Category What is Gender?

Beyond the linguistic turn

‘Masculine’ and ‘feminine’ are not clear and fixed opposing identities based on biological sex but shifting categories, defined in relationship to each other, that order social relations. To think thus is to contemplate the possibilities and promise of causing ‘gender trouble’ (Butler, 1990). Sex/gender may bring us into being as individuals of whom others can make sense, but if our very embodiment is fashioned around social fictions about what it means to be feminine or masculine, then those embodied ways of being are open to change. However, there are problems in considering how such change is possible especially because the sex/gender divide is powerfully regulated by the idea that heteronorma – tivity is the ‘natural’ and necessary foundation of human societies. Butler (1993: x) does not wish to suggest that individuals can voluntarily select how they do their gender. In fact she does not want to think about people doing gender, but about how gender as a system of meanings constitutes us as feminine or masculine individuals. In order to not make

this seem overly deterministic, she conceives of gender as a masquerade involving the citation of gender norms in line with heterosexual imper­atives. It is possible to think of this as a collective and relational exercise (see Connell, 1995; 2002), rather than a matter of individuals doing or performing gender.

Any collective or relational situation is basically constituted by individuals presenting themselves to and judging others in gendered ways (for example, Goffman, 1979; West and Zimmerman, 1987). The question is: where does gender come from? Symbolic interactionists tend to see gender as a pre-existing role, or set of scripts, that we perform, with slight variations. They note, but do not challenge, social prescriptions that those thought to be of the female sex will behave in a feminine manner and that ‘males’ will do masculinity. What Butler pro­poses is that it is possible to much more radically detach femininity from femaleness and masculinity from maleness. Other queer theorists (see Jagose, 1996) agree that it is possible to create much more fluid gender identities that challenge the very heterosexual distinction between ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ and highlight that sex is constructed as a binary but does not always exist as either female or maleness. In theory this seems possible, but many examples of people who cause ‘gender trouble’, such as drag queens, transvestites, and some transsexuals, do not seem to radically call into question what it means to be feminine or masculine, instead reinforcing quite conservative ideas about how to do gender (Garfinkel, 1967; Kessler and McKenna, 1978; Jeffreys, 1996; Seidman, 1994). Perhaps theorists need to think of better examples, returning for instance to look further at intersex individuals (see Fausto – Sterling, 2002b; Hird, 2004) and to what extent it is possible for them to occupy a ‘no-man’s’ (sic) land between the gender categories. But intellectual and political challenges remain.

As an intellectual exercise much current thinking on gender contin­ues to worry away at the key questions dealt with in this book. What relationship, if any, is there between bodies and gender? To what extent are individuals gendered by the economic and social structures within which they live and with what results? What level of control, or choice, do people have about how they express gender? And crucially, why does being feminine continue to mean being likely to share less in the rewards and recognition society offers?

As a political exercise the challenge of some of the new thinking on gender is that it questions the very relevance of gender as a category for organizing social life. On the one hand this offers extremely radical opportunities to abolish binary distinctions between feminine and mas­culine, and to live out our lives in a freer expression of ourselves and our desires for other human beings. On the other hand, there are concerns that to disregard gender dichotomy will merely institute ways of being in which the feminine might disappear (Braidotti, 2001).The concern is that insisting on the artificiality of gender dichotomies is important, but can mean that attention strays from the material and embodied effects those dichotomies have on women’s and men’s lives (Howson, 2005).

Gender is a product of material conditions but is also a sometimes habituated, sometimes reflexive practice in which people engage in relation with each other. Symbolic interactionism provides a relational account of how embodiment is formed and ‘done’ in relation to others. Feminist appropriations of Bourdieu offer explanation of the importance of both material (as in economic) as well as symbolic processes in the social distinction of some kinds of bodies as more worthy of recognition. Bodies signify a range of tastes and tastes are exercized around different types of bodies. A taste for particular types of feminine or masculine bodies is exercized in different social fields, according to hierarchies of taste that usually privilege middle class forms of masculinity. However, there are questions about whether it is possible or desirable to talk about different ‘tastes’ without considering some to be ‘better’ than others. Although dismantling sexist, racist and classist valuations of embodiment may be liberating, declaring all tastes equally good may have its problems. Where does this leave us if, for example, we want to criticize an older man’s ‘taste’ for young girls? Conceptualizing sex/gender/sexuality as a ‘taste’ might only be fruitful if we consider to what extent tastes for particular forms of embodiment are likely to challenge sedimented patterns of domination which reinforce patriarchy and make feminine embodiment fraught with difficulties.

