Friday, March 18, 2005


Gender has been the provenance of feminist theorists and social technicians. While its meaning is widely agreed on, its usage varies in ways that alter the political and even definitional meaning.

At a medical office, a poster encouraging mammograms asks what the risk factors for breast cancer are. One of the risks listed is female gender. But gender doesn't put you at risk for cancer, sex does. Gender has come to be the new Mrs., a polite way to address women without calling attention to petticoats.

In academic and queer circles, gender has come to mean transgender. If there's a conference about gender, you can't tell which conception of gender it means.

Ricki Ann Wilchens organization GenderPac is a fine liberal organization aiming to make life better for children and other people. Its scope reflects the transformation of gender from a systemic analysis of male dominance to oppression in relation to gender categories. The organization aims:

To ensure every American can participate in the workplace, the classroom, and the community regardless of whether they meet ideals for masculinity or femininity.
to end discrimination and violence caused by gender stereotypes by changing public attitudes, educating elected officials and expanding legal rights.
An enlightened mission perfectly in line with much early feminist efforts (Free to Be, You and Me) that does important educational work. It has a slick website and impressive top-shelf academic speakers (Sedgewick, Fausto-Sterling). It's doubtful that they would speak at a Free-To-Be, You-and-Me-type feminist conference today.

My concern is GenderPac's use of gender terminology. There is not an exact fit between GenderPac's "gender" and feminism's "gender." A statement of GenderPac's values says,

Generalizations, such as, "You straight white males just don't get it" are something we all use and we're usually wrong, because none of us is merely the sum of our group.
Well, feminist analysis is predicated on generalizations, although we hope ones more sophisticated than "you just don't get it."

More troubling:

Gender oppression is not only about "transgressing" gender norms. It's also about a 4-year old jock-in-training who finds herself forced into pigtails and skirts; a quiet, artistic boy who is beat up in the boy's locker room; or a lesbian femme sexually assaulted and then blamed for wearing a short skirt and tight sweater.
The lesbian femme sexually assaulted does give one pause. By whom? By a lesbian butch? Who blames it on the angora? What on earth does this example represent?

But even more than such overly inclusive examples is the use of "gender oppression." For feminists, who coined the terminology, it is about more than transgression, tomboys in pigtails, and sissy art boys. The very term represents the hard struggle of feminists to show that women were disadvantaged as a gender. There has been an intersectional critique of "gender essentialism" that generalizes about men and women as a class. That critique does not explain the different usage by GenderPac, although the group does ask for individual "sensitivity about difference and diversity." Their different use of gender oppression represents a shift in the assumed political meaning of gender.

GenderPac speaks of "gender-violence" and "gender oppression." This use of gender represents an enormous change from the feminist analysis of the gender systems or patriarchy. It can be seen as an appropriation of the intellectual and activist labor of femnists, who have had some success in gaining recognition of this area of gender inequality. In this feminist meaning, "gender-based" means that something bad is directed at women because they are women, in a system of male-dominance. Here is the UN definition of gender-based violence, for example:

The term 'violence against women means any act of gender- based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women..."

Whatever the limits of the UN, the term gender-based violence is used worldwide by feminist advocates and activists. It represents a systemic analysis predicated on the understanding that women, as a social group, are less enfranchised and are politically subordinate to men, as a group, and that (male) violence against women is a diffuse informal practice that has systemic consequences in recreating this arrangement. It is based on generalizations about gender.

GenderPac recognizes that "Gender rights are for those of us who transcend narrow gender stereotypes, but they're also human rights, and they're for all of us."

This is not meant to pick on one group but to note a symptomatic example of a rupture between feminist gender analysis and trans gender analysis. The rupture is often blamed on feminists (for not radically altering their conception of gender) but more often is barely addressed at all.


Blogger antipixie_karee said...

If I may comment...

It's interesting that you bring up GenderPAC's stance on gender.

Riki was recently at my school for a workshop, q&a, etc. I remember asking about where GPAC's definition of gender actually lay and also remember getting a very vague reply.
I got the impression that it was, basically, anything but "sex" and mostly based on self identification.

And with your last comment about the "rupture between feminist gender analysis and transgender analysis"... I've a question.

If the rights to the latest definition on gender are now, purportedly, being given to the individual, wouldn't this rupture stand to be... expected? (This is more a question to make sure I'm getting what you're saying - as I had to read through it completely more than once.)

Came upon your blog through OSU W.S. site. I'm Karee. And Hi.

11:08 PM  

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