Talking about gender 26


At the London Feminist Network’s ‘Feminar’ in May 2010, Debbie Cameron and Joan Scanlon spoke about gender and what it means for radical feminism. What follows is an edited transcript of their remarks.

Debbie Cameron: The purpose of today’s discussion is to try to cut through some of the theoretical and political confusion which now surrounds the concept of gender, and it’s probably useful to start by asking what’s causing that confusion.

Conversations about ‘gender’ nowadays often run into problems because the people involved are using the same word, to mean somewhat the same thing, but on closer examination they aren’t talking about the same set of issues from the same point of view. For instance, when we launched the T&S Reader at the Edinburgh radical bookfair, some women students came up to us afterwards and said they were very pleased we’d produced the book, but surprised it didn’t have much in it about gender. Actually it’s all about gender in the radical feminist sense–power relations between women and men–so this comment did not make much sense to us. Joan was initially completely baffled by it; I realised what they must be getting at only because I’m still an academic, and in the academy you hear ‘gender’ used this way a lot.

What’s going on here is that during the 1990s, queer theorists and queer activists developed a new way of talking about gender: it did have points of overlap with the older feminist way of talking, but the emphasis was different, the theory behind it was different (basically it was the postmodernist theory of identity associated with the philosopher Judith Butler, though I don’t think Butler herself would say that feminists had no critical analysis of gender), and the politics that came out of it were very different. For people whose ideas were formed either by encounter with academic feminist theory or by involvement in queer politics and activism, that became the meaning of ‘gender’. They believed what they’d been told, that feminists in the 70s and 80s didn’t have a critical analysis of gender, or that they had the wrong analysis because their ideas about gender were ‘essentialist’ rather than ‘social constructionist’.

We don’t believe that, and in a minute we’ll explain why. But first it’s worth doing a general ‘compare and contrast’ on the ‘old’ feminist view of gender and the newer version that came out of 1990s queer theory/politics.

‘Old’ gender ‘New’ gender
What is gender? A system of social/power relations structured by a binary division between ‘men’ and ‘women’. Categorization is usually on the basis of biological sex, but gender as we know it is a social rather than biological thing (e.g. masculinity and femininity are defined differently in different times and places) An aspect of personal/social identity, usually ascribed to you at birth on the basis of biological sex (but this ‘natural’ connection is an illusion—as is the idea that there have to be two genders because there are two sexes)
What’s oppressive about it? The fact that it’s based on the subordination of one gender (women) by the other (men) The fact that it’s a rigid binary system. It forces every person to identify as either a man or a woman (not neither, both at once, something in between or something else entirely) and punishes anyone who doesn’t conform. (This oppresses both men and women, especially those who don’t fully identify with the prescribed model for their gender)
What would be a radical gender politics? Feminism: women organize to overthrow male power and thus the entire gender system. (For radical feminists, the ideal number of genders would be… none.) ‘Genderqueer’: women and men reject the binary system, identify as ‘gender outlaws’ (e.g. queer, trans) and demand recognition for a range of gender identities. (From this perspective, the ideal number of genders would be… infinite?)

There are both similarities and differences between the two versions. For both, gender is connected to, but not the same as, sex; for both, gender as we know it is a binary system (there are, basically, two genders); and both approaches would probably agree that gender is about power AND identity, but their emphasis on one or the other differs. They also differ because supporters of the queer version don’t think in terms of men oppressing women, they think gender norms as such are more oppressive than power hierarchy, and want ‘more’ gender rather than less or none.

To make sense of these ideas and decide what you think of them, it’s helpful to understand a bit of history—the history of feminist and sexual radical ideas. There are three main questions we think it’s worth pursuing in more detail:

  1. Is it true that radical feminism is/was ‘essentialist’ in its view of gender?
  2. What is, and what was, the relationship between the politics of gender and sexuality?
  3. What do radical feminism and queer or ‘genderqueer’ politics have in common, and what are the key differences, and what are their respective political goals?

Is/was radical feminism essentialist?