Gendered bodies are not simply the object of others’‘tastes’, but the instrument via which individuals experience and practice tastes. Gendered embodiment is the ingrained material and symbolic expression of tastes. Gender is an embodied practice done in relation to others, and done to us by others. We constantly shift our embodied doing of gender in accordance not only with structural demands, but with our imaginings of what ‘others’ expect. Structures regulate individuals according to gender, pushing them into manly sports or womanly careers, domestic caring or goal-oriented success in the public world. Yet not all men play rugby and not all women aspire to be domestic goddesses. Individuals engage with structures and with social expectations as they are represented via linguistic and non-linguistic communication with others (see Martin, 2003). Decisions are made about how to do gender within the constraints of a particular situation. There are limits on our freedom to ‘do’ gender in any way that takes our fancy, and the less privilege we have in terms of class and age and ethnic origin, the more constrained our choices are likely to be. When faced with severe limits and with constant reminders that others do not value them, those less privileged within hierarchies of gender (and class, ethnicity and more) may feel humiliated, but they may also feel angry. And it is this emotional reaction — both a response to, and located within, gendered embodiment — that offers the possibility of change. It does not have to be like this. There is no natural order that must be maintained. We have made gender and the inequalities that attend it and therefore it can be remade. There is not some utopian endpoint in which women and men will no longer be unequal or no longer even exist as categories. There is simply an ongo­ing struggle to relate to each other in more respectful ways. But this is a struggle worth getting up for in the mornings.

uthorised distribution forbidden.

Women, race and class

It might now be possible, due to their greater presence in the paid workforce, to categorize most women’s class on the basis of their occupation as individuals. However, to do this would be to ignore the effects that their gender has on the wages and status accorded to women’s paid work. In addition such an approach to class does not consider the role played by women’s unpaid work in reproducing gender and class inequalities. In this regard Delphy’s (1984) insistence that class is a relation within the domestic mode of production is a useful one. This can

help us to understand patriarchy as a system in which we are all caught up, but that privileges men more than women. The work women do without payment in loving and caring for others, much as it may have rewards of its own, is exploited in ways that have many implications for how women lead their lives — and what else they are able to achieve. However, to suggest that women are best thought of as a class, exploited by men, also has limitations. It means that class substitutes for gender as a term, because gender is thought to remain too closely tied to notions of a ‘natural’ division between the sexes. But within sociology the term gender was introduced to refer to socially created inequalities between ‘women’ and ‘men’. Seeing women as a class in relation to men makes inequalities within genders difficult to deal with.

Most women, whatever their ethnicity or sexual orientation, share a similar position within the domestic mode of production, but that mode (as Delphy, 1984, acknowledges) does not account for all aspects of women’s oppression. Also necessary is an appreciation of how a global capitalist mode of production emerged, and to what extent or in what ways that is related to the domestic mode. The racial and gendered inequalities arising from that global system, forged by past (and continuing) imperialist ventures have begun to be explored, but the relationship to the domestic has been less so (though see Ehrenrich and Hochschild, 2003; Mies, 1982). The following are tentative suggestions for ways forward in thinking about gender, and they chart a rather different path to the one proposed by most post-structuralist and/or meaning focused accounts of gender.

Racing gender

Racial inequalities, and the way in which they are gendered, are largely a product of a world history which saw the first industrialized nations go forth to appropriate the land and resources of people on other con­tinents. Colonization was an economic process but was justified by ideas that represented whiteness and white ways of doing things as superior. White women may have been central in attempts to ‘civilize the natives’, attempts that assumed that native women would be better off if they turned away from traditional cultures. However ‘traditional’ cultures may have offered women more status and autonomy than the Western cultures they were being exhorted to accept (Etienne and Leacock, 1980). Whatever the state of gender relations pre-contact, it is certainly the case that colonization reshaped these relations on a global scale. Most of those theorizing the gendering of racial inequalities within a global framework have rejected modernization theory’s ‘West is best’ model of economic development. Feminist economists have interrogated systems of national accounting and found them neglectful of women’s contributions (Beneria, see for example, 1995; Waring, 1999/1986). Other feminists (for example, Mies, 1982) have drawn on dependency and world systems theory to argue that capitalist patriarchy in the West is maintained by exploiting the labour of Third World women. However, it has been noted that dependency theory tends to see women as trapped within the domestic sphere and its ‘traditional’ practices, and therefore as victims within patriarchal households rather than as potential revolutionaries. More questions need to be asked about the complex role women and the household play within ‘dependent’ nations (Scott, 1995). This requires consideration of colonization as both an economic and a cultural process, concerned with both the distribution of resources and the flow of meanings.

