparent very soon after birth, before socialisation can be considered the dominant influence. The authors of Brain Sex, Anne Moir and David Jessel, offer an explanation for this:

These discernible, measurable differences in behaviour have been imprinted long before external influences have had a chance to get to work. They reflect a basic difference in the newborn brain which we already know about – the superior male efficiency in spatial ability, the greater female skill in speech’ (2).

These differences do not mean that one set of skills is superior to the other; such valuations are culturally conditioned. We all know women who excel at maths and spatial awareness, while the existence of great literature and music by men belies any notion of their lack of linguistic skills. A risk of the findings of sociobiology is that skills and abilities once again become locked into the types of gender stereotyping that we are seeking to emerge from. Another risk is that one set of skills or abilities are seen as innately superior to the other, as evidenced in the opening vignette of this chapter.

One of the conclusions of sociobiology is that the basis for the differences between men and women is evolution. The characteristics of the evolutionary perspective are 1. it explains similarities in gendered ideas and behaviour from one culture to another, for example, men, more than women, behave in ways that are aggressive, hold positions of social power, have more than one mate and are interested in a mate’s physical attributes more than in her access to resources. 2. It argues that cross-cultural similarities are due to similar evolutionary pressures faced by all peoples. 3. It argues that similarities are due to genetic factors.

The evolutionary perspective assumes that these arrangements are consistent across cultures because of their survival value. Males and females developed physical characteristics as they adapted to environmental factors. The survival of the species necessitated the evolution of particular abilities related to the biological roles of each gender. As childbearer, the woman needed to stay near to the home so as to tend to the physical needs of infants; this evolved into an exclusive responsibility for the care of young children. Men, not needed in this capacity, were free to become the hunters, as they could wander from the place where the young were cared for. Are these divisions still in evidence? Are these divisions still necessary? Is a woman’s desire to care for her small children an innate characteristic of motherhood or an evolved sociocultural response? Has this norm denied the male parent the same involvement in the rearing of children?

Barbara and Allen Pease, authors of Why Men Don’t Listen and Women Can’t Read Maps, argue that science confirms that the structure of our brains, as well as the chemical impulses of our hormones, are two factors that dictate how we will think and behave. The brain differences between men and women cause them to act in distinctly different, and often frustrating ways. The Peases offer many humorous examples of such differences, which will generate plenty of discussion in the classroom.

The starting point for sociology is the observable reality of society, of how people interact with and inform each other and future generations. One of the most significant developments in sociology since the 1970s has been the rise to prominence of gender issues. In attempting to understand the meaning of gender, sociology takes issue with the deterministic conclusions of many biologists, suggesting instead that many of our notions of what it means to be female or male are socially constructed. According to Measor and Sikes, gender refers to ‘specific social and cultural patterns of behaviour, and to the social characteristics of being a man or a woman in particular historical and social circumstances’ (3).  The purpose of sociological theories is to examine how gender difference is constituted within particular contexts.

Sociology comes down more on the side of nurture in the nature-nurture debate, as it observes that ideas of appropriate behaviour according to gender vary between cultures.

In pre-industrial Europe the practice of medicine was a male activity, whereas in Russia it was a female role. In classical Greece, teaching was a male role, now the teaching profession is predominantly female. In most cultures military combat is associated with men, child-rearing with women; is this biological or does it arise from behavioural traits resulting from early socialisation? (4)

Gender may be understood as the socially produced attributes of masculinity and femininity and the social arrangements based upon them; gender is not simply concerned with an individual’s behaviour and his or her physical attributes, but is also considered to be a basic principle of social organisation. Gender roles and attributes are not the inevitable result of the individual’s sex, but are variable over time and among different groups. Such an approach would recognise that the dominant models of masculinity and femininity are not the only ones at work in our society. Factors such as class, race, sexual orientation and disability all interact and profoundly affect the meaning of what it is to be a man or a woman’ (5).

Irish sociologists, Hilary Tovey and Perry Share (6), suggest that the positive change and progress in the public profile of Irish women, is contradicted by the realisation that for many women very little has changed. Economics, race and social class play as big a role as gender in determining a person’s role in society. Whilst acknowledging the positive changes that are taking place for women, there is also a growing concern that, increasingly, men are disadvantaged within Irish society. The task now, is to analyse the nature of masculinity so as to enhance our understanding of gender as a whole.