Let’s get one thing out of the way: there are essentialist varieties of feminism, currents of thought in which, for instance, mystical powers are ascribed to the female body or men are believed to be naturally evil,  and some of the women who subscribe to these ideas might use or be given the label ‘radical feminist’.  But if we consider radical feminism as a political tradition which has produced, among other things, a body of feminist texts which have come to be regarded as ‘classics’, it’s surprising (given how often the accusation of essentialism has been made) how consistently un-essentialist their view of gender has been.

As a way of illustrating the point, I’ve put together a few quotations from the writing of women who are generally considered as archetypal radical feminists—along with Simone de Beauvoir, often thought of as the founding foremother of modern ‘second wave’ feminism, which her book The Second Sex (first published in French in 1949) pre-dated by 20 years. Beauvoir was no essentialist, and though she did not use a term equivalent to gender (this still isn’t common in French), she makes many comments which depend on distinguishing the biological from the social aspects of being a woman. One of my favourites, because of its drily sarcastic tone, is this: ‘Every female human being is not necessarily a woman; to be so considered she must share in that mysterious and threatened reality known as femininity’.

One early second wave feminist who has often been castigated for essentialism (because she suggested that the subordination of women must originally have been due to their role in reproduction and nurturance) is Shulamith Firestone, author of The Dialectic of Sex (1970). Yet in fact Firestone did not see a social hierarchy built on sex-difference as natural and inevitable. On the contrary, she states in Dialectic that

just as the end goal of socialist revolution was not only the elimination of the economic class privilege but of the economic class distinction itself, so the end goal of feminist revolution must be… not just the elimination of male privilege but of the sex distinction itself:  genital differences between human beings would no longer matter culturally.

In the slightly later writing of the French radical materialist feminist Christine Delphy, gender is theorised as nothing but the product of hierarchical power relations; it is not a pre-existing difference on which those relations are then superimposed. Delphy’s is a view which less radical thinkers find extreme, but whatever else anyone thinks of it, it could hardly be less essentialist. As Delphy herself says:

We do not know what the values, individual personality traits or culture of a non-hierarchical society would be like, and we have great difficulty imagining it. ….perhaps we will only be able to think about gender on the day when we can imagine non-gender.

All the writers I have just quoted are women who ‘can (and do) imagine non-gender’. This willingness to think seriously about what for most people, including many feminists, is the unthinkable—that a truly feminist world would not just operate without gender inequalities but actually without gender distinctions—is, we would argue, one of the hallmarks of radical feminism, one of the ways it stands out as ‘radical’.

Another thing that makes radical feminism stand out is the way it connects gender to sexuality and both to power. Catharine MacKinnon’s writings make the connection particularly strongly, as in the following passage taken from Feminism Unmodified (1987):

The feminist theory of power is that sexuality is gendered as gender is sexualised.  In other words, feminism is a theory of how the eroticization of dominance and submission creates  gender, creates women and man in the social form in which we know them.  Thus the sex difference and dominance-submission dynamic define each other.  The erotic is what defines sex as inequality, hence as meaningful difference. This is, in my view, the social meaning of sexuality, and the distinctly feminist account of gender inequality.

This shows that some well-known radical feminists have taken a non-essentialist view of sexuality as well as gender. Indeed, one of the most radically un- or anti-essentialist accounts of sexuality we can think of—as radical as any queer theorist’s work in rejecting the idea of fixed and finite sexual identities—comes from the radical feminist Susanne Kappeler in her book The Pornography of Representation (1986):

In a political perspective, sexuality, like language, might fall into the category of intersubjective relations:  exchange and communication.  Sexual relations – the dialogue between two subjects – would determine, articulate, a sexuality of the subjects as speech interaction generates communicative roles in the interlocutors.  Sexuality would thus not so much be a question of identity, of a fixed role in the absence of a praxis, but a possibility with the potential of diversity and interchangeability, and a possibility crucially depending on and codetermined by an interlocutor, another subject.

Later on we will explain why we think these radical feminist ideas about gender, sexuality, identity and power actually pose a far more radical challenge to the status quo than the ideas of queer politics.

