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The Eradication of Gender: A Necessary Road to Equality

smigliori's picture

In 1968, Jane Elliott created what would become known as the “Blue Eye/ Brown Eye Experiment,” dividing her class based on eye color and letting first one half, then the other, oppress their fellow students merely be telling them that one group was superior to the other. The exercise is used around the country to show that racism is a socially constructed phenomenon. Just as people are not essentially different based on eye color, so they are not essentially different based on race. The implications this has for feminism quickly become obvious. Students believe in the gender binary because they are told it exists, just as these students believed in some sort of eye color binary when told by their teacher that it existed. Judith Butler has claimed that genital differences are no more significant than eye color differences.[1] Her postmodern approach has been criticized by many feminists with more traditional approaches, who claim that her theory means nothing to the women out fighting for the rights of other women. However, it is not just abstract theorists who are engaging in postmodern feminism. Scholars from the fields of sociology, biology, and psychology are advocating policy changes which would eliminate the oppressive bonds of the gender binary. The time is swiftly approaching when gender may no longer exist as the oppressive, patriarchal binary system which it is today.

Postmodern feminists have been arguing against essentialist claims of sexual difference for years. The most famous of these is undoubtedly Judith Butler. In 1990, Butler’s revolutionary work, Gender Trouble, claimed that sex, gender, and sexual orientation are separate from each other and that each of these is socially constructed. It argued against the heterosexual matrix which claims that there are two types of individuals who exist and that each type is sexually attracted to the other. There are “men” who are masculine-gendered, male-bodied individuals and “women,” who are feminine-gendered and female-bodied. Being a theorist, it is perhaps unsurprising that Butler chose to end her work with a possibility and a question:

If identities were no longer fixed as the premises of a political syllogism, and politics no longer understood as a set of practices derived from the alleged interests that belong to a set of ready-made subjects, a new configuration of politics would surely emerge from the ruins of the old. Cultural configurations of sex and gender might then proliferate or, rather, their present proliferation might then become articulable within the discourses that establish intelligible cultural life, confounding the very binarism of sex, and exposing its fundamental unnaturalness. What other local strategies for engaging the “unnatural” might lead to the denaturalization of gender as such?[2]

Butler’s conclusion contains a number of important points. Firstly, that there are already varying configurations of sex and gender, but that they are currently not “articulable”. This could be compared to the “erasure” of lesbian existence which continued until very recently. Secondly, that the binarism of sex is unnatural, and, therefore, culturally constructed. This pertains directly to earlier in the work where Butler explores the way in which sex is socially constructed and the problems the division into only “male” and “female” poses. Perhaps most importantly, however, she poses a challenge. What is the strategy of postmodern feminism? How can it accomplish its goals? Is there any validity in the claims of other feminists that postmodernists are doing nothing for the cause of “women’s” rights?

Luckily for abstract theorists, “real scientists” are also doing work which breaks down the sex/gender binaries. Biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling questioned the validity of the male/female binary in The Five Sexes in 1993, which studied cases of intersexuality and proposed the creation of three new sexes, based on three different types of intersexuality. Seven years later, Fausto-Sterling moved away from this proposal, to agree with some of her critics, who claimed that a society which did not focus on genitals would be even better than creating new categorizations for the different genital configurations which already exist. Psychologist Sandra Lipsitz Bem created the Bem Sex Role Inventory, which tests an individual’s levels of femininity and masculinity. She later adapted her theory to study the level to which an individual follows prescribed gender roles. Dr. Bem has “a vision of utopia in which gender polarization…has been so completely dismantled that—except in narrowly biological contexts like reproduction—the distinction between male and female no longer organizes the culture and the psyche.”[3] In 2005, sociologist Judith Lorber published Breaking the Bowls: Degendering and Feminist Change, which came much closer to proposing actual ways in which this utopia could be realized. Lorber claims that “it is only by undercutting the gender system of legal statuses, bureaucratic categories, and official and private allocation of tasks and roles that gender equality can be permanently achieved.”[4] Lorber seems to claim that if there were no longer any legal distinctions based on gender, gender as an important category would cease to exist. It is only the proliferation of the concept of gender difference, sustained in part by those frustrating little boxes on every important document, that create the alleged gender difference.

The notion of legal status recalls Susan Stryker’s words concerning the birth of her lover’s child and her rage at the “non-consensuality of the baby’s gendering”, causing her to feel “the pains of two violations, the mark of gender and the unlivability of its absence”.[5] The baby was immediately gendered. Questions of family and friends aside, its sex had to be checked off on its birth certificate, giving it little room for life before it bore the “mark of gender”. It is clear that in order for the gender binary to be overthrown, such practices need to be changed. Not only will society need a language which is capable of dealing with people on non-gendered terms, it will also need to remove gender from the legal system. Stryker does not believe that the erasure of gender as a social category is possible. However, this may be largely a mark of a generational difference.

