Trouble & Strife: Who Owns Gender?

Who Owns Gender?
Delilah Campbell reflects on the deeper meaning of recent conflicts between feminists and transgender activists.

[Originally from Trouble & Strife: Who Owns Gender]

For a couple of weeks in early 2013, it seemed as if you couldn’t open a newspaper, or your Facebook newsfeed, without encountering some new contribution to a war of words that pitted transgender activists and their supporters against allegedly ‘transphobic’ feminists.

It had started when the columnist Suzanne Moore wrote a piece that included a passing reference to ‘Brazilian transsexuals’. Moore began to receive abuse and threats on Twitter, which subsequently escalated to the point that she announced she was closing her account. Then Julie Burchill came to Moore’s defence with a column in the Sunday Observer newspaper, which attacked not only the Twitter trolls, but the trans community in general. Burchill’s contribution was intemperate in both its sentiments and its language—not exactly a surprise, since that’s essentially what editors go to her for. If what you want is balanced commentary on the issues of the day, you don’t commission Julie Burchill. Nevertheless, when the predictable deluge of protests arrived, the Observer decided to remove the piece from its website. The following week’s edition carried a lengthy apology for having published it in the first place. Senior staff, it promised, would be meeting representatives of the trans community for a full discussion of their concerns.

Liberal consensus

This was a notable climbdown by one of the bastions of British liberal journalism. Only a couple of weeks earlier, another such bastion, the Observer‘s sister-paper The Guardian, had published an opinion piece on ‘paedophilia’ (aka the sexual abuse of children), which argued for more understanding and less condemnation. In the wake of the Jimmy Savile affair that was certainly controversial, and plenty of readers found it offensive. But it wasn’t removed from the website, nor followed by a grovelling apology. Evidently it was put in the category of unpopular opinions which have a right to be aired on the principle that ‘comment is free’. But when it comes to offending trans people, it seems the same principle does not apply.

It’s not just the liberal press: a blogger who re-posted Burchill’s piece, along with examples of the abuse Suzanne Moore had received on Twitter, found she had been blocked from accessing her own blog by the overseers of the site that hosted it. Meanwhile, the radical feminist activist and journalist Julie Bindel, whose criticisms of trans take the form of political analysis rather than personal abuse, has for some time been ‘no platformed’ by the National Union of Students—in other words, banned from speaking at events the NUS sponsors, or which take place on its premises.

More generally, if you want to hold a women-only event from which trans women are excluded, you are likely to encounter the objection that this exclusion is illegal discrimination, and also that the analysis which motivates it—the idea that certain aspects of women’s experience or oppression are not shared by trans women—is itself an example of transphobia. Expressed in public, this analysis gets labelled ‘hate-speech’, which there is not only a right but a responsibility to censor.

The expression of sentiments deemed ‘transphobic’ has quickly come to be perceived as one of those ‘red lines’ that speakers and writers may not cross. It’s remarkable, when you think about it: if you ask yourself what other views either may not be expressed on pain of legal sanction, or else are so thoroughly disapproved of that they would rarely if ever be permitted a public airing (and certainly not an unopposed one), you come up with examples like incitement to racial hatred and Holocaust denial. How did it come to be the case that taking issue with trans activists’ analyses of their situation (as Julie Bindel has) or hurling playground insults at trans people (as Julie Burchill did) automatically puts the commentator concerned in the same category as a Nick Griffin or a David Irving?

Silencing their critics, often with the active support of institutions that would normally deplore such illiberal restrictions on free speech, is not the only remarkable achievement the trans activists have to their credit. It’s also remarkable how quickly and easily trans people were added to the list of groups who are legally protected against discrimination, and even more remarkable that what was written into equality law was their own principle of self-definition—if you identify as a man/woman then you are entitled to be recognized as a man/woman. In a very short time, this tiny and previously marginal minority has managed to make trans equality a high profile issue, and support for it part of the liberal consensus.

Here what interests me is not primarily the rights and wrongs of this: rather I want to try to understand it, to analyse the underlying conditions which have enabled trans activists’ arguments to gain so much attention and credibility. Because initially, to be frank, I found it hard to understand why the issue generated such strong feelings, and why feminists were letting themselves get so preoccupied with it. Both the content and the tone of the argument reminded me of the so-called ‘sex wars’ of the 1980s, when huge amounts of time and energy were expended debating the rights and wrongs of lesbian sadomasochism and butch/femme relationships. ‘Debating’ is a euphemism: we tore ourselves and each other apart. I don’t want to say that nothing was at stake, but I do think we lost the plot for a while by getting so exercised about it. The trans debate seemed like another case where the agenda was being set by a few very vocal individuals, and where consequently an issue of peripheral importance for most women was getting far more attention from feminists than it deserved.

But as I followed the events described at the beginning of this piece, and read some of the copious discussion that has circulated via social media, I came to the conclusion that what’s going on is not just a debate about trans. There is such a debate, but it’s part of a much larger and more fundamental argument about the nature and meaning of gender, which pits feminists (especially the radical variety) against all kinds of other cultural and political forces. Trans is part of this, but it isn’t the whole story, nor in my view is it the root cause. Actually, I’m inclined to think that the opposite is true: it is the more general shift in mainstream understandings of gender which explains the remarkable success of trans activism.

Turf wars

It is notable that the policing of what can or cannot be said about trans in public is almost invariably directed against women who speak from a feminist, and especially a radical feminist, perspective. It might be thought that trans people have far more powerful adversaries (like religious conservatives, the right-wing press and some members of the medical establishment), and also far more dangerous ones (whatever radical feminists may say about trans people, they aren’t usually a threat to their physical safety). And yet a significant proportion of all the political energy expended by or on behalf of trans activism is expended on opposing and harassing radical feminists.

This has led some commentators to see the conflict as yet another example of the in-fighting and sectarianism that has always afflicted progressive politics—a case of oppressed groups turning on each other when they should be uniting against their common enemy. But in this case I don’t think that’s the explanation. When trans activists identify feminists as the enemy, they are not just being illogical or petty. Some trans activists refer to their feminist opponents as TERFs, meaning ‘trans-exclusive radical feminists’, or ‘trans-exterminating radical feminists’. The epithet is unpleasant, but the acronym is apt: this is very much a turf dispute, with gender as the contested territory.

At its core, the trans struggle is a battle for legitimacy. What activists want to get accepted is not just the claim of trans people for recognition and civil rights, but the whole view of gender and gender oppression on which that claim is based. To win this battle, the trans activists must displace the view of gender and gender oppression which is currently accorded most legitimacy in progressive/liberal circles: the one put forward by feminists since the late 1960s.

Here it might be objected that feminists themselves don’t have a single account of gender. True, and that’s one reason why trans activists target certain feminist currents more consistently than others [1]. But in fact, the two propositions about gender which trans activists are most opposed to are not confined to radical feminism: both go back to what is often regarded as the founding text of all modern feminism, Simone de Beauvoir’s 1949 classic The Second Sex, and they are still asserted, in some form or other, by almost everyone who claims any kind of feminist allegiance, be it radical, socialist or liberal. The first of these propositions is that gender as we know it is socially constructed rather than ‘natural’; the second is that gender relations are power relations, in which women are structurally unequal to men. On what exactly these statements mean and what they imply for feminist politics there is plenty of internal disagreement, but in themselves they have the status of core feminist beliefs. In the last 15 years, however, these propositions—especially the first one—have become the target of a sustained attack: a multi-pronged attempt to take the turf of gender back from feminism.

Trans activists are currently in the vanguard of this campaign, but they didn’t start the war. Some of its most important battles have been fought not in the arena of organized gender politics, but on the terrain of science, where opposition to feminism, or more exactly to feminist social constructionism, has been spearheaded by a new wave of biological essentialists. The scientists with the highest public profile, men like Stephen Pinker and Simon Baron-Cohen, are politically liberal rather than conservative, and claim to support gender equality and justice: what they oppose is any definition of those things based on the assumption that gender is a social construct. Their goal is to persuade their fellow-liberals that feminism got it wrong about gender, which is not socially constructed but ‘hard-wired’ in the human brain.

This attack on the first feminist proposition (‘gender is constructed’) leads to a reinterpretation of the second (‘gender relations are unequal power relations’). Liberals do not deny that women have suffered and may still suffer unjust treatment in male-dominated societies, but in their account difference takes precedence over power. What feminists denounce as sexism, and explain as the consequence of structural gender inequality, the new essentialists portray as just the inevitable consequence of natural sex-differences.

Meanwhile, in less liberal circles, we’ve seen the rise of a lobby which complains that men and boys are being damaged—miseducated, economically disadvantaged and marginalized within the family—by a society which has based its policies for the last 40 years on the feminist belief that gender is socially constructed: a belief, they say, which has now discredited by objective scientific evidence. (Some pertinent feminist criticisms of this so-called ‘objective’ science have been aired in T&S: see here for more discussion.)

Another relevant cultural trend is the neo-liberal propensity to equate power and freedom, in their political senses, with personal freedom of choice. Across the political spectrum, it has become commonplace to argue that what really ‘empowers’ people is being able to choose: the more choices we have, and the freer we are to make them, the more powerful we will be. Applied to gender, what this produces is ‘post-feminism’, an ideology which dispenses with the idea of collective politics and instead equates the liberation of women with the exercise of individual agency. The headline in which this argument was once satirized by The Onion—‘women now empowered by anything a woman does’—is not even a parody: this is the attitude which underpins all those statements to the effect that if women choose to be housewives or prostitutes, then who is anyone (read: feminists) to criticize them?

This view has had an impact on the way people understand the idea that gender is socially constructed. To say that something is ‘constructed’ can now be taken as more or less equivalent to saying that in the final analysis it is—or should be—a matter of individual choice. It follows that individuals should be free to choose their own gender identity, and have that choice respected by others. I’ve heard several young (non trans-identified) people make this argument when explaining why they feel so strongly about trans equality: choice to them is sacrosanct, often they see it as ‘what feminism is all about’, and they are genuinely bewildered by the idea that anyone other than a right-wing authoritarian might take issue with an individual’s own definition of who they are.

