Essay: Gender Hegemony and The Subordinate Power of Women

Raewyn Connell established that gender is relational in her book, Masculinities, originally published in 1993. Since then, her theory that masculinity only exists in relation to femininity has been built upon by other scholars. Both hegemonic masculinity and hegemonic femininity function together to maintain the patriarchy and cannot function without each other. Social changes in mainstream femininity and new, empowering ideas about individual freedom can further change understandings of the gender hegemony dynamic.

Historically, gender has been reduced to the binary of male and female. Judith Butler argues that these genders have been produced by social discourses and are not a fact of nature (Salih, 2007, p. 55). Essentially, no person is inherently a man or a woman, these labels are constructed by society. Just as ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are social constructs, so are ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’. ‘Man’ is linked with ‘masculine’, and ‘woman’ with ‘feminine’, because the terms ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ reflect particular qualities that members of each category “should and are assumed to possess” by society (Schippers, 2007, p. 90). Connell argues that masculinity is not “an isolated object”, rather it exists in relation to and in contrast with femininity (2005, pp. 67-8). This relation is clearest when considering the relationship between hegemonic masculinity and hegemonic femininity. According to Schipper’s reworking of Connell’s framework, both hegemonic masculinity and hegemonic femininity complement and serve each other in establishing and maintaining “the dominant position of men and the subordination of women” (the patriarchy) (2007, p. 94).

The idealised qualities of hegemonic masculinity and hegemonic femininity can be easily identified by the average person living in Western society today. This is because these qualities are often reinforced by mainstream media. For example, Australian film has a “far-reaching” influence on, and is also a reflection of, social perception of Australian masculinity and maleness (Lucas, 1998, p. 138). Hegemonic masculinity is typified by characteristics such as desire for women, physical strength and authority that position men in a socially dominant position (Schippers, 2007, p. 94). To legitimise this dominant position, hegemonic femininity must compliment hegemonic masculinity, and it therefore consists of features like desire for men, physical vulnerability and compliance (Schippers, 2007, p. 91). Men and women do not necessarily always adopt these hegemonic masculinities and femininities, indeed Connell notes that not many men actually practice hegemonic masculinity “in its entirety” (2005, p. 79). But their symbolic construction by society still rationalises and reinforces the patriarchy, allowing all men to benefit from it (Connell, 2005, p. 79).

Hegemonic masculinity only functions when hegemonic femininity does. When women embody certain characteristics that do not complement hegemonic masculinity, this poses a threat to the patriarchy and these women therefore often face stigma and abuse (Schippers, 2007, p. 95). Elizabeth Martinez describes the psychological tension that rises when a working-class Chicana is able to find work, but her husband is not (1997, p. 32). Because the Chicana can find a position of financial authority or independence from her husband, she is rejecting her place in hegemonic femininity as being compliant and subordinate to men, thereby presenting a threat to the constructed ideal of male dominance and causing tension in the relationship between the woman and her husband. Violence is the next step up from psychological tension and is often used against women to maintain male dominance in the face of such women. This is because violence actualises the complementary hegemonic characteristics of masculine physical strength, and feminine physical vulnerability. Alcalde notes ideals of hegemonic masculinity in Latin American discourses like those mentioned by Schippers, including power, independence and control of women in the family (2010, p. 51). The hegemonic femininity that complements this includes characteristics of submission, obedience and self-sacrifice (2010, p. 51). This framework makes it clear why, when one woman reported her partner’s violence to the police, she was told to be more obedient “to avoid being beaten” (Alcalde, 2010, p. 54).

Given the relationship between hegemonic masculinity and hegemonic femininity, social change in perceptions of femininity may be able to disrupt the gender hegemony so far described, that benefits men (Budgeon, 2014, p. 325). Currently, changes in idealised femininity appear to result in contradictory subject positions for women, who on one hand are still socially subordinate to men (based on current gender inequalities), but on the other, feel more empowered. Budgeon identifies a newly emerging ‘empowered’ femininity, which she describes as “high powered, confident, and glamorous”, in which women can formulate an identity that incorporates aspects of traditional femininity with new, empowering traits such as self-reliance and individual freedom (2014, p. 320). This new femininity challenges the hegemonic femininity described previously because it gives women more agency and authority over their own lives. Also, if characteristics such as self-reliance and confidence are becoming more attached to mainstream ideas of femininity, this removes some of the power of the traditional complementary hegemonic masculine trait of ‘authority’.

Budgeon, however, suggests that this new femininity has not removed hegemonic femininity but has simply redefined it. Though young women report experiencing gender inequality, they also reject the application of gender relations to outcomes in their lives and favour an ‘individual freedom’ narrative over ideas of a gender hierarchy (Budgeon, 2014, p. 325). Young men also perceived behaviours that were potentially the result of gender discrimination and inequality not as the result gender inequality, but as the result of individual choice and freedom (Budgeon, 2014, p. 325). Budgeon argues that this denial of gender relations does not challenge the “hierarchical gender complementarity” of hegemonic masculinity and femininity (2014, p. 326). Furthermore, characteristics such as assertiveness and self-determination were still perceived by women as being “taken too far”, and the ‘feminist’ was often identified as an aggressive and demanding “man-hater” (Budgeon, 2014, p. 327). This new ‘empowered’ femininity therefore appears to both challenge and reinforce gender hegemony.

