Women’s Social Role In Society
Gender, as opposed to the physical classification of sex, has always been based upon societal construct. The current psychology of the masses dictates what proper or improper behavior for the given genders is. This has always been the way of things. In the 1900s in the United States of America, a woman’s place was in the home. She was supposed to be the Angel in the House. In this role, a woman’s purpose was to cook and clean and take care of her family. She was not allowed to busy herself with what was called the Public Sphere, wherein the husband and other men were in control. The wife’s role was in the Private Sphere. This scenario, called the “Cult of Domesticity,” gave women very little power. In this era, women did not have the right to vote, so females had no voice either in their homes or in their nation’s government. Over time, women have been able to overcome this marginalization. Where before women could hold only menial jobs if they were among the poor, now women can hold nearly any job; even ones which would be historically male domains, like healthcare and law. The conflict of the modern age often stems from an intersection of gender and ethical dilemmas, both based upon societal rules.
Feminist ethics is slightly different than the accepted term that ethics has become. According to Walker (1989), “Feminist ethics is one which clarifies the moral legitimacy and necessity of the kinds of social, political, and personal changes that feminism demands in order to end male domination, or perhaps to end domination generally.”
As gender is socially constructed, so too are the rules of behavior which fall under the blanket term of ethics. What is ethical is akin to what is right. That is to say, when a person is given a choice between decisions, one will be classifiable as the right thing and one will be classifiable as the wrong thing. The ethical person will choose what they believe is “right.” Determining right vs. wrong behavior can be a challenging decision, especially considering that what society determines as belonging to either category can often change rapidly. To avoid this rather disconcerting and confusing debate, some people including Baier (1988), advocate the creation of individual ethics. This would allow for “respect for each person’s individual rational will, or autonomy, and conformity to any implicit social contract such wills as deemed to have made” (Baier 1988).
However, even though much of society has changed, women are still psychologically minimized as the weaker sex, which effects how the world responds to them as a gendered whole rather than as individual people. Women who are unable or unwilling to live up the stereotypes of their socially constructed gender are decried as unwomanly and cast off to the margins of society (Friedman 1987). The idea of woman as caregivers is also why when the news informs the watching audience of a mother who has violated her maternal instinct and either abused or in some other way harmed her child, the average citizen tends to judge her more harshly than her male counterpart.
The classification of women as the weak or more emotional sex can have both positive and negative connotations. According to Baier (1988), it is the continued viewing of women as motherly and matronly that has kept them chained to societal designations of ethics. She writes, “As long as women could be got to assume responsibility for the care of home and children, the liberal morality could continue to be the official morality” (Baier 1988). If others were to take on the same roles that had once been strictly the parameter of the female, then they would be subject to the ethical guidelines of the female gender. Women are considered the life bringers and therefore it is their responsibility to not only sustain life, but to ensure the quality of life. Supposedly endowed with maternal instinct, women are assumed to be born to provide care for others. In the medical community, this “care ethic” has permeated every job held by a woman. According to Noddings (1984), the ethic of care refers not so much to the supposedly natural instinct of women to mother, but to the choices people make in an ideal world where they are the best forms of themselves (page 9).
Schooling and education have often been at the center of debates on ethics. History is riddled with debates over who should be allowed to go to school and with whom. At one point, schools were segregated by skin color. Other times it is class that divides. Yet other times rely upon gender to determine which groups should be allowed to have education together. With each of these situations, it was the responsibility of the ethically-minded to put an end to perceived societal wrongs. In many of these cases, the people who were striving for change were dissenters to popular opinion of the society around them. Therefore, they were in opposition to the societal designation of ethics at the time. Only through strength, perseverance, and determination were these factions able to not only change the status quo of the society but also alter the designation of what was ethical to their favor. This exemplifies the ethic of caring. Not only does a person determine that he or she ought to do something, but they have enough emotional investment in that decision to make a commitment to performing an action (Noddings 1984,-page 11).
The question of ethics, the right thing to do vs. The wrong thing, can be a difficult one. Sometimes in life a person will be encountered with the opportunity to make a choice. There will be times when the right or wrong thing will not be so obvious. There will also be occasions where the wrong or right thing will be obvious. Sometimes an honest action will be unprofitable and thus unpleasant. However, when faced with something so black and white, it is the responsibility of all thinking, ethical beings to do the right thing.
Baier, A. (1988). “The Need for More than Justice.” Ed. Held. Justice and Care: Essential
Readings in Feminist Ethics. Westview: Boulder, CO.
Friedman, M (1987). “Beyond Caring: The De-Moralization of Gender.” Ed. Held. Justice and Care: Essential Readings in Feminist Ethics. Westview: Boulder, CO.
Noddings, N. (1984). “Caring.” Ed. Held. Justice and Care: Essential Readings in Feminist
Ethics. Westview: Boulder, CO.
Walker, M. (1989). “Moral Understandings: Alternative ‘Epistemology’ for a Feminist Ethics.”
Ed. Held. Justice and Care: Essential Readings in Feminist Ethics. Westview: Boulder, CO.
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