The gender in transgender

Current trans politics, like feminism, cannot be thought of as an internally unified movement whose members all make exactly the same arguments. But although there are some dissenting voices, in general the views of gender and gender oppression which trans activists promote are strongly marked by the two tendencies just described.

In the first place, the trans account puts little if any emphasis on gender as a power relation in which one group (women) is subordinated to/oppressed by the other (men). In the trans account, gender in the ‘men and women’ sense is primarily a matter of individual identity: individuals have a sovereign right to define their gender, and have it recognized by society, on the basis of who they feel themselves to be. But I said ‘gender in the men and women sense’ because in trans politics, gender is understood in another sense as well: there is an overarching division between ‘cisgendered’ individuals, who identify with the gender assigned to them at birth, and ‘transgendered’ individuals, who do not identify with their assigned gender. Even if trans activists recognize the feminist concept of male power and privilege, it is secondary in their thinking to ‘cis’ power and privilege: what is considered to be fundamentally oppressive is the devaluing or non-recognition of ‘trans’ identities in a society which systematically privileges the ‘cis’ majority. Opposition to this takes the form of demanding recognition for ‘cis’ and ‘trans’ as categories, and for the right of any trans person to be treated as a member of the gender group they wish to be identified with.

At this point, though, there is a divergence of views. Some versions of the argument are based on the kind of biological essentialism which I described earlier: the gender with which a person identifies—and thus their status as either ‘cis’ or ‘trans’—is taken to be determined at or before birth. The old story about transsexuals—that they are ‘women trapped in men’s bodies’, or vice-versa—has morphed into a newer version which draws on contemporary neuroscience to argue that everyone has a gendered brain (thanks to a combination of genes and hormonal influences) which may or may not be congruent with their sexed body. In ‘trans’ individuals there is a disconnect between the sex of the body and the gender of the brain.

In other versions we see the influence of the second trend, where the main issue is individual freedom of choice. In some cases this is allied to a sort of postmodernist social utopianism: trans is presented as a radical political gesture, subverting the binary gender system by cutting gender loose from what are usually taken to be its ‘natural’, biological moorings. This opens up the possibility of a society where there will be many genders rather than just two (though no one who makes this argument ever seems to explain why that would be preferable to a society with no genders at all). In other cases, though, choice is presented not as a tactic in some larger struggle to make a better world, but merely as an individual right. People must be allowed to define their own identities, and their definitions must be respected by everyone else. On Twitter recently, in an argument about whether someone with a penis (and no plans to have it removed) could reasonably claim to be a woman, a proponent of this approach suggested that if the person concerned claimed to be a woman than they were a woman by definition, and had an absolute right to be recognized as such. In response, someone else tweeted: ‘I’m a squirrel’. Less Judith Butler, more Alice Through the Looking Glass.

Proponents of the first, essentialist account are sometimes critical of those who make the second, and ironically their criticism is the same one I would make from a radical feminist perspective: this post-feminist understanding of social constructionism is trivializing and politically vacuous. What trans essentialists think feminists are saying when they say gender is socially constructed is that gender is nothing more than a superficial veneer. They reject this because it is at odds with their experience: it denies the reality of the alienation and discomfort which leads people to identify as trans. This is a reaction feminists ought to be able to understand, since it parallels our own response to the dismissal of issues like sexual harassment as trivial problems which we ought to be able to ‘get over’—we say that’s not how women experience it. But in this case it’s a reaction based on a misreading: for most feminists, ‘socially constructed’ does not imply ‘trivial and superficial’.

In the current of feminism T&S represents, which is radical and materialist, gender is theorized as a consequence of social oppression. Masculinity and femininity are produced through patriarchal social institutions (like marriage), practices (like the division of labour which makes women responsible for housework and childcare) and ideologies (like the idea of women being weak and emotional) which enable one gender to dominate and exploit the other. If these structures did not exist—if there were no gender—biological male/female differences would not be linked in the way they are now to identity and social status. The fact that they do continue to exist, however, and to be perceived by many or most people as ‘natural’ and immutable, is viewed by feminists (not only radical materialists but most feminists in the tradition of Beauvoir) as evidence that what is constructed is not only the external structures of society, but also the internalized feelings, desires and identities that individuals develop through their experience of living within those structures.

Radical feminists, then, would actually agree with the trans activists who say that gender is not just a superficial veneer which is easily stripped away. But they don’t agree that if something is ‘deep’ then it cannot be socially constructed, but must instead be attributed to innate biological characteristics. For feminists, the effects of lived social experience are not trivial, and you cannot transcend them by an individual act of will. Rather you have to change the nature of social experience through collective political action to change society.

The rainbow flag meets the double helix

When I first encountered trans politics, in the 1990s, it was dominated by people who, although their political goals differed from feminism’s, basically shared the feminist view that gender as we knew it was socially constructed, oppressive, and in need of change through collective action. This early version of trans politics was strongly allied with the queer activism of the time, emphasized its political subversiveness, and spoke in the language of queer theory and postmodernism. It still has some adherents today, but over time it has lost ground to the essentialist version that stresses the naturalness and timeless universality of the division between ‘trans’ and ‘cis’, and speaks in two other languages: on one hand, neurobabble (you can’t argue with the gender of my brain), and on the other, identity politics at their most neo-liberal (you can’t argue with my oppression, my account of my oppression, or the individual choices I make to deal with my oppression).

Once again, though, this development is not specific to trans politics. Trans activists are not the first group to have made the journey from radical social critique to essentialism and neoliberal individualism. It is a more general trend, seen not only in some ‘post-feminist’ campaigning by women, but also and perhaps most clearly in the recent history of gay and lesbian activism.

In the heyday of the Women’s and Gay Liberation Movements, the view was widely held that sexuality was socially constructed, and indeed relatively plastic: lesbianism, in particular, was presented by some feminists as a political choice. But in the last 20 years this view has largely withered away. Faced with well-organized opponents denouncing their perverted ‘lifestyle choices’, some prominent gay/lesbian activists and organizations began promoting the counter-argument that homosexuals are born, not made. Of course the ‘born that way’ argument had always had its supporters, but today it has hardened into an orthodoxy which you deviate from at your peril. Not long ago the actor Cynthia Nixon, who entered a lesbian relationship fairly late in life, made a comment in an interview which implied that she didn’t think she’d always been a lesbian. She took so much flak from those who thought she was letting the side down, she was forced to issue a ‘clarification’.

Since ‘born that way’ became the orthodox line, there has been more mainstream acceptance of and sympathy for the cause of gay/lesbian equality, as we’ve seen most recently in the success of campaigns for same-sex marriage. Though it is possible this shift in public attitudes would have happened anyway, it seems likely that the shift away from social constructionism helped, by making the demand for gay rights seem less of a political threat. The essentialist argument implies that the straight majority will always be both straight and in the majority, because that’s how nature has arranged things. No one need fear that granting rights to gay people will result in thousands of new ‘converts’ to their ‘lifestyle’: straight people won’t choose to be gay, just as gay people can’t choose to be straight.

If you adopt a social constructionist view of gender and sexuality, then lesbians, gay men and gender non-conformists are a challenge to the status quo: they represent the possibility that there are other ways for everyone to live their lives, and that society does not have to be organized around our current conceptions of what is ‘natural’ and ‘normal’. By contrast, if you make the essentialist argument that some people are just ‘born different’, then all gay men, lesbians or gender non-conformists represent is the more anodyne proposition that diversity should be respected. This message does not require ‘normal’ people to question who they are, or how society is structured. It just requires them to accept that what’s natural for them may not be natural for everyone. Die-hard bigots won’t be impressed with that argument, but for anyone vaguely liberal it is persuasive, appealing to basic principles of tolerance while reassuring the majority that support for minority rights will not impinge on their own prerogatives.

For radical feminists this will never be enough. Radical feminism aspires to be, well, radical. It wants to preserve the possibility that we can not only imagine but actually create a different, better, juster world. The attack on feminist social constructionism is ultimately an attack on that possibility. And when radical feminists take issue with trans activists, I think that is what we need to emphasize. What’s at stake isn’t just what certain individuals put on their birth certificates or whether they are welcome at certain conferences. The real issue is what we think gender politics is about: identity or power, personal choice or structural change, reshuffling the same old cards or radically changing the game.

[1] A more detailed discussion of feminist ideas about gender, which looks at their history and at what is or isn’t shared by different currents within feminism, can be found in Debbie Cameron and Joan Scanlon’s article ‘Talking about gender’.

Posted in Feminism | Tagged , ,

Bolivian Radical Feminist Maria Galindo on the State, ‘despatriarcalizacion’ and the story of Ekeko

[This interview originally appeared here]

Maria Galindo

Mujeres Creando [wikipedia | website] is a radical feminist organization that has been confronting the patriarchalism of Bolivian society since the 1980’s.  We spoke with one of the founders, Maria Galindo, in the restaurant of their small hotel and cultural center in the capital La Paz, while the Mujeres Creando radio station, broadcasting from another room, played on the speaker in the background.

When Maria joined us she brought along another North American, Phillip Berryman, a teacher and professional translator, explaining that since he had also asked for an interview, she would take our questions together.

Sharyl Green: The first big question is about the Evo Morales administration:  how are specifically women’s issues being handled?  Is there being progress made?  Today’s newspaper says that 11% of the issues in the constitution passed 3 years ago have been put into laws now–how is this impacting women’s issues?  Of course, the caveat is that all issues are women’s issues.  But the abortion issue, for example, and other things that you see as directly affecting women’s well being.

Maria Galindo: Well, in general about Evo Morales, it is very complex; inside, Evo Morales has had a kind of evolution.  Evo Morales now is not the Evo Morales of the beginning.  In the beginning there was a lot of hope, a lot of social expectation, and really a very strong relation between MAS and the government.  In this sixth year it has developed not in positive ways but in negative ways.  For example, Evo Morales says, I mean his government, “we need to have a very big control over social organizations, to stay in power.  To grow this social control we have to buy the heads of these social organizations.”  So the heads of the social organizations are now in the control of the government.  But not the bases.  It means that the head of the social organizations have taken money from the government, and projects, but it doesn’t mean a real presence of the social organizations, with their questions.  It is like a theater.  Here we have the people with us, but just the friends of Evo Morales, and friends who are there because they have some advantages.  So it means a very big lack of real social transformation, because they are not working on the concrete problems of any social piece of the society, they are just working so that everybody thinks and everybody feels that Evo Morales is the only solution for everybody in Bolivia.  So we have a process of “caudillizacion.”  He is the change, the change is he, he is everything, he is the defender, so it makes a degradation in the social and political process.

