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Week 3: Turning from Science to Social Science

Anne Dalke's picture

We are turning this week from the perspective offered by scientists on the questions of gender and sexuality to that offered by social scientists, in particular by Bryn Mawr alum and anthropologist Sherry Ortner, whose life work on the structures and practices of gender will form our reading for the next two weeks. So what are you noticing as we make the turn from the scientific to the social scientific study of gender and sexuality? How does the perspective shift? What is attended to by ecologists and neurobiologists, but not by practice-oriented anthropologists, and vice versa? What is foregrounded by one discipline that is backgrounded by the other? Which of these various lenses seems to speak more to your own questions, and come closer to providing some useful answers to them?

w0m_n's picture

Nature is Society?

I was very excited for this week because my major is in the social science department. I think in the sciences you find that their arguments are based on things that happen in nature like the diversity of gender and sexuality. In my limited experience with the sciences, they focus on the interactions of things such as genes and chemicals to explain why things happen, whereas social sciences focus on people and their interactions with each other in their experiments/ research. While reading Evolution's Rainbow, I found myself wondering "well where do people come in?". Roughgarden argued that diversity of gender and sexuality naturally, but as a sociology major I've gotten used to being skeptical of the idea of things happening in nature. I feel that while the social sciences recognizes the validity of the sciences discourse and research based on things, it foregrounds how the the human experience informs those naturally occurring things. I don't think it's a question of one better answering our questions because it is the interactions of the two or more disciplines that creates for a richer and comprehensive response.  For example, the social sciences use science techniques to create a more objective look at society in concrete way.

kjmason's picture


  After reading some of Sherry Ortner's work, I find the shift from science to social science refreshing. As just a matter of personal preference I am, in general, turned off by the type of thinking that is done in a lot of science I have experienced. I found Mr. Grobstein's explanation of science very enlightening, and most definitely applicable to Roughgarden's exploration of biological diversity. Still I found myself yearning for something less about the behaviors of certain bugs and species of lizards (excuse the oversimplification of Roughgarden's plethora of examples of biodiversity) and more geared to the societal response to Gender and Sexuality questions. I didn't realize it at the beginning of the course, because I never consciously sat down and thought to myself "let me pontificate on gender and sexuality", but I think I have some sort of predisposed interest in the societal aspect of Gender and Sexuality. I guess I'm looking for a different question than what science seems to be asking. Roughgarden came across as explaining and at times, even justifying, the existence of biodiversity in humans in Evolution's Rainbow. Ortner appears to be working from a entirely different starting point, "okay there is this biodiversity and gender and sexuality have a whole spectrum in modern society, so in what ways does this affect human interaction (with special focus on class development)". I'm much more interested in this, what I would call more utilitarian, approach. I find it much more useful to make observations and tell stories (in the words of Mr. Grobstein) regarding what we know exists and its role in our lives rather than explain why its here. I fully acknowledge that I'm making a rather quick judgement considering I haven't spent a considerable amount of time in either science or social science prior to this year, but initially I find social science utterly enlivening. 

skindeep's picture

walking down the boulevard

i went to an all girls high school till the tenth grade and so everytime we talk about Bryn Mawr being a 'womans college' and what  that means, i cannot help but compare it to my old school (J.B. Petit)

what i find through my comparisions fascinates me, solely because it brings out the vast difference in society and culture between america and india. in JB we were encouraged to stand up for ourselves, to take risks and stay strong. the school empowered not only me, but thousands of people both before and after me. but it empowered us to  deal with indian society. we were radical, but protected. whilst we questioned ourselves and those around us, gender and sexuality never came into the picture. it was like your sex. if you had a penis you were a male. questionning that was unheard of. it never even occured to most of us.

is this because the society and culture is primarily built like that? or is it because even in my outspoken school some topics were brushed aside? was it consciosly done?

one would assume that bryn mawr was a shock after coming from an environment like that. surprisingly enough though, it  wasnt.. everything i see and learn here feels comfortable, almost as though ive always known it but im just realizing it.

drawing from this then, i would like to add to the general view that yes a womans colleges is there to empower you, but also to help you realize yourself. to help you become more aware (sometimes by getting lost first) and through that awareness to be empowered.


Terrible2s's picture

All women's college: step forward or back?

Well it looks like my comment is forever lost. I will try to quickly recreate it, though I promise it will not be nearly as long or eloquent.

