As radical theories of gender multiplied and divided, and strategies for change became more sophisticated and controversial, a counter – current of reaction also gained strength. Its highlights included the rise of the anti-abortion movement in the 1970s, the narrow defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment in the United States, the squeeze on the welfare state (and therefore services to women) in most capitalist countries, and the international moral panic created around AIDS in the 1980s.

The theoretical expression of this movement has been patchy. Its doctrine is most often religious dogma, or a decayed Darwinism asserting that men’s and women’s conventional roles reflect biological necessity and that social variation from this must be pathological. The more sophisticated forms of biological reductionism, like Steven Goldberg’s The Inevitability of Patriarchy, appeal to genetic or hormonal differences between women and men – in Goldberg’s case to explain an ‘aggression advantage’ men have over women, which in turn explains their social positions.

Biological reductionism has been a popular genre in the age of the territorial imperative, the nakecTape_and the rise of ‘sociobiol – ogy’; but it was not an adequate response to radical arguments {Ditched at the level of the social. Conservatism too was obliged to develop a social theory. In texts like the American historian Peter Stearns’s Be a Man! the emphasis is on social tradition and civility: the nuclear family, somewhat idealized, becomes the basis of a civilized and equable way of life. Compared with this urbane conservatism a more urgent note is struck by the New Right theorist George Gilder. In Sexual Suicide Gilder develops an analysis of the mother-child bond as the basic social linkage, which leaves men (as fathers) floating loose. The family as an institution is essential to prevent the destruction of social order by unbound men; and society must provide the economic and managerial roles for men. Anti-feminist conclusions are thus deduced from a strictly social analysis. There is an echo of Parsons’s functionalism in this argument; as in the neo-conservative economists who explain the conventional family as the outcome of choices by two rational individuals each bent on maximizing their own welfare.

The state of the field in the mid-1980s is a paradox. The impulse of the last two decades has produced a mass of factual research and a lively theoretical debate, including some theorizing of very high quality indeed. It is difficult to think of any other field of the social sciences where work as penetrating and original has been going on. Yet as the social theory of gender has blossomed, the differences between lines of thought have become more distinct, the conceptual and political distances greater. Current theories of gender are not converging. Rather they present incompatible accounts of the issues, sometimes by marking off separate parts of the field. To move on, it would seem, it is necessary to move back, to reconsider the foundations of the theories now on offer. This is the business of the next chapter.


The account in this chapter has been put together from a great many sources; even so I am conscious of its tentative and preliminary character. The main primary sources are the books and papers mentioned in the text. For discussion and interpretation see the following: