Thinking About Gender - Part 2

We scheduled this post and Part 1 in celebration of today, 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. -- Ed.

By Christine R. Riddiough


Gender shapes our lives from their very beginning. In part 1 of this blog post, I described two characteristics of gender as defined in the mid-20th century:

  • 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 discussing the gender binary in part 1, I defined four dimensions of gender: biology, identity, expression, orientation. The assumption most people have had is that each of these dimensions should be aligned. Biological females are women, who dress and act femininely and who are attracted to and have relationships with men.

But the last 50 years have seen those traditions squashed, largely because the women’s liberation and the LGBTQ movements have exposed sexism as an underlying basis for those traditions.

Rejecting such a gender binary raises important questions for us as socialist feminists.

How is this fight a part of our fight as socialists? As socialists we have supported and been part of these movement simply because we support human rights and social justice. Albert Einstein addressed this perspective in "Why am I a socialist?" almost 70 years ago. He said, in part, “This crippling of individuals I consider the worst evil of capitalism.” While Einstein wasn’t thinking about gender, what he says applies here as well – gender, in our society, is used to cripple individuals, and, as socialists, and in particular socialist feminists, we can only eliminate the oppression based on gender by building a socialist feminist society.

How does the oppression of women through gender relate to the issue of gender identity? How do we support transgender people and oppose transphobia and still build a gender neutral society? Biology is not and should not be destiny nor should identity. Is the idea of transgender/cisgender simply adding a layer to that original gender binary and thus reinforcing sex role stereotypes? How do the oppressions of women, lesbians, gay men, transgender people intersect?

How can we support transgender children while acknowledging that as children they need guidance from adults? Children today have a much earlier understanding of sex and gender than did people of my generation (Baby Boomers). Nonetheless, we must recognize that people who are six or ten are still not mature and need guidance on many fronts.

The best way to address these questions may be by looking at gender not as an individual characteristic, but as a system or a structure that has, as its purpose, enforcing the oppression of women, gays, lesbians, transpeople and others. This notion brings us to the second characteristic long held by many: that gender is a personal characteristic.

Early socialist feminists from the second wave recognized that that view was too narrow and that we needed to understand gender as a system that plays a central role in maintaining the status quo. Linda Gordon writing “On ‘Second Wave’ Socialist Feminism” says:

The distinctive mark of socialist feminism was its view that autonomous structures of gender, race and class all participated in constructing inequality and exploitation. Socialist feminists expanded the Marxist notion of exploitation to include other relations in which some benefited from the labor of others, as, for example, in household and childraising labor.

As socialist feminists we must understand gender as a system that is designed to control behavior – keep people in line. Not only is it used to control behavior, it used in a way that people believe that the gender system is just common sense. For example, until the women’s movement of the 1970s took hold, most people believed that it was unnatural for people to be attracted to others of their own sex and that "a woman’s place is in the home."

In the 1920s, Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci wrote in the Modern Prince:

…there is no abstract “human nature”, fixed and immutable (a concept which certainly derives from religious and transcendentalist thought), but that human nature is the totality of historically determined social relations….

Gender is part of this human nature that is historically determined. As a system, gender can be viewed as essential to the cultural/social hegemony that Gramsci describes as how the ruling class rules. The State/political society uses force or command to ensure that people are controlled. But for many societies the direct use of force is not necessary, since the ideological hegemony of civil society defines what makes sense and thus maintains control.

Sometimes people resist that hegemony in individual ways. For gay/lesbian working class people and people of color in '50s and '60s, gender was expressed in non-conforming ways – butch/femme roles and drag queens – as a way of rebelling against the gender system.

The binary perspective on gender is one of those common sense notions that has kept women and LGBTQ people in line. And, we must add, it also has kept men and heterosexual people from speaking out for fear of losing what limited status and power they might have.

Speaking at the Boston conference on women’s liberation, Linda Gordon noted that the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s added two very important perspectives to that of the new left:

Gender is not a characteristic of individual people…. Gender is an overall system…, it is a system we all live in. [And] the personal is political and that power invades all parts of life.

These two concepts can help us put the question of the gender binary in the context of gender as a system. Gender is a system that is used to control people, especially women and people who are LGBTQ, but its effects are played out at the individual, personal level.

Some of that control is now breaking down, as evidenced by the recent dramatic turn-around in support for same-sex marriage. But the “War on Women” and the Tea Party attacks on LGBTQ people demonstrate that there is still much that needs to be done to really tear down that wall of gender. Central to that effort is recognizing that while individual gains – such as freedom to marry – might be achieved, they must be part of a larger strategy that addresses the position of women and LGBTQ people in society.


ChristineRiddioughAID_100w.pngChristine 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
· 46 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.


  • 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
  5. If you have very technical questions, contact Tony Schmitt 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
· 68 rsvps

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"

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:

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

Film Discussion: Pride

September 10, 2017
· 11 rsvps

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
· 8 rsvps


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.