domingo, 22 de julho de 2007

GENDER AS IDENTITY

What Kind of women? What kind of men?

by

Patrícia Lança

Introduction

In no other area have traditional ideas been so challenged in recent years as in that of the relationship between the sexes and the way men and women see themselves and each other. In western universities and the forums of some international organizations a paradigm as old as the human species is being questioned and strange new patterns adumbrated. Never before have these subjects been so much discussed, studied, written up, campaigned about and legislated on as in the last three decades. Until very recently sexual identity and a broad typology of character for men on the one hand and women on the other have been thought to be fixed and unalterable. How sexual identity defined a person was seen as of a quite different order from other defining characteristics of human beings such as class, religion, nationality and ethnicity. And so it still is—except by proponents of what are known as ‘gender theory’ and its close relative, ‘queer theory’.

The apparent immutability of sexual identity is still the rule for the vast majority of human-kind and it is doubtful whether even in modern societies most people are likely to have had their fundamental perceptions changed by such theories. The fact that women have risen in recent years to high positions in the State has very little to do with the matter. History is, after all, peppered with female figures who have exercised real power and this has never been a factor in changing perceptions about the respective vocations and nature of ordinary men and women. What has indeed been changing is the attitude of members of both sexes to the participation of women in economic and public life.

Despite women’s emancipation in the industrialized countries, the majority of people still seem to have little doubt that most men will become fathers and most women mothers and that children are best raised in families. Or the corollary that mothers are women and fathers are men. There is, however, growing public concern over some recent social trends, most evident in the English-speaking world and Scandinavian countries, which seem to indicate increasing family breakdown. Working wives and mothers, full citizenship rights for women, easy divorce and abortion and a growing number of women in leading positions in public and private administration have certainly had familial and wider social repercussions. It is therefore appropriate to examine the position of ‘gender theorists’ in relation to these questions.

It might be useful first to look at sexual identity and character in three phases: before women’s emancipation; secondly, during that process; and thirdly the situation as it exists today. This examination requires to be undertaken in a spirit of realism rather than with a mind-set bent on seeking evidence of class oppression and the alleged predisposition of men to dominate and exploit women. What follows is necessarily schematic and concerned rather with the lives of ordinary people than with the particularities in habit and outlook of tiny élites.

The sexes before modernization

Before the onset of modernization it was impossible for women to be other than dependent upon men. This fact requires brief elaboration because its implications are overlooked, denied or misinterpreted by ‘gender theory’ whose tenets are notable for lack of empathy with the main features of human history and of compassion for its essentially tragic content.

In traditional agrarian societies average life-expectancy was around forty years, about half what it is today. High mortality meant that a high birth rate was essential for a community’s survival, hence large families were very desirable. Most females were expected to marry as soon as they reached puberty and, if they were reasonably healthy and their husbands were not absent from home, the natural course was for women to conceive and give birth almost every year. Access to and knowledge of birth-control was unsought and therefore almost unknown. All but rich women, who could afford wet nurses, had to breast-feed their babies. Human beings of both sexes toiled from dawn to dusk in order to keep alive. Nearly everybody, including members of ruling castes, was illiterate. Only a few belonged to the class of clerics and literati who could cultivate things of the mind. There was scant leisure for the masses. Public order and security in face of marauders and the elements were fragile. In such circumstances the very survival of humanity meant that women and children required protection. This requirement has been sacralized by religion and enshrined in law. It is here that we must seek the origin of the family and not in what Engels called ‘the overthrow of mother-right’ and ‘…the first class oppression… of the female sex by the male.’1

Of course women suffered from the necessarily subordinate position that dependence implies. But men suffered too. They frequently had to sacrifice life and limb in defence of their homes and families. Their incentive and reward were the honour and glory associated with the valour demanded of the ‘stronger sex’. Women brought up their sons in the cult of courage and duty to the family. It can well be argued that as the first educators and socializers of children during their long infancy women were in fact the ones who imposed the rules. These were frequently broken. Invading and conquering armies often put entire communities to the sword. But even in such atrocious cases, history tells us that the men were the first victims and women’s lives were often spared even if their destiny was to be carried off into slavery.

Beliefs about some golden age in palaeolithic times when people lived peacefully together in harmonious matriarchy have dubious foundation. It has, indeed, been claimed, with better evidence, that hardly any human remains have been found in prehistoric burial grounds that did not show signs of their original possessors having met with violent deaths.

Hence it is not surprising that in pre-modern times attitudes to sexuality were quite different from those current in our affluent, medicated and pleasure-loving societies. Whatever cults of eroticism may have existed among tiny ruling élites, or dionysiac orgies and fertility festivals ritually indulged in by the masses of lowly folk, peasant women could do no other than look on sexual activity as something to be strictly regulated. Pregnancy and childbirth were risk-laden enterprises. Perhaps some sturdy peasant girls might give birth painlessly in the fields and then happily carry on with their work. But for very many this was not the case. Under-nourishment and disease were widespread and death in childbirth was common. So, too, after the fifteenth century was syphilis. No wonder then that families reared daughters in the cult of pre-marital virginity and fidelity in marriage. Men did not have to impose the idea of sexual sin on women. Nature usually provided sanctions enough. To say this is not to imply that society generally did not reinforce these sanctions by custom and by law. Young people’s strong instinctual urges had to be contained by the older and wiser who knew the dangers involved.

Women taken in adultery have been stoned to death in some societies. Clitoridectomy still persists in certain parts of the world. Chastity belts are said to have been forced on medieval ladies. Chinese upper-class women had their feet bound and whether this was for aesthetic reasons or originally to prevent them straying is open to question. Barbarous customs indeed! As were those of the castration of men to produce guards and choristers. Until the advent of Enlightenment humanism everybody, male and female, even in Christian lands, took barbaric practices for granted. People were hanged, drawn and quartered and burned at the stake—men in far greater numbers than women—and multitudes of both sexes and all ages flocked avidly to view these horrible spectacles as lately as the eighteenth century, often taking picnic baskets along with them to enjoy the show. To maintain a sense of proportion, and of shame, we should also not forget that our own ‘enlightened’ twentieth century has been a time of periodic mass slaughter of both sexes even in the most advanced countries. So it is quite simply not true that cruelty, labour or the regulation of sexual activity were inventions of the post-Enlightenment bourgeoisie composed of ‘white European males.’

At certain times in history physically defective and girl babies were ruthlessly eliminated. Male children have been generally regarded as more desirable than female children but not merely out of some perverse masculine preference. It has been said that this is yet one more example of patriarchal oppression of the female sex. However, it has more to do with the fact that, until very recently, both foetal and infant mortality in males has been significantly higher than in females as any study of sex ratios in this area demonstrates. So boy babies were, and in most parts of the world still are, especially precious. Medical science, hygiene and better nourishment have caused infant mortality to drop to almost negligible levels in the industrially advanced world. Because nature provides for more males to be conceived, more boys than girls are now being born and reaching adulthood—a historically unique phenomenon.

People generally did not question their sexual identity or the rules concerning marriage and the family that prevailed in their respective cultures. Within Christian and certain other societies, clerical celibacy and the monastic life have been practised by a minority and in some places honoured more than marriage. Chastity, it was said, was a higher state but monasticism may well have been as much a matter of ecclesiastical economics as of virtue. It certainly had nothing to do with sexual identity. The choice of celibacy, involving discipline and self-sacrifice, was rather a matter of character. Joan of Arc may have been a warrior but she never claimed to be other than a woman.

It should also be added that, however immutable seemed the sexual identity of men and women, character and behaviour in terms of sexual morals was not uniform either in time or place. There were periods of dissoluteness and moral breakdown as well as periods of reform, of which the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation are the most memorable examples. Similarly with Islam whose history is punctuated by revolts against what purist Moslems have regarded as relapses from the ideals of its original teachings.

Sexual identity and the onset of modernity

One of the first recorded manifestos in favour of female equality was that of Olympe de Gouges, a Frenchwoman who proclaimed her indignation at the time of the French Revolution over the treatment of women by the authors of the Rights of Man. She wanted the same rights for women and set them out in Les Droits de la Femme. This document is notable for its insistence that the same duties should be expected of women as of men including the payment of taxes and ‘the right to mount the scaffold’ because women should be ‘dealt with in the full rigour of the law’.2

The French Revolution inspired other women to demand citizenship rights. Anne-Josèphe Thérouingue de Méricourt went so far as to organize a female militia. The Englishwoman Mary Wollstonecraft went to Paris and produced the Vindications of the Rights of Women. Male revolutionaries remained unmoved but Olympe de Gouges was granted one of her demands: she was guillotined during the Terror.3

At the end of the eighteenth century women such as these were voices crying in the wilderness but the ideals of freedom and equality proclaimed by the American and then the French Revolutions had seized popular imagination. In the course of the following century-and-a-half more voices were raised, not least those of men, to affirm that women too should enjoy these rights. As economic conditions changed with industrialization and increasing numbers of women joined the growing ranks of factory-workers so too more and more women began to take part in literary and intellectual life. It was becoming clear to the fair-minded that if women were emerging from their traditional home-bound interests justice was no longer being served by denying them full citizenship rights. The role of women like Florence Nightingale in the Crimean War and later the pressing need for women in the factories and as military auxiliaries during the First World War began to sound the knell for the ancient institution of women’s civic subordination. Women’s organizations demanded the vote and went on to widen their claims. Opinion in society began to change until one by one additional rights were conceded.

None of this could have taken place without accelerated technological change, and expansion of medical knowledge. Mechanization made it possible for women to perform many tasks hitherto regarded as the preserve of men. The teachings of Malthus and declining mortality rates made large families no longer as desirable as hitherto. Family planning began the process of relieving women from the burden of annual child-birth. At the same time growing market economies demanded expansion of the work-force. Multiplier effects caused the process to speed up in incipient forms in the thirties of the twentieth century, then at a vertiginous rate after the Second World War. The age of consumerism dawned. The home too became mechanized and household appliances began to relieve women of domestic drudgery. Because purchasing power was needed to acquire these new machines women now had an even greater incentive to contribute to family incomes. Business interests and governments were quick to see the point of double-income households. The last bastions of women’s minority status finally crumbled in the decades following the Second World War, during which women had taken part in all the Allied Armed Forces.

With generalized knowledge of and access to more efficient contraception together with market need for women workers and consumers at all levels, profound changes have taken place throughout Western society. Women’s’ access to higher education in equal if not greater numbers than men and the growing presence of women in high status positions in both public office and private enterprise have given many women an unprecedented degree of economic independence. This, together with juridical consecration of equal rights for women as well as the generalized hedonistic ethos induced by consumer society, have eroded many traditional constraints on social behaviour generally.

The question arises: what happened to sexual identity and character during the century-and-a-half-long process just summarized? Anyone who, like me, grew up in the thirties and forties of this century remembers that what was foremost in the minds of many young people tempted to anticipate marriage in those far-off days was fear of pregnancy. We also remember that what kept many an unhappily married couple together was the economic dependence of most wives. Generally speaking, it was the rich who got divorces in those days. This is not to say that moral principles did not inspire very many people to practice sexual restraint, forego divorce or behave responsibly towards their families. Of course people had ethical convictions about these matters and tried to live up to them. But we should have no illusions that it was moral conviction alone that guided sexual behaviour at a time when there was already a great deal of social freedom between the sexes at least in northern Europe and North America.