A common assumption of psychology is that gender affects individuals across a broad cross-section of their lives by prescribing certain types of behaviour and prohibiting others, from personality attributes through attitudes, and from vocational choices through leisure activities. Historically, the task of psychology has been to discover differences between women and men. However, for the most part, these studies tended to select male samples for research and generalise from these samples and apply the findings to both men and women. The results supported theories about these differences, as women conformed to or diverged from what was considered to be the norm. Developmental theory established men’s experience and competence as the baseline against which all development was to be assessed. These differences were taken as evidence of man’s superiority and woman’s inferiority, and used to deny women access to power and privilege. In recent decades the focus has shifted to the lived experiences of women, to the social construction of gender, to the gendered nature of social institutions, and to the way that gender intersects with race / ethnicity, social class, sexual orientation, and other categories of difference. The inclusion of women’s voices in the study of human development has allowed for the inclusion of women’s capacities and experiences to be included into what we know about the development of the person. Influential figures in this field are Nancy Chodorow, Jean Baker Miller, Carol Gilligan, William Perry, Sandra Lipsitz Bern and Mary Field Belenky.

Most stereotypes about male and female psychological characteristics lack any substantial basis in research. However, reliable studies reveal four differences between males and females. These are the verbal ability of girls, and the mathematical, visual spatial abilities and the aggression patterns in boys. Yet even in these differences the variation within each gender is even greater than the differences between men and women. In the main, however, psychologists are concerned with how gender identity is established. Cognitive psychology sets out to discover what boys and girls do, as they follow processes related to their biological sex. Gender roles are learned as part of the process by which the child tries to structure or organise the world through assimilation and accommodation. It assumes that they know first what gender they are, though it does not say how they know, or what form this knowledge takes. Then it describes the mental processes which appear to develop in all human beings, but it does not, in general, attempt to discover whether they are inborn, or result from shared experiences in cultural environments.

Social learning theory is concerned with the learning of gender roles. That is, the child is recognised as being of one gender or the other and certain behaviours are encouraged or discouraged; the child learns what gender he or she is in the process. From this perspective, all behaviour is learned from our social environment. The gender typing process begins when the individual learns to discriminate gender-appropriate behaviour. One implication of social learning theories is that if gender is learned then it can be unlearned. Psychology has moved to the interactionist viewpoint, which suggests that different children learn different things in different ways in response to pre-existing dispositions. Thus, no child has exactly the same biology as another, or the same environment. Moreover, the child does not passively react, but actively explores its world, and builds up its own individual mindset.

Current psychological studies about gender speak of gender schemas, which are the maps of gender that begin to develop as soon as the child notices the difference between male and female, knows his or her own gender and can label the groups with some consistency. Influential in this understanding is the work of Sandra Lipsitz Bern, who argues that understanding gender means looking at the lenses through which culture views the concepts ‘male’ and ‘female’. She distinguishes three different lenses which affect the construction of masculinity and femininity: the first of these is gender polarisation, which provides the script for being female or male; the second is the assumption that men are the norm for being human, and so are inherently the superior sex; the third is biological essentialism, which maintains that male / female difference and male superiority are natural. Understanding gender therefore requires that these lenses be addressed if we are to have any hope of allowing men and women develop their full potential as human beings.

In general, psychologists now agree that masculinity and femininity should be treated as independent traits, not as the ends of a simple continuum. Females and males are behaviour ally and emotionally far more similar to one another than they are different.

The definition of gender identity that best suits the psychological perspective is ‘a continuous and persistent sense of ourselves as male or female’. Gender is central to one’s definition of self. In contemporary theory, gender is considered less as a core identity or essential developmental process and more as a fluid, complex construction with multiple functions based on a constitutive relationship among self, gender and sexuality.

The study of gender represents a new breakthrough in the history of human consciousness, offering the possibility of new ways of understanding what it means to be human, what it means to be a man, what it means to be a woman. Turid Karlsen Seim, Professor of Theology at the University of Oslo, describes this shift in the following way: ‘Gender, conceived as an analytical constant, has a biological basis in the fact that humans exist as women or men. But the difference between the sexes is further articulated in terms of culture and location in time and space. Gender differentiation and relationship will, no matter how they vary in their expressions, always have an all-embracing structural significance’ (7).

A comparative analysis of the changing roles of men and women
If we take role to mean, ‘a socially expected behaviour pattern usually determined by an individual’s status in a particular society’ (Merriam-Webster Dictionary), then we could describe gender role as the set of social expectations based on gender stereotypes of how a person should act, think and feel based on their actual or perceived sex. Our society assumes that men perform the masculine role and women perform the feminine role. At the heart of this lies what we consider the terms masculine and feminine to mean. A typical list of masculine qualities would include: logical, strong, rational, reasonable, virile, aggressive, competitive, leader, problem-solver, etc. Whereas the feminine list includes what are considered to be the opposite qualities: intuitive, emotional, nurturing, co-operative, passive, weak. That which is not masculine is feminine.