Dominant meanings around colonialism remain influential in understanding how gender and race are intertwined. Views of non-white peoples as primitive, exotic, and/or highly sexual were used to justify the invasion of their lands, the devaluing of their existing ways of doing gender, and the conquest of indigenous women. Women have been central in resisting these views and indeed in asserting the rights of indigenous and previously enslaved peoples (see hooks, 1992; Smith, 1999; Wollacott, 2006). Such processes of decolonization are ongoing and need to include the problematizing of whiteness and all the privileges attached (Bonnett, 2000; hooks, 1992; Spivak, 1990). Further work is needed to see how class inequalities are interwoven with those around gender and ‘race’, but some brief suggestions can be made.

Classing gender

Within feminist sociology there are three major approaches to under­standing the links between class and gender; one criticizes standard classifications of class (Acker, 1998/1973), another extends materialist visions to encompass gender (for example, Delphy and Leonard, 1992), and the third turns to discourse and culture (for example, Skeggs, 1997). French Materialist feminists, most especially Christine Delphy, offer a partial turn to culture in the way they develop Marx’s ideas (Jackson, 1998b). Delphy concentrates on explaining the domestic mode of production as a crucial concept in understanding women’s subordination. This is a mode which excludes women and the household tasks they perform from the market and exclusion from the market means that housework is unpaid. The unpaid nature of household labour also means that women cannot consume when and as they choose. Women are additionally disadvantaged because the domestic mode of production is also a mode of circulation in which wealth is conventionally passed to oldest sons, reproducing women as non-possessors. This does not con­sider all areas in which women are constrained, neglecting violence and sexuality, for example, but Delphy (1984) has acknowledged this.

Without some understanding of the operation of ideology or discourse, it remains difficult to explain why it is women who are exploited within the domestic mode of production. And yet the notion of ideology was often rather underdeveloped within materialist and radical approaches to gender. Contemporary accounts of how gender inequalities are classed use Bourdieu in promising ways to elaborate how meanings make class distinctions in gendered ways that have real effects (see Adkins and Skeggs, 2004; Duggins and Pudsey, 2006).They employ his concepts of capital and habitus to examine class as specific sets of ingrained ways of thinking and being, played out in gendered ways within particular social worlds or fields (for example, Reay, 1998; Skeggs, 1997; 2004; 2005). In addition Adkins can be used to consider how it is that a ‘taste’ for certain kinds of workers to do particular jobs helps explain why women’s labour is exploited in specific ways within capitalist patriarchy. It is through constant battles to be deemed respectable that class distinc­tions operate for working class women, who strive for some of the markers of middle class femininity (such as caring skills or elegant clothes) in the hope that they might be able to convert any limited cultural capital they may gain into economic capital. Even though this may be unlikely, they however have to maintain the struggle in order to ensure their social position does not worsen. This struggle is one with considerable emotional costs (Reay, 2004; Skeggs, 1997; 2005).

What could be clearer is how it is that some individuals are able to overcome or relearn their habitus sufficiently to accrue various forms of capital sufficient to gain social mobility. This might be better understood if we appreciate that it is possible to ‘move’ the kinds of sedimented power relations that Bourdieu and feminist followers describe, and that emotions — especially anger — may play a part (Holmes, 2004). If such shifts towards respect for diversity are to be more than utopian fantasies they require an understanding of how gender intersects with other forms of inequality and, most importantly, how it intertwines with racial inequalities.

Gender as politics

Second-wave feminism continued the fight against material inequalities but offered a much more radical challenge to the entire liberal democratic political system and to ideas about womanhood. Second-wave feminists questioned divisions between private and public spheres, highlighted the political nature of relations between women and men, experimented with new political processes and re-wrote political agendas to attend to issues they thought central to women (Holmes, 1999).All types of relationships with men were subject to analysis, but there was considerable attention to sexuality and the ways in which heterosexism contributed to the reproduction of conservative gender roles thought to constrain women. And although there were debates and disagreements among different groups of feminists such as lesbians and heterosexuals, this does not mean that the movement fell apart due to in-fighting. The movement was an amazing collection of women of different classes, ethnic groups, ages, sexualities and so on. White middle class educated women tended to be the most dominant voice in that movement but black working class, lesbian and other groups were always there asking questions about whose interests were being forwarded (Holmes, 2004).