Most people of my generation can well remember that when these questions were discussed, there was always somebody around to warn us of the moral collapse that would follow if everybody knew about and could procure safe contraception. Very often the same people would also caution us about how wholesale economic independence of women would threaten the existence of the family. My generation of young women at university or in the Armed Forces during the Second World War all heard these warnings. Our answer to the Cassandras, that is the answer of those of us who, like myself, regarded ourselves as high-minded feminists (of the old school), was that there was no moral value in behaving decently through fear. Better-educated women and women in the professions and satisfying jobs were likely, we thought, to have a greater sense of responsibility and better-grounded moral convictions than our poor subjected sisters whose morality we saw rather simplistically as being based largely on convention backed up by duress.

We also argued that the emancipation of women would affect men in a positive direction: they would be more likely to see women as equal companions in marriage rather than as mere objects of sexual satisfaction, mothers of their children, housekeepers and nurses. Marriage itself, we thought, had begun to assume a new content. Instead of being regarded as a ‘meal-ticket’ and status symbol for women or a source of sensual comforts for men, many people of both sexes began to view marriage essentially as a partnership of companions and equals. Even the ideal of romantic love, incipient for centuries, but which had overwhelmed the West from the nineteenth century onwards, became permeated with a new ideal of comradeship between men and women.

Whatever arcane discussions may have been conducted in the salons of such as the Bloomsbury Group4 most people, including socialists, did not dream of questioning the traditional concept of sexual identity: that there are two sexes, male and female. Although we knew homosexuality existed the very word seemed to identify males as males and females as females: the word simply meant ‘same-sex sex’. The days of ‘polymorphous perversity’ were still far in the future.

The modern world becomes ‘post-modernist’

As the twentieth century draws to a close the Cassandras of my youth would seem to have been vindicated. This is not the place to cite statistics showing the direct relationship between family breakdown and juvenile delinquency. These are readily available and show that there is cause for grave concern about social stability in all the democratic countries.5 The question at issue is whether these problems, which evidence profound moral and identity crises, are a consequence of the emancipation of women or whether the roots of that crisis are to be found in the same circumstances which brought about female emancipation.

If they are indeed interconnected and the inevitable accompaniment of modernization in any culture, then it is not the West alone that faces such problems but also the rest of the world. On the other hand it may be that Western traditions before and during the process of modernization embody specific features conducive to the present crisis. How the various nations of the world with their very different histories and cultures are able to cope with these problems is perhaps one of the key questions to be posed as we enter the twenty-first century. If problems of identity and social cohesion deepen in some countries and are overcome in others it is not difficult to imagine which will grow stronger and which weaker. Perhaps Spengler6 and Toynbee7 may be proved correct in their deep pessimism about the future of the West.

Relativism and deconstruction

The most characteristic feature of the intellectual climate (in the Humanities as opposed to Science) in Western countries throughout most of this century has been the insistent rise of self-questioning and relativism in epistemology and ethics. At no other time or place in the history of civilizations has there been such voluminous criticism of its own traditions and institutions as among intellectuals in Western society over the last three hundred years. It would seem that this phenomenon arises directly out of the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, the growth of democratic institutions and the habit of increasingly free discussion.

From the Renaissance onwards interrogation has grown in momentum, and in every area of human interest, to the point that we might call the twentieth century as much the century of total iconoclasm as of totalitarianism. Indeed it may well be that the former has more than a little to do with the latter. The situation contains its ironies, not least of which being that a procedure (rational criticism) which arose out of protest against dogma together with the search for truth and greater knowledge has now culminated in what amounts to the denial of rationality and of objective knowledge. For this is indeed the characteristic of what is called post-modernism, a catch-all expression applied to a number of areas including art, literature, philosophy and the social sciences.

Deconstructionism, an influential trend in post-modernist philosophy, has as its basic tenet that what we think of as knowledge is always suspect because it can only be reached through language and culture and these are not what they seem. They contain hidden meaning and require to be deconstructed, unbuilt, in order to reveal the power relations that lie behind all discourse. In brief, there is no real world but only subjective interpretations of it. In all areas of life the holders of power impose their interpretations on the powerless in order the better to keep them in thrall.

These ideas, which have their source in marxist doctrines, descend from the ‘sociologists of knowledge’ and find their apogee in the writings of people like Jean Baudrillard, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault8 and Jean Lyotard. Foucault’s is the name of most significance here because his ideas have had considerable if not primordial influence on the development of ‘gender theory’.

Foucault’s favourite rejoinder to his critics was the question D’où parles-tu? Any objection was thus undermined, the implication being that the critic had a hidden interest in attempting to refute Foucault’s views. This kind of pseudo-refutation is common in unscientific theories such as Marxism and Freudianism which are couched in such terms as to render them unfalsifiable. The stance of relativists such as Foucault and others that there is no such thing as truth is, of course, very much like the classic paradox of the Cretan liar. If they are right, then they are wrong, for they present their denial of truth as itself an absolute truth and they may thus be attacked from their own premises. D’où parles-tu? also may logically be turned on Foucault and his followers with the question D’où parlent-ils? However, to point this out, did not impress Foucault because despite his enormous (though often faulty) erudition he was contemptuous of rationality and regarded the Enlightenment as the initiator of those two perverse enemies of human well-being: logocentrism or, worse, phallogocentrism.

Logocentrism is the deconstructionists’ word for the belief that there exists a real world and that it can be described in words. Phallogocentrism is the word used to describe what Foucault regarded as compulsory heterosexuality, yet another stratagem of the bourgeoisie to preserve its power. It is clear in these writers that the enemy to be struck down is western culture and all its traditions, including science and logic, seen as a kind of monstrous conspiracy to preserve capitalism. When pressed, deconstructionists will admit, even proclaim, that their position does in fact entail that ‘anything goes’. Your views are as good as mine; your behaviour as admissible as mine: there exist no standards and no moral values. All these things had been said by others long before Foucault. The source of his fascination for the radical generations that arose during and after May 1968 was the length to which he took his radicalism. From a critique of the concept of insanity to that of the prison system and criminality he went on to a sure-fire winner with his Histoire de la Sexualité.9 Here the concept of sexual identity itself was challenged and declared to be a social construct. Heterosexuality, it was claimed, was not an essential component of human identity but had been imposed on society in the interests of those in power in order to force people (including members of the bourgeoisie themselves) to devote their energies to work. Precisely how people would feed, clothe and house themselves if they gave up work for a life dedicated to multi-sexual pleasure we are not told.

The conclusion seems inescapable that the adoption on an individual level of relativism as an intellectual and moral life style provides an excuse for mental laziness in the first case and self-indulgence in the second. As far as society as a whole is concerned the prevalence and propagation of cultural relativism tends to deprive many people, especially the young and vulnerable, of anchorage for their sense of identity and furthers anomie, rootlessness and irresponsibility.

This brief digression into the realm of philosophy is of relevance to the subject of ‘gender theory’ because many of its main proponents claim the status of philosophers and regard Foucault as their inspiration. Deconstructionism has rapidly gained adepts in Humanities departments in universities all over the English-speaking world. This phenomenal success for bizarre theories which, at one time, could easily have been ‘deconstructed’ by a first-year Philosophy undergraduate, can surprise nobody familiar with the declining standards in education. There are no doubt other causes too, which reside in the narcissistic ethos prevalent in consumer societies and the irresistible appeal of what looks like an intellectual justification for unbridled pleasure-seeking. And so Foucault, the white, European male, became the guru and inspirer of ‘gender feminists’. In truth his ideas were tailor-made for them, providing a scholarly-sounding mantle for the proclamation of war against the concept of sexual identity. In the universities, at least, the war has had considerable success and the battle-fields have been in the social sciences and especially Women’s Studies.

There is another, less scholarly and more scientistic, strand in the tangled web of influences that have given rise to ‘gender theory’: the new discipline of sexology pioneered by Kraffte-Ebbing, Havelock Ellis, and Wilhelm Reich. Some of these were long-banned and available only to the medical profession. Alfred Charles Kinsey and his associates, however, in a time of relaxed censorship, burst upon the world in 1948 and 195310 with reports of supposedly scientific studies which were seized upon avidly by the media and became best-sellers. Still widely cited today, both Kinsey’s methods and his results have been subjected to serious criticism especially in connexion with the atypical subjects he interviewed: mainly students and members of prison populations. He has also been accused of sexual experimentation with infants and young children.11 evertheless, some of Kinsey’s conclusions became widely accepted, especially his highly dubious figures regarding the incidence in the population of homosexuality—placed at more than ten percent when more recent and more serious studies conclude for one to two percent.12 Even more influential was Kinsey’s hypothesis of the fluidity of sexual identity and the existence of a continuum rather than a dichotomy. Kinsey may be regarded as the founding-father of a flourishing and lucrative industry, well-suited to the developing media ethos of sensationalism and the satisfaction of prurient curiosity. Much latoer and more serious studies in the field,13 which undermine what have become received perceptions, have aroused less publicity and are largely forgotten in the field of ‘gender studies’. Also influential in promoting the ‘anything goes’ sexual ethos were certain psycho-analytic practitioners such as Carl Rogers and his ‘Human Potential Movement’.

By 1993 Women’s Studies was ‘by far the fastest-growing area within the humanities and social sciences, both institutionally and in terms of publications. It is estimated that there are now five hundred women’s studies programs, thirty thousand courses, and fifty feminist institutes…’ in the United States.14 Visitors to any academic book-shop may confirm for themselves the industrial quantities of titles that have been published in the field. What has come to be known in more recent years as ‘queer studies’ has also expanded, though to a lesser degree. Because its preoccupation appears mainly to be with male homosexuality, by definition less concerned with the emancipation of women, this branch of ‘gender theory’ has not made the same inroads into public forums as ‘gender feminism’ which claims to speak for all women. The fraternal branch of ‘gender studies’ will therefore not be discussed here although the two share many basic ideas.

A word about words

The word ‘gender’ is now in common use in the English-speaking countries to refer to something other than the technical grammatical classification of nouns and adjectives. The new usage has become so widespread in the English-speaking world that to challenge it now sounds old-fashioned and idiosyncratic. However, the new sense represents a key concept in the Pandora’s box of ‘political correctness’ and has almost everything to do with challenging the traditional (binary) concept of sexual identity.

One preliminary objection to the new usage, now employed throughout the social sciences and in the media, is that it is virtually untranslatable and there is something very odd about a concept that cannot be expressed in languages other than English. Even for those who know only English a moment’s reflexion will demonstrate how peculiar is the recent innovation. Its inappropriateness is clear when we try to employ it with reference to reproduction. All reproduction in the animal world (with the occasional exception of lowly creatures like gastropods and certain reptiles) from insect-life upwards is sexual reproduction, i.e. through the union of male and female. This is a biological given, not a social construct. Biologists, botanists, zoologists, ethnologists and so on habitually talk about ‘sexual reproduction’ and regard it as the means whereby diversity of inheritance and the survival capacities of a species are ensured. They are not referring to erotic activity.

