The argument so far has traced the domain of the social theory of gender and its gradual emergence in Western social thought. I have argued that this theory is autonomous: it cannot derive its logic from a source outside itself, whether natural difference, biological reproduction, the functional needs of society or the imperatives of social reproduction. An adequate theory of gender requires a theory of social structure much stronger than the implicit voluntarism of role theory. But it also needs a concept of structure that can recognize the complexities bulldozed by categoricalism, and give some grip on the historical dynamic of gender.

Chapter 3 proposed that such a theory has already begun to emerge. Chapter 4 showed how it might deal with the lion in the path of social theories of gender, the question of natural difference. The next three chapters attempt to show what the heartland of such a theory, the account of gender as a social structure, might look like.

There is no need to search for new a priori bases. The starting – points are at hand in the intuitive notions of social structure found in role theory and categoricalism. To develop them in a way that meets the criteria just stated requires three steps. First, it is necessary to modify the underlying concept of ‘structure’ in the light of recent developments in the theory of practice. Second, the concept of a single structure of gender relations must be broken down into component structures or substructures. Third, it is necessary to distinguish between the kind of structural analysis that produces concepts like the ‘sexual division of labour’ (which I will call structural models) and the kind that produces concepts like the ‘gender order’ (which I will call structural inventories).

The rest of this chapter explains these steps and sketches a three-part structural model of gender relations. Chapter 6 discusses structural inventories at two levels: the gender order of the whole society and the gender regimes of particular institutions. Chapter 7 explores the historical dynamic of gender relations and the crisis tendencies of the contemporary gender order.