Joan Scanlon: As Debbie said earlier, I was completely bewildered when the two young women in Edinburgh asked why The Trouble & Strife Reader (2009) didn’t have more in it about gender.  I rang Su Kappeler (see the quotation from her above) and she said:  “The thing is Joan: it’s like what Roland Barthes wrote somewhere, that if you have a guide book to Italy you won’t find Italy in the index – you’ll find Milan, Naples or the Vatican…” So I thought about this, and realised that while this was certainly true, there was something else going on:  it was as if the map of Italy had disappeared (quite useful as a way of connecting Milan, Naples and the Vatican), and instead, the geographical, political and economic reality of Italy had been replaced by a virtual space in which Italy could be a masked ball, a tricolour flag, an ice-cream parlour – or any combination of free floating signifiers.  And so, returning to the concept of gender, I realised that we need reconstruct that map, and that we needed to look at the question historically to make sense of this shift in meaning.

Of course maps change, as political boundaries change – but you won’t get far without one.  We need therefore to look at why feminists adopted the term gender to describe a material reality – the systematic enforcement of male power – and as a tool for political change.  I am going to start with a few definitions, then talk briefly about the history of sexuality, the relationship between gender and sexuality, and how the relationship between those two constructions has changed since the beginning of the last century.  I am also going to look briefly at what feminism has in common with queer politics, and at where the key differences lie.

Definitions: feminism, gender, sexuality

When I was writing something with Liz Kelly in the late 1980s, we decided that with the proliferation of ‘feminisms’ we needed to assert that the term feminism was meaningless if it just meant whatever any individual wanted it to mean.  In other words:  You can’t have a plural without a singular – so we defined feminism simply as “a recognition that women are oppressed, and a commitment to changing that”. Beyond this, you can have any number of differences of opinion about why women are oppressed and any number of differences about strategies for changing that.

In our 1993 tenth anniversary issue of T&S we then asked several women to define radical feminism and the definitions all have this in common:  they take as central that gender is a system of oppression, and that men and women are two socially constructed groups which exist precisely because of the unequal power relationship between them. Also, they all assert that radical feminism is radical because it challenges all relationships of power, including extreme forms such as male violence and the sex industry (which has always been extremely controversial within the women’s movement and an extremely unpopular issue to campaign against). Instead of tinkering around the edges of the question of gender, radical feminism addresses the structural problem which underlies it.

To define gender, therefore, seems a necessary step in understanding the proliferation of meanings which have come about in its now plural usage.  Gender, as radical feminists have always understood it, is a term which describes the systematic oppression of women, as a subordinate group, for the advantage of the dominant group, men.  This is not an abstract concept – it describes the material circumstances of oppression, including institutionalised male power and power within personal relationships – for example, the unequal division of labour, the criminal justice system, motherhood, the family, sexual violence… and so on.  I should say here that very few feminists would argue that gender is not socially constructed;   I think radical feminism is only accused of biological essentialism because it has been so central in the campaign against male violence, and for some reason we are therefore accused of thinking that all men are innately violent – which I have never understood.  If you are involved in a politics of change, it would be fairly pointless to think that anything you were seeking to change was innate or immutable.

If gender is seen, under patriarchy, as emanating from biological sex –  sexuality is essentialised if anything even more – as it is seen to emanate from our very nature, from desires and feelings which are quite outside of our control, even if our sexual behaviour can be regulated by moral and social codes.  And so to conclude with definitions, I will borrow Catherine MacKinnon’s definition of sexuality as ‘a social process which creates, organises, directs, and expresses desire’. Apart from pointing out that this clearly indicates that radical feminists  understand sexuality to be socially constructed, I won’t unpick this further here, as I hope it will become clear from what I go on to say.

A brief history of sexuality:

It is only from around 1870 onwards that medical, scientific and legal discourse began to classify and categorise individuals by sexual type – and produced what historians would now recognise as a specifically homosexual or lesbian identity.    Prior to the late 19th century sexual behaviour was conceived in terms of sin and crime – in terms of sexual acts not sexual identities. In the UK, male homosexuality was criminalised until 1967, and lesbianism, although never illegal, was repressed by other means; it was not an economic option for more than a tiny number of privileged women of independent means until after the Second World War.   Female sexuality has always been controlled by physical coercion, by economic dependence on men, and not least by ideology, and Adrienne Rich’s essay on ‘On Compulsory Heterosexuality’ (1979) shows the range and inventiveness of these means of control.

