Colonizing Gender

One of the hardest things about social reality is that it is something that we don’t see – it becomes invisible.”

-Dr. Ella Schmidt

Through Irene Silverblatt’s book, Sun, Moon, and Witches: Gender Ideologies and Class in Inca and Colonial Peru (1987), we can see how 500 years of limited transformation within class and gender (due to the conquest of indigenous peoples by the Inca’s and then Spanish) has transformed the social structure in the Andes region of South America, particularly in gender relations. You can see how women’s status shifted as the Andean social structure evolved from one with an emphasis on kinship ties to a society with institutionalized class hierarchies. This power shift is seen again in Susan Kellogg’s article, The Woman’s Room: Some Aspects of Gender Relations in Tenochtitlan in the Late Pre-Hispanic Period (1995), in the Mexicas (Aztecs) of what is now Mexico City. Where once men and women functioned in “semiseparable domains” where there existed “parallel male and female spheres in which men and women played significant public roles” (Kellogg, 1995), colonization has worked to squelch the woman’s power in society and limit her domain to the household.

Conquest has an immense influence on culture. Indigenous women, in general, lost extraordinary space in society when the West took charge. Women’s power and place in society were demonized and dubbed as witchcraft. Over an over, throughout the globe, you can find examples of indigenous societies practices and beliefs turned upside down as colonial powers take over and work to spread the ideals of the West. As these powers have written and rewritten history, what we have come to think of as “history” has truly been a one-sided account of historical events. It has only been recently addressed that there are gender biases due to the fact that these historical accounts were told by and through men alone. That men were almost always the ones observing, interviewing, and being interviewed, it was men’s views who were always prioritized. On top of this, colonial powers systematically worked to destroy indigenous women’s status in their societies, which was many times much more equal than in Western culture.

This is clearly evident through Silverblatt’s research. Inca noblemen, and Spanish conquerors and explorers (who were also, of course, men) wrote the history of the Andes. Silverblatt has tried to tease out the truth of Andean histories amidst all of the biases written into these historical accounts. What she has given us is an account of women who were viewed as an integral part of society, who were allowed rights to “land, water, herds, and other necessities of life” (pg. 5). Andean society pre-colonization contained a bilateral system of descent and parallel transmissions of inheritance. This meant that histories were traced back and held importance for both the mother’s and father’s families and that property was passed from mother to daughter, father to son. Even as the Inca created a class system by establishing themselves as the noble class, Andean society still operated in this way. Wives and husbands saw themselves as equal and complementary. Though there was a division of labor based on age and gender, both male’s and female’s work were viewed as integral. (The drawings in Silverblatt’s book perfectly illustrate this.)

Much like the pre-colonial Andeans, the Mexica “structured activities and ceremonies so that women and men had semiseparate responsibilities and organizations. The structuring of production, politics, and rituals ensured that women had access to positions of authority and did not differentiate strongly between public and private realms” (Kellogg, pg. 571). This parallel gender structuring allowed for space and autonomy within gender. A woman was not, then, defined by her association to a man. However, colonization changed this system.

“True to the ideology of the conquest hierarchy, the Incas intertwined gender hierarchy and the formation of class as they consolidated imperial rule” (Silerblatt, pg. 81). This meant that Andean women were now seen to be there to fulfill imperial needs. Women were valued then for their ability to perform “women’s tasks” – such as spinning, weaving, and the preparation of special foods – and for their chastity. Here enters the Madonna/Whore dichotomy in Andean history. The most beautiful and chaste peasant girls were literally taken in by the noble Incas to live with the higher class and perform these special women’s duties.

Women lost even more autonomy with the Spanish conquest. “The Spanish tribute regimen had prejudicial consequences on peasant women. One of its effects was to undermine traditional patterns of land tenure and inheritance whereby women maintained independent access to lands. Owing to Spanish law and the nature of the tributary system itself, men from the Spanish elite, as well as from the native peasantry, were induced to wrest from women their pre-Hispanic rights to autonomous control over productive resources” (Silverblatt, pg. 131). This meant that the bilateral system of descent and parallel transmissions of inheritance were effectively destroyed, leaving in it’s place a patriarchal system.

To fast forward to how this change has affected women of Central and South America post-Spanish colonization, we can look at the film Retrato de Teresa (Pastor Vega, 1979). The movie follows Teresa, a mother of three trying to manage a house, children, full time union work, and a philandering husband. Life is really hard on a working mom, as the movie clearly illustrates. Many times, the woman ends up doing the brunt of the housework and childcare while also working as many hours as her husband. Essentially, the mother is still the manager and full-time employee of the home while being a full-time employee outside the home, and she usually runs the social aspects of family life, such as holidays, visiting relatives, and extra curriculars for the kids. The man still expects to be treated like the “man of the house,” even if he works less, even if he makes less money, even if he moves out and takes another woman outside of the marriage!

While the film depicts a Cuban woman who is characterized by marianismo (a selfless woman, like the virgin mother, Mary), this female ideal can be seen in many, many cultures. (In the same way masculinity and femininity are compliments, marianismo and machismo are complements, and one cannot exist without the other.) This ideal is left over from the takeover of the indigenous societies mentioned above by colonial powers. Had this conquering not taken place, perhaps we would find cultures throughout the Americas that more closely mirrored the pre-colonial Andean societies, with emphasis placed on the complementary nature of the genders rather than the oppositional nature which defines modern gender relations.

