Gender – Radical Feminism Today
One way of describing the problem with much academic feminist writing is to characterize it as ‘idealism’ in the sense in which the term ‘ideology’ was used by Marx and Engels (1974). Transferring concepts from their original context to another context altogether, in this case from Marxist historical materialism to feminism, needs to be done with caution. Nonetheless there does seem to be a similarity between the problem addressed by Marx and Engels in the middle of the nineteenth century, and a tendency in much academic feminist writing to avoid challenging male domination. Marx and Engels characterize a purportedly ‘revolutionary’ critique which failed to consider the real-life activity of human beings and their actual situation within capitalist relations of power, as a battle in ‘the realm of pure thought’. In doing so, they were not suggesting that philosophers stop thinking and start acting. Rather, they were arguing that a philosophy which purported to give an account of the human condition without acknowledging the power relations in society was not just out of touch with reality, its obliviousness serves the purpose. That purpose was to deny the existence of relations of power and disguise them as something neutral and universal. Hence, ‘idealism’ does not mean working with ideas rather them fomenting revolution on the factory floor or at the barricades. It means working with ideas which are detached from, and fail to acknowledge, social relations of domination. Since the relations of domination opposed by feminism are those of male supremacy, feminist accounts which fail to acknowledge this are idealist in this sense.
So the problem of idealism, in the sense in which I am using the term, is not just a problem of a split between ideas and reality, but of the kind of reality those ideas studiously ignore, that is, the reality of domination. My use of the term takes on its meaning in the context of a critique of ideology. Idealism is one form ideology takes. Although Marx and Engels do not make the distinction, it is a useful one because it makes the point that ideology is not just a matter of ideas, that it reaches into every sphere of human existence, including what is most intimate and commonplace. Idealism is that form of ideology to which academe is especially prone. It refers to the tendency for academic work to divorce ideas from the world of the mundane. That tendency is not inevitable. To the extent that ideas do not reinforce relations of ruling, they cannot be called ‘idealist’ in this sense, no matter how esoteric, abstract or removed from experience they may be. But because playing with ideas is endlessly fascinating in itself the disconnection can only be resisted through a conscious and deliberate commitment to a moral and political framework which maintains the link between ideas and what those ideas are for. Concepts like ‘gender’ fail to maintain that link.
In fact, the term is meaningless, so much so that it is sometimes difficult to work out exactly what is being said. Linda J. Poole, for example, quotes the following sentence from a text on women and international relations: ‘Ideologies can certainly wreak havoc on organizational performance, and gender ideology is no exception.’ Poole’s comment on this statement is: ‘This from a woman who has been an active proponent on the issue of gender advocacies!’ (Poole, 1993: 134). Poole seems to have read ‘gender ideology’ to mean ‘feminism’. Her comment implies that the author of the sentence is reneging on her earlier feminism by asserting that the introduction of feminist aims and values could ‘wreak havoc on organization performance’. However, ‘gender ideology’ could also mean male supremacist ideology, and the sentence could mean that it was the ideologies which favored men at women’s expense and which were inefficient in terms of organizational performance. On the other hand, male supremacist ideology is unlikely to ‘wreak havoc’ since the organizations are already structured along those lines. So perhaps Poole is right after all, and ‘gender ideology’ in this context does mean ‘feminism’. The point, though, is that it is simply not possible to decide.
The meaninglessness of the term ‘gender’ is a consequence both of the euphemistic role it plays within academic feminism (and the media, and wherever the word ‘sex’ would of instead) and of the incoherence of its origins. ‘Gender’ softens the harsh, uncompromising ring of ‘male domination’. It provides the appearance of a subject-matter while at the same time enabling the real problems to be avoided. Originally it was set up in opposition to ‘sex’, to stress the point that the differences between the sexes are socially constructed, not natural. But the ‘sex/gender’ distinction does not challenge the ‘society/nature’ opposition – it remains wholly within it. If ‘the social’ is ‘gender’, and ‘sex’ is something other than ‘gender’, then sex is something other than social. If it is not social, then all that is left is the residual category of ‘the natural’, and ‘sex’ remains as ‘natural’ as it ever was. As a consequence, the ‘sex/gender’ distinction does not disrupt and unsettle the ‘society/nature’ opposition, but reinforces it because it is the same kind of distinction.
