What is Inequality: The Power of the Penis

In a society as stratified as our own, equality is a foreign concept. Despite the three waves of feminism fighting for the equality and autonomy of women in their own right, men have managed to still come out very much on top. That is, Man retains a societally reinforced position of power by virtue of being born with a penis. Women are considered as the subordinate gender, lacking and incomplete (de Beauvoir, 1949). Judith Lorber puts it best; that man is considered the natural or positive existence or ‘A’, and women is the other, the ‘Not-A’ (Lorber, 1990). Even the word ‘woman’ itself alludes to this gender hierarchy. Originally from the Old English word wifman, literally female-man, the word woman is a product of this gender stratification system – implying that women are an inferior and incomplete version of men (Harper, 2013). Further examples can be found in religion and literature. For example, Eve was formed from Adam’s rib and is there for not ‘complete’ (de Beauvoir, 1949).  Marjane Satrapi in her graphic memoirs, Persepolis II, recalls that a friend once commented to her that a mother’s pet name for her son is doudoul tala, or golden penis – assigning and confirming the son’s superiority over women by virtue of being male (Satrapi, 2005).

This gender structure is deeply entwined with other constructed hierarchies of race, class, and religion. Those who fit traditionally into the ‘A’ category have a greater claim to power and autonomy. For example, historically, eunuchs were favored as guards to the women’s quarters and as civil servants because (due to their inability to reproduce and lack of a penis) they presented no threat to the emperor. Through castration, the eunuch became part of the ‘Not-A’, and lost some of the implicit power that comes with being ‘A’ (Anderson, 1990). We can see the power and role that the presence of a penis plays in David Reimer’s case.  After all, why is it that Dr. Money decided to turn Brenda into Bruce? While phalloplasty was considered purely cosmetic and couldn’t guarantee normal sexual function back then, vaginoplasty was not a much better option. While it would allow penetrative sex, it was questionable if “Brenda” would ever derive any pleasure from it (Which raises another question – is being able to sexually perform more important than deriving pleasure from sex? There is a certain societal stigma of having sex for pleasure) (Colapinto, 2000). Through the loss of his penis, “Bruce” became part of the “Not-A”, hence Dr. Money’s decision to turn him into “Brenda”.


Anderson, Mary M. Hidden Power: The Palace Eunuchs of Imperial China, (Buffalo NY: Prometheus, 1990), 15-18, 307-11

Colapinto, John. As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl. New York: HarperCollins, 2000. Print.

de Beauvoir, Simone. “The Second Sex: Introduction.” Feminist Theory Reader: Local and Global Perspectives. Ed. Carole R. McCann and Seung-Kyung Kim. New York: Routledge, 2003. 32-40. Print.

Harper, Douglas. Online Eytmology Dictionary: Woman. Accessed September 15, 2013. http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=woman

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