Gender: a Figment of Social Imagination

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The roles of women in society have significantly changed from previous generations, these roles have become more important, and they have also allowed women to gain independence that had not been possible before. In the last one hundred years, women have made impressive improvements as they have stepped out of the typical gender roles as homemakers and child bearers and made progress in the areas of government, the workplace, gaining reproductive rights, and reaching financial freedom and control. Sadly, these changes still have a long way to go as there still are a number of outdated laws and beliefs across the world that have prevented women from obtaining social and workplace equality compared to men as well as in many cases preventing women from reaching treatment equality at home.

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“Gender: a Figment of Social Imagination”

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Although understanding how women’s roles have changed, and how escaping from patriarchal domination and domestic violence are being accomplished through female’s presence in the workforce is important to further female liberation, it is also important to acknowledge the social changes that have led to these advances. In the same way, it is important to recognize how the further need for women in different work fields is needed for women to further secure their freedom from the patriarchy and to escape situations of domestic violence caused by financial dependence on the men who are typically the head of household.

This paper will present a narrative of how paid work has provided women the means to escape patriarchal domination and domestic violence, and how the different sociological perspectives of conflict, symbolic interactionism and functionalism have explained the need for a patriarchal structure.


Patriarchy is the social system characterized by the men holding the power in the family, a system where men hold the moral authority over the women and children, and where males also have greater access to social privileges and the majority of the rights to property ownership. It is a system where women are excluded and are kept dominated and subordinate. Patriarchy is the system that defines the social domains used to establish the meaning of women, it is also the ideological bases used to establish the difference between social roles (Soman 2009). From the early formation of our society, patriarchal domination has served as a way to exclude and segregate women, a system that has led to the devaluation of women, their contributions, and their monetary value in the workforce (Walby 1989). Although private patriarchy can be considered the only form in which men control women and prevent them from advancing within society as they are expected to only participate in the affairs related to the home and kept from pursuing careers and higher social positions. In the same manner, public patriarchy is a socially collective way to separate women from power, status, and wealth by limiting their participation in politics and the workforce among other areas. The social constructionist perspective describes gender as a system of social relations, relations that are created by the symbolic cultural meaning of being identified as male or female which result in gender boundaries (Zuo and LaRossa 2009). Even in modern times, feminists consider these gender differences that lead to patriarchal domination as part of the main disadvantages women face to reach social and status advancements.


From the sociological perspective of conflict, men are defined as being the dominant gender, thus creating a constant struggle between males and females as men seek to maintain their position of power and privilege, and women seek to end traditional gender roles that limit their participation within society. Conflict theory affirms that as long as the dominant gender continues to oppress the subordinate group, social problems will continue. It is this conflict between genders and the search for changes in the power and social structure that have led to past social movements such as the Women’s Suffrage Movement, and in recent times the feminist campaigns such as the #METOO movement that have been developed to create awareness of the discrepancies in social power and status and aim to create a balance between the genders and to end the views of the conflict perspective that women are more valuable and needed inside the home and inferior to men outside the home.

The functionalist perspective describes gender differences and inequality as a social method to successfully balance roles as this perspective focuses on how the different parts of society work together, and how these different parts depend on each other to reach stability. Functionalism describes the division of labor and other general exclusions of women as a way to maximize the resources available and their efficiency; the functionalist perspective does not describe this oppression as unjust but rather as the necessary complement of roles that are needed to reach the proper social stability and structure. Functionalism believes that men’s work and their financial contribution to the household is what is required of them, in the same way, it believes that a women’s role is to be a housewife and caretaker.

Symbolic interactionism’s purpose is to analyze human interactions on a one-to-one level as well as understand the role of symbols constructed by society and how these symbols relate to direct our behaviors and roles within a group. Based on this perspective, gender roles and their differences and expectations are to be learned through the socialization process. Traditionally, women are expected to have a nurturing nature and to provide emotional and spiritual support while men are expected to be task-oriented and dependable. It is due to these differences that women are dominated by men, one clear example is seen in education; Education opportunities are less likely to occur for women than to men (Dorius and Firebaugh 2010). These differences in opportunities are related to the social expectations for males and females within a society, and although they vary from culture to culture, they share several similarities that define women as caretakers while men are to be the breadwinners. Although education has considerably changed from the time where women were not allowed into a lecture hall, and although in the last fifty years women’s educational achievements have increased economic growth in first world countries, major progress in closing gender gaps must still be made to address and fix social gender inequalities and for women to gain complete freedom from patriarchy domination.

Domestic Violence

Another way in which men control women is through violence, oppression, and fear. Domestic violence has had a constant presence in our society and throughout history, even though women had been subjected to physical abuse from their husbands for many years, in the year 1824, the first law in the United States to grant a husband’s right to use physical punishment against his wife was established. The court’s ruling gave husband’s the right “to exercise the right to chastisement in cases of great emergency” (Skolnick and Skolnick 2014:477). It was through this right to physical abuse that a man’s power, ownership, and complete gender inequality in marriage was set. Sadly, this rule was not changed until the year 1871 when abuse against their wives was made illegal in the state of Alabama, a ruling that was followed by North Carolina only with more limitations. Oppression is described as the obstacles an individual faces and the acts that give domination and privilege to one specific group or individual (Pittman 2010). Men’s domination over women is achieved through the successful use of hierarchal power, a power that is overwhelmingly negative and often times dehumanizing as women are stripped of their autonomy, personal safety, freedom, and free-will through deprivation and violence (Williams 2012). Oppression, similar to domestic violence, is the abusive behaviors used by a partner in a relationship to gain control. In the United States, an estimated 4.8 million women report these type of physical assaults each year and an overwhelming 70% of women admit to having experienced domestic violence first hand (Anon n.d). In many cultures, domestic violence is a normal part of private life, in these cultures the societal norms discourage women from reporting the abuse as they are more accepting of men’s violent nature and they often blame women for their partner’s actions and are expected to remain silent and be understanding and accepting of the male’s actions, religious beliefs are also an important contributing factor as many women are raised to believe that once you join a man in marriage is until death separates the union. Another important contributing factor to domestic abuse is a male’s economic superiority over a woman as in many cases women are forbidden from finding work outside the home and this isolates them and makes them completely dependent upon their husbands. Although violence can occur across different income brackets, those classified as poor or low-income are more likely to fall victims of the abuse. It is under these conditions that domestic violence and societal roles are damaging to both males and females as these roles and attitudes cause extreme psychological and physical damage.