The insistence of some English-speakers on the use of the word ‘gender’ has indeed given rise to considerable difficulties in international forums and an illuminating example of this will be discussed below. This is because languages that do possess grammatical gender—and these are most of the European languages except English and Dutch—also use the word ‘gender’ in a variety of different ways none of which refer to the sex of human beings: First: genus, family, race kind. Second: kind, manner, sort, way. Third: artistic style, manner. Fourth: manners, fashion, taste.15

‘Gender theory’, let it be clear, refers to the cluster of ideas which attack in no uncertain terms the traditional concept of sexual identity. ‘Gender theorists’ are thought of as radical feminists and sometimes style themselves as such although there are various factions in the movement whose quibbles need not concern us. However, ‘gender feminism’, as will be seen, is not in fact the culmination of the movement for women’s emancipation: it is rather a programme for the abolition of women and of men, an aim explicitly stated by some of its proponents

‘Gender theory’ in words

For the sake of clarification ‘gender theorists’ must be allowed to speak for themselves. The authors quoted below are not marginal but exemplify ‘gender theory’. Most of the publications from which they are taken are to be found in course material in Women’s Studies departments and some of the authors are leading figures in the radical feminist movement.

Although many people think that men and women are the natural expression of genetic blueprint, gender is a product of human thought and culture, a social construction that creates the ‘true nature ‘ of all individuals.16

Heterosexuality has been both forcibly and subliminally imposed on women…’Compulsory heterosexuality’ was named as one of the ‘crimes against women’ by the Brussels International Tribunal on Crimes against Women in 1976.17

An appropriate workable abortion-rights strategy is to inform all women that heterosexual penetration is rape, whatever their subjective experience to the contrary.18

…heterosexuality, like motherhood, needs to be recognized and studied as a political institution19

Gender fluidity is the ability to freely and knowingly become one or many of a limitless number of genders, for any length of time, at any rate of change. Gender fluidity recognizes no borders or rules of gender20

Women couldn’t be oppressed if there was no such thing as ‘women’. Doing away with gender is key to the doing away with patriarchy.21

Imagine that the sexes have multiplied beyond currently imaginable limits. It would have to be a world of shared powers. Patient and physician, parent and child, male and female, heterosexual and homosexual—all those oppositions and others would have to be dissolved as sources of division. A new ethic of medical treatment would arise, one that would permit ambiguity in a culture that had overcome sexual division.22

Imagine sex among friends as the norm. Imagine valuing genital interaction in terms of whether and how it fosters friendship and pleasure… Pleasure is our birthright of which we have been robbed in religious patriarchy… I picture friends, not families, basking in the pleasure we deserve because our bodies are holy.23

Gay/lesbian culture can also be looked on as a subversive force that can challenge the hegemonic nature of the idea of the family. It can, however, be done in a way that people do not feel is in opposition to the family per se, a simple ‘smash the family’ slogan is seen as a threat not so much to the ruling class as to people in the working class who often rely on family ties to maintain security and stability in their lives. In order for the subversive nature of gay culture to be used effectively, we have to be able to present alternative ways of looking at human relationships.24

One of the most influential of the ‘gender theorists’ is Judith Butler. She is Professor of Humanities at the Johns Hopkins University and is listed as a director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC). The commission is a UN accredited NGO and sponsor of the international petition campaign ‘Put Sexuality on the Agenda of the World Conference on Women’ The petition called on member states to recognize ‘the right to determine one’s sexual identity; the right to control one’s own body, particularly in establishing intimate relations, and the right to choose if, when and with whom to bear or raise children as fundamental components of the human rights of all women regardless of sexual orientation’.25

Butler’s book, Gender Trouble, Feminism and the Subversion of Identity is widely cited in ‘Women’s Studies’ course material. the right to determine one’s sexual identity; the right to control one’s own body, particularly in establishing intimate relations, and the right to choose if, when and with whom to bear or raise children as fundamental

Assuming for the moment the stability of binary sex, it does not follow that the construction of ‘men’ will accrue exclusively to the bodies of males or that ‘women’ will interpret only female bodies. Further, even if the sexes appear to be unproblematically binary in their morphology and constitution (which will become a question) there is no reason to assume that genders ought also to remain as two. The presumption of a binary gender system implicitly retains the belief in a mimetic relations of gender to sex whereby gender mirrors sex or is otherwise restricted by it. When the constructed status of gender is theorized as radically independent of sex, gender itself becomes a free-floating artifice, with the consequence that man and masculine might just as easily signify a female body as a male one, and woman and feminine a male body as a female one. 26

If the immutable character of sex is contested, perhaps this construct called ‘sex’ is as culturally constructed as gender; indeed, perhaps it was always already gender, with the consequences that the distinction between sex and gender turns out to be no distinction at all.27

Shulamith Firestone, another prestigious ‘gender theoretician’, is also one of the most explicitly Marxist and comprehensive. The Vintage Book of Feminism declares Firestone’s book The Dialectic of Sex (dedicated to Simone de Beauvoir) ‘to have been a powerful force in shaping the ideas of radicals in the women’s movement—Robin Morgan considered it ‘a basic building block’ of feminism that had been crucial to the development of her thinking.’28

For a foretaste of the ‘gender’ utopia it is worth giving her writing some attention.

Natural reproductive differences between the sexes led directly to the first division of labor based on sex, which is at the origins of all further division into economic and cultural classes.29

So that just as to assure elimination of economic classes requires the revolt of the underclass (the proletariat) and, in a temporary dictatorship, their seizure of the means of production, so to assure the elimination of sexual classes requires the revolt of the underclass (women) and the seizure of control of reproduction: the restoration to women of ownership of their own bodies, as well as feminine control of human fertility, including both the new technology and all the social institutions of childbearing and childrearing. And just as the end goal of socialist revolution was not only the elimination of the economic class privilege but of the economic class distinction itself, so the end goal of feminist revolution must be, unlike that of the first feminist movement, not just the elimination of male privilege but of the sex distinction itself; genital differences between human beings would no longer matter culturally.30

Thus, the ‘natural’ is not necessarily a ‘human’ value. Humanity has begun to outgrow nature, we can no longer justify the maintenance of a discriminatory sex class system on the grounds of its origins in Nature. Indeed, for pragmatic reasons alone it is beginning to look as if we must get rid of it.31

The reproduction of the species by one sex for the benefit of both would be replaced by (at least the option of) artificial reproduction; children would be born to both sexes equally, or independently of either, however, one chooses to look at it.’32

The incest taboo is now necessary only in order to preserve the family; then if we did away with the family we would in effect be doing away with the repressions that mold sexuality into specific formations. All other things being equal, people might still prefer those of the opposite sex simply because it is physically more convenient.33

If early sexual repression is the basic mechanism by which character structures supporting political, ideological, and economic serfdom are produced, an end to the incest taboo, through the abolition of the family, could have profound effects. Sexuality would be released from its straitjacket to eroticise our whole culture, changing its very definitions.34

We must include the oppression of children in any program of feminist revolution… Our final step must be the elimination of the very conditions of femininity and childhood.35

Adult/child and homosexual sex taboos would disappear, as well as nonsexual friendship…. All close relationships would include the physical.36

Among Firestone’s first demands for any alternative system are :

The freeing of women from the tyranny of their reproductive biology by every means available, and the diffusion of the childbearing and childrearing role to the society as a whole, men as well as women…4. The freedom of all women and children to do whatever they wish to do sexually…Child sexuality had to be repressed because it was a threat to the precarious internal balance of the family. These sexual repressions increased proportionately to the degree of cultural exaggeration of the biological family.… In our new society, humanity could finally revert to its natural ‘polymorphously perverse’ sexuality—all forms of sexuality would be allowed and indulged….marriage in its very definition will never be able to fulfil the needs of its participants, for it was organized around, and reinforces, a fundamentally oppressive biological condition that we only now have the skill to correct. As long as we have the institution we shall have the oppressive conditions at its base. We need to start talking about new alternatives that will satisfy the emotional and psychological needs that marriage, archaic as it is, still satisfies, but that will satisfy them better.’37

The foregoing quotations clearly show that ‘gender theory’ holds that it is the hegemony of men which compels women to be heterosexual. Indeed some gender-feminists go so far as to declare that without this compulsion lesbianism would be preferred. Others, like Firestone, also favour pedophilia and incest. Some want ‘lesbianization of the world’ (Monique Wittig as cited by Butler). Others want sex with anybody at all, singly or in groups. What is truly preposterous about these scabrous pronouncements is that their saturnalian (or better, satanic) fantasies have found a firm niche in formerly respectable quarters. Humanities undergraduates, instead of learning something of the great cultural heritage of civilization are instead being taught to despise what they do not know and indoctrinated with something more akin to pornographic science-fiction.

Gender-theory in action

‘Gender theory’ should not be dismissed as being all talk. Not only does it occupy an important place in Women’s Studies and Humanities departments, it has also become an issue in international organizations. An example of the way ‘gender theorists’ operate was provided by the discussions during the preparations for and in the course of the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women held in the Chinese capital in September 1995.38

Among the Beijing participants discussion of the word ‘gender’ in the documents aroused considerable controversy between, on the one hand, some English-speaking delegates and, on the other, representatives of that benighted majority of the world’s women for whom English is not the mother-tongue. These had at first innocently assumed that the word ‘gender’ was indeed being used as a euphemism for the word ‘sex’ and that ‘gender’ referred to male and female human beings. However, there was no option in the translations but to use the respective languages’ word for ‘sex’.

The controversy that ensued revealed the pitfalls that beset meetings where well-meaning innocence confronts malevolent ignorance. However, in the course of proceedings it became explicit that the use of this unfamiliar concept was a ploy intended to smuggle into documents the UN-blessed recognition by women’s organizations world-wide of a number of ‘rights’ usually rejected as immoral by pro-family women’s organizations. These rights included those of homosexuality to be regarded as equal to heterosexuality; total freedom and assistance for abortion; sex for adolescents; prostitution as a service industry as well as the adoption by governments of quotas for women in all areas of public life.

Unfortunately for ‘gender feminists’ there were English-speakers present from pro-family organizations who were familiar with the take-over of Women’s Studies programs in US universities. In consequence, fierce polemics ensued in the course of which the ‘gender perspective’ was exposed. Comparison between the different texts was elucidative: although ‘gender’ appeared over 60 times in the Feb 27, 1975, English draft, the equivalent words genero and genre were never used in the Spanish or French versions. Instead ‘gender’ was translated as sexo (sex) or hombres y mujeres (men and women) or with some other phrase. In some cases the English, French and Spanish each had a different meaning.

So it seems that there is something peculiarly anglo-centric about ‘gender’. Its critics were ferociously attacked by the ‘gender’ feminists who saw this as a reactionary onslaught on ‘political correctness’. Former US congresswoman Bella Abzug spoke for the ‘gender feminists’ and her claims were revealing:

The concept of gender is embedded in contemporary social, political and legal discourse. ….The meaning of the word gender has evolved as differentiated from the word sex to express the reality that women’s and men’s roles and status are socially constructed and subject to change…

The current attempt by several Member States to expunge the word gender from the Platform for Action and to replace it with the word sex is an insulting and demeaning attempt to reverse the gains made by women, to intimidate us, and to block further progress. We urge the small number of male and female delegates seeking to side-track and sabotage the empowerment of women to cease this diversionary tactic. They will not succeed. They will only waste precious time. We will not go back to subordinate inferior roles.39

Because the ‘gender feminists’ were better prepared and better funded, their unrepresentative ideas, although they were forced to be toned down, did in fact find their way into the final Beijing documents. This was no new phenomenon. The ‘gender perspective’ is to be encountered in a multitude of other UN materials as well as that of western government departments, those of the European Union and of the European Parliament.

