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.



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