Basically, all women's colleges might seem outdated. They, however, as we discussed in class, do play an important role. I think the world and America in particular changes very slowly. I think these changes are brought about by "radical" people demanding "irrational" things. So we had slavery, then segregation, then racism, and now we're working towards unity. For gensex stuff, I think we need to find equality in the predetermined categories of "male" and "female," then once we have attained it, try to remove the labels and find complete equality.

So the instutions are still caught up in an out-dated idea, but we are fighting for basic rights for all humans. It's gonna take us who are fighting for equality to demand change and watch it, slowly, happen. So let's be "radical" people in our all-women's college and demand "irrational" amounts of change until we have it.

Terrible2s's picture

Bio Class

So in bio class we started to talk about that runner (who's name escapes me) who might have her medals taken away because she might not be classified as a woman "officially."

It was a very interesting conversation because the class didn't know how to discuss the issue and many people came from a very conservative and intolerant perspective. I find it so interesting that the moment I stepped out of GenSex it seemed like the "real world" or people who don't get it, or don't want to. Was it because it was a bio class? Was it just an intolerant group of people? Or is it the bigger universal problem that people just are ignorant?

I was just so surprised to find the same topic be spoken about in such a different manner. On Bryn Mawrs campus at that! I'm scared for the world...

skindeep's picture

barcoding because we can

haha.. i have to say that i agree with you. ive been scared for the world since a while now and coming to bryn mawr has only reinforced the differeces between the world i know and the one i live in presently.

last week while talking to a friend of mine from pakistan about the issue of gender in islam, i was introduced to the concept that even though women are treated as inferior beings in many muslim countries, in the koran they are viewed as superior. According to my friend, women are sexually superior because they have more control over their sexual desires and need to give into temptation. however, men are not that strong due to which a woman must cover her body and veil herself, to help a man stay true to his religion.

the concept as a whole intruges me, the way society labels women and the reasons they make for doing so. the thoughts in my head arent coherent yet, so i will refrain from typing anymore until i have some control over them.


rae's picture

The runner

The runner's name is Caster Semenya. By the way, Rainbow Alliance will be talking about her this Tuesday, from 5:30-6:30, in Dalton 25, if anyone's interested.

Terrible2s's picture

Lost Comment

Anne, I submitted a comment but by the time I had typed it all out Serendip logged me off.  It was entitled "Women's colleges: a step forward or step back?"

I'm pretty sure it's just under "anonymous," but for now its lost :( So if it comes through your comment spam could you post it and I'll repost it under Terrible2s?



Terrible2s's picture

Baby X - A Child's Story without Gender

holsn39's picture

another article on the subject

Anne Dalke's picture

and yet another

in graphic form, by a Bryn Mawr student: "The Story of an X"

Serendip Visitor's picture

Women's colleges: step forward or step back?

In some ways the idea of having an exclusively "female" institution is archaic. In an ideal world there would not exist such institutions. What is "female" and who are "women" anyway?
But I think the world, and America in particular, changes gradually due to the irrational work of radical people. Most calls for demand a lot of policy makers and narrow-minded Americans--some could even say too much. But what these "radical" people do in asking for an "irrational" amount of change is, slowly, open peoples minds. We had to go from slavery to segregation to racism, and now we are still experiencing racism, but fighting for better. I think in regards to gender and sexuality, we need to make everyone equal before we can redefine "everyone." So we must stay within the confines of the gender binary and improve equality there, before we can expect to have total equality. So let's stay in our all women's institution (sorry hford people) and improve women's rights, and once we have that, we'll go on to get rid of the term "women." Afterall, it's we radicals with irrational ideas who make change.

Owl's picture

What are we?

In Sherry Ordiner's essay "Is Female to Nature as Male to  culture", she talked about the idea that women are closer to nature because we have these sort of innate bodily functions that are not necessarily necessary for the health of stability of an individual, but are there and bothersome. I agree with this; however to a certain extent. Although we have these innate functions as women, that somehow in the eyes of others make us closer to nature than the y do men, that does NOT mean that our inner selves feel this so called connection as a part of who they are. For example there have been stories in which women have babies but feel no "mother's intuition". In other words, instead of feeling the "appropriate" joy. pride, and excitement, they feel nothing at all. How are these women put into categories?