SG: So there is a hierarchy…

MG: Not only the hierarchy, but I will say it in Spanish:  it is a process of caudillizacion [The making of a “caudillo,” or charismatic leader].  The figure of Evo Morales is the center of everything.  it is really a very big mistake.  For the women it is very contradictory and it is very well disguised.  Why?  The first law, which was the most important, was a cash payment, the “bono Juana Asurdo” (named after a heroine of the revolution against Spain in the 19th century.)  It’s a payment for every woman who has a baby–as every fascist government did.  It is not so much:  a thousand, eight hundred bolivianos ($261 US dollars.)  You cannot do anything with that.  But again, “women” means “babies.”  The poorest women in Bolivia–maybe they could need that money.  But to get that money you have to go to the doctor, the doctor gives you a paper saying you are going to have a baby, and then you have to go to the bank to get the money from the state.  But the poorest women do not have an ID of a Bolivian citizen to go to the bank.  So it is really absurd.  And it is like a portrait of the thinking of this government.

On the other hand, since the nineties because of a policy of the United Nations there is a sort of quota of women in every political party.  It is a liberal policy, not a socialist policy, this policy of “equality.”  So every party has a percentage of women, and some percentage of women are elected as deputies and senators.  This began in the nineties, and it is copied through all of Latin America, it is not originally Bolivian.  The social movement of women here never asked to get representation in parliament.  It came from the UN.  Since the nineties, the parties, also of the right, say, “OK, we are gentlemen, we are going to get this law.”

So since the nineties you have a low percentage of women in the parliament, women who are elected to represent the party.  Not to represent the society or the women in the society.  And this percentage of women never means a voice for women.  They mean a feminine voice for the party, which is really very different.  It is a phenomenon of the whole of Latin American politics.  Evo Morales has taken the same mainstream idea and put it in his policy.  Now you have a higher percentage of women, I think it is around forty percent, I am not so sure, I really don’t pay much attention to that.  And they have the same policy for the cabinet ministers and the judges.  But with the same rules:  women from our party are going to do what we want.  Women who have responsibility for health, in many things, they really didn’t do anything for women.  Because it is enough to be there and say, “I am here, I am a voice for women.”

So they make a careful selection of women to keep out those women who are dangerous, who speak loud, who think for themselves.  There is a lot of aggression against rebel women in social movements now in Bolivia.  It is not the responsibility of Evo Morales, it is the way it is in this moment.

So your point with abortion–it is like going with a bus to the moon.  We are very distant from that point.  I have had interviews with all of the women in the cabinet [Maria has a regular radio program broadcast from Mujeres Creando], with all the heads of women’s movements who are with Evo Morales, with Bartolina Sisa (a movement named after an Aymara heroine of the 1700’s who fought against the Spanish),  with everybody of these movements.  I ask them about abortion.  Because abortion is a problem of poverty.  White young women, if they have four hundred dollars they can get an abortion.  The indigenous, poor young women who don’t have the money get an abortion with a big risk, and they die.  And they have a lot of fear.

SG: There doctors in the country who will perform a safe abortion for $400?

MG: It’s just a question of hypocrisy.  You can go to the big cemetery in La Paz, and then you come walking down–you will see on both sides of the street little clinics.  And you know, a room cannot be a clinic.  So you see clinic, clinic, clinic, clinic…”If you have a question, come here, woman’s clinic”  All those places are for abortion.  Everybody knows, it is not a secret.

SG: And the government is not interfering?

MG: No, no, they don’t do anything.  But for example, last December there was a young woman in Santa Cruz who killed her baby–the baby came and she killed it.  She went to jail, because of murder.  And she said, “I have been raped.  I didn’t want this kid.”  The police do nothing.  The doctors make money, not so much, but they make money.  But when a woman is so alone, so vulnerable, as that girl, then she goes to jail.  It is a case of hypocrisy.  But no woman of these indigenous social movements is willing to speak positively of the right–not of my right, of a feminist–of the right of those girls in the country to make a choice.  So they are not ready–I asked every woman in parliament about abortion.  All of them are against abortion, all of them.  There is not one woman who says, “OK, they have the right.”  We have to fight for this which is very concrete.

SG: And probably most of them have someone in their extended family or someone they know…

MG: Oh sure, sure, sure…because abortion in Bolivia is a mass problem, it is not an individual problem of one girl there.  Because you don’t have sexual education in the law and in the schools.  You have a sort of macho culture in sexuality, which means every boy wants to show his power against a girl.  So it is really a big mass problem.  And you see many very young women with kids, and no father.  On our radio here we make a list of fathers who don’t pay for their kids, and it is really a big success.  We broadcast their name, their age, and the place where they work.  Five times in one day, and no woman has to pay for that.  And it is very interesting because it is not only for those whose name is read, but it is a message to the whole society.

SG: Mujeres Creando–connection to the government, influence.  You have two roles here–maybe they are combined–you’re a journalist and you’re a member of this community.  What is the administration’s connection, relationship, acknowledgement of Mujeres Creando?

MG: Acknowledgement in no sense.  But I think that we, Mujeres Creando, have had a big influence in the society, because we speak very loud.  And we don’t just speak, we also make things.  So we have a strong influence, I feel it everywhere, all the time.  This government of Evo Morales acts as if we don’t exist, we are not here, we don’t make anything.  But it doesn’t mean anything, because we are not fixed on the idea that the only policy which has succeeded is the relationship with the state.  We have analyzed this for many, many years:  what do we want from the state?  We don’t want anything from the state.  Not only laws–laws don’t change anything.  Many social movements in Bolivia have the domestication in mind, “We get the law, we get a change in the situation.”  But we are not asking for a law, we are not asking to be in the parliament, we are not asking to get money from the government, but we take positions on every governmental policy.

We are not on our Fantasy Island, but we are not thinking that we have to be recognized from the state.  For example, when the constitutional process four or five years ago was going on in Bolivia we made a social theory which was very interesting.  We said, “We don’t want equality between men and women, this is not our view.  We want a ‘despatriarcalizacion’ of society.”  I cannot say it in English because it is a word which we invented  (de-patriarchalization).  And now every document from the government that has to do with women says “despatriarcalizacion.”  They have taken the word from us.  It is proof of our big influence in their minds, but it is not a reality because, for example, they never ask us to discuss what this “depatriarcalizacion” means.  It is a complicated relationship.

SG: It’s a big question in the United States, too, these days.  There’s a lot of movement outside the government, where the goal is not to work for the party, trying to get people elected.  It’s an exciting time:  are you going to work on the outside or are you going to try to get people into the inside?  So people are making some very interesting choices.  It sounds like your choice has been to work on the outside and to have a wide influence, not just with women but with society as a whole, getting people to think more clearly or deeply, or to look at their own patterns in a new way.

MG: Yes, it’s not that we think we are going to tell people what the truth is, that’s very important.  You made the point very well.  For us, women are “political subjects” (protagonists.)  So we work in this way, considering women to be political subjects, not “beneficiaries,” “vulnerability,” “Oh, poor women!”  stuff like that.  We not only speak, we act.  For example we have little programs which have a very interesting methodology, programs which work, and programs which are for the people.  We have a very interesting program in violence against women which is very practical, and we act in every case we can and we have a program for mothers which is about thinking about being a mother in another way.  Both of them have a big influence in society, but we don’t get many women because we function on a small scale.  But they are examples–we are not only ready to speak, we are ready to act.

That is the big difference, because you find in Bolivia many intellectuals, some better, some not so good, who are good at critical thinking, and they speak, also, but they are not doing anything but just speak.  We think that this is a big mistake.  You have so many years of Bolivian political thinking where you can find the miners, you can find the indigenous, you can find the young people, and never women.  All social movements have a sort of masculine face, and women have been thought of as those of as a vulnerable piece of society,  we have to protect women, we have to protect women as mothers, and that’s the idea of the state.  And that idea hasn’t changed.  We are in the same point as we were.

Phillip Berryman: I understand your argument about women in politics.  Do you see signs of women breaking out of traditional roles in other areas such as business?

MG: I think there is a big confusion in that in general, not only in Bolivia.  For example, here in Bolivia you have women in the military.  Is it a proof of rebellion?  Is it a proof of something we have gained?  Can we celebrate?  You have women working, but in what conditions?

SG: Just the other day there was a lot of police presence near the capital, and there were women.  I happened to look down and a woman policeperson had on very pointy boots with high heels, and I thought, “How can she do what she might need to do with high heels?”  It struck me as very ironic.

MG: Ironic, that’s the word.  In many of those examples there is a lot of ambiguity.  It does not mean a victory in Bolivian society for women to go into the military.  The military forces committed a lot of abuses against boys [recruits.]  Many died.  At the time there was some thinking that there would be the possibility that they would reject military service.  So the government said, “OK, for the boys it is obligatory, they cannot choose.  But women can join, and they can choose.”  And the women stood in line from five in the morning to get into the military.   They would make any sacrifice to get in.  Why?  There is a lot of contradiction.  Neoliberalism and liberalism in Latin America says you have the right.  You have to fight for your rights, but you have them–you are equal.  We have now, in the whole world, lots of women with lots of power.  What does it mean?  It’s a big question for us as feminists, also, because no woman in power, in Bolivia, Germany, or wherever, is there because of feminist thinking.  She is there because of patriarchal thinking.

