Rethinking Gender Abolition
The goal of eradicating gender has become axiomatic for radical feminists over the past several years. Not only the debased role of woman but gender itself–the very concept–has been framed as the root of all women’s oppression. It is my position that gender abolition is neither necessary for women’s liberation nor a worthy goal. I base this conclusion on the following points:
1) Gender abolition is a reactionary position that has gained traction as a result of the assault on women’s autonomy vis-a-vis transactivists and gender identity theorists.
2) It is a disembodied view that emphasizes minds and brains over women’s entire physical being.
3) It is an abstract solution imposed on an existing order rather than an organic theory arising out of women’s experiences.
4) It does not allow for sex-based diversity in religious and ethnic subcultures.
5) It frames autonomous women’s spaces and organizations in negative rather than positive terms.
I am using the word “woman” here to mean “adult human female” and “man” to mean “adult human male,” exclusive of transgendered individuals. Where my analysis refers to transwomen or transmen, I use those terms specifically. I use “masculine” in the sense of “referring to the male” and “feminine” as “referring to the female.” I use “male” and “female” according to their biological meanings. My definition of gender will become clear as the essay progresses.
Gender is understood in different ways by liberals, conservatives, academics, transactivists, and even radical feminists, though these differences are seldom acknowledged, let alone defined.
Radical feminism has challenged the idea that biological differences automatically result in certain gender roles, with man’s dominion the natural and inevitable result. Most feminists today see gender as a social construct that does not naturally or inevitably flow from sex differences. Many would go further and say that biology has absolutely no relation to gender.
The most conventional definition of gender as a social construct puts characteristics of girl/woman and boy/man in a pair of boxes that are socially defined. In theory the individual either accepts the box that conforms to social expectations, rebels and adopts the opposite box, or mixes and matches from both boxes. In practice, most people mix and match to some degree, but what is interesting is how much consensus there is on what goes in the pink versus the blue box. There is much variation among cultures, but within the culture socialization around gender is so complete that everyone understands the two discrete categories. Feminists point out that the two boxes are not equal: the blue one has better stuff. Better paying jobs, more comfortable clothes, higher social/political status. Gender abolition in the box definition would put all the things in the blue and pink box in a third (perhaps purple) gender-neutral box that applies to everyone.
Gender can also be defined in conceptual rather than concrete terms. The definition of gender as dominance and submission would be one example of this. According to this definition, as described by Christine Delphy(1), the desire to dominate creates social/political divisions which are only coincidentally based on sex. Without the desire to dominate, there would be no delineations between humans along sexual lines. Gender abolition would mean attacking dominance/submission and thus freeing women from subordination. Conversely, the theory says that if women were to become empowered, gender would automatically cease to exist.
Yet another way of defining gender is by socialization, another conceptual definition. Men and women are different because they have specific social experiences. This explains the differences in gender across cultural lines. Gender abolition here would mean the elimination of differing experiences based on sex.
These ways of understanding gender as social construct are not all mutually exclusive, but neither are they necessarily inclusive. The idea that dominance/submission motivates differing socializations that result in the yucky pink and coveted blue boxes aligns all three theories. Yet in practical terms, there are problems describing gender differences entirely using any of these approaches, let alone all three together. It takes a lot of theorizing. For example, pink is actually a more dominant color than blue, more easily catching the eye and holding the attention.
Confusion results when feminists use different definitions when talking about gender. Further confusing the issue is whether we are talking about gender as a collection of individual choices or gender as traits that describe a group. If we’re talking about individual choices, gender abolition might mean being able to choose to look like Dolly Parton, or to wear nail polish and have sculpted muscles while working as a backhoe operator. If we’re talking about group definitions, gender abolition means no general descriptions about men and women would be possible except in terms of reproduction and obvious secondary sex characteristics.
I view gender as the result of differences in socialization between women and men. That this socialization is practiced in ways that are extremely harmful to women I do not dispute. I look at gender in general rather than individual terms, seeing it as a social construct that should be informed (not defined) by biology. I am not a gender abolitionist. My views on gender are informed not only by my sex and my socialization as a woman, but by my studies in feminism since the early 1980s, my participation in women’s spirituality, my affinity with feminist art and culture, the many years I spent living on “women’s land,” and my experience and training as a child psychotherapist.
Socialization is commonly used to refer to social experiences in childhood and adolescence. Certainly these early years are important in human development; however, socialization, with its attendant influences, actually occurs throughout the lifetime. I use the word socialization in its broadest sense, encompassing childhood and adult experiences.
So here is a further explanation of why I am not sold on the idea of gender abolition.