There was an instance in my performance and self class in where, the conclusion to a discussion came down to this idea that we cannot perform something that we did not feel was a part of us already. In terms of women hood, this is absolutely true. Women have the ability to portray a motherly figure, because we have been exposed to it and that is the leeway through which we put together the puzzle pieces and say "oh so this is how you do it". Exposure however, although a part of the body's mind, it is still not a part of the soul. Furthermore, if this exposure is similar to both female and male "bodies", can it not be that males can also portray the act of being a mother?

eshaw's picture

Gender and Sexual Orientation

 I’ve been trying to tackle the question of how we choose our gender – something that a lot of people have posted about already – and in thinking about it, I found that I often associate gender with sexual orientation. While I know that being gendered involves many components that are distinct from sexual orientation, I feel that, anatomical attributes aside, the gender one is attracted to helps concretize the conceptual binary. This particular issue reminded me of a documentary that I watched about transgender people in Iran (I don’t remember what it was called…I think “The Birthday” or something). The fascinating part of the movie was that, to most of my classmate’s disbelief, transsexual operations are fairly common in Iran and condoned by the state (the government even finances many of the operations). I don’t know about everyone else, but that shocked me particularly because of the radically conservative nature of the Iranian government; I would never assume that such a controversial operation would have been commonplace and accepted. Interestingly, the documentary conveyed that being a transgender person in Iran was considerably more socially acceptable (and less dangerous) than being homosexual. Though the movie never explicitly stated it, ultimately my class concluded that changing one’s gender in Iran, though expensive and a potentially dangerous operation, was a more acceptable solution to issues of discrimination (religious authorities concluded that the Qur’an does not explicitly condemn changing one’s gender, while it does condemn homosexuality). I just thought it was interesting in light of our conversation that the subjects in the documentary, while they were actively choosing their gender category, their decision was potentially motivated by their sexual orientation and its ramifications. I don’t know if we see similar parallels in the US or if it shines any light upon the question of choosing gender, but I did think it was interesting.

Karina's picture

He, She, One or...Many?


Being an English major, one thing I can clearly recall is the importance of using non-gender-neutral pronouns on standardized tests, i.e. the SAT and SAT II. I’m sure you all remember the multiple choice sentences in which we had to “correct” the usage of they and their to the proper he or she or his or her. This was drilled into my head incessantly in every English class, preparatory course, and, of course, the number of times I’d taken the SATs (and ACTs) themselves. Apart from the fact that I adored English and wanted to do well on the tests to get into a Good School, etc. there was also my “neurosis” to consider: I can to the States as a non-English speaker and made it a point to master it. Not surprisingly, it became very important for me to exercise proper grammar and to this day I’m one of those people who uses whom instead of who, makes a conscious effort not to end a sentence with a preposition, and never confuses less with fewer. So, the linguistic gender binary became engrained in me as a result. I was probably proud of my deliberate avoidance of gender-ambiguous language; good grammar demands precision; commitment to one side or the other.
The first time I found my good grammar challenged and even labeled discriminatory was over the summer at an internship with a non-profit teaching Sex Ed. I’d joked about some of our pamphlets being peppered with sub-par grammar because of the usage of “their” where “his or her” was called for. The other intern lightly reproached me, saying that we can’t assume that every individual falls within the gender binary. I was naturally taken aback. I felt defensive. A proper use and understanding of the English language is a more basic knowledge than sensitivity to individual identity, I thought. This “their” business is great and all if you’re a liberal, but in the real world it’s his or her, period. Or else you’re inevitably perceived as uneducated. And besides, most people do fall within the gender binary, do identify with one or the other, it’s only a (liberal) minority that falls outside of those categories, so by and large my linguistic choice would not only be recognized as correct, but would also go unchallenged.
Of course, despite my initial defensiveness, I was forced to rethink this he/she issue. I hated the fact that he or she always began with the male pronoun (s/he was just unbearably ugly and also not a word but a cop-out that reduced the female pronoun to something slashed up and mutilated) and that he was usually the default pronoun for any author, philosopher, reader, poet, critic, etc. in any academic paper. I had a brief rebellious stint in which I wrote papers in which I deliberately used she to refer to those parties, though that didn’t last long. Also aside from being an ugly mouthful (saying his or her EVERY time instead of their) their was incorrect because it implied multiplicity of person where a singularity was implied. So I committed myself to one. It seemed right: it was singular, it was gender-ambiguous, it was probably as formal as a reference pronoun could get in the academic world. I was pleased. However, now I’m beginning to wonder whether the implied singularity is not a fallacy as well. I recognize that even two-spirited people in our readings are still, physically singular – one body, regardless of how many identities - but I want to pose a question to people whether a corporeal singularity should be what is reflected in our linguistic choices when one’s (ha! I used it again!) identity may not reflect that at all. If we were to use some sort of a number-ambiguous pronoun on top of a gender-ambiguous pronoun, would there be any logic behind it or would it just make it difficult for us to distinguish between one and multiple human bodies (numbers)? Am I going overboard with my questioning of one-ness?


