Thinking About Gender - Part 1

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By Christine R. Riddiough 

Editors' note:

We scheduled this post and the next in celebration (perhaps ironic celebration) of Women's Equality Day, which commemorates U.S. women achieving the right to vote by the ratification in 1920 of the 19th amendment to the Constitution. Since then, notions of female and male continue to evolve, and new contestations emerged.

In its October 15, 2013, issue, the New York Times asked the question, "Are ‘Trans Rights’ and ‘Gay Rights’ Still Allies?" Two things in that debate (and in other similar discussions on the Internet and at conferences) stood out for me as a socialist feminist:

  • the fact that the question was asked at all
  • the fact that, in talking about these gender-related issues, there is no mention of the fight for women's rights/liberation

From a socialist feminist perspective the response to the title question has to be a resounding "Yes." But the failure of the article (and to a large extent the LGBTQ movement) to really address the second point shows the limits of the question.

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore describes her support for "a movement that fights for universal access to basic needs" and her interest in "gender, sexual, social and political self-determination." She has the most radical perspective of the authors in the Times article, and yet even she neglects to mention women. This is not unique to many of the debates I’ve seen recently. It suggests that while the Republicans are waging a "War on Women" many in the liberal/left/LGBTQ movement are just surrendering on that front. That’s not good for women, nor is it good for LGBTQ people.

Let’s take a hard look at how gender shapes our lives. We are first introduced to the idea of gender when we’re born. Usually gender is viewed as two things:

  • It is binary – you are defined as either female or male when you’re born – when the doctor, nurse or midwife wraps the baby in a pink or blue blanket.
  • It is a personal characteristic – everybody has one gender, the one they’re born with and that defines who they are and how they should act throughout their lives.

In this first part of a two-part blog, I will address the first point – that of the gender binary. In part two, I’ll look at gender as a personal characteristic.

As we’ve learned more in the last few decades, we recognize that gender is more complicated than that. A pamphlet from the Illinois Caucus on Adolescent Health (ICAH) defines four dimensions of gender. It seems to me to be a good place to start thinking about that first point – that gender is binary. The four dimensions they define are:

  • Biological sex
  • Gender Identity
  • Gender Expression
  • Sexual orientation

The first two categories – biological sex and gender identity – are most interrelated. Biological sex is generally assigned at birth based on the external sex organs. But it also is related to dominant hormones and chromosomes. For most people identifying biological sex is straightforward, but there are some people who are intersex and others for whom the outward sex organs don’t match the internal organs. While biological sex is, by definition, based on physical characteristics, gender Identity, according to the ICAH pamphlet, should be thought of as the internal sense of gender. It ranges from woman to genderqueer to man. People whose gender identity matches their biological sex are cisgender, while those for whom these two attributes don’t match are transgender. Some people may not identify with either gender and others may be genderqueer or gender non-conforming. At a recent Boston conference on women’s liberation, in feminist blogs, on Facebook the debate on gender, and particularly on a feminist view of transgender issues, rages. Kathie Scarborough presented a paper at that conference, Women’s Liberation Is Based on Sex not Gender, in which she states (emphasis hers):

I take the position that our focus as feminists should be on SEX and not on GENDER…. As a feminist and a trained neuroscientist I don’t believe in an endogenous “gender identity.”

This is a position taken by some feminists, and it’s a controversy that has been around for a long time. In Different Daughters: A History of the Daughters of Bilitis and the Rise of the Lesbian Rights Movement, Marcia Gallo describes a DOB conference in 1973 at which folksinger Beth Elliott, a DOB member who was a transwoman and lesbian, was invited to sing. Many of the lesbians at the conference objected, saying she was not a real woman, while others rallied to her support.

The other two categories ICAH defines are gender expression and sexual orientation. Gender expression ranges from feminine to androgynous to masculine; it reflects how gender is communicated in the clothes one wears, how one speaks and acts. Finally, sexual orientation reflects sexual and/or romantic attraction. People identify as lesbian, gay, heterosexual, bisexual, pansexual or asexual.

The relationship between gender expression and sexual orientation is also often subject to debate. For example, at a meeting in the early 1970s between owners of a lesbian bar in Chicago and women from the Lesbian Feminist Center, one of the owners described the butch/femme roles her generation of lesbians (who came out in the 1950s and '60s) adopted as "our way of rebelling." But, she added, "your way of rebelling [as feminists] is better." And Esther Newton, in 1972 in Mother Camp: Female Impersonators in America," described the drag queen culture as contradicting, and opposing, mainstream culture when it comes to gender. She writes:

And when I first recorded that impersonators believed the major and most fundamental division of the social world to be male/female I thought I knew better. Now I agree with them. … Perhaps what needed to be explained is why I was blind where they could see.