I am not so interested in Cristina Kirchner or Merkel, I am interested in the mass.  In the mass of women there is an impulse to get the space of men, and they are ready to pay the tax to get the masculine values like competition, use of force, use of violence.  There is a mass of women who think that way.  So here in Bolivia there are women who want to be police.  But the highest percentage of violence toward women in private life comes from policemen.  And then you see this irony you spoke about.  They get there, but then they are…the women.  Where are we?  But from the other side, to answer your question [PB’s] you can see a lot of mass social rebellion of women.  For example, lots of women are ready to denounce violence, and this is a rebel act.  Lots of women are in the university.  I have been teaching here in the public university.  Fifty percent in all the fields are women.  There is not a field where men can say, “This is our field.”  But in the fields of women you don’t find men.  This revolution is not on the side of being a man, of being masculine.

SG: So if you look for example at early childhood education, or human development, or history of women, there are no men?

Ekeka made by Mujeres Creando

MG: I have to show you something:  the story of the Ekeko.  This is a reflection of what is happening with women in the Bolivian society now.  This was created by a young artist who is in our movement.  She is twenty years old.  I am forty-seven, and we work together.  Do you know the story of Ekeko?  I will explain it.  Ekeko is an Andean god of abundance.  He is a little, short man who carries everything on his back.  Food, cars, electric appliances, everything that you might want to have.  He goes back hundreds of years, at least since the end of the 1700’s.  If you venerate the image of Ekeko, you will have everything you want in your home.  It is clearly the deification of the father who brings everything you need, which is very false.  There is a statue of Ekeko in a special place in the home, and every Friday the woman of the house has to give him a cigarette.  She has to put it in the mouth of the statue and light it.  It also has an erotic symbolism–you find many Ekekos with an erect penis.  So he is going to give you everything, well-being and pleasure.  In many homes you find this little man in the best place.

So we made a woman in his place.  [She shows us a small statue, about seven inches long and seven inches high.  It is a woman with a bundle as big as herself on her shoulders, while behind her there is the figure of a man sprawled out, sleeping, bottle in hand.] Instead of him, it’s her.  In the bundle she is carrying on her shoulders she has her heart, which is not damaged.  And she has everything:  a house, and music, and food–everything you need.  And she has wings, because she wants freedom.  She has books, because she wants to learn.  If you go to a night school you will see many women there, because so many women had to drop out of school, but now they want to learn.  And she has a suitcase, because she is leaving.  This is another rebellious feeling of many women: “I am ready to leave you.”  And the suitcase is labeled, in it are dreams, hopes, rebellion, and happiness.  And she is leaving the little god Ekeko–drunk, lazy, macho.  And the letter she leaves for him says, “The Ekeka was always me.”

We sell these in our booth in the market.  To sell these is a political act.  We speak with the women, and they really laugh.  Every woman understands it, the woman who sells bread, the woman who is in an office, and the woman who is in parliament.

SG: Are they selling well?

MG: Yes.  It is not so cheap, because we want the girl who makes them to have some money from this.  The most important thing is that we want to get into the popular imagination.  It has a place in the heart of the people.

SG: And what about this other figure of a man with a baby on his back and a shopping bag in one hand and a broom in the other?

MG: This man is Evo Morales.  He is carrying a kid on his back like an indigenous woman.  No man carries a kid this way, it would be against his dignity.  And he is ready to clean the house and go to the market.  This was the most important man of the Bolivian revolution (which is not a revolution, really.)  We really sold these as if they were bread.  Now no more because he is not so popular any more.  Back when he was on top I went to a big political affair and I gave one to him as a present.  He took it and threw it to one of his bodyguards.  He didn’t take it and laugh, he was hostile, it was disgusting for him.  That was a sign!  I wondered, “Why isn’t he ready to laugh with us, and say, ‘Why not?’ or ‘Interesting!’ or ‘Thank you very much,’ or whatever.”

This is the state of rebellion of women.  If you don’t understand you would say, “Ah these women are saying every man is a drunk…”  but it is much more than that, it is a symbol.

SG: It’s more about women…

MG: Yeah.  Before coming here I was interviewing a woman.  She wants to separate from her man.  When she was fourteen a member of her family gave her as a present to a military man who was twenty-eight.  He had a kid that he needed somebody to take care of.  So she went with the military man and was with him, in my eyes in the state of slavery.  But in the eyes of society as a wife.  She was crying in the market and a woman asked, “Why are you crying?”  When she explained the woman said, “Go to those women.” [i. e. Mujeres Creando.]

SG: How old is she now?

MG: She is between fifty and sixty.  She has four kids with the military man, her whole life thinking, “I am going to leave him.”  You can say those stories cannot be true now, but they are now still true.  They are not all our stories.  That is not my story.  But we, as women, are in the same historical and social place as that woman.  If we take her as a sister, she was, or is, in slavery.

I have been working a lot with prostitution, and I really know that problem, I have done many things with that universe.  In Bolivia, every prostitute has to be legally registered.  That means she has to give her real name, her address, the place where she works as a prostitute, and they take a photograph and make a document.  You have to have that document from the health ministry to work as a prostitute.  Also, you have to go to the doctor once a week, just to be checked in your vagina.  Just that.  If you have a problem in your eyes or wherever it doesn’t matter, they just examine your vagina.  And you get a paper that says ‘permitted.’  They are only paying attention to the health of the men.  And this is happening now, not a hundred years ago or two hundred years ago.

This [pointing to a picture on the wall] is a photograph of a prostitute from the early 1900’s.  The police took those photographs of every prostitute:  two views, front and profile.  In those days a woman had to wear a black cloth on her head to show that she was a prostitute.  Police had those archives.  Since 2000 the police do not take photos, now it is the health ministry that does the vaginal check-ups to say you can go with a client.

I have done hundreds  of seminars, projects, letters, whatever.  We started an organization to work with women.  In our view everything should be done with the woman.  For example the woman in a state of slavery:  she is the one who wants to get out of that.  I am not the one to say you have to do that.  It is very important.  Every woman has to say what she wants to do.  They find in us a friend,  a political group or whatever, but she has to know.

PB: Do you see signs of change in the attitudes of men?

MG: Not in Bolivia.  I don’t see change in the universe of men.  I see a lot of change in some parts of the universe of women–because we are not all one piece, we are complex–but I see almost no change in the world of men.  Man is in a deep crisis.  Women are making changes and men stay there and cannot change.  For example, there is a very big market in prostitution.  Who is going to that market?  I can show you very young men and very old men using that market.  You can see miners  and professionals using that market, it is just a question of price.  You can find a very cheap prostitute and a very expensive one.  The market of prostitution is growing.  Men go there to buy a woman.  I don’t see any change there.

What is going on with men?  On my radio program I have women speaking about violence against women.  I have opened a place for men to speak about violence against women, but no man wants to come.  Men want to speak about revolution, about the price of gasoline or diesel, about political representation, or history, but they don’t want to speak about themselves.  It is difficult to ask them to speak about that, it is like an offense, like something without respect.

PB: In Colombia I saw a bit of propaganda against domestic violence–a reggaeton singer or something like that.

MG; You can see that in Bolivia also, famous men who get paid–it doesn’t mean anything.  The government makes this theater with money from international cooperation–there is no money from the Bolivian state.  It is not well thought out, just something staged–very easy to say.  If you see the use of women in mass media–it makes me sick.  Everywhere, for everything, and no limits.

SG: Women in prison–we talked with a woman who works with prisoners and learned that women can have their children with them in prison, that they can work to earn money, that they are self governing.  How do you see programs for women in prison?

MG: I don’t have a very deep knowledge about prisons.  I began a series of radio programs every fifteen days from the prison.  We went there and the women would speak.  It was wonderful, we had permission for twelve programs, but we did only two.  That’s true, women can have there children with them in prison.  The kids go to school and then after school they come back to the prison.  It depends on their age.  They work in the prison, but those are not state organized programs, the point is that the state does not have money for the prison, and they don’t want to spend money on the prison, they want a cheap prison.  The women work because if they didn’t they could die of hunger.  They couldn’t survive there without working.

The reason that I didn’t have permission to do more programs was that the women do laundry, they get nine Bolivianos for twelve pieces.  From these nine Bolivianos the police take some money.  But they don’t have permission to take that money.  They told about it on the radio so everybody knew about it.  So they put the woman who told about that into solitary confinement, there was a big scandal, and I lost my permission–no more radio programs.

You could go there.  If you know someone you could go without any permission and say that you are scheduled to visit so-and -so and you would see, they have built a little society inside.  But they have two showers for a hundred and sixty women, and they pay for the shower.  They have two kinds of spaces.  They have a place to sleep, for that they don’t have to pay.  But then they get out into a big place for the whole day.  In that big place many have built places to spend the day.  To get one of them they have to pay.  A woman who doesn’t have one Boliviano doesn’t have a place all day.  Whatever they have is the product of their struggle.

Posted in Anarchism, Direct Action, Feminism | Tagged ,

Lee Lakeman on Red Hot Video, the Wimmin’s Fire Brigade and the struggle against pornography

This recording was found on vmc. Reposting here with a transcript:

(download mp3)

“Red Hot Video was a series of stores, five I think, in the lower mainland. They were franchised owned stores which were introducing a line of videos from the United States. Previously men who wanted to buy video pornography had to do it in a special order, they could place an ad in the Globe and Mail. But this was a moment when the technology was changing and instead of film, we were going to video and the video were being shipped up from the United States. And within months, they were also being produced here, copied here rather than creatively produced, but our upset was that there were suddenly five stores in the lower mainland that were offering boys and men a large range of violent, up to and including, violent pornography as though it was normal entertainment. And that alarmed us, and frightened us, and enraged us, and we came together as women’s groups under the BC Federation of Women, so Rape Relief sent two or three delegates to that committee. I can remember that both Nicole and Regina were part of that working committee.

And that committee of five or six women from different women’s groups, met regularly and decided to examine what was in these videos and was it as bad as we feared. Cause they were videos that had names like “virgin sluts”, “black whores”, you know, overtly racist, sexist, miserable, violent, degrading crap. And so we wanted to see was that big talk or were they in fact that ugly. And they came to the conclusion they were that ugly and they decided to do several things. They did as much education in the lower mainland as they could do, but they also educated us as part of the collective. We saw some of these videos and decided what we thought of it, and in our campaigns I know that they talked to a number of the owners of those shops, because one owner became so upset that he handed us a whole bunch of those tapes so we in fact never had to buy them or rent them. He gave us a bunch of the tapes and we kept those for years, to have a record of how hideous they were.