Anne Dalke's picture

Not overboard, but right on target!

What interests me here, Karina, is your very striking notion that--since each of us is multiple, chock full of what our interdisciplinary faculty group on evolving systems has taken to calling "internal againstnesses"--the gender-neutral default "one" becomes homogenizing and normalizing. Whether "a corporeal singularity should be what is reflected in our linguistic choices when **one’s** identity may not reflect that at all" is a GREAT question. It seems the pronounial compliment to e-prime's attempt to get rid of the verb "to be," as a means of accentuating the ever-ongoing-ness of our formation...

CCM's picture

Reading as a demanding process

Seeing that I am majoring in the humanities it is probably not that hard to believe that I am not a big fan of the natural sciences. I often find that my thought processes are limited when it comes to reading scientific information. When presented with raw scientific data I don’t usually find myself having to deliberate or question the material I have been given. On most occasions I am presented with concrete information that contains a precise solution with no room for debate. With that said one can only imagine the relief I felt when we were given the task of reading Ortner’s articles. As a reader I am now free to have a discussion (not verbally of course but in my head) with the author of the text I am reading. Like most arguments that stem from a social science perspective I find that I can actively question the concepts that are brought forth in the text. All in all, despite my clear bias for the social sciences I do very much appreciate the substantial contributions that scientists have made. While I enjoy the process of critiquing I must say that it is nice to have scientific proof to support or even at times refute my arguments. As a philosophy student I find myself getting frustrated with the back-and-forth nature of philosophical arguments. Rarely do I find myself in an enlightened state in which I am presented with a clear-cut solution to a problem. I see the same thing happening with the social sciences. Going back to my experience as a reader I find myself overwhelmed with the task of mentally digesting most material written by social scientists. Often I have to remove myself from the text and only from there can I begin to dissect the arguments that have been thrown at me. Well, I guess that is the life of a student!  

kjmason's picture

Through the clouds of smoke

 After smoking my pipe fully through the ideas we developed in class today, I'm most interested by the difference between the idea that people choose their gender and that society pigeon holes us all into the gender that matches our sex. Also related to our class discussion, and of particular interest to me, as someone between insecure teenager and an insecure woman, is the idea of the objectification that we do to ourselves on a daily basis, in relation to society's influence on how we objectify ourselves.

I think that conception of gender as an adult is quite different from that of a chid's because a person must take an active role in identifying as a person of a particular gender or of no gender. This conscious decision is the very foundation of the change that I would like to see in our society. I know that the "boxes" we have now are utterly inadequate but I also can't imagine a way in which they could be effectively removed. I think that instead of taking old boxes away we can make smaller boxes inside them or aside them until the idea of an archaic gender binary has dissolved like all other old ideas that no longer apply to our society. This relates to my opinion of what I think a women's college does. I think that somehow, by being so forward about the idea of gender, it raises questions just through its existence. What qualifies as a woman? Can it be someone who was sexed as a male, but doesn't feel represented by the gender associated with "his" sex and feels more comfortable being gendered as a woman? Can it be an intersex person who chooses to identify with female pronouns? I think that making this division so frankly, the space is made, if only in our little microcosm, for smaller and more fitting categories to emerge, making our understanding of each human more precise. I see it like addresses for example...I know this sounds odd, but just follow me. Right now, I am 1)On Earth, 2) On the continent of North America 3) In the United States 4) In Pennsylvania 5) In Montgomery County 6) In Lower Merion Township 7) In the Village of Bryn Mawr...and so on... I feel like this multiplicity of levels of categorization could work to express individual gender and sexuality in a more precise way than what is happening now. So please put that in your pipe and take a puff.

twig's picture

wake up, make tea, choose gender, go to breakfast...

 elephant brought back the conversation of whether or not we chose/choose our gender, and though it seems like another of those questions we will never settle on an answer for (because there is no one answer?) i have a few things i would like to add.

