A blog post

Harriet Holter on gender differentiation and gender stratification

Posted on the 28 June, 2019 at 5:38 pm Written by in Books, Research

It looks a bit sad, maybe – the cover on Harriet Holter’s doctoral thesis, published by the University press (Universitetsforlaget), Oslo, 1970. The cover was made by me and Iben Hjort. No brains involved. Empty at the top.

What did Harriet Holter actually say, regarding gender differentiation and stratification? Her text was a world first – or a very early candidate, to distinguish more clearly between these dimensions. Here are some excerpts.

‘The concept of sex differentiation is in the present work often distinguished from sex stratification, that is, from the ordering of the two genders in terms of power and social prestige.’ p 18.

‘In the language of exchange theory, the net results of the differentiation accorded each partner must be great enough to keep motivating the exchange.’ 21

Some stratification counters differentiation:

‘Gender stratification [means] that men, in general, have more power and higher prestige than women. In what sense is this a reasonable postulate? Everyone is classified by many criteria in addition to sex. Sex is only one of several attributes that affect a person’s total prestige. It is assumed, then, that men tend to be evaluated more highly (..) when all other status criteria are similar for the two.’ p 44.

‘A functional explanation of the common rank order between men and women would have to postulate that women’s tasks, that is, to give birth to children and take care of them and rear them, is less necessary for society. (..) This position seems untenable. Gender differentiation, not gender stratification, may promote basic societal requisites like protection of the young and securing a close contact between infants and nourishing mothers. (..) Once men and women are differentiated with respect to responsibilities for infants, the two sexes differ in their opportunities for securing wealth and power.’ p 45

‘Women’s ties to their infants create immobility that is incompatible with many kinds of instrumental activities. (..) Instrumental activities are valued more highly than expressive ones especially in modern society.’ p 46

‘Expressive tasks devalued since they are less easily evaluated, dont give control over large resources (like some instrumental tasks).’ p 47. ‘Unlike expressive roles, instrumental ones require the delay of gratification, which helps in the control of resources’ 47

‘The more differentiated in the traditional manner are the tasks of men and women, the more likely it is that the stratification is marked. (..) [Yet] Certain forces act counter to these processes’. 47-48

‘The complementary natures of sex roles … is also a basis for the development of female forms of power as well as male ones.’ 49
‘The main hypothesis [in research] about improvements in the exchange positions of women follows from their increased occupational participation.’ 50 ‘Women do not have to use sexual favours as goods-in-exchange, a fact that enables them to enjoy sexuality as a pleasure in itself. And it might be added, women’s freedom with respect to choice of marital partner is increased.’ p 50.

Harriet Holter compared sex and race as examples of ‘ascriptive differentiation. Due to the conventions at her time, she here uses the term differentiation, rather than stratification, and states  (p 51), that “One characteristic of sex differentiation, and partly of race differentiation (..) has been the change in the definitions of criteria from legal rules to informal norms. Such a shift seems to have taken place in all societies that have experienced prosperity in recent times.” She concludes that “sex differentiation, like other functional differentiations, entails a rank ordering of the positions of men and women.” (p 53).

In chapter two, on sex differentiating norms, she defines “sex roles or gender roles” (p 54) more precisely  – this is “stable, patterned and sanction-carrying expectations about a person’s behaviour”, “the sum of norms directed towards a person occupying a certain position.”

Later, she discusses why gender is not class – a different type of ranking mechnanism, p 225. She notes that women are sometimes more conservative than men, ‘more in favour of ascriptive principles than men’ 230. ‘Sex differentiation may support class stratification by reducing tensions produced by the stratification’ 231.

Here we are into the heart of the matter. Renewed and increased class stratification may be eased by going back to a more traditional gender role system.