And we continued a fairly strong public education campaign I know that there were several days where there were information pickets outside each of the shops and at a certain point there was a twenty four hour information picket at our store on Main street. I can’t remember now whether each women’s groups took a different store or whether we were all at all them. I can’t quite remember how the technicality of it worked but it was a lot of effort and a serious effort. We invited men to join us on the picket line and a number of men did but mostly it was women and women’s groups that tried to convince the public that these businesses should not be supported.

And partly we were trying to model for ourselves, if we don’t totally cooperate with censorship or we don’t totally rely on censorship because it’s important to remember that the Canadian case of Little Sisters was going on almost simultaneously. Little Sisters was an important case in which Canadian law was being reconsidered, and the feminists had taken a position through the LEAF organization and certainly we had considered that position too, that we needed to ask, to insist, that the government stop thinking about obscenity and start thinking about the harm to women. And that’s the legal position that feminists took in that case. And we still hold to that, that there is an obligation of government to interfere with this kind of hate literature against women and to not consider this a matter of morality or obscenity but a matter of propaganda against women and that real harm is done by it.

But at the same time, if we weren’t going to rely totally on government then we needed to figure out strategies ourselves to create direct actions and public education practices that would interfere with pornography. So we were having many theoretical talks about that and many experiments about how to work in that situation. So the information pickets against Red Hot Video were our attempts to say ok, there are real owners, this is a business, at that point it was an international business, because there was certainly collusion with the American producers and we had to hope we could educate the public and cost these businesses some money, so it would be less in their interest to invade our communities and proliferate this propaganda.

So the biggest action I think was the twenty four hour one and overall it was a success in that we got coverage and it was a pretty good public education campaign. But it was not totally satisfying of course, we still had to walk up the street everyday going to the rape crisis center, going past this hate machine on our block. And then the night of the bombings happened, and the announcement was that the Wimmin’s Fire Brigade had bombed the stores in the lower mainland. And at that point I was part of a committee of the BC Federation of Women and my job was as media spokesperson, and so I was called in the middle of the night, early morning and told to show up at the TV station and be ready with a position. And so many women’s groups were invited, I think there was probably 10 or 12 of us in a circle at the Jack Webster’s Show. It was either CBC or CTV. It was probably the most popular show in the province, new public affairs show, and Mr. Webster asked us repeatedly “do you support this violence”? And so I didn’t have much time to negotiate with the rest of the members of the BC Federation of Women, so some people were displeased with me for not slowing it down and not consulting first, but I decided it was important to take a position, and what I did was take a position that I would not denounce the actions or the people involved.

A number of us were already very frightened for the consequences that would happen, and we knew that if there was such a thing as the Wimmins’s Fire Brigade it would probably involve women we knew, and women we cared about, and women who were enraged with our inability to stop this hate mongering. So what I think I said that morning, I think you can get the tapes, but I’m aware that I refused to denounce it. I said I thought there was a difference between property crime and harm to people and that I thought that property crime was in the tradition of feminist activism all the way back to the suffragettes, and that I could well understand the rage behind such an action. And I was glad that no one was hurt and I was not sorry that these stores were cost money and were interfered with. Not a bit sorry.

I would say that it slow down the inundation in some ways. At the same time it became an excuse for government repression. I’d think it split the movement considerably. So it was mixed. I think that the fact that it had some good impact as Ann Hansen said, in her book is partly because a lot of public education had already been done by the feminist organizations.

But you know I’m sad to admit that it’s a moment where pornography proliferated, where the intrusion of the new technology overwhelmed us.  I think violent pornography is available everywhere now. The new technologies have introduced new levels of pornography every time the new technologies have been invented so it was one of those moments. And I think that in a way, the startle after the firebombings and the fright of it all, meant that most of the organizing against pornography stopped at that point.

And we were at a point in our analysis, because feminism is so much our praxis, in that moment we were just coming to terms with the fact that the pornography was actually the portrayal of real women. Real harm being done to real women. And so, in some ways I think there’s a direct line between that moment and how much we were knocked back on our heels by the government repression and by the interference in our debates that we got stuck there.

And now when we’re trying to pick up again we find ourselves with new levels of intrusion in the movement and intrusion in the community. We have the globalization now of prostitution at a level that just didn’t exist in those days. And the pornography fight that should have been going on through these 30 years has not been as active as it should have been. So in many ways, we have to pick up again where we left off in understanding what is the harm that’s being done, and to whom is it being done and how will we interfere with it.

And the men of the left, I have to say, completely abandoned us in that struggle. I think you will find very little response to all the work that women did on pornography in those days, and very little response now. There’s very little help from men of the left in our fight against the global prostitution of women.

I don’t think the firebombings made us less effective. I do think that in the moment of government repression that happened after the firebombing we were not shown the solidarity of a wider left. All of a sudden if that repression happens to women, there doesn’t seem to be a need for an uprising on the part of the men. Surely that should have been the moment when anarchos, when Marxists, when union organizers would rise, recognize that women were under attack. At least recognize that women were under attack by the State. I mean we were under attack by much more than that but at least by the State they could have seen that and risen and they didn’t.

It’s emblematic that even in the trial of the [Squamish] five, when they were being held responsible for Red Hot Video as well as the other actions, the left was nowhere to be seen.”

Posted in Anarchism, Direct Action, Feminism | Tagged ,


Lately, I’ve become convinced that politics on the internet is a giant game of telephone.

[A] game played around the world, in which one person whispers a message to another, which is passed through a line of people until the last player announces the message to the entire group. Errors typically accumulate in the retellings, so the statement announced by the last player differs significantly, and often amusingly, from the one uttered by the first.

A great example is the ever-popular “genderbread person”.

1. The above image (circa 2005) is prototypical. Sex, gender roles, orientation and identity are listed in a lunch menu format and assigned to regions of a body. The implication is that sex is what you are physically, orientation is how you feel and identity is how you think about yourself. Gender roles are off to the side somewhere, presumably in the garage or the kitchen. “Sexual behavior”, complete with stick figure porno, is somehow different from orientation for reasons that aren’t readily apparent.

2. After languishing for a few years, our stickfigure person who forges ahead with only a brain, a heart and ambiguous genitalia is back and now with a catchy name — genderbread person!  By now, gender roles (which had no specific body part before) have become “expression” and gender identity is simply “gender”.

This iteration also introduces Kinsey-esque scales for sex, gender, orientation and expression. I’ve written about this one before, as it represents a clear depoliticization of the gender hierarchy. I’ll just add that the scales are strangely crafted. For instance “expression” has masculinity and femininity on opposite extremes and androgyny in the middle. But “expression” should really have both masculinity and femininity on the same extreme (the saturation of gender) and androgyny on the other (the desaturation of gender).  The scales, as depicted here, are remarkably similar to what Janice Raymond calls “the cosmic male-female polarity” upon which hetero-reality is constructed.

3. Now in color. And with a disturbing amount of pink.

4. Genderbread person gets their romance on. A lot of romance. To the untrained eye, “romantic orientation” might seem identical to “sexual orientation” but they are in fact different. Somehow. Also, relevant.

5. Genderbread has really grown up now. A QR Code and multiple fonts. Wow. I especially appreciate that “gender identity” and “biological sex” are both based on hormones. Objectively.

6. Genderbread person has lost the person. But gained two-spirits. And a lot of psychology. Expression is now listed with the addition of “attribution”. Attribution implies a causal relationship of some sort with gender roles but it’s not clear what they mean except that they probably went to college.

7. Here the concept has gotten a little hard to follow. The columns indicate that gender is how an individual feels regardless of their sex, but the rest doesn’t make much sense.

8. This version is a Venn diagram. We know this because it says so right there at the top. The creator of this masterpiece got some flak for bothering to create a Venn diagram without any Venn but that was in fact their whole point. (That gender, sex and orientation have no logical relationships.)

These last two diagrams are the first to eliminate “expression” or “gender roles” entirely in favor of simple “identity”. Sex, gender and sexuality are simply things an individual is, or feels and not how they behave or are forced to behave by their social or material environment.

9. Continuing the Venn-era of genderbread persons, we have this four set diagram which depicts the fairly well understood spectrum of sexual orientation in as complicated a manner as possible, while also creating enough greek/latin compound words to make heads explode.

I’ve read that there are over 200 different sexual orientations, which probably far exceeds the number of people (outside of tumblr) that actually care.

10. Finally, my favorite. The genderbread person is back but is now an upside down pornified pinup girl, who is clearly expressing her gender by gabbing on the phone. Probably about the how awesome the 1950’s were.

I appreciate this version the most because it’s exceptionally derivative, but in a condensed sort of way that betrays the previous versions. Here, gender is “the role you want to play in society” an incorrect but still fairly clever combination of identity, gender roles and expression. Orientation now includes both sex and romance, thus saving some major infographic real estate. And finally (ingeniously! or possibly accidentally), sex is your “biological gender”.

This last graphic had well over 10,000 whatevers on tumblr.  However, a few folks did point out that if gender is “a role you want to play”, and sex is your “biological gender” then with some basic substitution, voila! sex is also “a role you want to play”. But not everyone was entirely happy with that formulation.

I have a couple of really big problems with all of these diagrams. First, I loathe the idea that individual traits map causally to social divisions, especially the assumption that biology leads to everything else. Also, the underlying assumptions about individual choice are the real driving force behind these diagrams: the idea that gender, expression, identity, etc are just choices people make and that’s that. The only remaining thing is for everyone from the pansexual-aromantics to the ambiphilic bisexual intersexed to simply respect everyone’s individual choices and everything would be great.

This doesn’t work because we live in a hierarchical world and a lot of people’s “individual choices” are hurtful and also supported by all of society.