one of the things that we all seemed to question when dealing with this, was what are we counting as gender? this is interesting because we can consider anything from the fact that my parents dressed me in dresses and chose a female pronoun for me, to what clothes i put on every morning as the answer. the first half of that seems more obvious, of course someone else 'chose' my gender when i was incapable of controlling myself in the ways that contribute to perception of gender, but what about now? i think it is interesting that every day i can choose my gender (in a way) just by getting dressed. somedays i wear a dress and long earrings, some days the man pants and giant tshirt win out. all those days i'm still me and identify exactly the same way, but in a simple moment of decision (or you could say fate if i sometimes get dressed based on what's clean...) i change drastically the way in which i am perceived, which is, i think, a major component of gender. this doesn't even have to be a choice of 'which gender am i today?' but even dressing for comfort one day and work the next changes so drastic a thing as where i fall on the gender spectrum. along these lines, something i don't think we consider enough in our discussions is the difference culture makes. choosing my gender in america (or even what my gender itself means) could be drastically different from other parts of the world, or even from other cultures than those i am intimately familiar with. in an anthro class, we read a book 'guests of the sheik' in which a woman follows her new husband to an iraqi village where he is to be doing anthropological work for some time to come. the role and behaviour of women there is very different from what she knows in america, and so she actually has to choose upon arrival how she will conform, or basically, she has to choose her gender. as a foreigner, it would be permitted for her to not wear the traditional female coverings and otherwise act as the village women, however, she would never be seen or treated as a woman in that society. this is originally her choice, but she realizes that acting as a western woman in this village is not a role that has a place, and so she chooses the gender of a woman, adopts the dress and behaviours, and begins to fit securely in her binary...

holsn39's picture

The Spectrum

I think that your point here about choosing our gender just by getting dressed is very interesting. I agree that the way our gender is perceived changes drastically with the way we look (our clothes, hair, makeup...).  People talk about this idea of a "spectrum" instead of a gender binary but I find this perspective problematic as-well. For some reason (maybe the physical science background ) I can only picture a spectrum as being linear, and if we see gender as a linear 'spectrum' then people tend to place the gender binaries female and male (woman and man) on either end. So this model may allow for people to stand anywhere on the scale but it doesn't get rid of gendered perceptions based off of the binary system. So someone may see someone else as being not female or male but instead as somewhere else on a scale of femininity and masculinity. These are social/cultural trends of gender perception that I have noticed. The reason this popped into my head was because I was thinking about getting dressed and the perceptions of gender culture makes of us based off of image. When I get dressed I do feel like my choice of clothes (or image) effects how I am perceived just like you said, and then the simple action of wearing clothes becomes stressful because it influences how other people define me consciously or subconsciously.  I really hate the idea of having a 'feminine' and/or 'masculine' identity and/or image because I feel like I am defined differently than (separated from) other people on these terms but they have no meaning to me.  I guess this goes along with what we were talking about last week with categories, I really think they have to go all together and can't even be included on the "spectrum." I believe that the connection Orter made between gender identity and bodies is valid but I believe that we can transcend images and bodies because they are superficial representations of us, especially of our gender... well maybe the bodies part could be debated.

holsn39's picture


Serendip Visitor's picture

the spectrum

I think that your point here about choosing our gender just by getting dressed is very interesting. I agree that the way our gender is perceived changes drastically with the way we look (our clothes, hair, makeup...). People talk about this idea of a "spectrum" instead of a gender binary but I find this perspective problematic as-well. For some reason (maybe the physical science background ) I can only picture a spectrum as being linear, and if we see gender as a linear 'spectrum' then people tend to place the gender binaries female and male (woman and man) on either end. So this model may allow for people to stand anywhere on the scale but it doesn't get rid of gendered perceptions based off of the binary system. So someone may see someone else as being not female or male but instead as somewhere else on a scale of femininity and masculinity. These are social/cultural trends of gender perception that I have noticed. The reason this popped into my head was because I was thinking about getting dressed and the perceptions of gender culture makes of us based off of image. When I get dressed I do feel like my choice of clothes (or image) effects how I am perceived just like you said, and then the simple action of wearing clothes becomes stressful because it influences how other people define me consciously or subconsciously. I really hate the idea of having a 'feminine' and/or 'masculine' identity and/or image because I feel like I am defined differently than (separated from) other people on these terms but they have no meaning to me. I guess this goes along with what we were talking about last week with categories, I really think they have to go all together and can't even be included on the "spectrum." I believe that the connection Orter made between gender identity and bodies is valid but I believe that we can transcend images and bodies because they are superficial representations of us, especially of our gender... well maybe the bodies part could be debated.

