International Women’s Day is 104 years old, and my book, Sex, Gender and Society, is 43 years old. Both remind us that social definitions of what women can do remain restricted and oppressive; such definitions perpetuate the idea that human capabilities are always inherently limited by biology.
In 1972, when I wrote Sex, Gender and Society, there was little awareness of women’s rights, feminism had scarcely arrived (again, it had been here before!) and the term ‘gender’ in its modern usage hadn’t been invented. My modest little book went through the evidence about how societies variously define femininity and masculinity, and concluded that there’s enormous scope for all sorts of behaviours. The main limiting factor is how we think about the sexes, and how we impose on them expectations of gender. Doing the research for and writing that book was life-changing for me; I was a young academic in a field (sociology) which was intensely male-dominated and which mostly ignored women’s interests and activities. The anthropology, and psychology and medical science I scoured for the book opened my eyes to a much more inclusive world.
To my great surprise the book has enjoyed a long career on readings lists of many kinds. It is dated, of course: we know much more about sex and gender than we did then. But many of the old arguments still hang around – women are more emotional and less rational than men, they are less capable than men of physically and intellectually demanding jobs, they are more necessary in the home as child-rearers, and so on and so forth. We still need the evidence to oppose these ideas.
This new edition has the original text tidied up and properly referenced, but it has not been substantially rewritten, because that would have meant a new book altogether. Sex, Gender and Society was a child of its time, a time that is not altogether in the past. A long new introduction looks at how some of the research has moved on, at some of the omissions in the original book (there was too much about heterosexuality, not enough about domestic violence). It’s still a modest little book, but the plight of women globally requires many like these to be written, read, and, most importantly, used as a basis for action.
Ann Oakley is Professor of Sociology and Social Policy at the Social Science Research Unit at the Institute of Education, UK. The new revised edition of Ann Oakley’s Sex, Gender and Society is available in paperback, hardback and ebook formats from 5th March 2015.