Social norms can be defined as “the informal rules that govern behaviour in groups and societies” (Bicchieri et al, 2018). Individual interactions result into social norms; therefore, they vary across cultures. Although some scholars disagree, some norms are thought to exist for a purpose, and this might be the reason why they persist (Hechter and Opp, 2001). However, there are many others that are inefficient and often have a negative impact or fade away. This can be observed on gender norms, as some of these raise inequalities and makes women inferior than men.
To understand gender norms, it is crucial to be aware of the distinction between the words “gender” and “sex”. A person’s biological femaleness or maleness is referred as “sex”. The word “gender” refers to the sociocultural prescriptions for femininity and masculinity, these are the non-physical aspects of sex (Lips,1988: 3). In their first year of life, children begin to be aware of the gender roles, and begin to develop a gender identity as suggested by The Social Learning Theory (1988: 43). This theory assumes that females learn to be feminine and males to be masculine, because gender-role behaviour might be punished, ignored or rewarded depending on the appropriateness of the behaviour in accordance with the gender assigned (Bandura,1925). As argued by Foucault (1979) this is not a neutral act, we become subjects of powerful institutions as we internalize their norms. These institutions hold specific power structures in place such as capitalism. In this essay I will analyse how Patriarchy, Capitalism and the emergence of the nation state are responsible for contemporary gender norms. However, this paper will argue that these interconnects which will lead to the conclusion that none of these can be seen alone as the responsible of gender norms and the inequality women has always faced.
The patriarchy is the structural system, which perpetrates and crystallizes the oppression suffered by women at the political, social, economic and cultural spheres. This is, among other reasons, because males occupy the immense number of upper positions in hierarchies (Goldberg, 1977). But when did this masculine supremacy at the power spheres began? At the very beginning, humans evolved in small hunter and gathered bands, as we instinctually feel the need to be part of a group which also increased survival. To allow for efficiency, groups developed a hierarchy, which usually meant having a leader. The characteristics associated with leadership, at the time, were associated with males. As suggested by Hearn, this could be because men tend to have a greater role in hunting, working with hard and heavy material, trade and inter-societal exchanges. While women, were related to ‘domestic’ tasks such as childrearing (Hearn, 2012). This led to a sharp differentiation of gender roles across many cultures. Leaders had access to more resources, which meant that women were nothing without men. This was emphasized centuries later by Simone de Beauvoir (2015) as she argues that “man defines woman”, and describes how humans tend to form opposite groups. In this case, he is the essential while she is the inessential. One would think that there is reciprocity between the sexes to some extent, as it could be found in biological needs such as the desire for posterity. This is certainly not the case, since there are plenty of elements of inequality lying underneath these claims of reciprocity, whose creation rely entirely on socially constructed aspects. The responsibility of patriarchy could then be related to contemporary norms in the household, such as the male being the ‘breadwinner’, because the gender dynamic in the political and social hierarchies are reflected in more personal relationships.
Male domination is clearly observed in the micro-level of social interactions, but also on the macro-level. The case of Delia Prince in Gender and Power illustrates the effect of patriarchy on an individual. She is described as ‘normal’ teenager and the author questions what this ‘normality’ really means. Analysing the individual’s economic circumstances, family structure and education of Delia in which relations between the different genders, is perhaps enough to show the interplay of personal problems and public/social issues (Connel, 1987). Furthermore, Carol Hanisch (1969) states that “personal problems are political problems” after she attends “political therapy” in which political women discuss personal problems of women to then sum up and generalize and make connections about it. She argues that power is present in many personal aspects of an individual’s life. It should be emphasized how women has face this in the unequal responsibilities in aspects such as housework and childrearing (Hearn, 2012: 187). Feminism focuses on tracing power from macro-micro level (Davis, 1991). The micro-level can be found on the implicit support of patriarchy, such as norms of beauty women are taught to follow (2012:188). The effects of this has led to problems we face at the macro-level such as public confrontations in the ‘First and Second Wave’ like the Women’s Liberation Movement, which pursuit social change and equality. This could be argued to follow the assertion described in The Sociological Imagination of how public issues affect personal troubles (Mills, 1970). Which are now shown in contemporary gender norms, as more macro and public influences such as social media or stereotypes within fashion industries are responsible for more micro or internalised gender roles.