Social conditioning and sexual identity

Rejection of relativism does not entail underestimation of the importance of social conditioning in the formation of identity. Simone de Beauvoir is famous for her oft-quoted remark that one is not born a woman but rather becomes one. This rather trivial observation has been granted far more weight than it deserved. In one sense it contains a banal truth. In another it contains a falsehood. Everybody is born male or female. The kind of men or women they become will, of course, be influenced by the way they are socialized. The experience and education of a child within its culture and the expectations it encounters are of great importance in forming its identity and character. Interaction between the innate and the culturally-shaped have long been discussed in the ‘nature versus nurture’ controversy in connexion with intelligence and other qualities. In the matter of sexual identity there is an added aspect and biological function may in a very primary sense influence the way an individual is socialized. If the survival conditions of a given society require females to be protected and dependent upon men, the culture will see to it that members of each sex are socialized accordingly. Experience will provide the growing human with many of the elements that enable it to construct its identity. The process is essentially an interactive one.

It seems to me of considerable importance that we are not born as selves, but that we have to learn that we are selves; in fact we have to learn to be selves40 bein self is partly the result of inborn dispositions and partly the result of experience, especially social experience. The new-born child has many inborn ways of acting and of responding, and many inborn tendencies to develop new responses and new activities. Among these tendencies is a tendency to develop into a person conscious of himself. But in order to achieve this, much must happen. A human child growing up in social isolation will fail to attain a full consciousness of self 41 All learned adaptation has a genetic basis in the sense that the heredity of the organism (its ‘genome’) must provide for the aptitude of acquiring new adaptations.42

In traditional societies, in modernizing ones and in our own day the cultural elements that contribute to the child’s consciousness of selfhood, have varied. It can be argued that only with women’s emancipation and the material possibilities of full participation in social and public life is the girl-child able to achieve full realization of self. The boy-child’s consciousness of identity is also subject to change. Sometimes nowadays for the worse. Instead of the male ideal evolving from the role of protector-dominator of women towards that of equal partner and companion, too many features of our culture are helping to produce boy-children who will turn into irresponsible aggressors. If ‘gender-theory’ gains in influence, as it aims to, it will also have a negative effect on the sense of identity of young women. The socialization (‘consciousness-raising’) engaged in by women’s studies aims at producing females who see themselves as victims of men, as ‘gender-fluid’ creatures hostile to the family and with their inborn vocation for motherhood suppressed. The damaging effects on the personalities of impressionable young girls caused by this kind of brain-washing are easy to predict. However, there are considerable difficulties for the success of such projects. The genetic predisposition of females—the essential basis of their identity—for motherhood and child-rearing are much stronger than the genetic predispositions of males for fatherhood. The latter need more positive socialization in order to become mature citizens. ‘Gender-feminists’ find it very difficult to convert ordinary women into changing their natural propensities. This is why they resort, as in the end do all revolutionaries, to administrative means to gain their ends, as we have seen with the Beijing case.

‘Gender feminists’ are also notable for their demagogy. To win support among vulnerable young women, as well as grossly distorting history they campaign against ‘sexual harassment’ and have extended the meaning of this expression beyond all reasonable bounds. The main effect of these campaigns is to cause women to feel more insecure (the victim cult) and to provoke in many young men more irresponsible behaviour than ever. To bolster these campaigns and other accusations of ‘patriarchal oppression’, many leading ‘gender theorists’ have had recourse to the ‘cooking’ of statistics over a wide field. Christina Hoff Summers has produced an impressive array of examples of this practice.41 Another demagogic ploy has been the demand for quotas or affirmative action which, if put into effect, can only damage the credibility of competent women and further irritate relations between men and women. A ‘hidden agenda’ that may well lie behind this demand will be suggested below.

Ethnicity and ‘gender’

‘Gay and Lesbian’ activist groups including ‘gender feminists’ make frequent declarations about ‘minority rights’ and tend to seek allies with activists among those ethnic groups which see themselves as disadvantaged. To maintain that anything significant other than physical features is biologically innate about race is generally regarded as redolent of racism. The desire of ‘gender’ theorists’ to make common cause with certain kinds of nationalism clearly owes itself to the subjacent intention of drawing parallels between ‘gender’ and ethnicity. Because there is a vast plurality of ethnic groups, why not a vast plurality of ‘genders’? Because ethnicity is often fluid, why not ‘gender’? Because nationalist protest and revolt are frequently against real oppression or discrimination, if ‘gender’ activists associate with them they too can be seen as victims. To insist on the essential nature of sexual identity is to be ‘sexist’ and that is bad, as it is bad to be a ‘racist’. This is an old story in the history of protest movements, especially the spurious ones. They amalgamate issues in order to confuse them.

Deconstructing the deconstructors

The final question to be answered is why I have chosen ‘gender theory’ and ‘gender feminists’ as my main concern in these pages and have said very little about contemporary challenges to male identity. The reason has to do with that essence of female identity, which clearly ‘gender feminists’ are very well aware of. When they propose not just affirmative action and parity for women in all areas of social life, but even amendments to the US Constitution to provide for two senators from each sex for each State of the Union, ‘gender feminists’ know what they are doing. Their aim is to obtain a captive constituency. They know only too well—they have discussed it often enough in their proposals for the virtual abolition of motherhood—that the majority of women, whether they work outside the home or not, have neither time nor inclination for positions of public power and are unlikely to want to give up motherhood and family life for the often shabby rewards of politics. Some lesbians may be mothers; most are not. This gives homosexual women a considerable edge over the generality of heterosexual women both in the labour and political market-place—an advantage that homosexual men do not enjoy with regard to heterosexual men. Nor can homosexual men aspire to lead grassroots men’s emancipation movements, did such exist.

Lesbian women, however, claim to speak for all women and to represent them in positions of power. Their quota, parity and similar proposals, if put into effect, would inevitably help them realize this ambition. It can be argued that ‘gender feminists’ have a strategy of achieving power on the backs of ordinary women, in the same way as Bolshevik middle-class intellectuals rose to power in Russia on the backs of the proletariat. And all in the name of the struggle against the powerful. Perhaps Foucault’s question needs to be reformulated: D’où parlent-elles? What are these unrepresentative women’s hidden interests? Many already proclaim their aim of overthrowing existing society. Who then will be Big Sister?

Although ‘queer theorists’ share with their female counterparts, general deconstructionist approaches there are crucial contradictions between them. The latter, as we have seen, insist on the primacy of social construction of sexual identity and would undermine or even go so far as trying to destroy its biological foundation. Many male homosexual spokesmen, however, are now beginning, as part of their demand for recognition of minority status, to insist on the importance of innate factors. ‘Gender feminism’ is unremitting in its hostility to marriage and the family. Many male homosexuals are asking for these institutions to be available to them. Discussion of such questions is beyond the scope of this paper. Except for one comment: the so-called ‘Gay and Lesbian’ alliance seems to be as basically incoherent and unstable as any alliance of these two with ethnic minority activism.

Conclusion

The replacement of the word ‘sex’ by the word ‘gender’ seems to be yet one more example of an old technique: what Orwell called Newspeak or Françoise Thom langue de bois. Give something another name and you obscure its true nature. Get people to use it and you have brain-washed them. As with ‘people’s democracy’ or ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, if you repeat an expression often enough and persuade people to use it, many of them end up accepting that it describes a real state of affairs. Here, in truth, reside power interests behind the use of words.

To use the word ‘gender’ instead of ‘sex’, no matter how innocently, is to give implicit credit to the new word’s hidden meanings: the suggestion that sexual identity is fluid; that there may be more than two ‘genders’; that people make ‘gender’ options. What ‘gender theory’ denies is that in the real world there exist only two sexes, male and female and the norm is for humans, like animals, to seek and prefer erotic relations with individuals of the opposite sex. In other words, mothers are women and fathers are men and parenting is most successful within a family structure. The very small minority which prefers necessarily sterile carnal union with members of their own sex still remain either biologically male or female with the potential of being fathers or mothers. The existence of a negligible number of unfortunates born with genital malformations who are physiologically pseudo-hermaphrodites ‘doesn’t prove that heterosexuality is not natural, any more than the fact that some babies are born blind proves that it isn’t natural for human beings to see’.44

In concluding this appraisal of ‘Gender as Identity’ I would like to quote from the last page of Dale O’Leary’s analysis of the Beijing meeting. It is a succinct and timely statement which should be pondered by everybody concerned with the human sciences and the clarification of identity questions in the area of sex:

The feminists have relied on the politeness of men. They have demanded that dangerous nonsense and utter stupidity be treated with respect. The Gender Agenda cannot be defeated until people are willing to stand up and say, ‘No more inclusive language, no more politically correct speech.’ We must refuse to say ‘gender’ when we mean ‘sex’. Those who are offended by reality and human nature will just have to live with it 45

Notes

1. Frederick Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (New York, 1986).

2. Norman Davies, Europe A History, (Oxford, 1996), p. 716.

3. Ibid., p.717.

4. The London literary circle known as the Bloomsbury Group, several of whose members were homosexual, frequently questioned sexual identity. See especially Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, a novel about a trans-sexual figure reincarnated over four centuries.

5. Mitchell B. Pearlstein, ‘Fatherlessness in the United States’, The Family in Global Transition, Ed. Gordon L Anderson, (PWPA, St. Paul, Minnesota,1997), pp 401-405.

6. Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West (New York 1926-28).

7. Arnold Joseph Toynbee, A Study of History (abbreviated version, London 1946).

8. For overviews see J.G. Merquior, Foucault (London, 1985) and Roger Scruton Thinkers of the New Left (London, 1985), pp.31-44. Scruton’s Modern Philosophy (London 1994) deals in several places with Post-modernism, Deconstructionism and Michel Foucault.

9. Michel Foucault, Histoire de la sexualité (Paris 1976).

10. Alfred Kinsey et al., Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male (Philadelphia 1948) and Sexual Behaviour in the Human Female (Philadelphia 1953).

11. Wardell Pomeroy, Dr Kinsey and the Institute for Sex Research (New York 1972).

12. Reisman and Eichel (co-authors), Kinsey, Sex and Fraud (l990).

13. Robert F. Michael, John H. Gagnon, Edward O. Laumann and Gina Kolata, Sex in America (Boston, 1994)

14. Jerry Z. Muller, ‘Coming Out Ahead: The Homosexual Moment in the Academy,’ First Things 35, August/September, 1993.

15. Harrap’s Standard French and English Dictionary (London, 1961).

16. Lucy Gilbert and Paula Webster, ‘The Dangers of Femininity,’ Gender Differences: Sociology or Biology?, p.41, cited in O’Leary, Gender: The Deconstruction of Women, (hearth Magazine 1995).

17. Adrienne Rich, ‘Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,’ Blood, Bread and Poetry: Selected Prose, (1979-85, New York,) p.57, cited in O’Leary 1995, p.6.

18. Ibid. p.70, cited in O’Leary 1995, p.6.

19. Ibid. p.35, cited in O’Leary 1995 p. 6.

20. Kate Bornestein, Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women and the Rest of Us (New York,) p.52, (cited in Dale O’Leary, The Gender Agenda: Redefining Equality (Lafayette, La. 1997). The author is a man who underwent a sex-change operation.

21. Ibid., p.115

22. Anne Falsto-Sterling, ‘The Five Sexes: Why Male and Female are Not Enough’ in The Sciences (March-April 1993) p.24

23. Mary Hunt of ‘Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual’ at Re-Imaging Conference, Minneapolis, 1993, cited in O’Leary, 1997, p. 79

24. Christine Riddiough, ‘Socialism, Feminism and Gay/Lesbian Liberation,’ Women and Revolution, ed. Lydia Sargent (Boston 1981) p.87.