Although women’s roles in the patriarchal structure have improved, these improvements are minor. Domestic violence, even today, is a method by which coercive and aggressive behaviors are used to maintain control over women (Yount and Li Li 2009). This domination is gained through marital power where men typically have higher incomes and more access to resources, advantages that make women inferior to their husbands and clearly express the relationship between women subordination and domestic violence. However, there are instances where a man’s superiority is questioned and the male feels threatened. When a woman stops depending either physically or financially on a man, her options become clear and she is able to work toward her own needs and well-being. These threatening situations may arise as women are gaining access to education and most importantly gaining access to resources gained through paid work (Arthur and Clark 2009).

Women’s opportunities and roles have changed since the mid 1800’s when working-class jobs where available to single women only, very few women were admitted to universities and they were expected to show excellent domestic abilities and be subordinate to their husbands to more recent times being present in political fields, and being awarded prestigious education degrees. Even though there are more contributing factors to these women advances than just gender, the social changes are becoming clear and of more importance.

Women and Paid Work

One of the main contributors to social change is women’s access to paid work, their presence in the work field has decreased men’s power as the resource theory states that the higher the number of resources a man controls and takes into a relationship the more power he holds over his wife (Arthur and Clark 2009).

It is reported that women are responsible for doing two-thirds of the world’s work and earning only 5 percent of the work force’s income (James 2012). Although these numbers are a clear example of sexism, it has still provided women with the initial tools to end patriarchal domination and to escape domestic violence. In earlier centuries, women were not considered to be suitable for work outside the home. However, after the Civil War, women became an important part of the workforce allowing them to earn an income and allowing them freedoms that were not possible before. During the latter part of the twentieth century, women had reached a different point in society, women started gaining job equality a well as pay equality which allowed them to change their roles within their households and society. Even though women were gaining more freedom from male dominance, the relationship between female empowerment and paid work is still one that raises debate. The increased feminization of the labor market has made women’s presence and their integration to the global economy possible. It is this increase that has led women to be empowered and to help transform and increase the choices and life options that they have available. Women’s presence in the workforce is especially important as there is a direct positive correlation between poverty and incidents of domestic violence (Hetling and Zhang 2010).

The majority of times, women are defined by the way they relate or compare to men. It is also a custom in many cases to describe a woman in terms of being a nurturer. These methods of describing women lead to them being dependent and subordinate to men. It has been through women’s participation in the workforce and their access to paid work that the patriarchal structures are being eliminated and new concepts of womanhood developed as a result of social and financial shifts. However, to understand what it means when improvements to women’s roles and status within a society are reported, we must first be aware that these improvements are often compared to societies where women have no control over their lives and no economic power and that there is a need for legal reforms and changes if these improvements to social positions and right to equal work opportunities and paid work will have a chance to lead to the end of patriarchal domination. Nonetheless, women are reaching an era where their presence in the workforce has allowed them to gain rights and seek opportunities that would not be possible if they were still obligated to only be seen as homemakers and still fully dependent on the males financially.


Up until the nineteenth century, family structures and women’s roles within their homes and societies were decided based on patriarchal tradition and standards; it was the head of households, men, that had control of their wives and children as these had an obligation to provide unpaid work which benefited men. Although the idea that male superiority is natural and expected has been present for centuries, women have fought to change this erroneous mindset and to alter family structure for the better. Patriarchal structures such as politics, education, social, and legal fields which are structures constructed to support male dominance are slowly being invaded by women. Since the beginning of the feminist movements in the 1960s, women have made remarkable progress in the different work fields.

Domestic violence implies much more than physical abuse, it also involves psychological and emotional aggressions; It creates the need for control and total domination of another person and is often reflected in the women’s inability to join the workforce and form strong social bonds that will provide an escape from violent situations at home. In these cases, male partners concentrate their efforts in maintaining women subordinate and in enforcing the traditional roles that give them power over women.


Patriarchal structures have been around for centuries, it was through this system that male superiority was established and it was also based on this that gender roles were set in place. Patriarchal structures and their need for female subordination have caused enormous problems for female social advancements throughout history, but women have learned that it is through their presence in the workforce and through paid work that they have been able to break the traditional roles of homemakers and gain independence from their abusive and controlling partners. It has been the female access to paid work that has provided an opportunity to create strong and healthy social bonds that have led women to gain access to public as well as private resources that have helped them escape situations of domestic violence and subordination. Paid work has opened doors that create better advancement opportunities and that lead to their financial and social independence giving them the confidence to know that they are able to prosper in situations that do not involve physical, psychological, or emotional harm. Although women’s presence in the workforce has a long road to go before they reach gender equality, the progress already made has already started a process of change and a series of feminist social movements that will create more opportunities in all areas of life. 

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Gender: A Figment of Social Imagination. (2022, Sep 11). Retrieved February 2, 2023 , from

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