In society today, gender is largely becoming a thing of the past. In fact, if gender stereotypes were not imposed on youth by an older generation, society would quickly see gender stereotypes fading away into nothing. If teachers and counselors did not suggest to students that their genital differences made them different, students would no more consider them important dividing characteristics than any other physical features, especially considering the fact that other differences are more easily observable at a young age. Interviews conducted by Ariel Levy in 2003 indicate that today’s young adults are far less likely to believe in the gender binary. Levy quotes one individual as saying “I don’t want to try and speak for the trans[sexual] community, but I think there are a lot of trannybois who are not going all the way, who are not thinking I need to fit into this gender mold. They’re saying It’s ok if I don’t take hormones, or It’s ok if I don’t have surgery. I can still call myself a boi.”[6] Statements like these make it clear that it is the system itself that is continuing gender oppression. Therefore, it is the system that needs to be revamped.

In order for there to be true gender equality, it is necessary to eliminate gender as the way in which people are grouped. Gender must be removed from legal documents, from language, and from the way in which children are indoctrinated into society. Gender stereotyping begins at the moment of birth. In fact, thanks to modern technology, it can begin even before birth. It is important that this be stopped at the source. The movement must then make sure that gender is not used as a basis for any sort of discrimination at any point in the individual’s life. This must be a movement which is not just about free expression for those who are so-called “gender rebels” or “genderqueers,” but for everyone. This is not to say that some “boys” won’t still want to play with trucks, and some “girls” won’t still want to play with dolls, but that it should come down to some children want to play with trucks, and some (and sometimes the same) children want to play with dolls. It is only through the elimination of the appearance of gender difference, which is created solely through a belief in gender difference, that gender discrimination can end.

[1] Beasley, Chris. Gender & Sexuality: Critical Theories, Critical Thinkers. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications Inc., 2005. 101.

[2] Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. New York, NY: Routledge, Chapman & Hall, Inc., 1990. 149.

[3] qtd. in Lorber, Judith. Breaking the Bowls: Degendering and Feminist Change. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2005. 156.

[4] Lorber, 164.

[5] Stryker, Susan. “My Words to Victor Frankenstein above the Village of Chamounix: Performing Transgender Rage.” The Transgender Studies Reader. New York, NY: Routledge, 2006. pp. 244-256, 253.

[6] qtd. in Levy, Ariel. Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture. New York, NY: Free Press, 2005. 125.


Anne Dalke's picture

towards a gender-blind future

So, smigliori,
I’m reading this less as a proposal than as a first draft towards your final project, in which you will argue the thesis w/ which you end this piece: that “it is only through the elimination of the appearance of gender difference...created solely through a belief in gender difference, that gender discrimination can end.” You’ll see me asking throughout for evidence and data, and operating as devil’s advocate with questions such as “why do we keep perpetuating this divide?” and “why do we/so many of us seem to believe in it?” or “insist on these constructing these categories?” Do you think that if gender were eradicated other forms of discrimination would not be substituted for it?

To push you a bit in these directions, I’d like to ask you to read Patricia Williams’s 1997 Seeing a Color-Blind Future: The Paradox of Race, as well as a few more contemporary pieces about gender variance. I have particularly in mind Judith Haberstam’s ‘05 In a Queer Time and Place, which looks at the sudden visibility—and appropriation--of the transgender body. You might look also @ Suzanne Kessler’s 1998 Lessons from the Intersexed, if you want to be arguing for a postmodern politics that erases all difference. Finally, do you know Butler’s ’04 Undoing Gender? She focuses there on both transgender and intersex, and re-thinks some of her earlier work on performativity, in terms of human persistence and survival. There’s a clear (if complicated!) articulation of “new gender politics” that you might also find of use in your own project.

My question has to do with how you will situate yourself in relation to the many theorists whose work you draw on and learn from. Is this a book report? A weaving together of what others have said and thought? A weighing in from your generation, as stepping beyond mine? Where is smigliori located in this project? What are your investments, your experiences, your own additions to the conversation?
smigliori's picture

A Quick Note

I realize that this does not seem to be, in the traditional sense, a proposal. However, it is, in that it highlights a number of critical texts upon which I will be basing my argument, as well as the main points of my argument. I want to determine not only an abstract solution to the oppression of the category of "women", but a means by which this can actually be accomplished, as well as evidence that society is moving in the direction of this solution.