The question of whether women, in all their diversity, can share political interests seems largely — but not entirely — to have been answered in the negative. Women, very broadly speaking, do still share a disadvantaged social position relative to men (see Chapter 1) and are still subject to violence which is directed against them specifically as women (Dobash and Dobash, 1992; Kelly, 1988). However, there are huge differences between women; between women in the First and Third Worlds, or between poor black women in America or Britain in relation to their white middle class peers. As a political movement, feminism has continued to struggle with identity politics and some of the problems it involves were highlighted when certain groups of men began to insist that there were costs associated with being masculine. Searching for the ‘real’ man within became a popular project for middle class men in the 1980s, partly as an individualistic response to the perceived threat to their

privilege that feminism posed (Connell, 1995; Messner, 1997). More pro-feminist versions of masculinity politics tended to stress the need for both women and men to be liberated from repressive traditional gender roles, or the need to refuse to be a man within the hegemonic terms proscribed (Connell, 1995; Stoltenberg, 2000a/1989). From this and feminist questionings of the gender order emerged queer politics (see Chapter 4; Jagose, 1996; Seidman, 1996), which argued the need radically to reconfigure the gender order via freeing individual desires and making gender a matter of fluid choice rather than fixed ascription. Yet this is unlikely to alter significantly the realities of most of the population. Questions arose about the continued relevance of feminist politics in a world where identities are supposedly no longer thought stable and yet divisions around religion and culture are becoming the source of major global conflicts. It is uncertain whether these conflicts are economically (i. e. resource seeking) rather than culturally or religiously motivated, and what their effects will be on local and global gender relations. Yet feminists maintain alliances, sometimes across difficult real and imagined borders, and they and pro-feminist men continue to attempt to bring greater control over their lives to more of the world’s women. At the same time differences are not ignored and the intricate tangle of gender with other forms of inequality is the subject of continued political and intellectual scrutiny. The engagement of class with gender has been particularly important within feminist sociology.

Back to (gendered) bodies

Reintroducing the body has been important for understanding the relationship between sex and gender and sexuality. They fall into two categories: those who theorize the body as a social object and those who attempt to embody social theory. The latter are typically feminist sociologists whose work does not feature as centrally within the sociology of the body as it perhaps should (Howson, 2005). The key tension in sociologically oriented work on the body centres around the problem of to what extent (gendered) bodies are natural entities with some sort of fundamental essence and to what extent they are endlessly malleable products of social life and of discourse. The point of the sociology of gender initially was to highlight social construction in order to challenge arguments that gender inequalities were the inevitable result of ‘natural’ differences between the sexes. The result of this was a bracketing off of the body, despite the influence of second-wave feminism, which paid considerable attention to how women experienced their bodies within patriarchy. In setting aside the importance of bodies within social life, much thinking about gender fell foul of the very dualistic principles that relegated women to the status of unreasonable prisoners of nature because of their supposed inability to transcend their messy bodies (see Beauvoir, 1988/1949; Bordo, 1987). It also reinforced patriarchal power, which was premised on notions of men as exercising cognitive control free from bodily distractions.

The masculine privilege resultant from denying embodiment, however, has not been equally available to all men and there have been recent attempts to characterize hierarchies of masculine embodiment which privilege white middle class men’s embodiment as under rational control (Connell, 1995; Donaldson, 1991; Hall, 1997; Morgan, 1993). However, following Foucault, many feminists have reiterated that new forms of power/knowledge have subjected women to greater surveillance and regulation, with consequences for their autonomy (see Howson, 2005).Yet, corporeal feminism in particular has striven to see embodiment as not entirely reducible to the social (see Grosz, 1994).The strong influence of psychoanalysis within this approach causes an inability to see beyond the development of non-dysfunctional embodied selfhood as a struggle with inevitable gender hierarchies. Phenomenology has more fruitfully explored how bodies are experienced and how the social becomes ingrained or habituated within bodies. The limitations of a feminine gendered habitus can be convincingly set out via explorations of the specific

techniques of the body (for example, Young, 1990) as they are organized around related formations such as class (Skeggs, 1997).Yet for sociologists actual bodies often disappear into abstractions as they revert to their disci­plinary reflex of trying to situate those embodied experiences within structural analyses (Howson and Inglis, 2001).The politics of gender has remained central in teasing out connections between the individual and social structure.