25. O’Leary, 1997. p.112

26. Judith Butler, Gender Trouble, Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York, 1990), p.6

27. Ibid., p.7

28. Miriam Schneir, ed. The Vintage Book of Feminism (London, 1995) p. 245

29. Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution (New York, 1970 and 1993), (excerpts published in Schneir, op.cit. pp.246-256.)

30. Firestone, op.cit. p.9.

31. Ibid., pp. 10-11.

32. Ibid., p.10.

33. Ibid., p.12

34. Ibid., p.59.

35. Ibid., p.60.

36. Ibid., p. 240

37. Ibid. (cited in Schneir l995, 249))

38. For a full account of the way the ‘gender’ issue was treated in Beijing, see O’Leary, 1997

39. Ibid. p.86.87.

40. Karl R. Popper and John C. Eccles, The Self and Its Brain, (London, 1977), p. 109

41. Ibid., p. 111.

42. Ibid., p. 121.

43. Christina Hoff Summers, Who Stole Feminism? (New York, 1994)

44. O’Leary, 1997, p.70.

45. Ibid., .213

­­­­____________

.

What Kind of women? What kind of men?

by

Patrícia Lança

Introduction

In no other area have traditional ideas been so challenged in recent years as in that of the relationship between the sexes and the way men and women see themselves and each other. In western universities and the forums of some international organizations a paradigm as old as the human species is being questioned and strange new patterns adumbrated. Never before have these subjects been so much discussed, studied, written up, campaigned about and legislated on as in the last three decades. Until very recently sexual identity and a broad typology of character for men on the one hand and women on the other have been thought to be fixed and unalterable. How sexual identity defined a person was seen as of a quite different order from other defining characteristics of human beings such as class, religion, nationality and ethnicity. And so it still is—except by proponents of what are known as ‘gender theory’ and its close relative, ‘queer theory’.

The apparent immutability of sexual identity is still the rule for the vast majority of human-kind and it is doubtful whether even in modern societies most people are likely to have had their fundamental perceptions changed by such theories. The fact that women have risen in recent years to high positions in the State has very little to do with the matter. History is, after all, peppered with female figures who have exercised real power and this has never been a factor in changing perceptions about the respective vocations and nature of ordinary men and women. What has indeed been changing is the attitude of members of both sexes to the participation of women in economic and public life.

Despite women’s emancipation in the industrialized countries, the majority of people still seem to have little doubt that most men will become fathers and most women mothers and that children are best raised in families. Or the corollary that mothers are women and fathers are men. There is, however, growing public concern over some recent social trends, most evident in the English-speaking world and Scandinavian countries, which seem to indicate increasing family breakdown. Working wives and mothers, full citizenship rights for women, easy divorce and abortion and a growing number of women in leading positions in public and private administration have certainly had familial and wider social repercussions. It is therefore appropriate to examine the position of ‘gender theorists’ in relation to these questions.

It might be useful first to look at sexual identity and character in three phases: before women’s emancipation; secondly, during that process; and thirdly the situation as it exists today. This examination requires to be undertaken in a spirit of realism rather than with a mind-set bent on seeking evidence of class oppression and the alleged predisposition of men to dominate and exploit women. What follows is necessarily schematic and concerned rather with the lives of ordinary people than with the particularities in habit and outlook of tiny élites.

The sexes before modernization

Before the onset of modernization it was impossible for women to be other than dependent upon men. This fact requires brief elaboration because its implications are overlooked, denied or misinterpreted by ‘gender theory’ whose tenets are notable for lack of empathy with the main features of human history and of compassion for its essentially tragic content.

In traditional agrarian societies average life-expectancy was around forty years, about half what it is today. High mortality meant that a high birth rate was essential for a community’s survival, hence large families were very desirable. Most females were expected to marry as soon as they reached puberty and, if they were reasonably healthy and their husbands were not absent from home, the natural course was for women to conceive and give birth almost every year. Access to and knowledge of birth-control was unsought and therefore almost unknown. All but rich women, who could afford wet nurses, had to breast-feed their babies. Human beings of both sexes toiled from dawn to dusk in order to keep alive. Nearly everybody, including members of ruling castes, was illiterate. Only a few belonged to the class of clerics and literati who could cultivate things of the mind. There was scant leisure for the masses. Public order and security in face of marauders and the elements were fragile. In such circumstances the very survival of humanity meant that women and children required protection. This requirement has been sacralized by religion and enshrined in law. It is here that we must seek the origin of the family and not in what Engels called ‘the overthrow of mother-right’ and ‘…the first class oppression… of the female sex by the male.’1

Of course women suffered from the necessarily subordinate position that dependence implies. But men suffered too. They frequently had to sacrifice life and limb in defence of their homes and families. Their incentive and reward were the honour and glory associated with the valour demanded of the ‘stronger sex’. Women brought up their sons in the cult of courage and duty to the family. It can well be argued that as the first educators and socializers of children during their long infancy women were in fact the ones who imposed the rules. These were frequently broken. Invading and conquering armies often put entire communities to the sword. But even in such atrocious cases, history tells us that the men were the first victims and women’s lives were often spared even if their destiny was to be carried off into slavery.

Beliefs about some golden age in palaeolithic times when people lived peacefully together in harmonious matriarchy have dubious foundation. It has, indeed, been claimed, with better evidence, that hardly any human remains have been found in prehistoric burial grounds that did not show signs of their original possessors having met with violent deaths.

Hence it is not surprising that in pre-modern times attitudes to sexuality were quite different from those current in our affluent, medicated and pleasure-loving societies. Whatever cults of eroticism may have existed among tiny ruling élites, or dionysiac orgies and fertility festivals ritually indulged in by the masses of lowly folk, peasant women could do no other than look on sexual activity as something to be strictly regulated. Pregnancy and childbirth were risk-laden enterprises. Perhaps some sturdy peasant girls might give birth painlessly in the fields and then happily carry on with their work. But for very many this was not the case. Under-nourishment and disease were widespread and death in childbirth was common. So, too, after the fifteenth century was syphilis. No wonder then that families reared daughters in the cult of pre-marital virginity and fidelity in marriage. Men did not have to impose the idea of sexual sin on women. Nature usually provided sanctions enough. To say this is not to imply that society generally did not reinforce these sanctions by custom and by law. Young people’s strong instinctual urges had to be contained by the older and wiser who knew the dangers involved.

Women taken in adultery have been stoned to death in some societies. Clitoridectomy still persists in certain parts of the world. Chastity belts are said to have been forced on medieval ladies. Chinese upper-class women had their feet bound and whether this was for aesthetic reasons or originally to prevent them straying is open to question. Barbarous customs indeed! As were those of the castration of men to produce guards and choristers. Until the advent of Enlightenment humanism everybody, male and female, even in Christian lands, took barbaric practices for granted. People were hanged, drawn and quartered and burned at the stake—men in far greater numbers than women—and multitudes of both sexes and all ages flocked avidly to view these horrible spectacles as lately as the eighteenth century, often taking picnic baskets along with them to enjoy the show. To maintain a sense of proportion, and of shame, we should also not forget that our own ‘enlightened’ twentieth century has been a time of periodic mass slaughter of both sexes even in the most advanced countries. So it is quite simply not true that cruelty, labour or the regulation of sexual activity were inventions of the post-Enlightenment bourgeoisie composed of ‘white European males.’

At certain times in history physically defective and girl babies were ruthlessly eliminated. Male children have been generally regarded as more desirable than female children but not merely out of some perverse masculine preference. It has been said that this is yet one more example of patriarchal oppression of the female sex. However, it has more to do with the fact that, until very recently, both foetal and infant mortality in males has been significantly higher than in females as any study of sex ratios in this area demonstrates. So boy babies were, and in most parts of the world still are, especially precious. Medical science, hygiene and better nourishment have caused infant mortality to drop to almost negligible levels in the industrially advanced world. Because nature provides for more males to be conceived, more boys than girls are now being born and reaching adulthood—a historically unique phenomenon.

People generally did not question their sexual identity or the rules concerning marriage and the family that prevailed in their respective cultures. Within Christian and certain other societies, clerical celibacy and the monastic life have been practised by a minority and in some places honoured more than marriage. Chastity, it was said, was a higher state but monasticism may well have been as much a matter of ecclesiastical economics as of virtue. It certainly had nothing to do with sexual identity. The choice of celibacy, involving discipline and self-sacrifice, was rather a matter of character. Joan of Arc may have been a warrior but she never claimed to be other than a woman.

It should also be added that, however immutable seemed the sexual identity of men and women, character and behaviour in terms of sexual morals was not uniform either in time or place. There were periods of dissoluteness and moral breakdown as well as periods of reform, of which the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation are the most memorable examples. Similarly with Islam whose history is punctuated by revolts against what purist Moslems have regarded as relapses from the ideals of its original teachings.

Sexual identity and the onset of modernity

One of the first recorded manifestos in favour of female equality was that of Olympe de Gouges, a Frenchwoman who proclaimed her indignation at the time of the French Revolution over the treatment of women by the authors of the Rights of Man. She wanted the same rights for women and set them out in Les Droits de la Femme. This document is notable for its insistence that the same duties should be expected of women as of men including the payment of taxes and ‘the right to mount the scaffold’ because women should be ‘dealt with in the full rigour of the law’.2

The French Revolution inspired other women to demand citizenship rights. Anne-Josèphe Thérouingue de Méricourt went so far as to organize a female militia. The Englishwoman Mary Wollstonecraft went to Paris and produced the Vindications of the Rights of Women. Male revolutionaries remained unmoved but Olympe de Gouges was granted one of her demands: she was guillotined during the Terror.3

At the end of the eighteenth century women such as these were voices crying in the wilderness but the ideals of freedom and equality proclaimed by the American and then the French Revolutions had seized popular imagination. In the course of the following century-and-a-half more voices were raised, not least those of men, to affirm that women too should enjoy these rights. As economic conditions changed with industrialization and increasing numbers of women joined the growing ranks of factory-workers so too more and more women began to take part in literary and intellectual life. It was becoming clear to the fair-minded that if women were emerging from their traditional home-bound interests justice was no longer being served by denying them full citizenship rights. The role of women like Florence Nightingale in the Crimean War and later the pressing need for women in the factories and as military auxiliaries during the First World War began to sound the knell for the ancient institution of women’s civic subordination. Women’s organizations demanded the vote and went on to widen their claims. Opinion in society began to change until one by one additional rights were conceded.

None of this could have taken place without accelerated technological change, and expansion of medical knowledge. Mechanization made it possible for women to perform many tasks hitherto regarded as the preserve of men. The teachings of Malthus and declining mortality rates made large families no longer as desirable as hitherto. Family planning began the process of relieving women from the burden of annual child-birth. At the same time growing market economies demanded expansion of the work-force. Multiplier effects caused the process to speed up in incipient forms in the thirties of the twentieth century, then at a vertiginous rate after the Second World War. The age of consumerism dawned. The home too became mechanized and household appliances began to relieve women of domestic drudgery. Because purchasing power was needed to acquire these new machines women now had an even greater incentive to contribute to family incomes. Business interests and governments were quick to see the point of double-income households. The last bastions of women’s minority status finally crumbled in the decades following the Second World War, during which women had taken part in all the Allied Armed Forces.

With generalized knowledge of and access to more efficient contraception together with market need for women workers and consumers at all levels, profound changes have taken place throughout Western society. Women’s’ access to higher education in equal if not greater numbers than men and the growing presence of women in high status positions in both public office and private enterprise have given many women an unprecedented degree of economic independence. This, together with juridical consecration of equal rights for women as well as the generalized hedonistic ethos induced by consumer society, have eroded many traditional constraints on social behaviour generally.

