Thinking About Gender – Part 1


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.