Gender is about power. Norms, traditions, and values concerning gender have served to maintain a system of inequality in virtually every society. From the moment a person is born, the state is involved in upholding and maintaining gender as an institution: Birth certificates always include the sex of the child (typically allowing for only two possibilities), sending a message that this is an important axis of difference. State policies often reflect patriarchal norms and may constrain both men's and women's choices. Yet states also may serve as arenas for challenging traditional gender norms (Gordon, 1990). Feminist political sociologists have called attention to both the gendered impact of state policies and structures and how gender ideologies and gendered social patterns shape politics (Wilson, 1977; Gordon, 1990; Ward, 1990; Orloff, 1993; Bose and Acosta-Belén, 1995).
Feminists tend to view states and state policies with some ambivalence. Although some feminists view the state as an agent of change and use the state to create legislation that may equalize women's and men's opportunities, others view the state as antithetical to feminist goals (MacKinnon, 1989; Sharp and Broomhill, 1988; Brown, 1992). Ambivalence about the role of the state in gendered policies may discourage some types of feminist mobilization (Miller and Razavi, 1998). But as Sainsbury (1999:270) suggests, “Irrespective of whether the state is conceived of as a structure or a terrain, the state is a crucial site in regulating and constructing gender relations. It is too important an arena not to enter because of ideological antipathy or fears of co-option.”