I have argued elsewhere that it functions as a depoliticizing strategy by separating ‘sex differences’ out from the domain of the social and locating them in ‘biology’. Since, as everyone knows, biology does not cause sex differences, this ploy allows the social construction of ‘sex differences’ to remain unexamined. The substitution of ‘gender’ for ‘sex’ places the debate at two removes from the actual relations of power challenged by feminism. It prevents the discussion of sex differences by extracting them from the realm of the social and allocating them to ‘biology’; and by preventing discussion of sex ‘differences’, it prevents discussion of that crucial site for the investigation of male supremacist relations of power – the maintenance of sex ‘differences’ as they are currently constituted and of compulsory heterosexuality as the mechanism for managing women’s consent to their subordination to men (Thompson, 1991: 168-76; see also Gatens, 1983). But since feminism is a politics it is already concerned with the level of the social, the moral and the political. There is no need for ‘gender’ since the feminist concern with sex is already moral and political, and hence a social, not a ‘biological’ concern. Whatever there might be outside of the social.
Jane Flax says that ‘The single most important advance in and result of feminist theories and practices is that the existence of gender has been problematized’ (Flax, 1990: 21). Although she does not say what ‘gender’ is, it is clear that it is not male domination. She sees ‘male dominance’ as merely one form of ‘gender relations’, and as a hindrance to the adequate investigation of those relations. The nature of ‘gender relations’ has been ‘obscured’ by the existence of male dominance, she says (pp. 22-4). But this is idealist in the sense described above. (It also bears a striking similarity to the HWAG’s account of ‘sexism’ discussed above.) It extracts ‘gender relations’ from the social conditions of male supremacy within which the relations between the sexes are currently structured, and posits a ‘really real’ of ‘gender relations’ outside the only terms within which they are knowable. If ‘gender relations’ are not those we are acquainted with at present, what are they and how can we know them? It may be that what Flax is trying to say is that relations between the sexes ought not to be structured in terms of male dominance, and that feminism needs to allow for that possibility. But unless male domination can be identified, it cannot be challenged and opposed. Far from ‘obscuring’ the nature of the relations of the sexes, identifying male domination clarifies what feminism is struggling against. It is only feminism’s focus on the problematic of male domination which allows us to understand what is at stake.
On another occasion, Flax appears to be defining ‘gender’ in terms of any social location at all. She tells us that there are ‘at least three dimensions’ to ‘gender’. The first dimension is that ‘gender’ is ‘a social relationship’ and ‘a form of power … which affects our theories and practices of justice’. But the only social categories in this context of justice are ‘race and economic status’. Throughout her discussion the other two dimensions of ‘gender’ – as ‘a category of thought’, and as ‘a central constituting element in each person’s sense of self and… of what it means to be a person’ – there is no mention of the two sexes, women and men. It is not until the very end of the discussion, when she criticizes the idea of ‘sex roles’, that we are given any hint that ‘gender’ might be connected to the existence of two sexes (pp. 25-6). She makes no mention of the fact that feminism’s concern with justice involves first and foremost justice for women, including women located within the dominating hierarchies of race and class, but primarily women as women assigned the subordinate role in the dominating hierarchy of sex. On this account, ‘gender’ means ‘race’ and ‘class’ before it means ‘sex’.
