Concluding Notes on the World to which a Social. Theory of Gender Might Lead
For the ultimate goal of the transformation of gender relations there are two logical candidates. One is the abolition of gender, the other its reconstitution on new bases.
Along the first track some bold spirits have proposed the abolition of sexual reproduction. David Fernbach, in a recent and sophisticated version of this argument, goes so far as to suggest that this transcendence of internal nature, modernizing our ‘palaeolithic’ system of reproduction, would be the equivalent of the human transcendence of external nature. Apart from the doubtful politics of reproductive technology already discussed, this vision is based – like the celebration of ‘woman and nature’ that is its mirror-opposite – on a misunderstanding of how the social world of gender is constructed.-The gender order is not andnever has beenJmmanentJn biology. Rather it represents a particular historical response toHFmman reproductive biology. It is possible
to make other collective responses. Attempting to abolish biological sex is certainly one among them. But this would not be a liberating transcendence of nature, because our existing gender order is not given in nature. It would be a collective mutilation, that would certainly reduce the diversity of human experience and very possibly reinforce existing structures of power.
If the abolition of gender is a worthwhile goal, then, it must be the abolition of gender as a social structure that is at issue. As defined in chapter 6 gender is ultimately the linking of fields of social practice to the reproductive division, the creation of a relevance. Its abolition would be, logically, a matter of disconnecting those fields. This implies no denigration or denial of biological difference; equally no celebration of it. Difference between sexes would be simply a complementarity of function in reproduction, not a cosmic division or a social fate. There would be no reason for this to structure emotional relationships, so the categories heterosexual and homosexual would become insignificant. There would be no reason for it to structure character, so femininity and masculinity would depart.
Such a future is implied in the deconstructionist wing of gay liberation theory, and as an ultimate goal is more convincing than as an immediate strategy. Its great virtue is that it eliminates the basis for gender inequalities. The wav biological difference and similarity have got incorporated into structures of social inequality creates onTdllemmas about ‘nature’, noFnature itself. Inequality is the bdsTTol the social constitution of interests, which generate the practices that institutionalize injustices, the politics that defend them, the ideologies that justify them. The concept of liberation is not about freedom, in the sense of lack of constraint on personal behaviour, so much as about equality.
That is easy to say, but as many details canvassed in this book show, more than a little difficult to achieve, even in narrow settings. Equality is an absolute concept. It allows of no qualifications however well intentioned. Equality would be wholly unrealistic as a criterion for practice if it required complete equality to be an immediately achievable state. The arguments on the stability of personality traversed in Part III are sufficient to demolish any idea of general deconstruction as an immediate option. A strong concept of equality can, however, be a practical criterion without being compromised, if it is taken as a direction of movement which is never given up. That is, the equality criterion
of all practices is that they produce more equality than the conditions they started from, with no intention of stopping at the conditions produced. In that sense deconstructing gender is a feasible ethical programme. The criterion of political practice becomes the disconnection of some further area of social practice from the reproduction complex.
The standard argument against the abolition of gender, like the traditional argument against the abolition of class, is that it would result in sameness. Without sex difference we must have grey uniformity – we will all wear boiler suits and have hair just covering the ears. The claim is perhaps effective as rhetoric, but as analysis it is simply misconceived. The logical consequence of deconstruction is open-ended variety. Marcuse’s discussion of ‘polymorphous perversity’ in Eros and Civilization is not a bad summary of this conception, though with rules dismantled nothing can be defined as normative and hence nothing as ‘perverse’. Polymorphous eroticism, perhaps; and also polymorphous labour and polymorphous structures of decision-making.
The cost of the abolition of gender, then, is not sameness, but the loss of certain kinds of structure. A judgement of this conception of liberation turns on whether gender structures have any value. What would be our loss if they went down the gurgle-hole of history?
It has to be said that a great deal of our culture’s energy and beauty, as well as its barbarism, has been created through and around gender relations. A gender-structured culture, and quite specifically sexist sensibilities, have given us Othello, the Ring of the Nibelung and Rubens portraits, to go no further. Much of the fine texture of everyday life, from the feel of our own bodies, through the lore of running a household, to popular songs and everyday humour, are predicated on gender. Our eroticism and our imagination seem to be both limited and fuelled by gender. To discard the whole pattern does seem to imply a way of life that would be seriously impoverished by comparison with the one we know. At best it would be so different from the world of our experience that we can hardly know whether it would be desirable or not.