The “individual freedom” narrative brings up the concept of choice, which complicates discussions of hegemonic masculinity and femininity. A woman who contributes to establishing hegemonic femininity in society can still be a feminist, and therefore can simultaneously dismantle gender hegemony. For example, Islamic feminism might sound like a “linking of apparently mutually exclusive identities”, yet it is a celebration of the individual agency of Muslim women to identify with their faith and expand on it through the lens of women’s rights (Cooke, 2004, p. 60). It is a celebration of “multiple belongings” (Cooke, 2004, p. 59). Snyder-Hall argues that individual choices that seemingly support the patriarchy should be respected as supporting self-determination (2010, p. 255). Third wave feminism has developed into a feminism that is “tolerant of other women’s choices about sexuality and appearance” (Snyder-Hall, 2010, p. 256). Such choices may include veiling, participating in traditional sex roles (in sexual activity), posing for Playboy or staying with an abusive husband (Snyder-Hall, 2010, p. 256). Women who choose such roles are in one way participating in hegemonic femininity that upholds the patriarchy. However, they can also simultaneously participate in feminism if they identify with alternative femininities or seek equality for women in other areas of their life.

Recognising individual freedom prevents reduction of gender hegemony to a simple framework that does not allow for social change. Thus far the model discussed ignores the power that women can find from their lower position in the gender hierarchy. The gender hegemony typically positions women’s power under men. For example, men receive unequal (more) shares of the products of social labour due to gendered division of labour (Connell, 2005, p. 74). However, Maureen Baker and Hans Bakker note that because of women’s liberation movements, women have access to a wide range of feminist literature and can identify with the feminist movement, whereas men, who have typically not seen themselves as oppressed, have a comparably small amount of resources to draw upon if they wish to challenge the idealised hegemonic masculinity presented to them from birth (Baker & Bakker, 1980, p. 547). Furthermore, Audre Lorde identifies the power of the erotic, that is the power that lies in “unexpressed or unrecognised feeling” (2007, p. 87). Because women are generally oppressed by gender hegemony, they have access to this power, and should they choose to harness that they have immense power to create change (Lorde, 2007, p. 87). Identifying this allows for recognition of different kinds of power; while women are typically seen as having less power than men, they in fact have more power to create social change.

The patriarchy functions when hegemonic masculinity and hegemonic femininity complement each other and serve to put men in societal positions of power. In third-wave feminism, new ideas about respect for the self-determination of women suggests, paradoxically, that the subordination of women through gender hegemony gives them the power to enforce social change.




Alcalde, C., 2010. Violence across borders: Familism, hegemonic masculinity, and self-sacrificing femininity in the lives of Mexican and Peruvian migrants. Latino Studies, 8(1), pp. 48-68.

Baker, M. & Bakker, H., 1980. The Double-Bind of the Middle Class Male: Men’s Liberation and the Male Sex Role. Journal of Comparative Family Studies, 11(4), pp. 547-561.

Budgeon, S., 2014. The Dynamics of Gender Hegemony: Femininities, Masculinities and Social Change. Sociology, 48(2), pp. 317-334.

Connell, R., 2005. The Social Organisation of Masculinity. In: Masculinities. s.l.:Allen & Unwin, pp. 67-86.

Cooke, M., 2004. Reviewing Beginnings. In: M. Cooke, ed. Women Claim Islam: Creating Islamic Feminism Through Literature. s.l.:Routledge, pp. 59-63.

Lorde, A., 2007. The Uses of the Erotic. In: M. J. Karen E Lovaas, ed. Sexualities and Communication in Everyday Life. s.l.:SAGE, pp. 87-91.

Lucas, R., 1998. Dragging it Out: Tales of Masculinity in Australian Cinema, from Crocodile Dundee to Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Journal of Australian Studies, 22(56), pp. 138-146.

Martinez, E., 1997. La Chicana. In: A. Garcia, ed. Chicana Feminist Thought: The Basic Historical Writings. s.l.:Routledge, pp. 32-34.

Salih, S., 2007. On Judith Butler and Performativity. In: M. M. J. Karen E Lovaas, ed. Sexualities and Communication in Everyday Life. s.l.:SAGE, pp. 55-67.

Schippers, M., 2007. Recovering the Feminine Other: Masculinity, Femininity and Gender Hegemony. Theory and Society, 36(1), pp. 85-102.

Snyder-Hall, C., 2010. Third-Wave Feminism and the Defense of “Choice”. Perspectives on Politics, 8(1), pp. 255-261.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s