Anne Dalke's picture

"What Makes a Woman a Woman?"

See also Peggy Orenstein on this question: "What Makes a Woman a Woman?"
New York Times Magazine, September 11, 2009.

rae's picture

This article

I actually just read this article. Someone left a copy of the New York Times Magazine at the circulation desk at Canaday, and I was flipping through it and happened to see the article.
I think it's an interesting article, although it links sex and gender a bit more than I think that they should be. I also didn't agree with the idea that biology is destiny.

justouttheasylum's picture

The Disciplines

I am recalling times in my science classes where we were asked to collect data and plot it on a graph. We were next asked to find a relationship between our x inputs and y values. Sometimes, the data would form a parabola. Other times, it would form a straight line. But every time I plotted data, there would be some data points that just didn't fit the curve. And that's what I think natural science does with gender and sexuality issues: it takes the data, tries to find a pattern and the points that don't fit are easily excluded.

Reading about gender and sexuality from the social scientist's lens offered a unique experience: I found that 'people were allowed to come into the picture'. Those were my own words so I don't have to cite it or anything but I felt like that needed some explaining. In a textbook, you'll see a diagram of the penis. In the text underneath, it will inform us that the male has... You will not find in that textbook a blurb where the male says, "Honestly, student, I identify myself as female". That kind of statement doesn't fit with the larger picture, a picture that for so long, hasn't included the beliefs, feelings and thoughts of the individual.

So I'm finding that while science tries to find objective, logical, and calculated ways to classify that reduces variables, social science allows the 'diagram' on the page to have a name, a point of view and a different way of life. However, social science is a discipline that too is guilty of trying to force squares into circles. Now, people with similar beliefs are being forced into the same category as if identifying as male to one person is the same to another.  Which of these lenses speak more to my own questions? Well, I prefer to put both lenses in a pair of eyeglass frames and wear them at the tip of my nose, using them to see while being able to peer above and give things a fresh perspective.

Asia G.

cantaloupe's picture

women roles and mawrters

I think the comment below me about who belongs at a woman's college is interesting.  I agree; it isn't about the gender, but the type of person who goes here.   A Mawrter is a very unique kind of person that has nothing to do with being a woman.  I am envious of the previous poster because she feels so at home at Bryn Mawr and being a Mawrter.  I don't.  Somewhere between coming here and now I lost the sense of being a Mawrter.  I understand what it is like to attend this college - I know the traditions and what this college means to so many students here.  Yet, somehow I have become detached.  This, of course, is not due to my gender.  I identify as being a woman, but I lurk somewhere on the outskirts of the college.  If someone who identifies as something other than a woman feels that this college is their home, then they absolutely belong here.  A women's college started because it was a safe haven for a group of people who were seen as inferior to learn.  Now, a woman going to college isn't abnormal, but we remain a college for that group of people.  In doing so I think we are inviting other types of people - people floating on the gender binary or the sexuality spectrum or anything else - to come to Bryn Mawr as a safe haven to learn.  It's a secret to the outside world who still sees us as just a women's college.  I think we are also empowering a giant spectrum of people.


On a completely different note, I want to respond to the readings by Sherry Ortner too.  I enjoyed reading "Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture" because it made an idea I had last year more clear.  In my csem I wrote a paper about the natural limitations of being female.  It is actually on this website because I was in Anne's class - it's called Appetite of a Woman.  It was a muddled thought that was based on the fact that men were more free than women because they can impregnate a woman and then run off.  A woman will always be inherently attached to something because she can have a child.  I couldn't quite express the idea, but Ortner put it into words.  Women are closer to nature because of their child bearing ability.  Men, unable to create life, have to turn to something else to create which, according to Ortner, is culture.  It's an interesting though - one that  I am not sure leads to the fact that women are lower in society than men - but definately one that leads to the roles that are inherently taken by men and women.

rae's picture

Just a thought

I really like what you said about Bryn Mawr and who belongs here. I'm also saddened that you've lost the sense of being a Mawrter/Mawrtyr. Over the past three years, I've definitely felt a sense of detachment from Bryn Mawr at times, but overall, I feel a part of Bryn Mawr, and I treasure that feeling.

