Harvard Educational Review
  1. The Gendered Society

    By Michael S. Kimmel

    New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. 336 pp. $30.00.

    In The Gendered Society, Michael Kimmel examines a wealth of empirical research and popular conceptions about gender differences to argue from a sociological perspective that “gender difference . . . is the result of gender inequality, not its cause” (p. xi). The sociological aspect of his argument is founded on the idea that “the social institutions of our world — workplace, family, school, politics — are also gendered institutions, sites where the dominant definitions are reinforced and reproduced, and where ‘deviants’ are disciplined” (p. 16). Thus, he argues, these institutions “express a logic, a dynamic, that reproduces gender relations between women and men and the gender order of hierarchy and power” (p. 95). As Kimmel sees it, an examination of gender should attempt to explain not only perceived differences between men and women but also male dominance.

    The book is organized in three main parts. In Part One, Explanations of Gender, Kimmel discusses some of the theories and beliefs about gender that have emerged from the disciplines of biology, anthropology, psychology, and sociology. For the most part, Kimmel rejects the idea that gender differences are based solely on biological heritage, using cross-cultural studies to show the variation in societal beliefs about the proper roles and responsibilities of women and men and in their behavior across societies. Kimmel demonstrates that the U.S. model of gender relationships is not universal. The chapters on psychological and sociological explanations of gender include an informative critique of sex-role theory (based on the arguments of various sociologists), and this critique serves as the foundation for moving “toward an explanation of the social construction of gender relations” (p. 106). Fundamental to this sociological perspective is the examination of relationships between identities and institutions.

    In Part Two, Gendered Identities, Gendered Institutions, Kimmel delves into the institutions of family, school, and work to discover how they contribute to the gender inequality that creates gender differences. In the chapter “The Gendered Family,” Kimmel considers marriage, parenting, child care, housework, teenage pregnancy, fatherlessness, divorce, child custody, gay and lesbian families, and family violence. He makes a strong argument for more balanced participation of women and men at work and at home, citing numerous studies finding that women’s increasing participation in the labor market outside the home has not been matched by an equal increase in men’s involvement in work inside the home (including housework and child care). Kimmel states that “without a concerted national policy to assist working women and men to balance work and family obligations, we continue to put such enormous strains on two sets of bonds, between husbands and wives and between parents and children, and virtually guarantee that the ‘crisis’ of the family will continue” (p. 133). He identifies “inadequate funding for education, inadequate health care for children and adults, inadequate corporate policies regarding parental leave, and ‘family unfriendly’ workplaces — with inflexible hours, rigid time schedules, and lack of on-site child care facilities” (p. 148) as contributing to the maintenance of a “gendered division of household labor that reproduces male domination in society” (p. 148). This theme is reiterated from another angle in “The Gendered Workplace.” One of Kimmel’s goals in this book is “to build upon the feminist approaches to gender by also making masculinity visible” (p. 5) in order to illuminate an “understanding [of] men as gendered” (p. 6). This attempt becomes one of the strengths of the book and is demonstrated in the ways Kimmel reveals the effects on men of current gender expectations and arrangements.

    Kimmel frames the chapter on “The Gendered Classroom” within questions about the appropriateness of single-sex education for girls/women and not for boys/men, looking particularly at the cases where all-male military academies — the Virginia Military Institute and the Citadel — were challenged legally to admit females. The rest of the chapter explores gender inequities in education in the United States, leading Kimmel to conclude with a strong argument for why it may not be “feminist hypocrisy” (p. 150) to advocate for all-female schools and oppose all-male schools in the current climate of gender inequality. He explains:
    What women often learn at all-women’s colleges is that they can do anything that men can do. By contrast, what men learn is that they (women) cannot do what they (the men) do. In this way, women’s colleges may constitute a challenge to gender inequality, while men’s colleges reproduce that inequality. (p. 166)
    Kimmel does not oversimplify the issue, nor does he conceive of separate schooling for females as any kind of ultimate solution to gender inequality. However, this chapter offers a thoughtful example of an analysis of the relationships between gendered institutions, gender inequality, and gender difference.

    Friendship, love, sexuality, and violence are the subjects of Part Three, Gendered Interactions. Unlike previous chapters, the synthesis of findings on friendship and love in chapter nine seems to contain a greater number of unresolved contradictions. For example, at times Kimmel attempts to downplay the importance of gender in determining some of the reported differences between men and women regarding friendship and love; yet, he also states after discussing friendship styles of lesbians and gay men that “gender, not sexual orientation, is often the key determinant of our intimate experiences” (p. 213). The effort to downplay gender differences in some instances comes at the expense of providing satisfactory explanations of gender socialization. Unlike previous chapters where Kimmel makes a solid case for how institutional gender inequalities fashion gender differences, in this chapter the structural explanations offered are misdirected and furthermore lack an adequate psychological component.

    Chapter ten, “Gendered Sexualities,” also contains some noticeable contradictions, which arise primarily in the section on homosexuality as gender conformity. While research cited in chapter nine supports the point that relationships, specifically friendship styles, “vary depending on the gender of the person one is befriending” (p. 209), in chapter ten Kimmel asserts that it is a “deep logical flaw” to assume “that the gender of your partner is more important, and more decisive in your life, than your own gender” (p. 235). Rather, “our own gender — the collections of behaviors, attitudes, attributes, and assumptions about what it means to be a man or a woman — is far more important than the gender of the people with whom we interact, sexually or otherwise” (p. 235). Kimmel’s subsequent assertion that “gay men and lesbians are true gender conformists” (p. 235) is extreme and unconvincing, particularly since what he means by “gender conformity” is undefined. This argument potentially conflates biological sex with gender and relies on an assumption of two genders, neglecting the possibility of multiple genders earlier mentioned in the chapter on cross-cultural studies (see pp. 58–60 on “How Many Genders Are There?”).

    Part Three concludes with a powerful chapter on “The Gender of Violence,” in which Kimmel argues that “from early childhood to old age, violence is the most obdurate, intractable behavioral gender difference” (p. 243) and reveals how the gendered nature of violence is often ignored or suppressed. The book ends with a hopeful outlook as Kimmel predicts that “the transformation of the twenty-first century involves the transformation of men’s lives” (p. 267) and urges the equality of men and women. (His particular emphasis on equality is notably reminiscent of liberal feminism.)

    The Gendered Society
    offers a terrific introduction to gender studies. Furthermore, as a synthesis of a great deal of important work on gender and as an intelligent sociological argument, it could be a valuable addition to university and high school courses. Works by scholars Judith Butler and Nancy Cott would be interesting companions for this book, expanding on some of the theoretical and historical material presented.

    Kimmel uses a storytelling style and conversational tone that make the book an engaging read, and his thought experiments provide opportunities to reverse common assumptions based on gender and imagine alternatives to current gendered relationships. The book is eye-opening and important reading for all in this gendered society.



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Book Notes

The Gendered Society
By Michael S. Kimmel

Honored but Invisible
By W. Norton Grubb, with Helena Worthen, Barbara Byrd, Elnora Webb, Norena Badway, Chester Case, Stanford Goto, and Jennifer Curry Villeneuve

An Elusive Science
By Ellen Condliffe Lagemann

The Best for Our Children
Edited by María de la Luz Reyes and John J. Halcón

Holler If You Hear Me
By Gregory Michie