Mapping gender theories

A post-structuralist attention to meanings had challenged structuralism’s search for underlying frameworks which might explain gender oppression. Post-structuralism questions binary systems of classification which insist gender must be fixed as either feminine or masculine. In contrast to structuralism it proposes that gender has no ‘real’ basis as part of individuals and their bodies, but that gender differences are created by language. However, these themes have emerged, albeit in slightly different guise, within second-wave feminism where both material inequalities and the production of meanings around difference were of concern. Debates about equality or difference were used strategically to fulfil particular goals (Bacchi, 1990).The difficulties involved in these debates were partly responsible for prompting an intellectual and political shift away from the complexities of materially based gender inequalities towards an interest in discourse and ‘texts’. The cultural turn saw language, meaning and representation become the core concerns in examining gender.

The cultural turn offers new appreciations of the agency or choices we are able to exercize in regard to gendering processes. However, it leaves us with questions about to what extent social structures continue to impose constraints on how we are gendered and how we do gender. Problems remain in using more language based analyses to understand such issues as gendered power relations (Roseneil, 1995) and gendered embodiment (Howson, 2005).

Doing gender and having it done to us

To appreciate agency as a factor required a shift from looking at how we become gendered to how we do gender. To say that gender is something we ‘do’ can mean that we perform it like a role in a play (for example, Goffman, 1979), or it is accomplished through the ongoing work we do in interaction with others (see West and Zimmerman, 1987). How peo­ple do gender and how it is done to them emerges within particular social situations in which judgements are always being made about what is ‘properly’ feminine and masculine in those situations (see Garfinkel, 1967). There is considerable effort, or work, involved in this ongoing management of our actions in relation to gender. The trick is to try and make it look effortless, to make it look ‘natural’ (Goffman, 1979; Tyler and Abbott, 1998;West and Zimmerman, 1987).

Judith Butler’s work (for example, 1990) also emphasizes the way in which gender is a masquerade — the point of which is to make it look natural. Butler, however, is trying to argue that gender is not something we do, but rather that gender produces us. It is almost impossible to make sense of anyone without thinking of them as gendered — even if we decide that a man is rather ‘feminine’. So doing gender is not optional, but gender does us; and therefore understanding gender is crucial to understanding how the world works and how societies could be organized differently. Gender theorists take up these challenges.


When the sociology of gender emerged as a specific field in the 1970s the concern was to show any differences that do exist between the sexes to be exaggerated or indeed socially constructed. The claim that men and women are simply ‘naturally’ different was called into question by

examining how understandings of those differences vary across cultures and change throughout history. Indeed the interpretation of biology is something that is subject to social and historical change, as evidenced by the shift within Western science from a one – to a two-sex model of ifference (Laqueur, 1990). However, there are bodies that cannot be definitively classified as either ‘male’ or ‘female’ and these intersex people throw light on the social aspects of sexual classifications (Fausto-Sterling, 2002a; 2002b; Hird, 2004; Kessler and McKenna, 1978). Any perceived differences in ways of using bodies and minds are heavily shaped by the way people live. A Chinese peasant woman used to carrying heavy loads, for example, is likely to be physically stronger than a young American man who spends all day in front of the television and his computer. And how social meanings attached to sexual difference contribute to the formation of gender identities has been usefully explored by psychoanalysis. However, the way psychoanalysis characterizes feminine identity as precarious and subordinate, and based on understanding female biology as lack, is not always helpful in trying to imagine a more egalitarian gender order.

The problem with many of the attempts of social scientists and humanities scholars to examine ‘scientific’ claims about ‘sex’ is that most have a limited understanding of biological and related sciences. Scientists are often criticized by social scientists for ignoring factors that are not measurable within their discipline. For example, geneticists, look at the potentials certain genes contain, but cannot measure the effects of social factors on whether or not these potentials develop. Of course, good social scientists are not suggesting that genetics or biology definitely have no importance, they are merely illustrating that social environment plays a major part in determining our actions. The ways in which physical bodies and their (social) environment are entwined are extremely complex. Nevertheless attempts to engage with natural science understandings of differences between women and men are crucial because of the way in which commonsense ideas are usually based on misinterpretations of that science. For sociologists it is crucial to clarify what kind of scientific information actually exists about how men and women differ, and to analyze the social factors affecting how that information is interpreted. Once we establish that men and women are not simply born, we can begin to examine how they are socially made and what part individuals play in that making.