I just wanted to comment that I'd actually prefer gender-neutral pronouns (I'm currently favoring they/them/their), if you don't mind. Thanks.

rae's picture

Who Belongs at a Women's College?

Who belongs at a women’s college? Who belongs at Bryn Mawr College, specifically?

To answer that, I think it is important to look at what the point of a women’s college is. Why is it a good thing that there be a college (numerous college, in fact, all across the world) exclusively for women? Someone mentioned in class that women and men were segregated educationally because they were taught different things. While that may be true elsewhere, to my knowledge, Bryn Mawr College has always been an institution of higher learning that focused on true education. It was not founded as a finishing school, or a way to catch a husband. Actually, the first degree Bryn Mawr gave out was a Ph.D. in 1888.   

I think that women’s colleges are also not merely about biological females being together at a educational institution. While some people argue that males and females have inherently different brains and thus learn differently, that’s a rather controversial topic. Given that Bryn Mawr students can major at Haverford, and Haverford students can major at Bryn Mawr, I assume that it is not Bryn Mawr’s position that BMC is a women’s college because females cannot learn by being taught in the same way that males are taught.

I think that what is useful and bright and wonderful about Bryn Mawr being a women’s college goes beyond its students’ sexes or genders.  Therefore, I do not believe that every student at Bryn Mawr must identify as a woman in order to belong at Bryn Mawr. I love Bryn Mawr. I am a senior and a very proud Mawrtyr. I love Bryn Mawr, and I love the Traditions, and I love that Bryn Mawr is one of the Seven Sisters. I would not want Bryn Mawr to go “co-ed.” That said, I do not necessarily identify as a woman, and I firmly believe that I belong here at Bryn Mawr as much as anyone else. I say this to let you know where I’m coming from and to make it clear that this is personal. To me, this is not merely a theoretical argument about the abstract concept of women’s colleges. This affects actual people and whether they feel welcome at their own college, on their own campus.

To me, the importance of Bryn Mawr’s being a women’s college has to do with a commitment to educating women/females/people who have been discriminated against based on their sex/gender or perceived sex/gender. It’s not just to give women as a special category a college all their own, like a college for blonde people, or eldest children, or left-handed people, or short people. It’s about lifting up people who face sexism and who originally did not have other opportunities for this kind of education (back in the day when many other institutions of higher education excluded women). It’s about the experiences that people have had, being socialized as girls, or treated as women, or experiencing life as women. There needs not be one experience that Bryn Mawr students have had, in my opinion, to belong at Bryn Mawr, even as a women’s college.   

I was socialized to be a girl, just like everyone else at Bryn Mawr probably was. I’ve internalized a lot of society’s messages about how girls/females are supposed to act, dress, think, behave. Society views me as a woman, and, no matter how I view myself, it will continue to view me as a woman and treat me accordingly. My personal gender identity, or lack thereof, will have little affect on how the world treats me. I will face sexism. As far as I am concerned, that is a fact. Bryn Mawr attempts to prepare its graduates to deal with living in a sexist world, or at least to help its students become strong enough to deal with sexism (depending on whether you believe that living in the “Bryn Mawr bubble” prepares people to deal with sexism--if it doesn’t, I believe that the hope is that at least Bryn Mawr grads will be confident and strong enough to deal with sexism, even if they don’t have much experience with it). I need that, too.

Like I said before, I love Bryn Mawr. Bryn Mawr is my college. I am a Mawrtyr. I fully recognize that Bryn Mawr is a women’s college, and I do not want to change that. My question is, what do we mean by “women’s college”? I was in favor of the Plenary resolution requiring gender-neutral terms and pronouns in the Constitution and the Honor Code. I am in favor of the “everyone welcome” signs on the bathrooms, instead of signs saying “women and men.” I am in full support of the trans men and genderqueer people and trans folk and other nontraditionally gendered people who are current Bryn Mawr students and/or alums. And I believe that none of this threatens Bryn Mawr as a women’s institution. Things may change, but the spirit is the same.

Bryn Mawr has dealt with many changes in the student body, from integrating Jewish students into the dorms to allowing students of color into the college as full members of the community, and all of these changes have only made Bryn Mawr stronger. Who qualifies as a Bryn Mawr student now has changed greatly since Bryn Mawr was founded, yet some things remain the same. “An intense intellectual commitment, a self-directed and purposeful vision of [one’s] life, and a desire to make a meaningful contribution to the world”--these characteristics are not gendered. This is what makes a Bryn Mawr student, not some narrow definition of the word “woman.”    