Gender is one of the ways in which sexuality is most effectively policed:  given the constant reinforcement of the binary gender system as a means of social control, if you step outside of your allocated gender role you are likely to be stigmatised as homosexual, and vice versa.  In other words, if you eschew the rewards of femininity by for example, becoming a plumber, not shaving your legs, telling a man who is harassing you to fuck off – you are likely to be accused of being a lesbian. (A man who does not conform to the conventions of masculinity, and is seen pushing a pram, wears pink, or who doesn’t like football, is equally likely to be accused of being gay.)  And similarly if you actually are a lesbian you are likely to be expected to behave like a man, to exhibit male desire – and heterosexual women are likely to be worried you might fancy them, and are encouraged to avoid women-only spaces in case there is a risk of being pounced on (this may be less true now, but was always an issue regarding women only events when I first got involved in feminism – i.e. that heterosexual women thought that women-only meant lesbian, and therefore assumed that all such spaces/events would be sexualised.)  Anyway, this is partly what Catherine MacKinnon meant when she said that ‘gender is sexualised, and sexuality is gendered’ – in other words, the power difference between men and women is eroticised, and we wouldn’t recognise something as sexual if it wasn’t about power – so anything that is perceived as sexual – such as gay and lesbian identity – is read through that lens, and thus gendered.

Early sexologists played a significant role in creating and consolidating this myth that lesbians were  inherently masculinised women, and homosexual men were innately feminine.  It is also here, in the work of for example Richard von Krafft Ebing, that you first find the idea of a man born into a woman’s body and vice versa.  Although the early sexologists dispelled a lot of other myths about sexual behaviour, and were instrumental in challenging the criminalisation of homosexuality by presenting it as ‘natural’ and innate, in so doing, they also confirmed the idea that sexuality was an essential part of human nature that was either dangerous and needed to be controlled by medical intervention, or a positive force which needed to be liberated from the repressive constraints of civilisation.  They often disagreed with each other, and contradicted themselves, but collectively they created and confirmed the myth that we all have a ‘true sexual identity’, which sexual science can help to reveal.  Some of their writings now read like complete nonsense, but it is impossible to underestimate the significance of these texts on literature and the popular imagination of the time.

Just to give you one example:  Richard von Krafft Ebing (on whose case studies Radclyffe Hall based her characters in the Well of Loneliness) argued that homosexuals were neither mentally ill nor morally depraved – since they suffered from a congenital inversion of the brain during the gestation of the embryo.  Moreover, he was convinced that you could find evidence of masculinity in female ‘inverts’ to confirm the genetic cause of their condition.  Havelock Ellis, who wrote the preface to the Well, agreed with this position, and went on to argue that you could distinguish between true female ‘inverts’ whose nature was permanent and innate, and those women who were attracted to ‘inverts’ because, although they were more womanly, they ‘were not well adapted for childbearing’ and therefore not suited for heterosexual procreative sex.   A more enlightened view was articulated by Edward Carpenter, socialist reformer and utopian philosopher: Carpenter, who used the term Uranian (of the heavens) to describe individuals who were attracted to others of the same sex,  had a more mystical and lyrical view of the whole subject (he is easily ridiculed because he had a kind of cult following and not only made his own sandals but also made them for the rest of his community, who lived in a commune near Sheffield) – but he is in many ways the most radical of them all.  He was much more interested in temperament and sensibility than in outward (biological) signs of deviation from the conventions of masculinity and femininity, and he also believed that those who belonged to ‘the intermediate sex’ could bridge differences of class and race, and be interpreters between men and women, as they shared the characteristics of both.  Economists and politicians of the movement thought Carpenter’s views were sentimental nonsense, but he comes closest of all the sexologists to saying that the gender itself is the problem, and the extremes of the binary gender system are detrimental to the kind of ideal society he imagines.