This defining of ‘gender’ in terms of any social location at all is a consequence of detaching it from its original referent, ‘sex’. But this seeming ability of ‘gender’ to be unhooked from ‘sex’ leaves ‘sex’ still immersed in biology as its only source of truth. As Ann Oakley once argued (Oakley, 1972), the cultural construction which is ‘gender’ is merely superficial, a matter of ‘prejudice’ (p. 16), of ‘distortion’ and ‘apparent differences’ (p. 103 – emphasis added), ‘simply … the beliefs people hold’ (p. 189), something that is ‘learned’ (p. 173) and hence can be unlearned. Biology, on the other hand, is ‘fundamental’ (p. 46). Oakley’s account is replete with appeals to biology. To be entirely accurate, it must be said she appeals to biology only when biology looks as though it substantiates her argument that there are no important differences between the sexes. She needs to argue against the existence of sex differences because she confounds ‘difference’ with inequality and inferiority. She wants to demonstrate that women are not ‘really’ unequal and inferior to men because they are not different. But wherever it is possible to do so, it is biology which is used to demonstrate the truth of that lack of difference.
The proponents of ‘gender’ deal with this ongoing subterranean connection between biology and truth by attempting to abandon any claims to truth. But the price of any such attempts is that same incoherence with which the ‘sex/gender’ distinction began. ‘Gender is (a) representation’, says Teresa de Lauretis (1987: 3). ‘The “real” and the “sexually factic” are phantasmatic constructions – illusions of substance’, says Judith Butler (1990: 146). But words like ‘representation’, ‘phantasmatic’, ‘illusion’ only have meanings in terms of their opposites. To say that something is a representation is at the same time to say that there is something else it is a representation of; to say that something is a phantasm entails that there be something else which is real; and to say that something is illusion logically requires something else which is true. Otherwise, what is being implied – that everything is representation, phantasmatic or illusion? In that case it would make as much sense to say that everything is real, although it would not make any more sense, since the concept of the real also implies its opposite. The words only gain their meaning from the distinctions they make. If no distinctions are being made, why use these words rather than their opposites? But, of course, a distinction is being made. It is the same distinction which has bedeviled the detachment of ‘sex’ from ‘gender’ from the beginning, the separation of the ‘biological’ from the ‘social’, and the characterizing of the ‘social’ as in some way unreal. But if there is an unreal, there is also a real. Since it is biology which is society’s other in this discourse of ‘gender’, it is biology which is real in the face of the unreality which is society. That this is so, is clearly, although inadvertently, stated by de Lauretis when she says that ‘gender is not sex, which is a state of nature’ (de Lauretis, 1987: 5). So if ‘gender’ is a representation, then what ‘gender’ is not (namely sex, a state of nature) is also not a representation, but the original reality which ‘gender’ is a representation of.
Although de Lauretis appears to be unaware of these implications, Judith Butler explicitly attempted to deal with them. She argued that
gender is not to culture as sex is to nature; gender is also sic the discursive/cultural means by which ‘sexed nature’ or ‘a natural sex’ is produced and established as ‘prediscursive’, prior to culture, a politically neutral surface on which culture acts. … This production of sex as the prediscursive ought to be understood as the effect of the apparatus of cultural construction designated by gender. (Butler, 1990: 7 – her emphasis)
In arguing that ‘sex’ is itself a social construct, and hence not natural or biological at all in so far as it is of concern to feminism, Butler is perfectly correct. But if that’s the case, if sex is already social, what part is played by the term ‘gender’? What does using ‘gender’ add, that is not already contained in ‘sex’ viewed from a feminist standpoint? According to Butler, ‘gender’ is an ‘apparatus of social construction’ which purveys ‘sex’ as ‘natural’. But that can be said without recourse to ‘gender’, namely, ‘sex is a social construction which presents itself as natural’. To say it like that is far more direct and challenging to conventional wisdom than interpolating ‘gender’ between sex and its social construction. It is after all sex which is the social construct, and not something other than sex. Using a different word, ‘gender’ for the social construct, implies that sex is something other than the social construct.