Anyway, since I can’t resist joining this parade of stupid diagrams, here is my own special version of the genderbread person:

Posted in Anarchism, Feminism | Tagged , ,

Rethinking Sex and Gender – Christine Delphy

[Christine Delphy on the social construction of sex, gender, hierarchy and division. Reprinted from Sex in Question: French materialist feminism edited by Diana Leonard and Lisa Adkins 1996. PDF ]

Rethinking Sex and Gender

Christine Delphy1

Up till now, most work on gender, including most feminist work on gender, has been based on an unexamined presupposition: that sex precedes gender. However, although this presupposition is historically explicable, it is theoretically unjustifiable, and its continued existence is holding back our thinking on gender. It is preventing us from rethinking gender in an open and unbiased way. Further, this lack of intellectual clarity is inextricably bound up with, on the one hand, the political contradictions produced by our desire as women to escape domination, and, on the other, our fear that we might lose what seem to be fundamental social categories.

What is common to these intellectual impasses and political contradictions is an inability (or a refusal) to think rigorously about the relationship between division and hierarchy, since the question of the relationship between sex and gender not only parallels this question, but is, in fact, the self-same issue.

What I want to do here is argue that in order to understand reality, and hence eventually to have the power to change it, we must be prepared to abandon our certainties and to accept the (temporary) pain of an increased uncertainty about the world. Having the courage to confront the unknown is a pre-condition for imagination, and the capacity to imagine another world is an essential element in scientific progress. It is certainly indispensable to my analysis.

From Sex Roles to Gender

The notion of gender developed from that of sex roles, and, rightly or wrongly, the person who is credited with being the founding mother of this line of thought is Margaret Mead. Put very briefly, it is her thesis (Mead, 1935) that most societies divide the universe of human characteristics into two, and attribute one half to men and the other to women. For Mead, this division is quite arbitrary, but she does not condemn it unreservedly. She sees it as having many advantages for society, culture and civilisation.

Mead herself does not deal with either the sexual division of labour or differences in the status of men and women. As far as she is concerned, the division of labour is natural, and the few comments she does make about it show that she attributes it to the different reproductive roles of males and females, and to differences in physical strength between the sexes. These are, of course, the ‘classic’ reasons used within both anthropological and ‘commonsense’ (including feminist) thinking. Mead also does not question the hierarchy between the sexes. She either ignores it, or considers it legitimate. Nor does she discuss the prescribed differences between the sexes, except within the very limited domain of ‘temperament’ (under which heading she groups abilities, aptitudes, and emotional personality).

For a long time, Mead’s analysis of prescribed differences was the major theme in the critique of sex roles—a critique that arose from a concern to defend the rights of individuals to express their individualities freely. In the process it was implied that ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ traits together constitute and exhaust the whole of human possibilities (see below).

Although the term is frequently accredited to her, Mead herself rarely uses the term ‘sex roles’ because she was not in fact concerned about these roles, still less with critiquing them. Her concern was rather the analysis and critique of feminine and masculine ‘temperaments’. In fact, the idea of sex roles was critically developed from the 1940s to the 1960s, that is, in the decades commonly considered to be a period when feminism was ‘latent’—through the work of Mirra Komarovsky (1950), Viola Klein and Alva Myrdal (Myrdal and Klein, 1956), and Andree Michel (1959, 1960). All these authors worked within a Parsonian sociological perspective, and saw a role as the active aspect of a status. Broadly speaking, ‘status’ was the equivalent of the level of prestige within society, and each status had roles which the individuals who held that status had to fulfil. This perspective is clearly sociological in the true sense of the word: people’s situations and activities are held to derive from the social structure, rather than from either nature or their particular capacities.

Thus, when these authors spoke of the ‘roles’ of women and men, they were already taking a large step towards denaturalising the respective occupations and situations of the sexes. Their approach was not actually opposed to Mead’s anthropological approach, but rather developed it in two ways:

1    They confirmed the arbitrary aspect of the division of qualities between the sexes, this time by an epistemological diktat: that is, by their postulate that everyone plays roles.

2    More importantly, they considered a social ‘role’ to be not simply the ‘psychological’ characteristics Mead had spoken about, but also (and principally) the work associated with a rung on the social ladder (a status), and hence a position in the division of labour.

The division of labour and the hierarchy between men and women therefore began to be accorded a cultural character, whereas Mead had considered them to be natural; and since they were cultural rather than natural, the authors stressed they were arbitrary. In addition, since the concept of sex roles also emerged within the framework of a feminist critique (even when the term feminist was not explicitly used), these authors all stressed that as the position of women was socially determined, it was changeable. Even though the concepts they used were Parsonian in origin, they questioned Parsons’s theory and its premise of harmony between the sexes; and Andree Michel, in particular, strongly criticised the containment of women within traditional roles, and also Parsons’s idea that this was good for women and for society.

The term ‘sex roles’ then remained in use for a long time, until the concept of gender, which derived directly from it, appeared in the early 1970s. If we take one of the first works directly on ‘gender’, Ann Oakley’s Sex, Gender and Society, published in 1972, we find the following definition:

‘Sex’ is a word that refers to the biological differences between male and female: the visible difference in genitalia, the related difference in procreative function. ‘Gender’, however, is a matter of culture: it refers to the social classification into ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’. (Oakley, 1985, p.16)

Oakley’s book is devoted partly to a critical account of recent research on the differential psychology of the sexes: to innate and acquired elements of aptitude (‘talents’ in Mead’s terminology) and attitude (‘temperamental’) differences between women and men, and partly to an account of what anthropological research can teach us about the division of labour between the sexes. According to Oakley, psychological differences between the sexes are due to social conditioning, and there is no research that allows us to infer any biological determinism whatsoever. She also says that while a division of labour by sex is universal, the content of the tasks considered to be feminine or masculine varies considerably according to the society.

Oakley’s use of the concept of gender thus covers all the established differences between men and women, whether they are individual differences (studied by psychologists), or social roles, or cultural representations (studied by sociologists and anthropologists). In addition, in her work the concept of gender covers everything that is variable and socially determined—variability being the proof that it is social in origin. She says: The constancy of sex must be admitted, but so too must the variability of gender’ (op. cit., 1985, p. 16).

However, the facets that are missing from Oakley’s definition, although they were already present in the work on sex roles, and which have become central to feminist positions and been developed subsequently, are the fundamental asymmetry (Hurtig and Pichevin, 1986) and hierarchy (Delphy, 1980; Varikas, 1987) between the two groups, or roles, or sexes, or genders.

Sex and Gender

With the arrival of the concept of gender, three things became possible (which does not mean they have happened):

1    All the differences between the sexes which appeared to be social and arbitrary, whether they actually varied from one society to another or were merely held to be susceptible to change, were gathered together in one concept.

2    The use of the singular (‘gender’ as opposed to ‘genders’) allowed the accent to be moved from the two divided parts to the principle of partition itself.

3    The idea of hierarchy was firmly anchored in the concept. This should, at least in theory, have allowed the relationship between the divided parts to be considered from another angle.

As studies have accumulated showing the arbitrariness of sex roles and the lack of foundation for stereotypes in one area after another, the idea that gender is independent of sex has progressed. Or rather, since it is a question of the content, the idea that both genders are independent of both sexes has progressed, and the aspects of ‘sex roles’ and sexual situations that are recognised to be socially constructed rather than biologically determined, have grown. Everyone working in the field has certainly not drawn the dividing line between what is social and cultural and what is natural in the same place—but then it would have been astonishing if they had. It is right that the question should remain open.

What is problematic, however, is that the on-going discussions around this question have presumed epistemological and methodological paradigms that should actually have been questioned. We have continued to think of gender in terms of sex: to see it as a social dichotomy determined by a natural dichotomy. We now see gender as the content with sex as the container. The content may vary, and some consider it must vary, but the container is considered to be invariable because it is part of nature, and nature ‘does not change’. Moreover, part of the nature of sex itself is seen to be its tendency to have a social content/to vary culturally.

What should have happened, however, is that the recognition of the independence of the genders from the sexes should have led us to question whether gender is, in fact, independent of sex. But this question has not been asked. For most authors, the issue of the relationship between sex and gender is simply ‘what sort of social classification does sex give rise to? Is it strong or weak, equal or unequal? ’ What they never ask is why sex should give rise to any sort of social classification. Even the neutral question ‘we have here two variables, two distributions, which coincide totally. How can we explain this co-variance? ’ does not get considered. The response is always: sex comes first, chronologically and hence logically—although it is never explained why this should be so.

Actually, whether or not the precedence gets explained does not make much difference. The very fact of suggesting or admitting the precedence of sex, even implicitly, leads to one being located, objectively, in a theory where sex causes or explains gender. And the theory that sex causes gender, even if it does not determine the exact forms gender divisions take, can derive from only two logical lines of argument.

In the first line of argument, biological sex, and particularly the different functions in procreation of males and females that it provokes, necessarily gives rise to a minimal division of labour. I would include in this line of argument, with its naturalist premises, most contemporary anthropological accounts, feminist as well as patriarchal, from George Murdock (1949) to Martha Moia (1981) by way of Gayle Rubin (1975) [with just a few notable exceptions, such as Mathieu (1991) and Tabet (1982)—in this volume]. It fails to explain satisfactorily: first, the nature and the natural reason for this first division of labour; and second, the reasons it is extended into all fields of activity; that is, why it is not limited to the domain of procreation. It therefore fails to explain gender other than by suppositions that reintroduce upstream one or more of the elements it is supposed to explain downstream.

The second line of argument sees biological sex as a physical trait which is not only suitable, but destined by its intrinsic ‘salience’ (in psycho-cognitive terms) to be a receptacle for classifications. Here it is postulated that human beings have a universal need to establish classifications independently of, and prior to, any social practice. 2 But these two human needs are neither justified nor proven. They are simply asserted. We are not shown why sex is more prominent than other physical traits that are equally distinguishable, but which do not give birth to classifications that are (1) dichotomous and (2) imply social roles which are not just distinct but hierarchical.

I call this latter line of argument ‘cognitivist’, not because it is particularly held by the ‘Cognitivists’, but because it presumes certain ‘prerequisites’ of human cognition. The best known academic version of such theories is that of Levi-Strauss, who, while not a psychologist, bases all his analyses of kinship, and (by extension) human societies, on an irrepressible and pre-social (hence psychological) need of human beings to divide everything in two (and then into multiples of two). Levi-Strauss (1969) was very much influenced by linguistics, in particular by Saussure’s phonology (Saussure, 1959), and he devised by analogous construction what the social sciences call ‘structuralism’.