A concern in recent times is that, as we are moving towards honouring these female qualities are we in danger of losing what masculine means? Are we moving towards a situation where masculine power is considered to be dangerous, where competition is to be sneered at, where rationality is not respected? Such a shift brings us back to the impasse that values one set of characteristics over another, and one gender over another.

Perhaps what we need to be moving towards is to dissociate gender from personality traits. Let co-operation, reason, intuition and competition be the traits of the person and not just of a particular gender. There is nothing to be gained from setting these qualities up as dualisms and assigning them to a specific gender. The other side of this coin, however, is that in freeing roles from gender stereotypes we need to hold on to the sense that femaleness and maleness are not the same, that there is a real difference between men and women. What determines that difference is the subject of ongoing reflection and research.

In nearly every society there have always been distinct divisions in the roles of men and women which have deep roots in economic, social, philosophical and religious beliefs. In nearly every society these roles have been valued differently, with women’s roles for the most part considered to be of less worth than the male role. Many reasons have been offered for the gender inequality that exists in society.

The biological view of gender roles considers that the differentiated gender roles in society are the results of evolution and are inextricably linked with abilities predominant in one gender or the other and are determined biologically. These roles are based on the physical abilities and properties of being male or female, such as types of intelligence, roles in parenting and biological needs. This view is challenged by the socio-cultural view of gender roles that considers that gender develops within and is perpetuated by a culture. Through continued exposure to I gender role models, individuals are socialised into conforming to the norms of a particular culture. Observation tells us that roles are not innate, fixed or static; they are constantly evolving.

An interesting study of this phenomenon is the one undertaken by anthropologist Margaret Mead of three tribes living in New Guinea, within a twenty-five mile radius of each other. The Arapesh socialised both males and females to exhibit qualities of warmth, nurturing and co-operation, qualities that Western culture considers feminine. On the other hand, the Mundugamor tribe considered competition, aggression and opposition to be of primary value in both males and females. The Tchambuli displayed both gender roles but in reverse. The women were dominant, in control, the sexual aggressors and the principal workers. The men were emotionally dependent on the women, vain about their appearance and reportedly irresponsible.

Traditionally, the Western female was the homemaker, denied access to the vote, controlled by her financial dependence on men; whereas the male was the bread winner, the head of the household, financially independent of the woman, and the public face of the family unit. Feminism has irrevocably altered our defmition of these roles; with this change in how we understand these roles comes a change in how we understand ourselves.

One of the most significant shifts in women’s role in society occurred with the Industrial Revolution. Previously most women had spent their lives at home, part of an agricultural family unit working the land, and dependent on role differentiation for the survival of the family. As women entered the workforce, most of the jobs available to them were in teaching, nursing and domestic service. Once the factories and cotton mills were established, women were employed as cheap labour. Throughout the twentieth century the increasingly affordable availability of domestic appliances such as washing machines, refrigerators, central heating, irons, electric kettles and microwaves, altered the domestic scene for many women. Specific domestic skills were no longer needed for the smooth running of the family home. By the 1970s the availability of reliable forms of birth control ensured that women had some measure of control over their fertility and could make choices about family size. En masse, women entered the workforce, demanding equal pay for equal work, the right to equal opportunities in employment, family-friendly work practices, affordable and reliable childcare, the chance to shatter the glass ceiling. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, women have been elected as Presidents and Prime Ministers, hold the highest ranks of public office, are among the movers and shakers of world finance, command military operations, and hold the highest positions in academia. Despite such progress for some, the majority of the world’s women continue to face a life of poverty and inequality (8).

Even though there are many role models of women in economic, political and social leadership, popular culture, as evidenced in music, advertising, contemporary drama, soap operas and reality shows, still operates more comfortably when using gender role stereotypes: The man is the one who enjoys sex, is ambitious in his career, knows how to use a drill, can read a map, and has difficulty expressing his emotion. The woman is the one who wears cosmetics, loves shopping, wants to get married, has a very loudly ticking biological clock and works just to get out of the house. When we examine these stereotypes and compare them with the men and women we know, we realise how superficial and inadequate such notions of gender are.