Butler herself is at least partly aware of this problem. She says: ‘If the immutable character of sex is contested, perhaps this construct called “sex” is as culturally constructed as gender; indeed, perhaps it was always already gender, with the consequence that the distinction between sex and gender turns out to be no distinction at all’ (p. 7). But she does not take the next step in the argument and dispense with the word ‘gender’, to focus instead on sex and its discontents. Retaining ‘sex’ and rejecting ‘gender’, would not fit in with her purpose, which is to open up a theoretical space within what she sees as feminism, for ‘those “incoherent” or “discontinuous” gendered beings who appear to be persons but who fail to conform to the gendered norms of cultural intelligibility by which persons are defined … and whose persistence and proliferation … open up within the very terms of that matrix of intelligibility rival and subversive matrices of gender disorder’ (p. 17). The examples she mentions in her text of such ‘gender disorder’ are lesbians, especially those who ‘destabilize’ and ‘displace’ the heterosexual norms of masculinity and femininity through ‘butch/femme’ role play (p. 123), Foucault’s hermaphrodite Herculine Barbine, male homosexuality (pp. 131-2), and drag and cross-dressing (both male, although she does not say so) (p. 137). The term ‘gender’ is perfect for this purpose just because of its incoherence and idealism. Because it has no definite meaning, and because it is detached from the only referent that makes any sense, namely sex, it can take on any meaning at all. It is much more difficult to interpret ‘sex’ as ‘a multiple interpretation’, as ‘a free-floating artifice’, as ‘a shifting phenomenon’, as ‘a complexity whose totality is permanently deferred, never fully what it is at any given juncture in time’, as ‘fictive’, ‘phantasmatic’ and ‘illusory’. ‘Sex’ remains tied in with its ordinary meanings of male and female, and heterosexual desire and activity, and hence too close to those traditional sites of male supremacy.
Butler is not concerned to identify the ways in which sex is constructed under male supremacist conditions, with the aim of challenging, resisting, refusing and changing those conditions. On the contrary, she regards such an enterprise as impossible. ‘There is no radical repudiation of a culturally constructed sexuality’, she says. She agrees with what she refers to as ‘the pro-sexuality movement within feminist theory and practice’ that ‘sexuality is always constructed within the terms of discourse and power’. The most we can expect to accomplish by way of ‘subversion’ is ‘how to acknowledge and “do” the construction one is invariably in’. The only political option available involved ‘possibilities of doing gender which repeat and displace through hyperbole, dissonance, internal confusion and proliferation the very constructs by which they are mobilized’ (pp. 30-1).
She herself does not believe in the ‘invariability’ of ‘gender’, since she is at some pains to argue that ‘gender’ is ‘choice’, and that it is possible to engage in ‘the exercise of gender freedom’ (Butler, 1987: 131, 132). But she never examines what is involved in this question of ‘choice’. The goodness of ‘choice’ is self-evident, and the more the better because it allows more freedom. But she never asks what this freedom is for, and her account closes off any possibility of identifying some choices as bad. This libertarian stance enables her to avoid addressing the ethical issues raised by feminism’s exposure of sex as socially constructed under male supremacist conditions. Although she herself would presumably not want to take a morally neutral stance in relation to the worst forms of male sexual behavior, on her account such evils as male sexual abuse of children, rape, sexual harassment, prostitution, pornography, are nothing more than ‘choices’. She does not, of course, say so. She simply avoids discussing these issues.