A rather more recent version of this thesis has been presented by Derrida (1976) and his followers, who say that things can only be distinguished by opposition to other things. However, while Saussure is concerned purely with linguistic structures, Derrida and his clones want to draw philosophical conclusions about the importance of ‘differance’. These conclusions themselves incorporate presuppositions about the conditions for the possibility of human knowledge, hence about the human spirit, which are very similar to those of Levi-Strauss. Saussure’s theory had no such ambitions, and its validity in its own field of reference—linguistics—should not be taken as a guarantee of its applicability elsewhere. We may agree things are only known by distinction and hence by differentiation, but these differentiations can be, and often are, multiple. Alongside cabbages and carrots, which are not ‘opposites’ of each other, there are courgettes, melons, and potatoes. Moreover, distinctions are not necessarily hierarchical: vegetables are not placed on a scale of value. Indeed, they are often used as a warning against any attempt at hierarchisation: we are told not to compare (or to try to add) cabbages and carrots. They are incommensurable. They do not have a common measure. Therefore, they cannot be evaluated in terms of being more or less, or better or worse than one another.

Those who adhere to Derrida’s thesis thus fail to distinguish between the differences on which language is based, and differences in social structures. The characteristics of cognition, in so far as they can be reduced to the characteristics of language, cannot account for social hierarchy. This is external to them. They therefore cannot account for gender—or they can do so only at the expense of dropping hierarchy as a constitutive element of gender.

Hence, neither of the two lines of argument that might justify a causal link from sex to gender is satisfactory. The presupposition that there is such a causal link thus remains just that: a presupposition.

But if we are to think about gender, or to think about anything at all, we must leave the domain of presuppositions. To think about gender we must rethink the question of its relationship to sex, and to think about this we must first actually ask the question. We must abandon the notion that we already know the answer. We must not only admit, but also explore, two other hypotheses: first, that the statistical coincidence between sex and gender is just that, a coincidence. The correlation is due to chance. This hypothesis is, however, untenable, because the distribution is such that the co-incidence between so-called biological sex and gender is ‘statistically significant’. It is stronger than any correlation could be which is due to chance.

Second, that gender precedes sex: that sex itself simply marks a social division; that it serves to allow social recognition and identification of those who are dominants and those who are dominated. That is, that sex is a sign, but that since it does not distinguish just any old thing from anything else, and does not distinguish equivalent things but rather important and unequal things, it has historically acquired a symbolic value.

The symbolic value of sex has certainly not escaped the theoreticians of psychoanalysis. But what has entirely escaped them is that this should be one of the final conclusions of a long progression: the point of arrival and not of departure. Unfortunately, this blind spot is one that many feminists share with psychoanalysts.

As society locates the sign that marks out the dominants from the dominated within the zone of physical traits, two further remarks need to be made.

First, the marker is not found in a pure state, all ready for use. As Hurtig and Pichevin (1986) have shown, biologists see sex as made up of several indicators which are more or less correlated one with another, and the majority are continuous variables (occurring in varying degrees). So in order for sex to be used as a dichotomous classification, the indicators have to be reduced to just one. And, as Hurtig and Pichevin (1985) also say, this reduction ‘is a social act’.

Second, the presence or absence of a penis3 is a strong predictor of gender (by definition one might say). However, having or not having a penis correlates only weakly with procreative functional differences between individuals. It does not distinguish tidily between people who can bear children and those who cannot. It distinguishes, in fact, just some of those who cannot. Lots of those who do not have penises also cannot bear children, either because of constitutional sterility or due to age.

It is worth pausing here, because the ‘cognitivists’ think sex is a ‘prominent trait’ because they think physical sex is strongly correlated with functional differences, and because they assume that the rest of humanity shares this ‘knowledge’. But they only think biological sex is a ‘spontaneous perception’ of humanity because they themselves are convinced that it is a natural trait that no one could ignore. To them it is self-evident that there are two, and only two, sexes, and that this dichotomy exactly cross-checks with the division between potential bearers and non-bearers of children.

To try to question these ‘facts’ is indeed to crack one of the toughest nuts in our perception of the world. We must, therefore, add to the hypothesis that gender precedes sex, the following question: when we connect gender and sex, are we comparing something social with something which is also social (in this case, the way a given society represents ‘biology’ to itself)?

One would think that this would logically have been one of the first questions to be asked, and it is doubtless the reason why some feminists in France (for example, Guillaumin, 1982, 1985; Mathieu, 1980; and Wittig, 1992) have been opposed to using the term ‘gender’. They believe it reinforces the idea that ‘sex’ itself is purely natural. However, not using the concept of gender does not mean one thereby directly questions the natural character of sex. So economising on the concept of gender does not seem to me the best way to progress.

‘Sex’ denotes and connotes something natural. It was, therefore, not possible to question ‘sex’ head on, all at once, since to do so involves a contradiction in terms. (‘Naturalness’ is an integral part of the definition of the term. ) We had first to demonstrate that ‘sex’ is applied to divisions and distinctions which are social. Then we had not only to separate the social from the original term, which remains defined by naturalness, but to make the social emerge.This is what the notions of first ‘sex roles’ and then ‘gender’ did. Only when the ‘social part’ is clearly established as social, when it has a name of its own (whether it be ‘sex roles’ or ‘gender’), then and only then could we come back to the idea we started with. We had first to design and lay claim to a territory for the social, having a different conceptual location from that of sex, but tied to the traditional sense of the word ‘sex’, in order to be able, from this strategic location, to challenge the traditional meaning of ‘sex’.

To end this section, I would say that we can only make advances in our knowledge if we initially increase the unknown: if we extend the areas that are cloudy and indeterminate. To advance, we must first renounce some truths. These ‘truths’ make us feel comfortable, as do all certainties, but they stop us asking questions—and asking questions is the surest, if not the only way of getting answers.

Division, Differences and Classifications

The debate on gender and its relationship to sex covers much the same ground as the debate on the priority of the two elements—division and hierarchy—which constitute gender. These are empirically indissolubly united, but they need to be distinguished analytically. If it is accepted that there is a line of demarcation between ‘natural’ and socially constructed differences, and that at least some differences are socially constructed, then there is a framework for conceptualising gender. This means, or should mean, recognising that hierarchy forms the foundation for differences—for all differences, not just gender.

However, even when this is accepted as an explanation, it is not accepted as a politics, nor as a vision of the future, by feminists. It is not their Utopia. All feminists reject the sex/gender hierarchy, but very few are ready to admit that the logical consequence of this rejection is a refusal of sex roles, and the disappearance of gender. Feminists seem to want to abolish hierarchy and even sex roles, but not difference itself. They want to abolish the contents but not the container. They all want to keep some elements of gender. Some want to keep more, others less, but at the very least they want to maintain the classification. Very few indeed are happy to contemplate there being simply anatomical sexual differences which are not given any social significance or symbolic value. Suddenly, the categories they use for analysis, which elsewhere clearly distinguish those who think difference comes first and hierarchy afterwards from those who think the contents of the divided groups are the product of the hierarchical division, become muzzy, and the divergence between the two schools fades away.

This is especially clear in the debate on values. Feminist (and many other!) theorists generally accept that values are socially constructed and historically acquired, but they seem to think they must nonetheless be preserved. There are two typical variants on this position. One says we must distribute masculine and feminine values throughout the whole of humanity; the other says that masculine and feminine values must each be maintained in their original group. The latter view is currently especially common among women who do not want to share feminine values with men. I am not sure whether this is because they believe men are unworthy or incapable of sustaining these values, or because they know men do not want them anyway. But we might well ask how women who are ‘nurturing’ and proud of it are going to become the equals of unchanged men—who are going to continue to drain these women’s time? This is not a minor contradiction. It shows, rather, that if intellectual confusion produces political confusion, it is also possible to wonder, in a mood of despair, if there is not, behind the intellectual haze, a deep and unacknowledged desire notto change.

In any case, both variants of the debate show an implicit interpretation of the present situation, which contradicts the problematic of gender. On the one hand, there is a desire to retain a system of classification, even though (it is said) it has outlived its function of establishing a hierarchy between individuals—which would seem to indicate that people do not really think that gender is a social classification. On the other hand, there is a vision of values which is very similar to Margaret Mead’s, which can be summarised as: all human potentialities are already actually represented, but they are divided up between men and women. ‘Masculine’ plus ‘feminine’ subcultures, in fact culture itself, is not the product of a hierarchical society. It is independent of the social structure. The latter is simply superimposed upon it.

Hierarchy as Necessarily Prior to Division

This last view is contrary to everything we know about the relationship between social structure and culture. In the marxist tradition, and more generally in contemporary sociology whether marxist or not, it is held that the social structure is primary. This implies, as far as values are concerned, that they are, and cannot but be, appropriate to the structure of the society in question. Our society is hierarchical, and consequently its values are also hierarchically arranged. But this is not the only consequence, since Mead’s model also allows for this.

Rather, if we accept that values are appropriate to social structures, then we must accept that values are hierarchical in general, and that those of the dominated are no less hierarchical than those of the dominants. According to this hypothesis, we must also accept that masculinity and femininity are not just, or rather not at all, what they were in Mead’s model—a division of the traits which are (1) present in a potential form in both sexes, or (2) present in all forms of possible and imaginable societies. According to the ‘appropriateness’ paradigm (i. e. the social construction of values), masculinity and femininity are the cultural creations of a society based on a gender hierarchy (as well as, of course, on other hierarchies). This means not only that they are linked to one another in a relationship of complementarity and opposition, but also that this structure determines the content of each of these categories and not just their relationship. It may be that together they cover the totality of human traits which exist today, but we cannot presume that even together they cover the whole spectrum of human potentialities. If we follow the ‘appropriateness’ paradigm, changing the respective statuses of the groups would lead to neither an alignment of all individuals on a single model, nor a happy hybrid of the two models.

