Friday, May 2, 2008


(Cartoon by XKCD)

I'm going to reprint here in its entirety a great comment and introduction to another essay posted currently at Utne Reader online. The comment, by Steve Thorngate, is titled "The Perils of Gender Guy". The essay is referenced in his comment but I cannot send you directly to it because it's by subscription only. Hence, I'll let you read someone else's take on it.

"If you spend much time in office meetings or college classrooms, you’ve likely run into Gender Guy. He’s an alpha male and a liberal, and he likes to talk about gender issues—in the workplace, in society, in the book you’re reading, wherever. He pontificates and patronizes; he interrupts and shouts down. He makes the rest of the room endure his pissing matches with men less enlightened, or with those who share his general opinions but oblige his desire to quibble over details, loudly and at length.

"Gender Guy’s assumed expertise might come from overly simplified connections he makes between gender and race, or class, or sexual identity, or religion. It might be based on the fact that, as an intelligent and well-spoken man, he’s by definition an expert on everything. Or perhaps he thinks he understands gender because the word—unlike, say, “women”—suggests a subject that deals not with one gender’s concrete realities so much as, more abstractly, with the relationship between two.

"This last point in particular interests historian Alice Kessler-Harris. Writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Kessler-Harris considers the consequences for her own discipline when, starting in the early 1990s, gender history began to take over the ground previously held by women’s history (subscription required). She allows that “gender is a tempting and powerful framework”:

"Far more inclusive than the category of women, [gender] raises questions not so much about what women did or did not do, but about how the organization or relationships between men and women established priorities and motivates social and political action. While the history of women can be accused of lacking objectivity—of having a feminist purpose—that of gender suggests a more distanced stance… The idea of “gender” frees young scholars (male and female) to seek out the ways that historical change is related to the shape and deployment of male/female relations.

"And yet, something is lost:

"Gender obscures as much as it reveals… [I suspect] that in seeing the experiences of men and women as relational, we overlook the particular ways in which women—immigrants, African-Americans, Asians, Chicanas—engaged their worlds… We lose the power of the individual to shed a different light—sometimes a liminal light—on historical processes.

"In short, Kessler-Harris worries that abstracting “women” into “gender” can have the effect of silencing the voices of actual women—a danger not limited to the rarefied world of historians. The tension between analyzing gender relations and highlighting female voices is an old one, and it’s as broadly relevant as ever. While Gender Guy’s opinions may be impeccably feminist, how helpful is this if the abstraction “gender” gives him cover to go on and on, preventing the women in the room from getting a word in?"

(more after the fold)


The replacement of women's studies and women's issues with "gender" studies did not occur in a vacuum. It began during the Reagan years, and has accelerated during the Bush years. These two decades are marked by a reframing of public discourse using extremely conservative language and ideology; the increased conflation of masculinity with leadership and power; the removal of a healthy barrier between religion and government; flagrant disregard for our basic Constitutional principles; dismantling of most gains made by racial minorities and an appeal to covert and overt racist sentiment in the name of nationalism; a horrific widening of the gap between rich and poor, and virtual elimination of America's middle class; increased assaults on the rights of women and disabled people to control their own bodies; an explosion of pornography; unbelievably swift and total destruction of our personal privacy; and the conversion of our culture to one which overwhelmingly supports the making of (and profiting of by the few) from war.

Feminism, as it was defined by women (not necessarily "gender studies" scholars), has stood in opposition to all of these developments. I simply don't think it is coincidence that the effort to unroof and name our identities as women (raised with female conditioning) has been shackled at the same exact time masculinity- and male-conditioned behaviors have raged out of control.

Conservative tactics used to hijack rational conversation and logical thought include ridicule, valuing emotionality over justice, and (especially relevant here) refusing to acknowledge inherent, institutional power imbalances. Hence, we have two generations now who have difficulty understanding that racism cannot "flow both directions", that our society is profoundly class-stratified and absent of class mobility except for the publicized few, or that sexism does NOT disenfranchise and stunt the economic survival of men and women equally.

In some allegedly feminist circles, it's considered bad form to claim the identity woman, to talk about personal female experience such as girlhood, menstruation, pregnancy and mothering, or to hold any individual accountable for anti-woman behavior, because this so-called "essentialism" somehow discounts the reality of those who don't share it. It's a conservative fallacy, the idea that those who do not control the institutions and systems of oppression are still responsible for the feelings of those who are not the primary targets of a particular oppression. This confusion has begun to spread into the realms of thinking about race as well: Not just denial of white privilege, or blinding derangement about the dominance of white identity, but an actual reaction of claiming divisiveness and "hurt feelings" when racism is named by people of color and their allies.

Identity politics are not a final stage of liberation, but understanding the world view (complete with lies) that we were indoctrinated with, despite our most ardents efforts, from the moment of birth and spending the DECADES necessary to unravel the web of misinformation is not a stage we can hopscotch over with credit awarded for good intentions and an outward makeover.

As Adrienne Rich warned us at the beginning of this dim age of backlash:

"Truthfulness anywhere means a heightened complexity. But it is a movement into evolution. Women are only beginning to uncover our own truths; many of us would be grateful for some rest in that struggle, would be glad iust to lie down with the sherds we have painfully unearthed, and be satisfied with those. The politics worth having, the relationships worth having, demand that we delve still deeper."

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