Martha Nussbaum concludes that Butler’s argument ‘collaborates with evil’ because of the absence of an explicitly ethical stance on questions of social justice and human dignity, an absence which leaves ‘a void at the heart of her notion of politics’ (Nussbaum, 1999: 9), and because it can only recommend political quiescence in the face of obvious and pressing social wrongs (p.12). While I would prefer to say that Butler’s account is complicit with domination, I agree with Nussbaum that political defeatism is a consequence of Butler’s theoretical schema. She insists that because we are socially constituted there is nothing very much we can do about oppressive social structures except reenact them as parody while continuing to embrace them as our own sense of identity. In her later work, according to Nussbaum, Butler argues that the identities conferred on us by institutionalized oppression are not only inevitable and beyond the reach of any political resistance whatsoever, they are a positive good: ‘“because a certain narcissism takes hold of any term that confers existence, I am led to embrace the terms that injure me because they constitute me socially”’ (quoted on p. 9). Although Nussbaum does not mention this, Butler is quite correct in saying that the injuries of social domination constitute the identities of those it holds in subjection. Where Butler is wrong is in her insistence that this is irreparable and must be eagerly accepted with pleasure and joy. To the extent that my sexual desire, for example, motivates me to harm myself or others, I am not doomed to endlessly repeat it. I can refuse to act on it, and if that means that I am thereby deprived of immediate sexual pleasure, then so be it. I may in fact find pleasure in divesting myself of complicity with something I find detestable, a pleasure which may lack the excitement of sexual degradation, but which provides compensations in my feeling that I am taking control of my own emotional life. Nussbaum locates Butler’s work within the context of ‘a new disquieting trend’ in feminist theory, a trend which demonstrates a marked obliviousness to ‘the real situation of real women’, in favor or ‘academic publications of lofty obscurity and disdainful abstractness’ (p. 2). The term ‘gender’ is central to that disquieting trend.
There are some feminist theorists who use the word ‘gender’, and who explicitly reject the separation between ‘biology’ and ‘society’ and have no qualms about identifying male domination. But the term still generates confusion. Miriam M. Johnson uses ‘gender’ to refer to ‘one’s civil status as male or female’, while reserving the word ‘sex’ to refer to ‘genital erotic activity (sex in bed)’ (Johnson, 1988: 202). Johnson makes this distinction between ‘sex’ as sexual activity and ‘gender’ as social role, in order to avoid what she sees as the dominant tendency to define ‘gender’ in terms of ‘sex’. She wants to avoid the assumption that the inequalities in the social situations of women and men are somehow caused by the male dominant/female submissive between male and female sexuality. She says: ‘Using the word sex to describe sexual activity and the difference between males and females attests to the degree to which gender has been conflated with sex’ (p. 220). The problem with this conflation, as Johnson sees it, is that women have been defined in terms of femininity, passivity and submission, and men in terms of masculinity, dominance and aggression, because that is the way it happens in bed. ‘Separating gender from sex’, she says, ‘helps to break up this assumption.’ She argues that the influence is the other way around, that male and female sexuality are different because the social roles of women and men are different and unequal. It is not the case that sexual activity, defined in this way, is definitive of what she calls ‘gender’. On the contrary, it is ‘gender’ defined as male dominance and female submission, which has been reflected in the differences between female and male sexuality.
But although she is correct in this, separating ‘sex’ from ‘gender’ merely confuses the issue. Once again, if ‘gender’ refers to the social, then ‘sex’ must refer to something else. But heterosexual sex is also social. It is part of the social definition of female and male, not something other than it. The distinction remains an idealist solution, that is, it is a distinction in thought, not in the actual social relations of male power. Merely saying something is not so will not make it go away. And there is the danger that making the verbal distinction will mask the feminist perception of the ongoing social reality.
‘Gender’ ought to be expunged from the feminist vocabulary, unless it is confined to its original grammatical and linguistic context, words have gender, people have sex in both senses of the word, in the sense that there are two sexes, and in the sense of sexual desire and activity. That they are usually confused as Johnson pointed out, is a consequence of the heterosexual hegemony – sexuality happens because there are two sexes, that is, sex is always heterosexual. Substituting ‘gender’ for sex compounds the confusion because it evades the necessity for disentangling it. More importantly, because in most of its usages ‘gender’ is meaningless, it can take on any meaning at all, including anti-feminist ones. By being detached from its original ordinary language referent ‘sex’, it floats freely in a discursive space far removed from the actual social relations of male supremacy. It is politically unlocatable. The frequency with which this happens gives rise to the suspicion that that is what has been intended all along.
Denise Thompson, Radical Feminism Today (2001: 72-79)
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