Of course, patriarchy as a structural system affecting the different components of a civilization –the society, its economy, its social norms or its culture- is the main component to blame. The consequences that the constraints and the boundaries that the stigmata of feminization have produced are undoubtedly key to the understanding of the discrimination faced by women daily and around the world. Nevertheless, it does not operate solely, the importance of other factors must be underlined too. The economic system established in the world we live in, capitalism, contributes to the gender hierarchy and gender norms that still prevails nowadays (Streeck,2012). Especially since we consider that, according to the Marxist theory (Marx, 1967), the economic structure is the first and the most basic source of inequalities in the world. One can easily assume, as Simone de Beauvoir did, that not only a woman will always be less privileged than a man while, simultaneously, a working-class woman faces more obstacles than a working-class man, since she faces the economic issue of the capital gain as illustrated in the master-slave relation Simone de Beauviour describes, as well as some others, but she is already captivated because of the chains of the patriarchy (2015: 9).
Through the access of mediums of production, which have established the economic power of those owning them since the beginning of economic liberalism during the XVII century –whose pavement got to the point of no return due to the Industrial Revolutions-, capitalism has perpetuated a dichotomy which comprehends society divided into the group of the poor and of the rich. Capitalism determines how people organize their social and personal life including the more informal hierarchies and in the household. This could be because the expansion of markets affects cultural assumptions and what people conceive as “normal” (Streeck, 2012: 17). Furthermore, it is very rare to see women on the top of the economic tree. One of the reasons why this happens, could be because in a capitalist economy, the ability to accumulate wealth is very much dependent on one’s ability to command credit. Many institutions are more likely to extend a credit to a man than a woman. In particular, direct discrimination in terms of the assumption that a husband is necessarily ‘head of the household’ is not an unfamiliar gender issue in terms of economies and therefore it is involved in capitalism. In relation to contemporary gender norms a wife may not be an independent agent (Connell, 1987).
The interconnection of both patriarchy and capitalism are to be considered by feminist activists as the alliance that affects women’s empowerment and emancipation the most. It is highly responsible for contemporary gender norms such as women having to take care of children and cook, while men is considered the “bread-winner” (1987: 6). Furthermore, some of the results of this interaction can be seen through the attempts of legalizing prostitution, as well as by surrogacy, amongst other elements that are based on the capitalization of women bodies (Quinn, 2010).
The conception of the nation-state, since it was given birth at the peace treaty of Westphalia (Lansford, 2000), which was established right after the end of the Thirty Years War. This entrains the establishment of non-tangible elements such as identity, language or common values that are adapted to the borders of a territory, which conform a State -amongst its other pillars, such as the population of inhabitants that live in it-. The co-existence of those political, geographical and cultural entities entrained since its very beginning different principles that have been very relevant to the development of areas as Public International Law, among which it is important to consider the non-intervention principle (Shen, 2001). Even though it was not strictly settled down until the 20th century, it is an aspect that plays a very important role regarding the matters of a State belonging to itself, without the permission of foreign countries to intervene within that given order. As a result of this, it could be stated that the construction of the nation-state has perpetrated the different gender rules and norms that might be embodied within countries’ constitutional norms or political cultures (Ranchod-Nilsson, 2011). Thus, if a state claims itself to be respectful towards gender equity and the different patriarchal stigmata, it would not have the right to intervene in case that its neighbouring country violates those rights, since those are internal affairs about which it would have no competences to get through. This could mean that as gender equality increases in some areas, other areas are still lacking which can suggest that the responsibility of contemporary gender norms is difficult to analyse. Therefore, it could argued that the nation-state is not directly responsible for gender norms however, it can aid the persistence of them.
In conclusion, it could be argued that patriarchy holds the most responsibility for contemporary gender norms. However, without the economic system of capitalism, certain gender roles would have not persisted such as the “head of household” dynamic, because the system persuaded men to be in the top of the hierarchy and made women to be completely dependent on men. Furthermore, it could be said that the nation-state aid the persistence of certain gender norms such as those that promote inequality between gender or follows patriarchal patterns. It has been demonstrated by feminist scholars that feminist movements have had also a big impact in contemporary gender norms as it has aimed to make those that increase inequality fade away. It would be wrong to blame only one factor to be responsible for the gender norms and inequality those bring, as social norms are the interaction between individuals. As social interactions are at a micro-level, collectively they become macro-level communications, which inevitably set social gender norms.