Yet the constraints that produce this experience, this richness of culture, also produce the massive inequalities, bitter oppressions, violence and potential disaster that are the reasons for the critiques of gender discussed in this book. This raises the question whether
the cultural energy can be disconnected from the structure of inequality, gender not abolished but reconstituted in unmurderous forms.
This implies restructuring rather than destructuring. It presupposes that the elements of gender orders can be reshuffled in some sense. The historical argument of Part II certainly supports this idea, though how far it can be pushed remains open. It implies a process at the collective level like what Piaget calls ‘assimilation’ in the psychology of intelligence, in which the existing materials of a sexist culture are taken up and made over to new purposes. A clear example on a small scale is the appropriation of punk styles by girls mentioned in chapter 6. Piaget defines play as almost pure assimilation, and it might be said that what is involved is a qualitative growth of our collective ability to play.
Playing with gender is not unknown at present. Elements of sexual character, gender practice or sexual ideology are often disconnected and recombined for enjoyment, erotic tension, subversion or convenience. Such games are most developed, perhaps, in sexual subcultures. Peter Ackroyd argues a’ historical connection between drag and the subversion of everyday custom in ‘carnival’. Pat Califia describes how lesbian sado-masochism disconnects power from masculinity for erotic purposes. The erotica of fetishism – rubber, leather and others – systematically ring the changes on gender symbols and relationships. But the same kind of thing happens in less exotic contexts. Mass fashion began playing with gender recombination in the 1930s, and more vigorously in the ‘unisex’ styles of the 1960s. Gender ambiguity has been a theme of rock music presentation from David Bowie and the New York Dolls to Grace Jones and Boy George. In a different vein, the Soviets’ creation of women cosmonauts as media figures is also a game with femininity/masculinity and the sexual division of labour, played for political effect.
However the implication of restructuring is more than the reshuffling of existing practices and symbols, more than the turning of a kaleidoscope; and the ‘game’ analogy only goes so far. When the relations between cultural elements change, new conditions for practice are created and new patterns of practice become possible. Deconstruction implies that the biology of sex would become a minimal presence in social life, a kind of sexual cuisine minceur. The restructuring conception would admit a cultural elaboration of difference and similarity in reproduction, though
with the weight of power, divisions of labour and rules about cathexis lifted off it. The culture could attend to, and celebrate, the nuances and variations of conception, gestation, birth and suckling, growth and ageing.
More, it would be possible to explore and invent many different ways for people to become involved in the process. We have for the most part stuck at two sexes. But early gay theory conceived of a ‘third sex’, and Olaf Stapledon, in one of the first classics of science fiction, imagined human species in the far future with multiple sexes or sub-sexes. These were imagined as biological types; the real possibilities are social. While the ‘third sex’ concept is obsolete, it would be quite possible for gay women and men who do not have children of their own to be routinely involved in the raising of children. This would construct specific patterns of relationship between children and adults, able to complement and enrich the relationships constructed by heterosexual adults. Gary Dowsett points to historical examples of relationships between young children and adults who are not their parents, such as aunts and uncles in the nineteenth-century bourgeois family, as models that could be revived and given new meanings. The symbolic participation of men in birth through the ‘couvade’ is another historical experience that could be given a new meaning. If the inequalities of the sexual division of labour are to be dismantled, men must obviously take up much of the domestic work created by pregnancy, birth and early childcare. The somewhat fragile industrial concept of ‘paternity leave’ is a small beginning with a shift that needs to be given a much stronger social definition.
What would be lost in the restructuring conception of liberation is the necessary connection of the elements of gender relations to institutionalized inequality on one side and biological difference on the other. The depth of this change should not be underestimated. It would be a fundamental departure from a key condition of our present culture, which might be summarized as the sense that gender is fatality.
At present this sense runs through every area of gender practice, penetrating imagination and action alike. The naturalization of gender is the basic mechanism of sexual ideology. A leaden fatality invests the division of labour: ‘woman’s work’, ‘a man’s responsibilities’. A sharper-edged fatality of cathexis is central to Western culture’s treatment of the theme of love, from the Medea to Casablanca. A sense of the psychological fatality of gender is
expressed in the doctrine of sexual character.
