Gender Order

The gender order is a patterned system of ideological and material practices, performed by individuals in a society, through which power relations between women and men are made, and remade, as meaningful. It is through the gender order of a society that forms or codes of masculinities and femininities are created and recreated, and relations between them are organised.

The concept of the gender order was first developed by Jill Matthews (1984), in her study of the historical construction of femininity. According to Matthews, the idea of the gender order gives recognition to the fact that every known society distinguishes between women and men, while allowing for variations in the nature of the distinctions drawn. ‘As systematic ways of creating social women and men, and of ordering and patterning relations between them, it is not logically necessary that gender orders should be hierarchical, inequitable or oppressive’ (1984: 13). Matthews draws an analogy with the concept of the economic order or mode, which as a systematic ordering of people’s relationship to the means of production and consumption, may be capitalist, feudal or communist in its specific content.

Likewise, a gender order could be egalitarian or even matriarchal, rather than patriarchal. For Matthews, the concept of the gender order, unlike the concept of patriarchy, enables a distinction to be made between the general form of gender relations and their specific content. This approach counters tendencies to universalism: the existence of patriarchy cannot be assumed but must be proven for each specific society (1984: 14). Rather than portraying women and men as puppets of a patriarchal system, the approach also recognises the active part played by individuals in the creation and recreation of gender relations, and thereby allows for the possibility of social change. As Matthews writes:

the specific nature or content of any gender order is constantly in process, being formed and changed. It is fashioned by actions of individuals who are themselves formed in that interaction. It is created in the struggles and power strategies and contradictions and unintended consequences of a multitude of social groups and individuals and interests . . . The femininity and masculinity that are forged of these countervailing forces are never constant but always changing and, more often than not, internally inconsistent if not contradictory. (1984: 14–15)

Connell (1987; 1995) has integrated the concept of the gender order into his social theory of gender, and for this reason, the concept has become more closely associated with Raewyn Connell than with Matthews. For Connell, the relationship between the body and gender is a central issue for gender theory. He argues that gender is the outcome of recurrent interpretations of, and definitions placed upon, the reproductive and sexual capacities of the human body. Femininities and masculinities are the multiple effectsof these ongoing interpretations and definitions, impacting upon bodies, influencing personalities and shaping culture and institutions. In Connell’s analysis, gender is a reoccurring creation of human agency, which at an institutional and structural level also acts to constrain individual agency. For Connell, empirical research has uncovered three major structures of gender relations, or the major ways in which the agency or practice of women and men is constrained. The three structures, of labour, power and cathexis (concerned with emotional relationships, including sexuality) constantly interweave with each other creating the gender order’, or the overall structure of gender relations in a particular society, at a particular time in history.

For Connell, as for Matthews (1984), gender relations are regarded as in process, the outcome of human practice or agency, subject to resistance as well as conformity, contestation as well as acceptance. All this means that gender relations are open to disruption and change. Connell argues that there are ‘crisis tendencies’ in the contemporary gender order of the industrialised world. For example, in family relationships, Connell says that state policies have disrupted the legitimacy of men’s domination over women (via laws on divorce, domestic violence and rape within marriage, independent pensions and taxation for married women, for example). Connell also identifies a tendency towards a crisis of sexuality, where forms of heterosexuality which privilege men over women have come under pressure from women’s more assertive sexuality and from gay sexuality. A further example of a tendency toward crisis in the gender order is the joining together of women and men in groups which challenge the current patriarchal gender order, such as women’s liberation movements, gay liberation, and anti-sexist politics among heterosexual men. In Connell’s view, it is through individuals and groups, collectively and on a mass scale, ‘prising open’ the crisis tendencies in the contemporary gender order that gender inequality, along with other forms of inequality, can be eradicated.

Marshall (1994) finds the concept of the gender order valuable for the analysis of gender, particularly for understanding the relationship between individual gendered subjectivities and gender as a social structure. For Marshall, the gender order provides ‘the mode of interpretation’ through which individuals construct an embodied subjective and social identity. For Marshall, though, a fuller account is needed of the formation of gendered subjectivities in the configuration of power relations, especially in relation to understanding why it is that knowledgeable, acting subjects may nonetheless tend to participate in the legitimation of conditions that reproduce their position (1994: 117).

In evaluating the concept of the gender order, critics point to its advantages over the concept of patriarchy. Pollert (1996), for example, describes Connell’s theory of the gender order as open to more diversity than patriarchy, and through its emphasis on gender as an ongoing process, as more adequately registering human agency. Similarly, Marshall writes that the approach allows a description of a society as patriarchal, ‘without lapsing into the trans-historical, agent-less conception of “patriarchy”’ (1994: 116). For some critics, however, the concept of the gender order has not overcome the problem of how to theorise gender in relation to class and ‘race’. For example,West argues that Connell’s (1987) approach fails to include either race or ethnicity as key concepts, an omission that may lead some critics to ‘dismiss his contribution as a “white social theory of gender” (1989: 1489). Pollert criticises Connell’s theory of the gender order for its ‘dualist’ conception of gender and class, arguing that it is based on a diffuse, Foucauldian conception of power relations as detached from class relations (1996: 650). Despite a lack of clarity around the interrelations between gender, class and ‘race’, other critics (Maharaj 1995; Pilcher 1999) feel that Connell’s theory of the gender order goes some way toward satisfying the criteria of a postmodern gender theory (as set out by, for example, Fraser and Nicolson 1989), in that it is explicitly historical and attuned to cultural specificity in terms of time, place and diversity.

Source: Fifty Key Concepts in Gender Studies Jane Pilcher and Imelda Whelehan Sage Publications, 2004.



Connell develops his ideas on crisis tendencies in the gender order in his (1995) examination of changing masculinities. Pilcher (1998) examines Connell’s theory of the gender order in the context of other gender theories, while a collection edited by Messner and Sabo (1990) is illustrative of the influence Connell’s treatment of the gender order has had, particularly in masculinity studies.


Categories: Feminism, Gender Studies, Sociology

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