(Sociology of) Sex and Gender


Robert Max Jackson

~~~~~~~~~~~ The Gender (Auto)Biography ~~~~~~~~~~~~~

~~~ Guidelines ~~~

The Gender Biography Guidelines

How? Why? With what implications?

Ask these questions over and over and over. Why did things happen as they did? How did a change occur? What were the effects of the processes or events? These are the ruling questions of our biographical reflections, as we seek to understand the role gender has played in our development and the gender identity we have gained through that development. No matter what subject grabs your interest, no matter what ideas in the readings you write about, the goal is always to understand how and why. Never let the other issues and concerns divert you from this focus. How? Why?

How to Use the Readings

Each brief biographical piece must be thoughtfully connected to the relevant material from the course, and the final term paper must connect to a range of those materials. It is possible to write pieces - both short and long - that are thoughtful, insightful, or moving, yet not connected to the material we have examined. In general, that will not work. Let us be clear, however, about some room for exceptions. On occasions, we might be moved by the material or by a class discussion or simply by the progression of our own thinking, so that we feel a passionate need to write about some aspect of your biography that is not clearly linked to the materials, but that is important and that we can develop in a way we think relevant to our overall objectives. If this happens, we can go ahead, but we also should submit a cover note explaining that we have done this self-consciously, why we felt this was an appropriate choice, and indicating how we otherwise would have written something that was related to the material. This note should be brief but clear.

The connections to the readings should concern the important ideas within them, not trivial or marginal points. It does not work to choose a single quote in a reading, take it out of context, and then suggest it has some vague relationship to what we write, claiming this shows our writing responds to the readings. Using quoted passages is a very good idea, but we should indicate how that quoted passage relates to the argument in the specific article and the overall material in the section and we should indicate how it and the arguments behind it relate to those biographical aspects you choose to examine.

With regard to the readings, while it may seem like old hat, we must remember citations. We must always include the page number when referring to an author's point, especially when using her or his own words. Failure to cite properly will be considered a severe shortcoming at best; if this failing is repetitious, it will be judged plagiarism.

As we connect our biographies to the scholarly materials from our class, we are vulnerable to making two major kinds of errors. To avoid both kinds of errors, we must know the class material well and we must carefully think through the relationships between our biography and this material. First, it is an error to refer to an argument or evidence if one misinterprets the content or implications of the material. For example, if we suggest that our socialization experiences are a good example where a theory "X" does not apply when actually the theory does apply, we have made a serious scholarly error. Second, it is equally an error to neglect to refer to an argument or evidence that is clearly relevant to the point one is making. This second type of error occurs if we overlook main ideas in the readings that apply to the point we are making, particularly if those materials contradict our arguments. In short, we don't get to pick and choose arbitrarily which material we consider. We are obligated to refer (and refer accurately) to material that is directly relevant and we must avoid inappropriate citations or inaccurate interpretations of the materials.

Let me construct an explanation around a partial example. Perhaps I am someone whose parents' family "roles" were different from the dominant patterns in our society and in the literature on gender, for example my mother was the principal wage earner. So, in my biography I describe arrangements between my parents and then I describe some things about myself that I believe are related to these arrangements of my parents (these might be aspects of my personality, or they might be the ways I acted under certain conditions, or something else). This will result in (at least) two causal questions I can discuss. First, why were my parents unlike the common pattern for parents? Second, how did my parents' behavior influence the relevant things about me (that is, to make them different from other possibilities)? For the former, I might talk about the economic circumstances in which my parents found themselves or peculiarities of their social backgrounds or their ideological stands or something else, depending on what I thought was decisive. For the latter, I might discuss the models my parents presented or how other people responded to my family or the skills I did or did not acquire or some other relevant explanation that seems to connect what I did or what I became to my parents' division of labor.

Now I can make the big step concerning the research and theories we have read. I think about the two causal connections I have identified in my gender biography - the causes of my parents' family roles and the ways that my parents' family roles caused some aspects of my gender development - and I ask myself if and where we have read anything about what determines the roles performed by women and men in a marriage and about how parental behavior influences the gender identity of their children. Ah, yes, we have read such things. So, I look back and ask what they argue about these causal connections. Then, I can compare, for example, what I say caused my parents' unusual division of labor to what social scientists have said causes the usual parental division of labor. I might argue that the causal process was similar, but that the conditions surrounding my family were different (e.g., they responded to the difference in economic alternatives like other couples, but unusual conditions made my mother a better wage earner); alternatively I might argue that a different causal process was decisive (e.g., ideology was more influential than social expectations or economic rationality, unlike what is usually true). I can similarly connect arguments in the readings to my explanation of how my parents' role performances influenced my gender development.