Given this, a society that eliminated sex inequality by the recomposition of gender must have a different structure of feeling. Much of the cultural inheritance will then only be recoverable as history, by a shift back into alien frames of thought. Not wholly alien, of course; there will still be love, hatred, jealousy and divided loyalties to keep life interesting. But they will be experienced as relationships between personal projects rather than as fatality. This may mean they have less cultural power. The sense of fatality is not a passive consciousness but a lever on experience and action, a generator (to change the metaphor) of tragedy and exhilaration. If it narrows the world it also makes parts of it more intense.
At that cost, a recomposed human society will gain a degree of practical equality never yet achieved, and an enormous enrichment of its cultural resources. This enrichment is worth spelling out. First there are more players in the game. The ‘equal opportunity’ argument that sex discrimination wastes human resources is, with all its limitations, correct – and can be extended far beyond the issue of employment. Second, the free reworking of gender relations which are at present strongly constrained, and psychological and cultural patterns at present strongly stylized, geometrically increases the possibilities of experience and invention. Hermaphroditism or androgyny is hardly even a beginning. Third, and perhaps most important, the emotional dimensions of life that are opened up for exploration in a sexually equal society are more complex than those of our own society because of the greater possibilities of creation and diversity. Love between equals is no less passionate than love under the star of gender inequality. It will be differently passionate as the business of protection and dependence is dispensed with. These themes in relationships will perhaps be replaced by the excitement of the unknown and unpredictable, and of constructing futures that are genuinely without preordained limits. Love will also have new difficulties, such as problems of constructing new forms of reciprocity and of balancing commitment with personal invention.
These possibilities, though argued here on the basis of change in the structure of gender relations, have other presuppositions. Notably they presuppose a move towards a society free of class and racial inequalities, and a world free of imperialism and the obscene inequalities of global living standards that we have today.
The analysis in this book rejects both the idea that gender is
the basic oppression from which these others spring, so sexual politics must take priority, and the idea that gender inequalities are secondary, so sexual politics can be sidelined while the main event proceeds. The main event, the historic struggle for human equality which is now also a struggle for human survival, is a complex of these constituents. Global inequality is a composed structure in the sense of my argument about gender, on a larger scale again.
This implies that the constituents react on each other. It is therefore not possible to accept the arguments, which seem increasingly popular with radical intellectuals, that fragment radical politics into a plurality of struggles in different sites with no systematic connection to each other. These arguments reflect a well-justified discontent with attempts, for instance by orthodox Marxism, to hegemonize other groups, campaigns and social struggles. But they leave us with no way of making rational choices of strategy based on concepts like crisis tendencies. Movements for social change need strategies if their priorities are not to be set for them by the opposition.
It is possible to imagine a society with sex equality in which other kinds of inequality are far from dead. One thinks of the guardians in Plato’s Republic, or the aristocracy and bureaucracy of Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. Conversely there are socialist Utopias with a highly conventional idea of the naturalness of sexual character, like Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward. The connection between structures of inequality is not a logical connection: theorists who have assumed that have been seduced by another kind of Hegelianism. The connection is empirical and practical. As a matter of fact, the core institutions of the contemporary structure of gender power cannot be torn down without a class politics, because those institutions fuse gender and class domination. As a matter of practice, equality is difficult to contain; the origins of modern feminist radicalism in the New Left show that. The historic association between socialism and feminism, however tense and ragged it has been, expresses a basic truth about the global structure of inequality and what social forces might dismantle it. For all its resistances the British Trades Union Congress did march in support of women’s abortion rights; the Confederation of British Industry did not.
There are other conceivable futures that are a great deal less attractive. Margaret Atwood’s novel about a repressive future,
The Handmaid’s Tale, is a satire but not wildly implausible. A recomposition of gender might well be undertaken as part of an authoritarian politics; the current development of birth technology points in that direction. A recomposition of gender that realizes the possibilities I have discussed, constructing an egalitarian form of life, is only a historical possibility and not a necessary future. If it is to happen then its practice, the projects in which we undertake recomposition, must be part of a politics that addresses oppression in all its forms, that sets no limit to the principle of human equality. In undertaking that we would be shifting the internal limits to our collective ability to shape a future that is physically and environmentally safe, rich in experience and historically open.