And here are some great quotes from the film to highlight the modern woman’s plight:

Nobody is indestructible. We’re all made of flesh and blood.” -Teresa

I’m working like a slave.” -Teresa

I never did anything to upset him. That’s how we raised kids together.” -Teresa’s mom

A woman belongs at home.” -Teresa’s mom


The Social Construction of Gender

The articles I have read and video I watched this week have left me wondering:

Who are we without the gender roles that we enact?

It is obvious how strongly society influences our perception of and participation in gender (e.g., the socially constructed ideals of femininity and masculinity). Society seems to dictate and evaluate what is and is not the correct performance of gender. The social structure of gender relations, or our gender regime (see Williams, 2002), interacts with other systems of inequality (such as class, race and ethnicity) to create an inhospitable environment for those who try to depart from this ideology. These regimes can be rather difficult for anyone who is not a part of the hegemonic gender (which varies throughout different social arenas) to navigate. I want consider how gender regimes play out in various social locations and how these social rules influence how we “do” gender.

How much of who we are is unconsciously shaped by gender ideologies?

Starting from adolescence, young girls begin to adopt an adult feminine identity; they conceive of a gendered self. Susan Williams (2002) calls this “trying on gender.” This concept “captures one interval of gendering: the experimentation and tentativeness that occurs at the critical transition from girl to woman” and is a “segment or phase of the more general doing-gender process” (Williams, 2002). This process of trying on gender can be uncomfortable at times, as it seems girls in our society are innately aware of the “othering” that occurs to them due to the hegemonic masculine “superstructure of domination” (see Schippers, 2007), even if unable to articulate it. They are also innately aware of the feminine ideal that this “superstructure” dictates. To quote Laura Hamilton (2007): “Given women’s subordinate position, much of what makes a woman traditionally feminine is her ability to desire and attract a man.”

This ‘trying on’ of gender happens within a “community of practice,” where learning is situated in a social context (see Paechter, 2003). As Carrie Paechter (2003) puts it, “…our experience of our identity is deeply bound up with our experience of our being in the world. Identity is thus understood through the practices with which we engage.” Boys and girls are learning to be men and women, and thus leaning to be full participants in their masculine and feminine communities of practice.They may “try an attitude on for size, much the way a little girl tries on her mother’s high-heeled shoes” (Williams, 2002), and then set it aside. But, little by little, children begin to take on society’s standards of femininity and masculinity, whether simply internalized or actually preformed. This process is further complicated by the fact that we live in a time and place in which it is possible to define yourself through your sexuality and sexual preferences. People in today’s society are afforded the option of trying on multiple sexualities and even genders, a luxury that was not available up until the last century  and is only recently becoming widely recognized, tolerated and even celebrated in some spaces of society.

Regardless of these changes, the feminine/masculine ideals (as dictated by the hegemonic masculine) are still pervasive – to the point that they can be found in scientific literature describing reproductive biology. As defined by Emily Martin (1991), “…culture shapes how biological scientists describe what they discover about the natural world.” And, because there are roles and story lines already written out for the male and female characters of the world to enact (and we have all internalized these characters), even the most objective observers (eg. scientists) are looking at all interactions through the lens of masculine hegemony. In the case of biological science, many texts are full of language noting “how ‘femininely’ the egg behaves and how ‘masculinely’ the sperm” (Martin, 1991), as if our very gametes know there place in society. While it has been continually disproven that the sperm take the active role (ie. valiant knight in shining armor) and the egg takes the passive role (ie. the maiden waiting to be saved by said knight), most people still adhere to this narrative, because those who do not pay a high (social) cost.

Oh I know what y’all really want is some gross, caricature of a woman to prove some idiotic point that power makes a woman masculine, or masculine women are ugly. Well shame on you for letting a man do that – or any man that does that!”

-Michael Dorsey as Dorothy (Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie, 1982)

Not only is there a social cost to not fitting your role, there is incentive to do so. Laura Hamilton (2007) notes, “…femininities that conform to heteronormative ideals of feminine charm and beauty can operate as a form of embodied social capital.” In an inegalitarian society, those who are not in the hegemonic class adopt “gender strategies” to help them navigate the social terrain (Hamilton, 2007). However, social capital is not doled out equally upon birth. Rather, it is dependent largely on your position (in social class) and the form you embody. To illustrate this: a young, upper-class, white woman who is tanned, skinny and has large breasts is likely to have a lot of social capital in our heterosexual-white-male dominated society. Unfortunately, this describes only a tiny segment of women. It’s no wonder that for girls “[adolescence] is a time of stress, depression, and a drop in self-esteem” (Williams, 2002). By high school, girls are keenly aware of there place within this social hierarchy, and by college have an understanding of their net worth in the (erotic) market – enough to trade on it. In social arenas, such as the college campus, many women find it useful to adopt gender strategies that alienate those with lower social capital (such as lesbians or women of other ethnicities) who may “contaminate” them via association (Hamilton, 2007). This underscores that there is a hegemonic femininity that interacts with other systems of inequality.

The importance that most women placed on men’s erotic interest translated into a clear hierarchy among them.”

– Laura Hamilton (2007)

So, what do we look like without all of these pressures to fit the norm?

Unfortunately, we do not inhabit an egalitarian society. I know I feel the squeeze daily to perform my femininity. I can recognize many times in my life when I have cashed in on my social capital. Though now, in my thirties and with two children, I definitely feel the decline in my value. It is a sad state of affairs that so many people (male, female, or other) feel so much pressure to fit some prescribed ideal that we are literally killing ourselves. As Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman) said in Tootsie (1982), “I don’t know how a woman can keep herself attractive and not starve these days.”