In this fashion, I am not simply looking to see how my biographical experiences resemble or contrast with the common (or uncommon) experiences that appear in readings. Instead, I am exploring how the causes of the experiences I faced and the causes of my responses to those experiences compare with the causal analyses in the literature on gender. I am connecting the hows and whys of my life to the research and theory on the hows and whys that make sense of gender and gender inequality.

Thus, as we develop a central thesis or argument, it will normally connect our biography to some general issue, argument, or perspective concerning gender inequality. Our paper is a social, gender autobiography. It must be built on significant biographical material that reveals and makes sensible how the social treatment of gender has influenced our personal history and the evolution of our identity. If we try to focus our paper on a thesis that is too centered on academic studies while neglecting the biographical material, it will not work. If we try to focus our paper on a thesis that is too exclusively biographical while neglecting the academic material, it will not work. Throughout the semester, the key is to fuse the two. When done well, this fusion will use the ideas and research we have examined to illuminate the biography. And, at times, the biographical material will enrich the interpretation of the academic material, offering illustrations, showing exceptions, and raising unanswered questions.

Focus on Oneself

Autobiographies must be built from specific examples derived from our own lives. Sweeping claims or generalizations are all too often both vague and uninteresting. We want to avoid personal opinions or speculations that we cannot support with evidence.

Biography is about oneself. In general, it does not work to write a piece in which we take the role of an observer or informant looking at the actions and experiences of others, such as parents or friends. This strategy may occasionally be appropriate, because our own identities, sense of the possible, and the like may be shaped by exposure to the experiences of others. In such cases, we still should show how the circumstances being described influence our life, not just how they are interesting of themselves. Otherwise, the strategy appears to be a distancing strategy, in which the gender experiences of others become the focus. Our goal is not to show that how the experiences of others have reflected (or defied) the arguments in the material we cover, but rather to show this with reference to our own biographies.


Examine long-term implications of biographical events. When we recount a personal experience that seems revealing against the class material, we again strengthen our presentation by considering what lasting effect this has had in our life. Biography is not simply a catalog of experiences. We change, grow, and sometimes suffer a decline from the experiences we have. The identity we possess, the ways we act, who others see us to be, all these change in response to our past (and to our perceptions of the future). Gender runs through all of this. The significance of our important past experiences influencing our gender identity are not limited to the way they felt at the time. Rather, they are important specifically because they have lasting effects.

Because we are trying to identify the causes of our gender development, the how and why of the path to our gender identity, usually we are more concerned with experiences that are either recurring or enduring. Specific events, such as traumatic incidents, can have a lasting impact. But generally, gender identity is formed over time by the repeated impact of similarly or consistent influences.

Avoid the Obvious

The biographical pieces should seek some kind of insight. While much of our lives may seem ordinary, a simple rendition of the ordinary offers little insight and can be trying to read. For example, on reflection, we may be amazed how our lives consistently exhibit gender influences shared by most everyone such as boys and girls wearing different clothes. But the very commonality of such experiences dilutes them as biographical insights into gender formation. This does not mean that we cannot use such experiences, but it does suggest that if we want to use them effectively we must go considerably further than just mentioning that we, too, are creations of our society. Note that is fine to have some of the weekly pieces focused on the ordinary. However, this is not a good formula for the full gender biography.


Avoid narrow thinking. The biographical investigation of gender can all too easily focus on the way in which the author was treated in one arena--the family, a sports team, by friends, and the like--while neglecting to consider how this treatment was reinforced or countered by people's behavior in other arenas. The implications of one's experiences in any one social arena always depend on what happens elsewhere. Analyses become stronger when taking this into account. For example, some people report that their parents did not make any significant distinctions based on gender, leaving them perplexed how they, the children, still became nearly stereotypical in the way they fulfill norms about femininity or masculinity. Two possibilities stand out. First, they may have ignored how all the people besides their parents treated them. Second, they may have focused on some aspects of their parents' treatment and neglected others. Usually, such accounts display both flaws.

We should become suspicious of our memories and analyses when we find that our accounts of our life histories or of our current identity are overly consistent. We do want to abstract from specific events and specific characteristics enough to identify trends, overall impacts, and the ways things fit together. Still, we do not want to lose sight of the inconsistency, ambiguity, and contradiction that are the common experience of life. The shape of our personality is usually not a reflection of unified experiences, but it is product of inconsistent, often conflicting influences, in which some have more effect than others. The critical insight is commonly not that there were influences consistent with the identity we develop, but it is the explanation why those influences had more impact that competing influences.

Generalize Experiences

To see the social meaning of experiences, we need to consider how the specific events are examples of general categories. When we examine our experiences, it is easy to get caught up in their concrete specificity. It helps to consider them in a wider context. We want to ask ourselves, if we had to put this experience into a category, to identify it as an example of a set of experiences that happen to others, what would that category be? Is it an example of misplaced trust, of failing to conform to others' expectations, or what? Thus, whenever we describe some experiences in our biographies, we want to consider of what group or category of experiences it is an example, a group of experiences had by many people, then discuss and make sense of it as an example of this category.