1) Gender abolition is a reactionary position that has gained traction as a result of the assault on women’s autonomy vis-a-vis transactivists and gender identity theorists. In the early eighties the focus for radical feminism–as I and my friends understood it–was on defining womanhood. We were not redefining it, because we maintained that it had never been allowed the free expression to define itself. Nor could any woman herself define “woman”: the discovery had to be explored and nurtured in a group environment. A society where women have full participation and both men and women have qualities considered masculine and feminine certainly did not go far enough. Women needed to participate in society as women defined by women. That is a rather gendered concept. That this position is over twenty years old might mean it needs to be re-defended on those grounds alone, if not for feminism as a whole becoming so regressive. I think the emergence (really re-emergence) of the idea of gender abolition is a reaction to gender identity theory, which elevates gender stereotypes and seeks to wrest women’s right to self-definition by divorcing gender from sex and then erasing acknowledgement of any female sex class. Gender abolition has the benefit of rejecting not only gender identity, but patriarchy, which means resistance to the gender identity theory promoted by transactivists can be framed as rejection of patriarchy. But this is still a reactionary position, one that seeks to protect us from patriarchy and its trans mutation, but does not actively define what we want and what is best for us.
2) Gender abolition is a disembodied view that emphasizes minds and brains over women’s entire physical being. There is a lot of attention paid to the supposed difference in brain chemistry or wiring between the sexes. Given that we know that personal experience, especially trauma, along with drugs and hormone exposure can change physical brain wiring, the search for meaningful and conclusive evidence of male and female brain wiring has been elusive. If there are such differences, they are subtle. But why such emphasis on the brain? Men have decided that intelligence–or a certain type of intelligence–is the most important part of existence and that this intelligence is seated wholly in the brain. Also, that the mind and body are separate spheres. Transwomen have emphatically embraced this worldview. According to transwoman Valerie Keefe(2), “…we transition to bring our body sufficiently in line with our sex, our neurological sex, which in a sapient species is the only legitimate metric of sex…” Let that sink in a minute. She is saying that sexual dimorphism in the mind exists in fact not speculation, that the body is separate from the mind, that the body does not inform mind, and that the body is irrelevant even to sex. Keefe’s analysis reflects a thoroughly male socialization, yet it is not that different from that of gender abolitionists. One view says there is substantial sexual dimorphism in the brain and therefore people know their gender through their brain; the other says there is no difference between the male and female brain and therefore there should be no gender. Yet if bodies are important and the the body is inseparable from the mind, the differences between men and women are no longer subtle; they are striking. To create an identical (or even very similar) socialization between boys and girls, if it is even possible, would be to relegate the body, along with the formation and growth of the species, to a place of unimportance while affirming that it is the brain that is essentially the only salient part of life. (As an aside, given the amount of interest and funding for studies into male/female brain dichotomy, it is only a matter of time before there is a large body of solid evidence of some inherent differences between male and female brains. No doubt the patriarchal news spinners will attach tremendous importance to this, as they do now with more equivocal research. Another reason, strategically, not to base arguments for liberation in the gray matter.)
3) Gender abolition is an abstract solution imposed on an existing order rather than an organic theory arising out of women’s experience. There is a penchant in Western thinking, established by male thinkers, to impose–or attempt to impose–order from the mind: to conceive of an idea in the unpolluted realm of thought and manifest that idea in the word. It is the deductive form of reasoning, based on accepted or unassailable premises–points that have been scrubbed and sanitized–that creates the most celebrated theories. Part of the appeal of deductive reasoning is that it requires familiarity with prior theory, thus making it less accessible to the uneducated. The inductive form of reasoning, which looks at a real life example, forms a hypothesis, and examines evidence for generalization, is messier and poorly regarded, harder to defend and producing hypotheses that are often wrong. It is, however, rooted in the word outside the mind and therefore more likely to have practical applications. Gender abolition is a theory that “should work,” that is based on no real life examples. In fact, it has become a blinder to recognizing situations where women enjoy relatively more autonomy and learning from them. These examples–from indigenous cultures, history, archeology, ethnic subcultures–are dismissed by many radical feminists because they “involve gender.” So entrenched is this condition of a genderless society, that only a gendered society where women enjoyed complete liberation could possibly shake the theory enough to allow more real world evidence. Yet our feminist theories are not unpolluted; they are doubtless steeped in patriarchal premises that we are unaware of. Only from a place of greater autonomy can we formulate a vision that is truly liberating.
4) Gender abolition does not allow for sex-based diversity in religious and ethnic subcultures. Cultural and religious tolerance is invoked to excuse all kinds of horrific abuse of women and children. Feminists are correct in criticizing the bondage and isolation of women and girls in religious subcultures such as the Quiverfull. Yet while the dominant/submissive analysis describes the dynamics of the Quiverfull rather neatly, applying it to every religion in every circumstance does not work so well. What about cultures in which the worship of the Virgin Mary is paramount and Jesus is regarded merely as her child? What about positive gendered depictions of both male and female deities in polytheistic religions? Some feminists would characterize these examples as smokescreens to hide the dominance of a male priesthood, but cannot the positive images and symbolism of woman in these religions be conserved? Women are the conservators of culture and of subculture in particular. Women have always been our connection to the past–of family, of religion, of ethnicity, of the parts of history that do not make it into the official version. How much of tradition do we break from? There is a tendency in any group which has endured a prolonged traumatic experience to attempt to erase that event from its identity. This is seen in pagans who try to recreate an “authentic” paganism untouched by Christianity or Native Americans who search for a pre-Columbian tribal understanding. Certainly not all pagans or Native Americans do this, but the attraction is there. Why claim a part of yourself that has been formed under horrible conditions you would not have chosen? Are feminists seeking a clean break with our oppressive history through “gender abolition”? Patriarchy is not a bad dream from which we will one day awaken. It is an experience that has shaped all of us, women and men, making us who are today and tomorrow.