Both the other sorts of conjecture presuppose, however, that these ‘models’ (i. e. the ‘feminine’ and the ‘masculine’) exist sui generis, and both imply a projection into a changed future of traits and values that exist now, prior to the change in the social structure.

To entrust oneself to this sort of guesswork, which moreover is totally implicit, requires a quite untenable, static view of culture. Even if it was progressive when Margararet Mead was writing just to admit that cultures varied and that values were arbitrarily divided between groups, this view is no longer tenable. It assumes the invariability of a universal human subject, and this has been invalidated by historians’ studies of ‘mentalities’, and by the social constructionist approaches inspired (even if generally unwittingly) by the marxist principles discussed above.

This vision of culture as static is, however, fundamental to all the variants of the notion of positive complementarity between men and women (even if those who hold such views do not recognise it). 4 They all presuppose that values precede their hierarchical organisation (as in Mead’s model), and this stasis can only lead us back to ‘nature’: in this case, to human nature.

Such a point of view, and only such a point of view, can explain why Mead was afraid that everyone would become the same, which was counter to nature. The fear that a generalised sameness, or absence of differentiation, would be provoked by the disappearance of what is apparently the only kind of difference that we know (for this viewpoint ignores all other sorts of variance)5 is, of course, not new; though currently the fear that the world will align on a single model often takes the more specific form that the single model will be the current masculine model. This (it is said) will be the price we shall have to pay for equality; and (it is said) it is (perhaps) too high a price. However, this fear is groundless, since it is based on a static, hence essentialist, vision of women and men, which is a corollary to the belief that hierarchy was in some way added on to an essential dichotomy.

Within a gender framework such fears are simply incomprehensible. If women were the equals of men, men would no longer equal themselves. Why then should women resemble what men would have ceased to be? If we define men within a gender framework, they are first and foremost dominants with characteristics that enable them to remain dominants. To be like them would also be to be dominants; but this is a contradiction in terms. If, in a collective couple constituted of dominants and dominated, either of the categories is suppressed, then the domination is ipso facto suppressed. Hence, the other category of the couple is also suppressed. Or to put it another way, to be dominant one must have someone to dominate. One can no more conceive of a society where everyone is ‘dominant’ than of one where everyone is ‘richest’.

It is also not possible to imagine the values of a future egalitarian society as being the sum, or a combination, of existing masculine and feminine values, for these values were created in, and by, hierarchy. So how could they survive the end of hierarchy?

This vision of a society where values existed as ‘entities’, prior to their being organised into a hierarchy, is, as I have said, static and ultimately naturalist. But it is also not an isolated idea. It is part of a whole ensemble of ideas which includes: first, commonsense and academic theories of sexuality that involve a double confusion: a confusion of anatomical sex with sexuality, and of sexuality with procreation; and second, a deep cultural theme to which these theories themselves refer back: namely that each individual is essentially incomplete in so far as he or she is sexed. Emotional resistance and intellectual obstacles to thinking about gender both originate from this: from the individual and collective consciousness.

This is what I previously called ‘a set of confused representations turning around a belief in the necessity of close and permanent relations between most males and most females’ (Delphy, 1980). I wanted to call this set (of representations) ‘heterosexuality’, but it has been suggested that it would be better called ‘complementarity’. Its emblem is the image of heterosexual intercourse, and this gives it a social meaning and an emotional charge which is explicable only by its symbolic value. It could, therefore, equally be called a set of representations of ‘fitting together’.

It would be interesting to develop this reflection further in relation to two main sets of questions: first, how this whole set of ideas forms a view of the world as a whole which is more than the sum of its parts—which possesses a mystical and non-rational character (a cosmogony); and second, how this cosmogony informs and determines the explicit and implicit premises of much scientific research— including feminist research and lesbian research.

Imagination and Knowledge

We do not know what the values, individual personality traits, and culture of a non-hierarchical society would be like, and we have great difficulty in imagining it. But to imagine it we must think that it is possible. And it is possible. Practices produce values: other practices produce other values.

Perhaps it is our difficulty in getting beyond the present, tied to our fear of the unknown, which curbs us in our Utopian flights, as also in our progress at the level of knowledge—since the two are necessary to one another. To construct another future we obviously need an analysis of the present, but what is less recognised is that having a Utopian vision is one of the indispensable staging-posts in the scientific process—in all scientific work. We can only analyse whatdoes exist by imagining what does not exist, because to understand what is, we must ask how it came about. And asking how it came to exist must involve two operations. The first I described earlier when I said that we must admit we do not know the answers when we think we do (Descartes’s famous ‘suspension of judgment’). The second operation is admitting, even if it is contrary to the evidence of our senses, that something which exists, need not exist.

In conclusion, I would say that perhaps we shall only really be able to think about gender on the day when we can imagine non-gender. But if Newton could do it for falling apples, we should be able to do it for ourselves as women.


1    An earlier version of this article, Tenser le genre: Quels problemes? ’, appeared in Marie-Claude Hurtig et al. (Eds) Sexe et genre: de la hierarchie entre les sexes, 1991, Paris, Editions du Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique.

The present version was translated (by Diana Leonard) and appeared first in 1993 in Women’s Studies International Forum, 16(1), pp. 1-9.

2    See, for example, Archer and Lloyd (1985), who say gender will continue because it is a ‘practical way of classifying people’.

3    This is ‘the final arbiter’ of the dichotomous sex classification for the state, according to Money and Ehrhardt (1972, quoted by Hurtig and Pichevin, 1985).

4    There is, however, no single meaning to complementarity. The paradigm of hierarchy as the basis of division also implies complementarity, although in a negative sense.

5    This would mean that I would only talk to a male baker since I would no longer be able to distinguish a female baker from myself.

Posted in Anarchism, Feminism | Tagged , , ,

Gender Matters

“A frequent criticism of radical feminism is that it supports a biologically based “essential” division of the world into male and female. In particular this accusation is charged against radical feminists working in the area of violence against women who name men as a social group, as well as individual men where relevant, as oppressors of women.

The facts are that men brutally oppress women as radical feminists have empirically shown. But why do men do this? Can it be changed? Kathleen Barry has addressed these issues in her analysis of sexual slavery which we discussed earlier. She states that men do these things to women because “there is nothing to stop them” (1979, p. 254). Her analysis of the values of patriarchy and theories which supposedly account for male violence is too detailed to discuss here. The important point to stress is that radical feminism cannot be reduced to a simplistic biological determinist argument. That its critics often do thus reduce it is a political ploy which takes place in order to limit the effectiveness of its analysis. Women have good reasons for being frightened to name men as the enemy, particularly when they live in hetero-relationships: punishment is often meted out for exposing patriarchy and its mechanisms (see Cline and Spender: 1987).

Christine Delphy argues that the concept of gender—that is the respective social positions of women and men—is a construction of patriarchal ideology and that “sex has become a pertinent fact, hence a perceived category, because of the existence of gender” (1984, p. 144). Therefore, she argues, the oppression creates gender, and in the end, gender creates anatomical sex (p. 144), “…in a sense that the hierarchical division of humanity into two transforms an anatomical difference (which is in itself devoid of social implications) into a relevant distinction for social practice”.

Radical Feminists are well aware of the dangers of basing analysis in biology. If men and women are represented as having “aggressive” and “nurturing” characteristics because of their biology, the situation will remain immutable and the continuation of male violence against women can be justified. But this is not to say that there are not differences between the sexes. This is patently so. These differences, however, do not need to be rooted in biology nor do they need to be equated with determinism. As the editors of Questions Feministes put it (1980, p. 14): “…we acknowledge a biological difference between men and women, but it does not in itself imply a relationship of oppression between the sexes. The struggle between the sexes is not the result of biology”.

Men are the powerful group. But men need women, for sexual and emotional labour, for domestic labour, for admiration, for love, and for a justification of the existing power imbalance (see Cline and Spender: 1987). In order to maintain the more powerful position and so feed on their need of women without being consumed by it, men as a powerful group institutionalise their position of power. This involves the need to structure institutions to maintain that power, the development of an ideology to justify it, and the use of force and violence to impose it when resistance emerges (see also Rowland: 1988).

It is possible that differences between women and men arise out of a biological base but in a different way to that proposed by a reductivist determinism. The fact that women belong to the social group which has the capacity for procreation and mothering, and the fact that men belong to the social group which has the capacity to, and does carry out, acts of rape and violence against women, must intrude into the consciousness of being female and male. But this analysis allows for change in the sense that men themselves could change that consciousness and therefore their actions. It also allows women to recognise that we can and must develop our own theories and practices and need not accept male domination as unchangeable.

Existing differences between women and men may have been generated out of the different worlds we inhabit as social groups, including our experience of power and powerlessness. Again this is not to say that these differences are immutable. The history of women’s resistance is evidence of resistance to deterministic thinking, as is the history of the betrayal of patriarchy by some men who support feminism.”

-Klein, Renate; Bell, Diane (1996-05-01). Radically Speaking: Feminism Reclaimed p.33-34

“One of the most common misreadings of radical feminist thinking is that it is essentialist; that it locates the source of women’s subordination in female biology and/or male biology. For example, although they state that not all radical feminists accept “biological theories”, british sociologists Pamela Abbot and Claire Wallace nonetheless feed this caricature of radical feminism as biologically determinist when they claim in their introduction to feminist perspectives in sociology that:

Women’s oppression is seen as rooted in women’s biological capacity for motherhood or in the innate, biologically determined aggression of the male, as manifested in rape (1990, p. 12)

The supposed essentialism of radical feminist perspectives can be seen, in part, as the outcome of a tendency, which in some cases would seem to be deliberate, to reduce the diverse strands of radical feminst thought to a relatively few sources. For instance, Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex, first published in 1970, is still frequently cited twenty-five years later as if it were representative of what is termed the radical feminist “position”. Although issues of sexuality and reproduction remain central to radical feminist theorizing in the nineties, few radical feminists nowadays would agree with Firestone’s view that gender divisions are the outcome of natural biological differences between the sexes.”

-Diane Richardson, in Radically Speaking: Feminism Reclaimed p.143-44 Klein, Renate; Bell, Diane (1996-05-01).

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