THE LENSES OF GENDER by Sandra Lipsitz Bem


Transforming the Debate on Sexual Inequality
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 A stimulating and tightly argued treatise on how American and Western culture defines gender and uses that definition to make the ``equality of women'' an oxymoron. Bem (Psychology and Women's Studies/Cornell) suggests that there are three ways--three lenses--through which society views gender. The first is ``androcentrism,'' the assumption that men's experience is the norm. Tracing androcentrism from Eve to the most recent ruling on disability insurance, Bem finds that the view of woman as ``the other'' is still firmly embedded in Western thought. The second lens is ``gender polarization,'' placing men and women on opposite ends of a spectrum that is rigidly defined, not so much by biology as by acculturation. Children, says Bem, learn to distinguish males from females by cultural clues (hair, dress) before they learn about anatomical differences, and quickly begin to assume the behavior that puts them on one end or another of the gender spectrum. The third lens is ``biological essentialism,'' the shifting theories that share the belief that biology is destiny. Bem argues convincingly that all three lenses both distort and shape reality. For instance, the arguments presently raging about whether women are or aren't different from men miss the point-- women clearly are different in some ways, and these differences should be considered but not devalued. Most controversial are Bem's arguments that children should be allowed to find their own spot on the spectrum of gender. She looks at homosexuals and transsexuals (``gender subversives''), and also at girls called ``tomboys'' and boys called ``sissies,'' while arguing that there are many more variations of masculinity and femininity than our society has permitted itself to explore. A concluding chapter offers suggestions for revaluing the male ``standard,'' for increasing social support of the bearing and raising of children, and for dismantling gender polarization. A thought-provoking study, bringing together many social, biological, and political theories into a well-reasoned volume.

Pub Date: March 17th, 1993
ISBN: 0-300-05676-1
Page count: 256pp
Publisher: Yale Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1st, 1993


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