I’m not going to plough my way through all the sexologists of the 20th century – no doubt you are all more familiar with the laboratory experiments of Masters and Johnson, and the best-selling surveys of sexual behaviour by Alfred Kinsey and Shere Hite in the 1950s and 1980s respectively, which rocked the establishment in showing, amongst other things, the diversity of sexual behaviour and prevalence of homosexual desire amongst the heterosexual population at large in the US.  The main point about the later sexologists, what they have in common, is that they made sex the subject of scientific study, and very few of them looked at gender per se, or at the social context and meaning of sexuality.

The relation of gender to sexuality changed in the late 60s and 1970s, largely because of the emergence of the women’s movement and the gay liberation movement.  With the rise of feminism, and the publication of numerous key texts such as Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics(1970), lesbianism was no longer seen as a subcategory of male homosexuality, and not just as a sexual identity, but as a political identity, within the context of gendered power relations – in other words it was possible to see being a lesbian as about being a woman, challenging heterosexuality as an institution, and challenging power within personal relationships.  I do think of myself as extraordinarily fortunate to have found feminism in the late 1970s (when I was in my early 20s) – as I would otherwise have been completely persuaded that I was an invert, or god forbid, a Uranian, or whatever, if I had been born in an earlier era.  The women’s movement of the late 60s and 70s offered many women an unprecedented opportunity to make sense of their experience as women, theorise about it, and do something about it.

We often forget that thinkers within the gay liberation movement in the early days had much in common with feminism: deconstructing masculinity, questioning the nuclear family, challenging misogyny, and seeking a sexuality of equality.  Although feminists continued to work very much in coalition with gay men, against a common oppression – institutionalised heterosexuality – we also found that our focus on the social construction of sexuality was at odds with the predominant view in the gay movement that sexuality was innate.   For example, in the late 1980s, during the campaign against clause 28 of the local government bill (which banned local authorities from ‘promoting’ homosexuality, and ‘pretended’ ie same sex families, in schools) the main argument from within the gay movement was that you couldn’t make someone gay, that gays only represented 10% of the population, that you were born gay, and therefore represented no threat to the establishment.  And of course, as feminists we were arguing the opposite, that you could indeed change your sexuality, and we did indeed seek to be a threat to the establishment. The AIDS epidemic politicised large numbers of gay men around sexuality, defending individual sexual freedom against the repressive politics of the far right, but in resorting once again to a plea for tolerance from the heterosexual world, and a request for inclusion in heterosexual privilege (civil partnerships etc) – which was strategically successful in achieving those goals precisely because they were not perceived as threatening to the liberal establishment –  it is possible that this movement paved the way for a politics which not only challenged heteronormative behaviour, but sought to create a space for all the casualties of gender who fall outside of the binary gender system and outside of a parallel binary conception of sexuality. You may well say that feminism seemed to offer precisely such a politics, and such a space, so it is important to look, therefore, at the differences between feminism and the queer politics.

What radical feminism has in common with queer politics is

  • An understanding that gender and sexuality are socially constructed
  • A recognition that binary gender roles are oppressive
  • An understanding that gender roles are produced through performance, and confirmed by their constant re-enactment
  • A commitment to challenging heteronormative assumptions and practices