5) Gender abolition frames autonomous women’s spaces and organizations in negative rather than positive terms. The 1972 manifesto of the (Dianic) Susan B. Anthony Coven #1 said in part(3), “We are opposed to teaching our magic and our craft to men until the equality of the sexes is a reality.” (Emphasis mine.) At the time women-only spirituality groups were forming, feminist art collectives, publications and intentional communities also arose with the goal of furthering liberation by creating space away from men (and anti-feminist women) in order to refine feminist politics and establish a vision for a truly egalitarian society, as opposed to equal roles under patriarchy. For many feminist theorists, the right to “female-only” space is still based upon oppression. Sheila Jeffreys(4) has said, “Feminist commitment to women-only space is based upon a definition of ‘woman’ as a political category created through oppression.” Yet for many of us with long term exposure to autonomous women’s space, the motivation is no longer to get away from men or patriarchy, but to be with others of our sex. On the surface, this sounds like the same thing, but in practice it is a very different mindset. For participants in women-centered spirituality, women-only space is now viewed as a fundamental spiritual right, not to be rescinded for any reason, even the end of patriarchy. We do not see ourselves fighting patriarchy with our women-only spaces (although we are). We are fighting patriarchy for our women-only spaces. I would go further and say that the amount and quality of autonomous women’s space is a measure of our liberation, not a strategy along the way. This position on women-only space does not threaten the idea of gender, since socialization establishes and maintains gender, but it is far removed from the individualism of identity politics. (On a practical note, it is better not to justify women-only space as a reaction to oppression, since doing so assures that we will be defending it for the entire patriarchy. I believe it was in 1968 that The New York Times first declared that feminism had achieved its goals and could disband. At the moment, with contraception under attack, few are saying this, but with the next high court ruling assuring us the status quo, the media consensus will be: We’ve won! No more feminism needed.)
To devise a workable organic blueprint for women’s liberation, we need more women’s autonomous space–defined as space for women governed by women, in some cases inclusive only of women. This would include girls’ schools; girls’ extra-curricular activities; colleges for women where instructors, trustees and administrators are women; feminist political organizations governed by women; women’s health organizations with female professionals; women-only communities, religious groups, media organizations and artistic collectives. This means no men or transwomen in positions of authority in organizations primarily serving women.
I am by no means advocating strict segregation of the sexes. That would create another rigid system of gender and leave no room for gender non-conforming individuals. But the option of women’s and girls’ autonomous space should be made available in a wide variety of circumstances. As long as we have differences in socialization between men and women, we will, in a general way, have different ideas about what it means to be a man versus a woman. This means the pink and blue boxes will not go away, although hopefully they will contain different things, their differences will be less stark, and individuals will have flexibility in the ways they conform or don’t conform.
I hate to address the topic “what about the men” because it’s so ubiquitous in any discussion about women, but I suppose in this case it’s relevant, along with its corollary “what about the transwomen.” Feminists have been saying to men ever since they began knocking at the doors of our women’s communities: go form your own groups, your own spaces. But many men complain that men-only groups are competitive and hostile, and groups of the Iron John persuasion have perpetuated misogyny and harmful male stereotypes. Besides, we already have a tradition of men getting together in autonomous groups to explore what it means to be a man: it’s called Western civilization. For men to have a nurturing socialization in all-male groups, one that does not exploit women, they will need to have the educational benefit of experiencing full participation of women in society as a whole. In other words, the patriarchy will need to end.
As for transwomen, they have male bodies and male socialization, and so their presence in women-only space is wholly inappropriate. Some transwomen are quietly defining their own gender or living their lives in non-sex-segregated spaces. Those who attempt to rule and redefine women and violate our segregated spaces must be taught to honor boundaries. Ditto for transmen invading the space of gay males.
It is possible to be trans-critical and to reject patriarchy without advocating gender abolition. We need to weigh whether gender abolition is what we really want, since it would involve sacrifices for women as well as men. Possibly there are some women who advocate for gender abolition who have similar views to my own. One of my purposes in writing this has been to encourage feminists who advocate for gender abolition to become clearer about exactly what they mean. I believe what we need is gender autonomy, not gender abolition: the freedom to collectively determine our socialization around our sex.