The question arises: what happened to sexual identity and character during the century-and-a-half-long process just summarized? Anyone who, like me, grew up in the thirties and forties of this century remembers that what was foremost in the minds of many young people tempted to anticipate marriage in those far-off days was fear of pregnancy. We also remember that what kept many an unhappily married couple together was the economic dependence of most wives. Generally speaking, it was the rich who got divorces in those days. This is not to say that moral principles did not inspire very many people to practice sexual restraint, forego divorce or behave responsibly towards their families. Of course people had ethical convictions about these matters and tried to live up to them. But we should have no illusions that it was moral conviction alone that guided sexual behaviour at a time when there was already a great deal of social freedom between the sexes at least in northern Europe and North America.

Most people of my generation can well remember that when these questions were discussed, there was always somebody around to warn us of the moral collapse that would follow if everybody knew about and could procure safe contraception. Very often the same people would also caution us about how wholesale economic independence of women would threaten the existence of the family. My generation of young women at university or in the Armed Forces during the Second World War all heard these warnings. Our answer to the Cassandras, that is the answer of those of us who, like myself, regarded ourselves as high-minded feminists (of the old school), was that there was no moral value in behaving decently through fear. Better-educated women and women in the professions and satisfying jobs were likely, we thought, to have a greater sense of responsibility and better-grounded moral convictions than our poor subjected sisters whose morality we saw rather simplistically as being based largely on convention backed up by duress.

We also argued that the emancipation of women would affect men in a positive direction: they would be more likely to see women as equal companions in marriage rather than as mere objects of sexual satisfaction, mothers of their children, housekeepers and nurses. Marriage itself, we thought, had begun to assume a new content. Instead of being regarded as a ‘meal-ticket’ and status symbol for women or a source of sensual comforts for men, many people of both sexes began to view marriage essentially as a partnership of companions and equals. Even the ideal of romantic love, incipient for centuries, but which had overwhelmed the West from the nineteenth century onwards, became permeated with a new ideal of comradeship between men and women.

Whatever arcane discussions may have been conducted in the salons of such as the Bloomsbury Group4 most people, including socialists, did not dream of questioning the traditional concept of sexual identity: that there are two sexes, male and female. Although we knew homosexuality existed the very word seemed to identify males as males and females as females: the word simply meant ‘same-sex sex’. The days of ‘polymorphous perversity’ were still far in the future.

The modern world becomes ‘post-modernist’

As the twentieth century draws to a close the Cassandras of my youth would seem to have been vindicated. This is not the place to cite statistics showing the direct relationship between family breakdown and juvenile delinquency. These are readily available and show that there is cause for grave concern about social stability in all the democratic countries.5 The question at issue is whether these problems, which evidence profound moral and identity crises, are a consequence of the emancipation of women or whether the roots of that crisis are to be found in the same circumstances which brought about female emancipation.

If they are indeed interconnected and the inevitable accompaniment of modernization in any culture, then it is not the West alone that faces such problems but also the rest of the world. On the other hand it may be that Western traditions before and during the process of modernization embody specific features conducive to the present crisis. How the various nations of the world with their very different histories and cultures are able to cope with these problems is perhaps one of the key questions to be posed as we enter the twenty-first century. If problems of identity and social cohesion deepen in some countries and are overcome in others it is not difficult to imagine which will grow stronger and which weaker. Perhaps Spengler6 and Toynbee7 may be proved correct in their deep pessimism about the future of the West.

Relativism and deconstruction

The most characteristic feature of the intellectual climate (in the Humanities as opposed to Science) in Western countries throughout most of this century has been the insistent rise of self-questioning and relativism in epistemology and ethics. At no other time or place in the history of civilizations has there been such voluminous criticism of its own traditions and institutions as among intellectuals in Western society over the last three hundred years. It would seem that this phenomenon arises directly out of the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, the growth of democratic institutions and the habit of increasingly free discussion.

From the Renaissance onwards interrogation has grown in momentum, and in every area of human interest, to the point that we might call the twentieth century as much the century of total iconoclasm as of totalitarianism. Indeed it may well be that the former has more than a little to do with the latter. The situation contains its ironies, not least of which being that a procedure (rational criticism) which arose out of protest against dogma together with the search for truth and greater knowledge has now culminated in what amounts to the denial of rationality and of objective knowledge. For this is indeed the characteristic of what is called post-modernism, a catch-all expression applied to a number of areas including art, literature, philosophy and the social sciences.

Deconstructionism, an influential trend in post-modernist philosophy, has as its basic tenet that what we think of as knowledge is always suspect because it can only be reached through language and culture and these are not what they seem. They contain hidden meaning and require to be deconstructed, unbuilt, in order to reveal the power relations that lie behind all discourse. In brief, there is no real world but only subjective interpretations of it. In all areas of life the holders of power impose their interpretations on the powerless in order the better to keep them in thrall.

These ideas, which have their source in marxist doctrines, descend from the ‘sociologists of knowledge’ and find their apogee in the writings of people like Jean Baudrillard, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault8 and Jean Lyotard. Foucault’s is the name of most significance here because his ideas have had considerable if not primordial influence on the development of ‘gender theory’.

Foucault’s favourite rejoinder to his critics was the question D’où parles-tu? Any objection was thus undermined, the implication being that the critic had a hidden interest in attempting to refute Foucault’s views. This kind of pseudo-refutation is common in unscientific theories such as Marxism and Freudianism which are couched in such terms as to render them unfalsifiable. The stance of relativists such as Foucault and others that there is no such thing as truth is, of course, very much like the classic paradox of the Cretan liar. If they are right, then they are wrong, for they present their denial of truth as itself an absolute truth and they may thus be attacked from their own premises. D’où parles-tu? also may logically be turned on Foucault and his followers with the question D’où parlent-ils? However, to point this out, did not impress Foucault because despite his enormous (though often faulty) erudition he was contemptuous of rationality and regarded the Enlightenment as the initiator of those two perverse enemies of human well-being: logocentrism or, worse, phallogocentrism.

Logocentrism is the deconstructionists’ word for the belief that there exists a real world and that it can be described in words. Phallogocentrism is the word used to describe what Foucault regarded as compulsory heterosexuality, yet another stratagem of the bourgeoisie to preserve its power. It is clear in these writers that the enemy to be struck down is western culture and all its traditions, including science and logic, seen as a kind of monstrous conspiracy to preserve capitalism. When pressed, deconstructionists will admit, even proclaim, that their position does in fact entail that ‘anything goes’. Your views are as good as mine; your behaviour as admissible as mine: there exist no standards and no moral values. All these things had been said by others long before Foucault. The source of his fascination for the radical generations that arose during and after May 1968 was the length to which he took his radicalism. From a critique of the concept of insanity to that of the prison system and criminality he went on to a sure-fire winner with his Histoire de la Sexualité.9 Here the concept of sexual identity itself was challenged and declared to be a social construct. Heterosexuality, it was claimed, was not an essential component of human identity but had been imposed on society in the interests of those in power in order to force people (including members of the bourgeoisie themselves) to devote their energies to work. Precisely how people would feed, clothe and house themselves if they gave up work for a life dedicated to multi-sexual pleasure we are not told.

The conclusion seems inescapable that the adoption on an individual level of relativism as an intellectual and moral life style provides an excuse for mental laziness in the first case and self-indulgence in the second. As far as society as a whole is concerned the prevalence and propagation of cultural relativism tends to deprive many people, especially the young and vulnerable, of anchorage for their sense of identity and furthers anomie, rootlessness and irresponsibility.

This brief digression into the realm of philosophy is of relevance to the subject of ‘gender theory’ because many of its main proponents claim the status of philosophers and regard Foucault as their inspiration. Deconstructionism has rapidly gained adepts in Humanities departments in universities all over the English-speaking world. This phenomenal success for bizarre theories which, at one time, could easily have been ‘deconstructed’ by a first-year Philosophy undergraduate, can surprise nobody familiar with the declining standards in education. There are no doubt other causes too, which reside in the narcissistic ethos prevalent in consumer societies and the irresistible appeal of what looks like an intellectual justification for unbridled pleasure-seeking. And so Foucault, the white, European male, became the guru and inspirer of ‘gender feminists’. In truth his ideas were tailor-made for them, providing a scholarly-sounding mantle for the proclamation of war against the concept of sexual identity. In the universities, at least, the war has had considerable success and the battle-fields have been in the social sciences and especially Women’s Studies.

There is another, less scholarly and more scientistic, strand in the tangled web of influences that have given rise to ‘gender theory’: the new discipline of sexology pioneered by Kraffte-Ebbing, Havelock Ellis, and Wilhelm Reich. Some of these were long-banned and available only to the medical profession. Alfred Charles Kinsey and his associates, however, in a time of relaxed censorship, burst upon the world in 1948 and 195310 with reports of supposedly scientific studies which were seized upon avidly by the media and became best-sellers. Still widely cited today, both Kinsey’s methods and his results have been subjected to serious criticism especially in connexion with the atypical subjects he interviewed: mainly students and members of prison populations. He has also been accused of sexual experimentation with infants and young children.11 evertheless, some of Kinsey’s conclusions became widely accepted, especially his highly dubious figures regarding the incidence in the population of homosexuality—placed at more than ten percent when more recent and more serious studies conclude for one to two percent.12 Even more influential was Kinsey’s hypothesis of the fluidity of sexual identity and the existence of a continuum rather than a dichotomy. Kinsey may be regarded as the founding-father of a flourishing and lucrative industry, well-suited to the developing media ethos of sensationalism and the satisfaction of prurient curiosity. Much latoer and more serious studies in the field,13 which undermine what have become received perceptions, have aroused less publicity and are largely forgotten in the field of ‘gender studies’. Also influential in promoting the ‘anything goes’ sexual ethos were certain psycho-analytic practitioners such as Carl Rogers and his ‘Human Potential Movement’.

By 1993 Women’s Studies was ‘by far the fastest-growing area within the humanities and social sciences, both institutionally and in terms of publications. It is estimated that there are now five hundred women’s studies programs, thirty thousand courses, and fifty feminist institutes…’ in the United States.14 Visitors to any academic book-shop may confirm for themselves the industrial quantities of titles that have been published in the field. What has come to be known in more recent years as ‘queer studies’ has also expanded, though to a lesser degree. Because its preoccupation appears mainly to be with male homosexuality, by definition less concerned with the emancipation of women, this branch of ‘gender theory’ has not made the same inroads into public forums as ‘gender feminism’ which claims to speak for all women. The fraternal branch of ‘gender studies’ will therefore not be discussed here although the two share many basic ideas.

A word about words

The word ‘gender’ is now in common use in the English-speaking countries to refer to something other than the technical grammatical classification of nouns and adjectives. The new usage has become so widespread in the English-speaking world that to challenge it now sounds old-fashioned and idiosyncratic. However, the new sense represents a key concept in the Pandora’s box of ‘political correctness’ and has almost everything to do with challenging the traditional (binary) concept of sexual identity.