For example, we might describe an incident during adolescence when our parents treated us differently than our (opposite sex) sister or brother. Parents also treat same-sex children differently, so we must have a reason for distinguishing this incident. Perhaps it is an instance of differential parent-child identification where parents are more lenient toward the same-sexed child, perhaps it is an example of sanctioning gender inappropriate behavior by both sons and daughters, maybe it is a case of parents generally favoring sons over daughters, or perhaps it is a case of intergenerational disagreement where members of the older generation misunderstand and disapprove of both boys' and girls' "modern" behavior. The social significance of the incident in our analysis will depend on which way we categorize it. Whenever we describe a biographical event, we want to assess what other events in our life or the lives of others we consider analogous, and how we can characterize this collection of events, giving them meaning as a social category. It is usually considerably easier to think about the social links and implications of experiences once we identify the category to which they belong.

Using Comparisons

While developing and revising our analytical biography, it is important to recognize how, like all efforts to explain, it hinges on comparisons. How well we select and use those comparisons decides the strength of our biographical exploration. Comparisons, properly used, are a key to investigating the hows and whys of biography. To be analytical, moving beyond simple description, we commonly want to provide comparisons. Comparisons allow us to consider the issues of how and why in practical and thoughtful ways. To make sense of how and why, we must consider variations in the way things work out in the world, and in the context of a biography this means we need to examine how events and circumstances of our life differed from what might have been or what was true for others. This means comparisons.

Directly considering comparisons gives analytical depth to an account, explicitly or implicitly asking how gender made a difference. Remember to look at both the positive and negative, recognizing the areas of ambiguity that appear in any concrete comparison.

What kind of comparison we use depends on what we are trying to explain and how we want to explain it. Consider several possible kinds of comparisons.

Being clear and self-conscious about these types of comparisons can let us see more easily the limits to, and possibilities for, our biographies. For example, here are two useful strategies. First, we go through our biography and for each part we consider what comparisons are used and which type(s) they represent. This helps us recognize the logic of our analyses and to see where they are confused or ambiguous. Second, we can go through the several types of comparisons listed above and ask, overall, how have we used each type of comparison in our biography. This can allow us to see opportunities we have overlooked, or discover redundancies that had eluded us.


When considering our gender identity in the past, present, and future, our understanding of the progression will be richer if we keep in mind different ways people think about identity. We might start by considering different questions we could use to get at identity.

These questions explore different facets of identity or different ways of conceiving it. The answers to these questions give crucial insights about our identities. For our objectives, you might find it particularly valuable to ask how your answers to these questions compare to the answers you would expect if you applied the same questions to other people who share your gender and to those who do not.

Another way to think about gender identity involves considering the various characteristics we associate with femininity and masculinity. We want to think through the range of things that make up or contribute to gender identity. For each of these, it is helpful to ask how we have explored that aspect of gender in our autobiography. If we haven't examined it, we can ask ourselves how it might add to our biographical study. If we have examined it, we should consider how consistent, how thoughtful, and how complete we have been. Aspects of gender identity worth considering include: to what degree does our behavior conform to societal expectations about our masculinity or femininity, how much do we perceive ourselves as feminine or masculine, to what degree does our career orientation fit expectations for women or men, how does our sexuality compare with expectations for women and for men, how many of our friends are male or female, to what degree are our friends typically masculine or feminine, are the activities we prefer considered more masculine or feminine.

The main idea here is simply that "gender identity" is not a simple, singular quality. Rather, it is the combination of many personal characteristics and dispositions that we think of as differing between the typical woman and typical man. Furthermore, our gender identity is not only changeable over time, but may vary by context or by the point of view of the person evaluating it.

Stages, Periods, and the Passage of Time

We can think of gender development as having stages. If we read the story of a nation, a people, or a war, we almost always find that their history has been rendered into periods or stage, that make it comprehensible. The same strategy helps biographies. We should consider how each aspect of gender identity and gender experience mentioned above have changed over our life. We can try to divide our life into stages, where each stage exhibits some combination of these gender characteristics. We want to ask our self how the various aspects of gender identity fit together at each stage and what was the means of transformation from each stage to the next. This does not mean that we should organize the presentation of our biography chronologically in terms of these periods (although that is possible), but that imposing periods on our biography makes it more intelligible and straightforward to analyze for both ourselves and our readers.

A note on confidentiality.

Please understand the autobiographical accounts are considered private and that any personal experiences described in them will be treated as confidential materials by the instructors. Unavoidably, many people accumulate personal experiences related to gender that are private, sometimes troubling, and, more often than we like to believe, even traumatic. The gender biographies for this class do not require that students share any experience or information that they consider too private to share or about which they feel uncomfortable. However, students should feel confident that any information or experiences they do choose to write about will be treated as private and confidential.

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