Bryn Mawr is a women’s college. What does that mean to you?


ebock's picture

Ortner v. Roughgarden

Having read Ortner's "Is Female to Male..." before in another class, reading it again gave me more of an understanding. What was especially interesting was reading Ortner's work back to back with Roughgarden's.

There aren't many scientists-by-trade who take on questions of gender. The only other scientist/feminist that I can think of off the top of my head is Anne Fausto-Sterling. Both come to similar conclusions about the diversity within animal and human organisms on our planet in that they both seek to demonstrate that there really aren't only two sexes (Fausto-Sterling actually forwards the idea that there are 5, if I'm not mistaken).

So reading Ortner (her first article and then its commentary that she wrote later) after having read Roughgarden's work with its policy recommendation and interdisciplinary approach to providing evidence about the diversity of gender/sexual identity in our world, made it all the more evident to me the ways in which biological essentialism really underlie a lot of gender stereotypes that lead to some of the unproductive consequences of categories. Women are always linked closely with their bodies; in fact, they are sometimes made to be inseparable entities which is really frustrating to me.

So when Ortner asserts in her first "Is Female to Nature..." (I can never get the title right, honestly) that women are inevitably the intermediaries of nature and culture because of their socializing of babies and their production of meals (refining raw products), etc., I just wanted to shout "NO!" Not because it's wrong, because in a lot of cases its true (not all but a lot), but because it felt like it was perpetuating the linkage of body to woman and non-embodied to men.

Maybe I'm just getting suckered into Roughgarden's evidence because science has always been a huge factor in our culture for legitimating anything, but anthropology has always felt like a problematic field to me: trying to find universals, and using ethnographic observation methods instead of accumulating raw data (like sociology, right?), etc. I don't mean to butcher the field because I am by no means an expert (I'm an English major so social science is not exactly home turf for me).

Certainly the sciences have their own issues of objectivity, social awareness, etc., so... I'm rambling. This was absolutely not a fully-formed thought haha.

LizJ's picture

Our Conversation Continued...

 I haven't had a chance to read the Sherry Ortner articles yet, but I wanted to go on a little more about what we discussed in class today.

One of the questions asked today was "Do you think that you have chosen your gender?" and as we discussed that question in partners we were then further asked to look at gender in terms of same gender sports teams or schools. Personally, I have never questioned my gender. Is it a choice? I don't know for sure, but I don't think so. Even in this open discussion of gender where in some ways we are asked to question ourselves for the first time, I still don't see my gender as a choice. One of my other professors said that categories aren't all bad, that they provide order. Humans need order, that's why they created categories and with order that is how humans get things done. Applying this to gender, I don't think the gender binary is necessarily a bad thing. I really hope I'm not offending anyone, but the way I like to think about it is that there aren't two STRICT ways of looking at gender but that within the gender binary there is a lot of room for exploration. Roughgarden talked about the Polynesian mahu and how each of the mahu differ in terms of there having different ratios of male and female. The mahu are "mixtures" of male and female ingredients and they are expressing these different combinations. I like to think of gender this way. We are all different combinations of male and female, some ratios are just stronger to one side of the gender spectrum than to the other. To reiterate my point about all-women's colleges that I made in class, I think that by focusing on one gender in an area, or in this case college, we are able to explore within that gender more. We can stray away from the "normative" view of the gender we are exploring and see the different variations of that gender. I don't think we should move into "Historically Women's College" label, because I do think that we benefit from being an all-women's college for the reasons I mentioned above.

As for where we should have an intervention in changing gender stereotypes, I don't think just making laws is going to solve anything. I'm sure we've all heard the quote "Laws are meant to be broken." Making laws isn't going to solve the problem, I think we have to work our way up to that. I would want an intervention to start at an early stage before all the gender stereotypes have been set in stone, especially in a young child's mind. I would definitely change school curriculum, even at an early enough stage as pre-school and if possible I would change after school educational programming. Sesame Street definitely had an impact on my perceptions of life when I was a kid. If they could have a character named "Happy Hijdra" or "Two-spirited Sal," that could be a start! I know that sounds a little preposterous, and I'm not going into immense detail about how to change these educational tools, but like I said, it's a start.