One preliminary objection to the new usage, now employed throughout the social sciences and in the media, is that it is virtually untranslatable and there is something very odd about a concept that cannot be expressed in languages other than English. Even for those who know only English a moment’s reflexion will demonstrate how peculiar is the recent innovation. Its inappropriateness is clear when we try to employ it with reference to reproduction. All reproduction in the animal world (with the occasional exception of lowly creatures like gastropods and certain reptiles) from insect-life upwards is sexual reproduction, i.e. through the union of male and female. This is a biological given, not a social construct. Biologists, botanists, zoologists, ethnologists and so on habitually talk about ‘sexual reproduction’ and regard it as the means whereby diversity of inheritance and the survival capacities of a species are ensured. They are not referring to erotic activity.

The insistence of some English-speakers on the use of the word ‘gender’ has indeed given rise to considerable difficulties in international forums and an illuminating example of this will be discussed below. This is because languages that do possess grammatical gender—and these are most of the European languages except English and Dutch—also use the word ‘gender’ in a variety of different ways none of which refer to the sex of human beings: First: genus, family, race kind. Second: kind, manner, sort, way. Third: artistic style, manner. Fourth: manners, fashion, taste.15

‘Gender theory’, let it be clear, refers to the cluster of ideas which attack in no uncertain terms the traditional concept of sexual identity. ‘Gender theorists’ are thought of as radical feminists and sometimes style themselves as such although there are various factions in the movement whose quibbles need not concern us. However, ‘gender feminism’, as will be seen, is not in fact the culmination of the movement for women’s emancipation: it is rather a programme for the abolition of women and of men, an aim explicitly stated by some of its proponents

‘Gender theory’ in words

For the sake of clarification ‘gender theorists’ must be allowed to speak for themselves. The authors quoted below are not marginal but exemplify ‘gender theory’. Most of the publications from which they are taken are to be found in course material in Women’s Studies departments and some of the authors are leading figures in the radical feminist movement.

Although many people think that men and women are the natural expression of genetic blueprint, gender is a product of human thought and culture, a social construction that creates the ‘true nature ‘ of all individuals.16

Heterosexuality has been both forcibly and subliminally imposed on women…’Compulsory heterosexuality’ was named as one of the ‘crimes against women’ by the Brussels International Tribunal on Crimes against Women in 1976.17

An appropriate workable abortion-rights strategy is to inform all women that heterosexual penetration is rape, whatever their subjective experience to the contrary.18

…heterosexuality, like motherhood, needs to be recognized and studied as a political institution19

Gender fluidity is the ability to freely and knowingly become one or many of a limitless number of genders, for any length of time, at any rate of change. Gender fluidity recognizes no borders or rules of gender20

Women couldn’t be oppressed if there was no such thing as ‘women’. Doing away with gender is key to the doing away with patriarchy.21

Imagine that the sexes have multiplied beyond currently imaginable limits. It would have to be a world of shared powers. Patient and physician, parent and child, male and female, heterosexual and homosexual—all those oppositions and others would have to be dissolved as sources of division. A new ethic of medical treatment would arise, one that would permit ambiguity in a culture that had overcome sexual division.22

Imagine sex among friends as the norm. Imagine valuing genital interaction in terms of whether and how it fosters friendship and pleasure… Pleasure is our birthright of which we have been robbed in religious patriarchy… I picture friends, not families, basking in the pleasure we deserve because our bodies are holy.23

Gay/lesbian culture can also be looked on as a subversive force that can challenge the hegemonic nature of the idea of the family. It can, however, be done in a way that people do not feel is in opposition to the family per se, a simple ‘smash the family’ slogan is seen as a threat not so much to the ruling class as to people in the working class who often rely on family ties to maintain security and stability in their lives. In order for the subversive nature of gay culture to be used effectively, we have to be able to present alternative ways of looking at human relationships.24

One of the most influential of the ‘gender theorists’ is Judith Butler. She is Professor of Humanities at the Johns Hopkins University and is listed as a director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC). The commission is a UN accredited NGO and sponsor of the international petition campaign ‘Put Sexuality on the Agenda of the World Conference on Women’ The petition called on member states to recognize ‘the right to determine one’s sexual identity; the right to control one’s own body, particularly in establishing intimate relations, and the right to choose if, when and with whom to bear or raise children as fundamental components of the human rights of all women regardless of sexual orientation’.25

Butler’s book, Gender Trouble, Feminism and the Subversion of Identity is widely cited in ‘Women’s Studies’ course material. the right to determine one’s sexual identity; the right to control one’s own body, particularly in establishing intimate relations, and the right to choose if, when and with whom to bear or raise children as fundamental

Assuming for the moment the stability of binary sex, it does not follow that the construction of ‘men’ will accrue exclusively to the bodies of males or that ‘women’ will interpret only female bodies. Further, even if the sexes appear to be unproblematically binary in their morphology and constitution (which will become a question) there is no reason to assume that genders ought also to remain as two. The presumption of a binary gender system implicitly retains the belief in a mimetic relations of gender to sex whereby gender mirrors sex or is otherwise restricted by it. When the constructed status of gender is theorized as radically independent of sex, gender itself becomes a free-floating artifice, with the consequence that man and masculine might just as easily signify a female body as a male one, and woman and feminine a male body as a female one. 26

If the immutable character of sex is contested, perhaps this construct called ‘sex’ is as culturally constructed as gender; indeed, perhaps it was always already gender, with the consequences that the distinction between sex and gender turns out to be no distinction at all.27

Shulamith Firestone, another prestigious ‘gender theoretician’, is also one of the most explicitly Marxist and comprehensive. The Vintage Book of Feminism declares Firestone’s book The Dialectic of Sex (dedicated to Simone de Beauvoir) ‘to have been a powerful force in shaping the ideas of radicals in the women’s movement—Robin Morgan considered it ‘a basic building block’ of feminism that had been crucial to the development of her thinking.’28

For a foretaste of the ‘gender’ utopia it is worth giving her writing some attention.

Natural reproductive differences between the sexes led directly to the first division of labor based on sex, which is at the origins of all further division into economic and cultural classes.29

So that just as to assure elimination of economic classes requires the revolt of the underclass (the proletariat) and, in a temporary dictatorship, their seizure of the means of production, so to assure the elimination of sexual classes requires the revolt of the underclass (women) and the seizure of control of reproduction: the restoration to women of ownership of their own bodies, as well as feminine control of human fertility, including both the new technology and all the social institutions of childbearing and childrearing. And just as the end goal of socialist revolution was not only the elimination of the economic class privilege but of the economic class distinction itself, so the end goal of feminist revolution must be, unlike that of the first feminist movement, not just the elimination of male privilege but of the sex distinction itself; genital differences between human beings would no longer matter culturally.30

Thus, the ‘natural’ is not necessarily a ‘human’ value. Humanity has begun to outgrow nature, we can no longer justify the maintenance of a discriminatory sex class system on the grounds of its origins in Nature. Indeed, for pragmatic reasons alone it is beginning to look as if we must get rid of it.31

The reproduction of the species by one sex for the benefit of both would be replaced by (at least the option of) artificial reproduction; children would be born to both sexes equally, or independently of either, however, one chooses to look at it.’32

The incest taboo is now necessary only in order to preserve the family; then if we did away with the family we would in effect be doing away with the repressions that mold sexuality into specific formations. All other things being equal, people might still prefer those of the opposite sex simply because it is physically more convenient.33

If early sexual repression is the basic mechanism by which character structures supporting political, ideological, and economic serfdom are produced, an end to the incest taboo, through the abolition of the family, could have profound effects. Sexuality would be released from its straitjacket to eroticise our whole culture, changing its very definitions.34

We must include the oppression of children in any program of feminist revolution… Our final step must be the elimination of the very conditions of femininity and childhood.35

Adult/child and homosexual sex taboos would disappear, as well as nonsexual friendship…. All close relationships would include the physical.36

Among Firestone’s first demands for any alternative system are :

The freeing of women from the tyranny of their reproductive biology by every means available, and the diffusion of the childbearing and childrearing role to the society as a whole, men as well as women…4. The freedom of all women and children to do whatever they wish to do sexually…Child sexuality had to be repressed because it was a threat to the precarious internal balance of the family. These sexual repressions increased proportionately to the degree of cultural exaggeration of the biological family.… In our new society, humanity could finally revert to its natural ‘polymorphously perverse’ sexuality—all forms of sexuality would be allowed and indulged….marriage in its very definition will never be able to fulfil the needs of its participants, for it was organized around, and reinforces, a fundamentally oppressive biological condition that we only now have the skill to correct. As long as we have the institution we shall have the oppressive conditions at its base. We need to start talking about new alternatives that will satisfy the emotional and psychological needs that marriage, archaic as it is, still satisfies, but that will satisfy them better.’37

The foregoing quotations clearly show that ‘gender theory’ holds that it is the hegemony of men which compels women to be heterosexual. Indeed some gender-feminists go so far as to declare that without this compulsion lesbianism would be preferred. Others, like Firestone, also favour pedophilia and incest. Some want ‘lesbianization of the world’ (Monique Wittig as cited by Butler). Others want sex with anybody at all, singly or in groups. What is truly preposterous about these scabrous pronouncements is that their saturnalian (or better, satanic) fantasies have found a firm niche in formerly respectable quarters. Humanities undergraduates, instead of learning something of the great cultural heritage of civilization are instead being taught to despise what they do not know and indoctrinated with something more akin to pornographic science-fiction.

Gender-theory in action

‘Gender theory’ should not be dismissed as being all talk. Not only does it occupy an important place in Women’s Studies and Humanities departments, it has also become an issue in international organizations. An example of the way ‘gender theorists’ operate was provided by the discussions during the preparations for and in the course of the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women held in the Chinese capital in September 1995.38

Among the Beijing participants discussion of the word ‘gender’ in the documents aroused considerable controversy between, on the one hand, some English-speaking delegates and, on the other, representatives of that benighted majority of the world’s women for whom English is not the mother-tongue. These had at first innocently assumed that the word ‘gender’ was indeed being used as a euphemism for the word ‘sex’ and that ‘gender’ referred to male and female human beings. However, there was no option in the translations but to use the respective languages’ word for ‘sex’.

The controversy that ensued revealed the pitfalls that beset meetings where well-meaning innocence confronts malevolent ignorance. However, in the course of proceedings it became explicit that the use of this unfamiliar concept was a ploy intended to smuggle into documents the UN-blessed recognition by women’s organizations world-wide of a number of ‘rights’ usually rejected as immoral by pro-family women’s organizations. These rights included those of homosexuality to be regarded as equal to heterosexuality; total freedom and assistance for abortion; sex for adolescents; prostitution as a service industry as well as the adoption by governments of quotas for women in all areas of public life.

Unfortunately for ‘gender feminists’ there were English-speakers present from pro-family organizations who were familiar with the take-over of Women’s Studies programs in US universities. In consequence, fierce polemics ensued in the course of which the ‘gender perspective’ was exposed. Comparison between the different texts was elucidative: although ‘gender’ appeared over 60 times in the Feb 27, 1975, English draft, the equivalent words genero and genre were never used in the Spanish or French versions. Instead ‘gender’ was translated as sexo (sex) or hombres y mujeres (men and women) or with some other phrase. In some cases the English, French and Spanish each had a different meaning.