The differences between radical feminism and queer politics are

  • Radical feminism is a materialist analysis which argues that gender is not produced merely through discourse and performance, but is a system within which one gender (male) has economic and political power, and the other (female) does not – and the dominant group has an investment in keeping it that way.
  • Radical feminism involves an understanding that you cannot produce (or challenge) the system of gender merely through discourse or individual performance – by adopting certain clothes, language, or even changing your anatomical body.  Outside of certain limited contexts, the dominant culture will still read these gestures according to the dominant social codes – and seek to categorise you as a man or woman.  (In other words, on the tube, in the supermarket, at work, these individual gestures or performative statements will be unintelligible, and quite ineffectual as a challenge to the system of gender).
  • Judith Butler argues that feminism, by asserting that women are a group with common characteristics and interests, has reinforced the binary view of gender, in which masculine and feminine genders are built on male and female bodies.  Feminists do indeed argue that women have a common political interest (rather than exhibiting common characteristics), and that women suffer from a common oppression (which they experience in different ways according to other forms of power relationships, including race and class), and that women’s bodies are the site of much of that oppression – but this is not to argue that the category woman is an undifferentiated category.  It is simply to argue that so long as women are oppressed as women, there is a need for a common political identity, in order to organise effectively to resist that oppression.
  • Radical feminism is committed to changing the gender system, and challenging oppression in all its forms.   We thus have no investment in being outlaws, which comes from a romanticised notion of oppression.  Moreover, feeling oppressed is not the same as being oppressed.  In order to celebrate your identity as an outlaw, you have to have an investment in the system which makes you an outlaw.  Queer seems to me to encompass the most extreme casualties of the gender system, and to create an umbrella which covers those who are unwilling social outlaws (usually from the poorest and most disenfranchised groups in society, with no buffer against social prejudice – i.e. those who are outlawed without choice),  and those for whom playing at being outlaws is a privileged intellectual game rather than a hard lived reality.
  • Queer is by its own definition whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant.  Queer then, demarcates “not a positivity but a positionality vis-à-vis the normative”. It follows from this that Queer politics has no particular political goals, apart from challenging the dominant normative discourses, and if they change, Queer politics would then have to change its position in opposition to whatever is currently normative.  It’s not clear to me therefore, what its specific political goals are.
  • Queer embraces a wide array of non-normative sexual identities and practices, including some that are heterosexual:: “Sadism and masochism, prostitution, sexual inversion, transgender, bisexuality, asexuality, intersexuality are seen by queer theorists as opportunities for investigations into differences of class, race and ethnicity, and as opportunities to reconfigure understandings of pleasure and desire.” For example, Pat Califia,  in Feminism and Sadomasochism writes about how sadomasochism encourages fluidity, and questions the naturalness of binary dichotomies in society:

The dynamic between a top and a bottom is quite different from the dynamic between men and women, blacks and whites, or upper- and working- class people. That system is unjust because it assigns privileges based on race, gender, and social class. During a S/M encounter, roles are acquired and used in very different ways. If you don’t like being a top or bottom, you switch your keys. Try doing that to your biological sex or your race or your socioeconomic status.

  • This point of view places these scholars of Queer theory in conflict with the radical feminist view that sadomasochism, prostitution and pornography,  are all oppressive practices.
  • Radical feminism argues that all power differences are sexualised, including those constructed through race and ethnicity, class and disability, and that pornography and the sex industry as a whole is one of the clearest and most pernicious manifestations of that – eroticised power difference is the stuff of porn, and this is acted out on real bodies, not in the imagination of the consumer. Moreover, we need to be clear about whose pleasure and desire we are talking about – in an industry based on sexual exploitation and abuse.   S&M was the subject of much heated debate within feminism in the 1980s, and here again, radical feminism saw nothing new or radical about recreating the dominance and subordination dynamic – already prevalent within heterosexuality – within non-heteronormative relationships.  All of these phenomena, embraced as anti-heteronormative – by queer politics, are already embraced by patriarchy, so there’s no great revolution here.  Radical feminists seek not merely to challenge but to dismantle the structures of patriarchy; the challenge that queer offers to the normative culture is a provocation with no political aim to dismantle the normative, on which, by its own definition, it depends for its existence as an oppositional position.  It appears that queer is thus not attempting to seek liberation from the system of gender difference, but simply to take liberties with it.
  • In order to change the social system that creates gender difference as we know it, you have to address the underlying structures that produce and sustain gender difference – and you have to seek to eradicate gender itself.

Without gender, without power difference, sexuality could simply be the expression of desire between equal subjects.  (see Su’s quote in the handout).

At the beginning of this talk, Debbie quoted Shulamith Firestone, and it seems entirely appropriate therefore for me to conclude by returning to a central argument of ‘The Dialectic of Sex’, one which encapsulates the radical feminist approach to gender: ( I paraphrase):  The intellectual and theoretical task of feminism is to understand gender as a system which creates and maintains inequality.  The political task of feminism is to eradicate gender.


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