A survey of the legislation dealing with women, employment, family and home is indicative of the changing roles of women in Irish society. Evelyn Mahon (lecturer in Sociology at TCD) suggests that the accession of Ireland to the European Community, combined with the women’s movement of the early 1970s brought about a transformation of social and political life. The initial demands of the women’s movement in their 1971 manifesto, ‘Chains or Change?’ were equal pay, equality before the Law, equal education, contraception, justice for deserted wives, unmarried mothers and widows, and one house for one family. This began a series of far reaching reforms that affected every sector of Irish society. The Irish Constitution, 1937, declares in Article 40.1 that: ‘All citizens shall, as human persons, be held equal before the law.’ The working out of what that means in practice has been the task of subsequent legislation:

1969: The establishment of the Commission on the Status of Women generated and validated official interest in the equality of women in Irish society.
1971: Women made up 28% of the labour force.
1973: The ban on married women working in the civil service, the trade unions and the banks was lifted.
1974: Legislation was enacted that ensured equal pay for equal work.
1976: Women became eligible for jury service.
1976: The Family Home Protection Act ensured that the family home could not be sold by one spouse without the consent of the other.
1976 The Family Law (Maintenance of Spouses and Children) Act obliged a spouse to support their partner and children.
1977: The Employment Equality Act was introduced to eliminate discrimination in employment or promotion on the grounds of sex, marital status or disability.
1979: The Health (Family Planning) Act allowed that contraceptives could be supplied on prescription.
1981: The Family Law (Protection of Spouses and Children) Act allowed for the legal barring of a violent spouse from the family home.
1983 and 1992: The Abortion Referenda.
1993: Decriminalisation of Homosexuality.
1995: The Family Law Act.
1996: The Domestic Violence Act.
1997: The Introduction of Divorce Legislation.
1998: The Employment Equality Act and the
2000: Equal Status Act prohibit discrimination in both employment and non-employment legislation and led to the establishment of the Equality Authority.
2004: Equality Act.

According to the Department of Justice and Law Reform, gender equality means that women and men should enjoy the same rights and opportunities and that the different behaviour, aspirations and needs of women and men are equally valued and favoured. Government policy in this area includes the provision of a legal framework that provides for equal treatment for women and men and legislative backing for positive action initiatives for women and men in areas where they are underrepresented (9).

By the 1990s, with the political excitement of women in response to Mary Robinson’s rallying cry to Mná na hEireann, the debate shifted from the formal equality of women and men, to issues of equity, fairness, opportunity and participation. The concerns at the beginning of this millennium arise from the recognition that equality does not mean sameness. What do women need for fulfilment and satisfaction? What do men need for fulfilment and satisfaction? What insights are going to emerge from the reflection that is ongoing in the gay, lesbian and transgendered community about what gender means? As the hierarchy of male dominance is becoming obsolete, how are we preparing men and women for living in this new reality? Anecdotal evidence tells us that we are very clear about what we want for our daughters, but less clear about what we want for our sons.

Towards a community of women and men
For every woman who is tired of acting weak when she knows she is strong,
there is a man who is tired of acting strong when he feels vulnerable.
For every woman who is tired of acting dumb,
there is a man who is burdened with the constant expectation of ‘knowing everything’.
For every woman who is tired of being called an ’emotional female’,
there is a man who is denied the right to weep and be gentle.
For every woman who is called unfeminine when she competes
there is a man for whom competition is the only way to prove his masculinity.
For every woman who is tired of being a sex object,
there is a man who is tired of being a sex machine.
For every woman who feels tied down by children,
there is a man who is denied the full pleasure of shared parenting.
For every woman who is denied meaningful employment or equal pay,
there is a man who must bear full financial responsibility for another human being.
For every woman who was not taught the intricacies of an automobile,
there is a man who was not taught the satisfaction of cooking.
For every woman who takes a step towards her own liberation,
there is a man who finds the way to freedom has been made a little easier.
(Source unknown)

1. For official government policy on issues of gender equality see www.ndpgenderequality.ie
2. A. Moir and D. Jessel, Brain sex: the real differnce between men and women (New York: Dell Publishing, 1992) p.10.
3. L. Measor and P.J. Sikes, Gender and schools (New York: Cassell, 1992) p.5.
4. Holly Devor’s ‘Becoming members of society: learning the social meanings of gender’ provides a useful analysis of this theme. 
5. V. Bryson, Feminist debates: issues of theory and practice (London: Macmillan, 1999) p.50.
6. H.Tovey and P. Share, A sociology of Ireland, 2nd edition (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 2003).
7. T. Karlsen Seim, ‘The gospel of Luke’, E. Fiorenza (ed.) Searching the scriptures – a feminist commentary, vol II (New York: Crossroad, 1994) p.729.
8. www.unfpa.org/intercenter/beijing/intro.htm offers a useful selection of essays and resources on issues facing man of the world’s women.
9. The following websites provide useful information on issues particular to Ireland –


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