At the same DOB conference mentioned above, Robin Morgan, living at the time in a heterosexual relationship, encountered objections when said she was a lesbian. A popular 1970s pamphlet, Woman-Identified Woman, asked the question, "What is a lesbian?" and responded with this: “A lesbian is the rage of all women condensed to the point of explosion.” And in The Furies, a Lesbian/Feminist Monthly, Ginny Berson writes in 1972:

The base of our ideological thought is: Sexism is the root of all oppressions, and Lesbian and woman oppression will not end by smashing capitalism, racism, and imperialism. Lesbianism is not a matter of sexual preference, but rather one of political choice which every woman must make if she is to become woman-identified and thereby end male supremacy.      

Going back to the mid-20th century, the assumption was that all these gender dimensions – identity, biology, expression, orientation – should be aligned. Women are biological females who dress and act femininely and who are attracted to and have relationships with men.

In my next post I’ll look at the political implications of the current expanded view of gender.

This post was written in May and June of 2014. Since then there continues to be extensive debate on Facebook and around the Internet on the relationship of feminism and transgender rights. On August 4, The New Yorker published “What Is a Woman? The dispute between radical feminism and transgenderism,” which discusses some of the issues raised by radical feminists in regard to "women-only space" and transwomen. The article has generated some controversy, but it is worth reading to get a sense of how this debate is playing out in the feminist community.

Christine R. Riddiough serves as an Honorary Vice Chair of DSA.

Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership. Democratic Left blog submission guidelines can be found here.

 

 

Grassroots Fundraising: Paying for the Revolution (9pm Eastern)

June 23, 2017
· 44 rsvps

Are you new to socialist organizing? Or after many years do you still struggle, raising money from members when you need it but without a steady flow of income or budget to plan ahead? Are you afraid to tackle fundraising because it seems so daunting or you are uncomfortable asking people for money?

In this webinar, you will learn why fundraising is organizing, and how to do it – face to face, through fundraising events, and other ideas.

Join us for our latest organizing training for democratic socialist activists: DSA’s (Virtual) Little Red Schoolhouse.

Instructor:

  • Steve Max, DSA Vice Chair and one of the founders of the legendary community organizing school, The Midwest Academy

Training Details:

  1. Workshops are free for any DSA member in good standing.
  2. You need a computer with good internet access.
  3. Your computer must have preferably headphones or else speakers; you can speak thru a mic or use chat to "speak".
  4. If you have questions, contact Theresa Alt talt@igc.org.
  5. If you have very technical questions, contact Tony Schmitt schmittaj@gmail.com 608-355-6568.
  6. Participation requires that you register at least 21 hours in advance -- by midnight Thursday for Friday's webinar.

NOTE: This training is scheduled for 9:00pm Eastern Time (8pm Central, 7pm Mountain, 6pm Pacific, 5 pm Alaska, 3 pm Hawaii).

Introduction to Socialist Feminism Call

June 27, 2017
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Join DSA activist Judith Gardiner to explore “socialist feminism.” How does it differ from other forms of feminism? How and when did it develop? What does it mean for our activism? 9 pm ET, 8 pm CT, 7 pm MT, 6 pm PT.

Data Security for DSA Members

June 27, 2017

Ack! I googled myself and didn't like what I found!

WHAT: A DSA Webinar about "Doxing"
WHEN: 9PM EST, 6PM PST

We're proud of our organizing, and chapter work is transparent for both political and practical reasons. However, there are basic precautions you can take in this time of rapid DSA growth to protect your privacy.

Key Wiki is a website that meticulously documents DSA activity and posts it for the world to see. If you're an active DSA member, likely your name is on their website. This is an example of "doxing".

As DSA becomes larger, more visible, and more powerful, we might expect that more websites like this will pop up, and more of our members' information might be posted publicly on the web.

Join a live webinar on Tuesday, June 27 with data security expert Alison Macrina, to learn:

  1. what is doxing? with examples and ways to prevent it
  2. how to keep your passwords strong and your data secure
  3. where to find your personal info on the internet and how to get it removed
  4. social media best practices for DSA organizers
  5. what to do if you've already been doxed

Zoom Link: https://zoom.us/j/9173276528

Call-in Info: +1 408 638 0968
Meeting ID: 917 327 6528

Film Discussion: Pride

September 10, 2017
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Join DSA members Eric Brasure and Brendan Hamill to discuss the British film Pride (2014). It’s 1984, British coal miners are on strike, and a group of gays and lesbians in London bring the queer community together to support the miners in their fight. Based on the true story of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners. The film is available for rent on YouTube, Amazon, and iTunes. 8 ET/7 CT/6 MT/5 PT.

Film Discussion: Union Maids

September 24, 2017
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Join DSA member and labor historian Susan Hirsch in discussing Union Maids (1976). Nominated for an Academy Award, this documentary follows three Chicago labor organizers (Kate Hyndman, Stella Nowicki, and Sylvia Woods) active beginning in the 1930s. The filmmakers were members of the New American Movement (a precursor of DSA), and the late Vicki Starr (aka Stella Nowicki) was a longtime member of Chicago DSA and the Chicago Women's Liberation Union. It’s available free on YouTube, though sound quality is poor. 8ET/7CT/6MT/5PT.