“Night to his Day”:
The Social Construction of Gender
Paradoxes of Gender
(Chapter 1) by Judith Lorber, ©1994 Yale University
Press. Permission was granted by Yale University Press to include this passage in Seeing
Originally published with assistance from the foundation established in the memory of
Phillip Hamilton McMillan of the Class of 1894, Yale College.
Talking about gender for most people is the equivalent of fish talking about water. Gender is so
much the routine ground of everyday activities that questioning its taken-for-granted
assumptions and presuppositions is like wondering about whether the sun will come up.
Gender is so pervasive that in our society we assume it is bred into our genes.
Most people find
it hard to believe that gender is constantly created and re-created out of human interaction, out of
social life, and is the texture and order of that social life. Yet gender, like culture, is a human
production that depends on everyone constantly "doing gender" (West and Zimmerman 1987).
And everyone "does gender" without thinking about it.
Today, on the subway, I saw a
well-dressed man with a year-old child in a stroller.
Yesterday, on a bus, I saw a man with a tiny
baby in a carrier on his chest.
Seeing men taking care of small children in public is increasingly
common-at least in New York City.
But both men were quite obviously stared at - and smiled at,
approvingly. Everyone was doing gender - the men who were changing the role of fathers and
the other passengers, who were applauding them silently. But there was more gendering going
on that probably fewer people noticed.
The baby was wearing a white crocheted cap and white
You couldn't tell if it was a boy or a girl.
The child in the stroller was wearing a dark
blue T-shirt and dark print pants.
As they started to leave the train, the father put a Yankee
baseball cap on the child's head.
Ah, a boy, I thought.
Then I noticed the gleam of tiny earrings
in the child's ears, and as they got off, I saw the little flowered sneakers and lace-trimmed socks.
Not a boy after all. Gender done.
Gender is such a familiar part of daily life that it usually takes a deliberate disruption of our
expectations of how women and men are supposed to act to pay attention to how it is produced.
Gender signs and signals are so ubiquitous that we usually fail to note them - unless they are
missing or ambiguous.
Then we are uncomfortable until we have successfully placed the other
person in a gender status; otherwise, we feel socially dislocated. In our society, in addition to
man and woman, the status can be
(a person who dresses in opposite-gender clothes)
(a person who has had sex-change surgery). Transvestites and transsexuals
carefully construct their gender status by dressing, speaking, walking, gesturing in the ways
prescribed for women or men whichever they want to be taken for - and so does any "normal"