E.D. Nelson and Barrie W. Robinson, Gender in Canada. Scarborough: Prentice Hall Allyn and Bacon Canada, 1999, 617 pp. $50.95 paper.

Gender relations have received a great deal of scholarly attention in Canada in recent decades. The literature covers a broad and diverse range of fields, including labour, law, politics, families, intimate violence, and the academy itself, to name only a few. Gender in Canada occupies a distinguished position in this rich and sophisticated literature by virtue of approaching its subject matter in a comprehensive and encyclopedic fashion.

This impressive tome is divided into ten chapters and culminates in an extensive section of references which qualifies as a highly useful database for anyone interested in more indepth research into one of the many areas covered in the text. The first two chapters introduce the field of gender relations with an easy-to-understand and extensive overview of the myriad ways that notions of sex, gender and sexuality are socially constructed, as well as biological, psychological and social psychological perspectives on sex and gender. One of the strengths of these opening sections is that the authors go to great lengths to clarify easily-confused terms and concepts. Furthermore, their interdisciplinary approach in Chapter 2 showcases familiar perspectives on sex and gender (i.e., biological, psychological and social psychological), providing a critical sociological alternative to the apprehension of these views. In addition to furnishing good, basic explanations and interpretations for the issues of sex, gender and sexuality, Nelson and Robinson also advance more sophisticated insights into the social implications of various perspectives.

The third chapter presents readers with a number of sociological and feminist theories. To the authors’ credit, this chapter also delves into ways of understanding men and masculinity, a topic which has often been missing or downplayed in discussions of gender in the past. Inclusion of this matter may assist readers in acquiring a balanced and strongly relational understanding of the manner in which both genders are socially constructed.

Chapters 4 through 9 trace the ways that gender relations are created formally and informally, institutionally and interpersonally, throughout the course of one’s lifetime in Canada. Subjects covered by these chapters are the socialization of children through adolescence, symbolic representations of gender, work, intimate relations, marriage and parenting, and, finally, how gender influences aging and vice versa. I particularly liked the presentation of research into how gender is constructed through comics, teen magazines and romance novels for both adults and teens, having at one point been a consumer of these myself. Critical review of these media, often taken to be innocuous, helps to make the invisible open to scrutiny.

Ironically, for me, Chapter 10 (entitled “Social Movements and Gender”), was simultaneously the most interesting and weakest of all the chapters. Its primary discussion focuses on the diverse characters of the feminist movement(s) regarding equality for women. The weakness of this chapter derives from the fact that it appears to exist in isolation from the rest of the book, which strongly portrays the relational manner in which gender is constructed. That is, it does not follow the same format. If it was meant to serve as a conclusion for the book, it seems to fall short of that goal. If it was meant to delve into the subject of equality and gender social movements and nothing more, then it certainly does that. However, I found that it disrupted the general flow of the book and left me questioning its presence. The chapter seems to have been tagged onto the end of the book without a clear indication of what it was meant to convey vis-a-vis its larger message regarding gender relations in Canada. It does not go into the sociological implications of the resistance to feminism, as characterized by such groups as antifeminist feminists and the Promise Keepers. While the reasons for the emergence of a group like the Promise Keepers may not be too difficult to speculate about, self-proclaimed feminists who declare themselves to be antifeminist are more provocative (or “notable” as Nelson and Robinson state in their opening sentences to this section). Why should these women be so inclined? What are the social forces that might contribute to their resistance? How do gender relations facilitate their resistance and how are they shaped by such resistance? I kept waiting for Nelson and Robinson to present as insightful and humorous a discussion as they had regarding so many of the other matters they raised in their book but it was not forthcoming.

Having stated these criticisms, I can now assert that I thoroughly enjoyed reading Gender in Canada. Its unaffected, well-rounded approach is capable of assisting readers in their navigation of the complex issues. The way that the authors judiciously inject light touches of humour into some of their discussions contributes to the palatable nature of the book. Commendably, the authors raise intriguing questions and then leave readers to pursue their own answers. Another appealing feature is that Nelson and Robinson point out that gender is not always the most salient explanatory factor in every situation; for example, in their presentation of research on talking patterns, they indicate that what was earlier believed to be a gendered pattern of speech has been more recently demonstrated to be a pattern that emerges from power relations, regardless of gender. Clarification of such matters is essential for a better understanding of human relations.

In conclusion, this book would be an excellent introduction for anyone new to the subject matter, such as undergraduate university students. The authors make no assumption that their readers already have a foundation of knowledge on the topic of gender relations, which means that they start from the beginning to explain the subject matter, not the middle. Gender in Canada would also make a useful reference book, thanks to the many citations included and its sweeping approach. Finally, it provides a good read for anyone interested in finding out about how men and women in Canada come to think and act as they do.

Julianna Momirov
McMaster University

July 1999
© CJS Online