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Critically explore the claim that women have been excluded from the history of sociology.
When studying the history of sociology, it is evident that the perspective of male scholars and theorists has been much more prevalent than that of females and has had a greater influence on the nature of society today. In patriarchal society, men have made their own knowledge and their own gender representative of the whole of humanity (Daly, 1973;8, cited in Spender, 1981). The most dominant theorists who pioneered sociology during their time, were males such as Durkheim and Weber, regardless of the fact that they had many female contemporaries (such as Weber’s wife, Marianne, who became a feminist and writer) who at the same points in history, had developed theories and conducted research of their own. This essay will aim to critically explore the claim that women have been excluded from this history, and will attempt to show arguments both for and against this statement.
The exclusion of women in the history of the sociological field can only be fully understood when examining the exclusion of women in the history of society as a whole. For example in late 19th century England, women were not recognised as individuals. They were confined to the private and domesticated world, where they were unnoticed by public society. Some women did engage in more public activities, although there were restrictions, such as the factory legislation, which limited the involvement of women in the industrial sector. Men held formal power over the family, and women were confined to the private sphere of society and were excluded from the public sphere where they enjoyed few of the same benefits and privileges as men (Eisenstein, 1986).
As during the 19th and 20th centuries, the dominant role of women was involved in the private sector rather than the public, this could perhaps have lead to the exclusion of women in sociological history. This meant that sociologists at the time were unable to conduct research on women, as they were unaware of the exact roles of women in this sector of society had. Additionally, at this point in history there were many other aspects of society that were to be observed, for example the industrial revolution. This created many changes in the lives of the working classes, and as such a majority of the work force was male, this only aided in the exclusion of women, as they were unavailable for observation by sociologists. It is because of this, that sociologists who sought information on working classes were unable to obtain sufficient information on the female workforce and accurately represent women. Instead they could only describe the working classes as being predominantly male and based the majority of theories on this (Spender, 1981).
In 1865 Mill became a member of the House of Commons and fought for women’s suffrage, and fought to “amend the laws that gave husbands control over their wives’ money and property” (Eisenstein, 1986). Such suppression is also evident in other sectors of society, for example women have been encouraged to specialise in less prestigious areas than men, and areas which are least likely to be thought of as preparation for any academic career (Roberts and Woodward, 1981). The omission of women from the expansion of knowledge in academic fields such as social and physical or natural sciences has been documented (Roberts and Woodward, 1981), this illustrating the lack of female perspective and lack of acknowledgement of females in academic fields. The majority of knowledge in our society is that documented and discovered by men, although has been passed off as the knowledge of mankind as they claim it is representative of the whole of humanity. The views of men have become the legitimate view of society as a whole (Spender, 1981). Even the knowledge that society has of women, is not from a female perspective, but that of male scholars. It is also men who controlled the media outlets, such as women’s magazines in the 1950s, which dictated to women their expected roles and behaviours and according to Betty Friedan, was so influential in shaping their lives (cited in Spender, 1985).
From more recent investigation, it seems that employment prospects of women in social sciences have yet to see much improvement (Roberts et al., 1981). Beard (1946, cited in Spender, 1981), insisted that women had actively contributed to the development of society throughout history, however as womens’ contributions to society had been ignored for so long, this only makes it easier for this to continue and also reinforces women’s poor self image (Spender, 1981). It has been argued that women need to prove themselves to be better than their male counterparts in any field before they can be accepted. It is perhaps for this reason that there is little documentation on what women did in the past (Spender, 1981). However, throughout history women seem to have played a lesser role in times of crisis and revolution in comparison to men. For this reason Hexter argued that “historians were concerned with the process of social change and that since women did not play a decisive role in such processes, they were not the legitimate subject of history” (Spender, 1981; 55). In other words, the patriarchal society of this time did not see the actions of women to contribute significantly enough to deserve historical mention. Evidence of the continuation of this
Despite the majority of sociologists, during times of the industrial revolution, focusing for the most part on the lives of the working classes (or in other words, working class men) Margaret Hewitt (1958, cited in Spender, 1981) was writing about the behaviours and experiences of wives and mothers in the Victorian industrial era. Even before this, Pearl Jephcott (1949, cited in Spender, 1981) wrote on ‘Girls Growing Up’ which remains a classic text in sociology. This would suggest evidence against the exclusion of women in sociological history, as there were sociologists who were writing about them.
Although these sociologists mentioned were themselves, women, and as previously described, the patriarchal society of the time did not see the opinions of women to be as important as that of men. Therefore it can be said that whist the place of women in society, and their lives, was acknowledged by female sociologists, as it is a male dominated field, their works were not to be regarded highly amongst their male counterparts. In identifying this, it can also be realised that the majority of well known female sociologists, are those which discuss the roles and lives of women, over that of men. Their stance on sociology, is that from a feminist viewpoint, rather than adopting the theories of the classical sociologists, such as Marx or Durkheim. Female sociologists who take these view points are to be forever in the shadows of the original male theorists, where as female sociologists who write and research under the principles of the feminist movement seem much more likely to gain wider recognition for their work.
To conclude this essay it can be seen that women were not fully excluded from the history of sociology, as there were other women who wrote about them and documented their place in society. However at the same time they did not receive the same recognition as males in society did and were not seen to have such a significant role in the history of society. Therefore the claim that women have been excluded from the history of sociology is largely true as their work and input have been much less appreciated and acknowledged in comparison to men of the same time. Jessie Bernard (1972, cited in Roberts et al., 1981) asked “not what sociology can do for women, but rather what women can do for sociology”. It can be seen that in the sociological field there is a definite bias towards the presence of men in society, both as subjects and as researchers, whilst that which involves women receives much less recognition. After all, the founding fathers of sociology, are the founding fathers and not the founding mothers (Spender, 1981).
- Eisenstein, Z. (1986). The Radical Future of Liberal Feminism. Boston: Notheastern University Press
- Roberts, H. and Woodward, D. (1981). ‘Changing patterns of women’s employment in sociology: 1950-80’. The British Journal of Sociology, Vol. 32, No. 4 (Dec., 1981), pp. 531-546. Blackwell Publishing [Online] available at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/590132?seq=1
- Spender, D. (1985). For The Record. London: The Women’s Press Limited
- Spender, D. (ed). (1981). Men’s studies modified. Oxford: Pergamon Press Limited
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