So it seems that there is something peculiarly anglo-centric about ‘gender’. Its critics were ferociously attacked by the ‘gender’ feminists who saw this as a reactionary onslaught on ‘political correctness’. Former US congresswoman Bella Abzug spoke for the ‘gender feminists’ and her claims were revealing:

The concept of gender is embedded in contemporary social, political and legal discourse. ….The meaning of the word gender has evolved as differentiated from the word sex to express the reality that women’s and men’s roles and status are socially constructed and subject to change…

The current attempt by several Member States to expunge the word gender from the Platform for Action and to replace it with the word sex is an insulting and demeaning attempt to reverse the gains made by women, to intimidate us, and to block further progress. We urge the small number of male and female delegates seeking to side-track and sabotage the empowerment of women to cease this diversionary tactic. They will not succeed. They will only waste precious time. We will not go back to subordinate inferior roles.39

Because the ‘gender feminists’ were better prepared and better funded, their unrepresentative ideas, although they were forced to be toned down, did in fact find their way into the final Beijing documents. This was no new phenomenon. The ‘gender perspective’ is to be encountered in a multitude of other UN materials as well as that of western government departments, those of the European Union and of the European Parliament.

Social conditioning and sexual identity

Rejection of relativism does not entail underestimation of the importance of social conditioning in the formation of identity. Simone de Beauvoir is famous for her oft-quoted remark that one is not born a woman but rather becomes one. This rather trivial observation has been granted far more weight than it deserved. In one sense it contains a banal truth. In another it contains a falsehood. Everybody is born male or female. The kind of men or women they become will, of course, be influenced by the way they are socialized. The experience and education of a child within its culture and the expectations it encounters are of great importance in forming its identity and character. Interaction between the innate and the culturally-shaped have long been discussed in the ‘nature versus nurture’ controversy in connexion with intelligence and other qualities. In the matter of sexual identity there is an added aspect and biological function may in a very primary sense influence the way an individual is socialized. If the survival conditions of a given society require females to be protected and dependent upon men, the culture will see to it that members of each sex are socialized accordingly. Experience will provide the growing human with many of the elements that enable it to construct its identity. The process is essentially an interactive one.

It seems to me of considerable importance that we are not born as selves, but that we have to learn that we are selves; in fact we have to learn to be selves40 bein self is partly the result of inborn dispositions and partly the result of experience, especially social experience. The new-born child has many inborn ways of acting and of responding, and many inborn tendencies to develop new responses and new activities. Among these tendencies is a tendency to develop into a person conscious of himself. But in order to achieve this, much must happen. A human child growing up in social isolation will fail to attain a full consciousness of self 41 All learned adaptation has a genetic basis in the sense that the heredity of the organism (its ‘genome’) must provide for the aptitude of acquiring new adaptations.42

In traditional societies, in modernizing ones and in our own day the cultural elements that contribute to the child’s consciousness of selfhood, have varied. It can be argued that only with women’s emancipation and the material possibilities of full participation in social and public life is the girl-child able to achieve full realization of self. The boy-child’s consciousness of identity is also subject to change. Sometimes nowadays for the worse. Instead of the male ideal evolving from the role of protector-dominator of women towards that of equal partner and companion, too many features of our culture are helping to produce boy-children who will turn into irresponsible aggressors. If ‘gender-theory’ gains in influence, as it aims to, it will also have a negative effect on the sense of identity of young women. The socialization (‘consciousness-raising’) engaged in by women’s studies aims at producing females who see themselves as victims of men, as ‘gender-fluid’ creatures hostile to the family and with their inborn vocation for motherhood suppressed. The damaging effects on the personalities of impressionable young girls caused by this kind of brain-washing are easy to predict. However, there are considerable difficulties for the success of such projects. The genetic predisposition of females—the essential basis of their identity—for motherhood and child-rearing are much stronger than the genetic predispositions of males for fatherhood. The latter need more positive socialization in order to become mature citizens. ‘Gender-feminists’ find it very difficult to convert ordinary women into changing their natural propensities. This is why they resort, as in the end do all revolutionaries, to administrative means to gain their ends, as we have seen with the Beijing case.

‘Gender feminists’ are also notable for their demagogy. To win support among vulnerable young women, as well as grossly distorting history they campaign against ‘sexual harassment’ and have extended the meaning of this expression beyond all reasonable bounds. The main effect of these campaigns is to cause women to feel more insecure (the victim cult) and to provoke in many young men more irresponsible behaviour than ever. To bolster these campaigns and other accusations of ‘patriarchal oppression’, many leading ‘gender theorists’ have had recourse to the ‘cooking’ of statistics over a wide field. Christina Hoff Summers has produced an impressive array of examples of this practice.41 Another demagogic ploy has been the demand for quotas or affirmative action which, if put into effect, can only damage the credibility of competent women and further irritate relations between men and women. A ‘hidden agenda’ that may well lie behind this demand will be suggested below.

Ethnicity and ‘gender’

‘Gay and Lesbian’ activist groups including ‘gender feminists’ make frequent declarations about ‘minority rights’ and tend to seek allies with activists among those ethnic groups which see themselves as disadvantaged. To maintain that anything significant other than physical features is biologically innate about race is generally regarded as redolent of racism. The desire of ‘gender’ theorists’ to make common cause with certain kinds of nationalism clearly owes itself to the subjacent intention of drawing parallels between ‘gender’ and ethnicity. Because there is a vast plurality of ethnic groups, why not a vast plurality of ‘genders’? Because ethnicity is often fluid, why not ‘gender’? Because nationalist protest and revolt are frequently against real oppression or discrimination, if ‘gender’ activists associate with them they too can be seen as victims. To insist on the essential nature of sexual identity is to be ‘sexist’ and that is bad, as it is bad to be a ‘racist’. This is an old story in the history of protest movements, especially the spurious ones. They amalgamate issues in order to confuse them.

Deconstructing the deconstructors

The final question to be answered is why I have chosen ‘gender theory’ and ‘gender feminists’ as my main concern in these pages and have said very little about contemporary challenges to male identity. The reason has to do with that essence of female identity, which clearly ‘gender feminists’ are very well aware of. When they propose not just affirmative action and parity for women in all areas of social life, but even amendments to the US Constitution to provide for two senators from each sex for each State of the Union, ‘gender feminists’ know what they are doing. Their aim is to obtain a captive constituency. They know only too well—they have discussed it often enough in their proposals for the virtual abolition of motherhood—that the majority of women, whether they work outside the home or not, have neither time nor inclination for positions of public power and are unlikely to want to give up motherhood and family life for the often shabby rewards of politics. Some lesbians may be mothers; most are not. This gives homosexual women a considerable edge over the generality of heterosexual women both in the labour and political market-place—an advantage that homosexual men do not enjoy with regard to heterosexual men. Nor can homosexual men aspire to lead grassroots men’s emancipation movements, did such exist.

Lesbian women, however, claim to speak for all women and to represent them in positions of power. Their quota, parity and similar proposals, if put into effect, would inevitably help them realize this ambition. It can be argued that ‘gender feminists’ have a strategy of achieving power on the backs of ordinary women, in the same way as Bolshevik middle-class intellectuals rose to power in Russia on the backs of the proletariat. And all in the name of the struggle against the powerful. Perhaps Foucault’s question needs to be reformulated: D’où parlent-elles? What are these unrepresentative women’s hidden interests? Many already proclaim their aim of overthrowing existing society. Who then will be Big Sister?

Although ‘queer theorists’ share with their female counterparts, general deconstructionist approaches there are crucial contradictions between them. The latter, as we have seen, insist on the primacy of social construction of sexual identity and would undermine or even go so far as trying to destroy its biological foundation. Many male homosexual spokesmen, however, are now beginning, as part of their demand for recognition of minority status, to insist on the importance of innate factors. ‘Gender feminism’ is unremitting in its hostility to marriage and the family. Many male homosexuals are asking for these institutions to be available to them. Discussion of such questions is beyond the scope of this paper. Except for one comment: the so-called ‘Gay and Lesbian’ alliance seems to be as basically incoherent and unstable as any alliance of these two with ethnic minority activism.

Conclusion

The replacement of the word ‘sex’ by the word ‘gender’ seems to be yet one more example of an old technique: what Orwell called Newspeak or Françoise Thom langue de bois. Give something another name and you obscure its true nature. Get people to use it and you have brain-washed them. As with ‘people’s democracy’ or ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, if you repeat an expression often enough and persuade people to use it, many of them end up accepting that it describes a real state of affairs. Here, in truth, reside power interests behind the use of words.

To use the word ‘gender’ instead of ‘sex’, no matter how innocently, is to give implicit credit to the new word’s hidden meanings: the suggestion that sexual identity is fluid; that there may be more than two ‘genders’; that people make ‘gender’ options. What ‘gender theory’ denies is that in the real world there exist only two sexes, male and female and the norm is for humans, like animals, to seek and prefer erotic relations with individuals of the opposite sex. In other words, mothers are women and fathers are men and parenting is most successful within a family structure. The very small minority which prefers necessarily sterile carnal union with members of their own sex still remain either biologically male or female with the potential of being fathers or mothers. The existence of a negligible number of unfortunates born with genital malformations who are physiologically pseudo-hermaphrodites ‘doesn’t prove that heterosexuality is not natural, any more than the fact that some babies are born blind proves that it isn’t natural for human beings to see’.44

In concluding this appraisal of ‘Gender as Identity’ I would like to quote from the last page of Dale O’Leary’s analysis of the Beijing meeting. It is a succinct and timely statement which should be pondered by everybody concerned with the human sciences and the clarification of identity questions in the area of sex:

The feminists have relied on the politeness of men. They have demanded that dangerous nonsense and utter stupidity be treated with respect. The Gender Agenda cannot be defeated until people are willing to stand up and say, ‘No more inclusive language, no more politically correct speech.’ We must refuse to say ‘gender’ when we mean ‘sex’. Those who are offended by reality and human nature will just have to live with it 45

Notes

1. Frederick Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (New York, 1986).

2. Norman Davies, Europe A History, (Oxford, 1996), p. 716.

3. Ibid., p.717.

4. The London literary circle known as the Bloomsbury Group, several of whose members were homosexual, frequently questioned sexual identity. See especially Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, a novel about a trans-sexual figure reincarnated over four centuries.

5. Mitchell B. Pearlstein, ‘Fatherlessness in the United States’, The Family in Global Transition, Ed. Gordon L Anderson, (PWPA, St. Paul, Minnesota,1997), pp 401-405.

6. Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West (New York 1926-28).

7. Arnold Joseph Toynbee, A Study of History (abbreviated version, London 1946).

8. For overviews see J.G. Merquior, Foucault (London, 1985) and Roger Scruton Thinkers of the New Left (London, 1985), pp.31-44. Scruton’s Modern Philosophy (London 1994) deals in several places with Post-modernism, Deconstructionism and Michel Foucault.

9. Michel Foucault, Histoire de la sexualité (Paris 1976).

10. Alfred Kinsey et al., Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male (Philadelphia 1948) and Sexual Behaviour in the Human Female (Philadelphia 1953).

11. Wardell Pomeroy, Dr Kinsey and the Institute for Sex Research (New York 1972).

12. Reisman and Eichel (co-authors), Kinsey, Sex and Fraud (l990).

13. Robert F. Michael, John H. Gagnon, Edward O. Laumann and Gina Kolata, Sex in America (Boston, 1994)

14. Jerry Z. Muller, ‘Coming Out Ahead: The Homosexual Moment in the Academy,’ First Things 35, August/September, 1993.

15. Harrap’s Standard French and English Dictionary (London, 1961).

16. Lucy Gilbert and Paula Webster, ‘The Dangers of Femininity,’ Gender Differences: Sociology or Biology?, p.41, cited in O’Leary, Gender: The Deconstruction of Women, (hearth Magazine 1995).

17. Adrienne Rich, ‘Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,’ Blood, Bread and Poetry: Selected Prose, (1979-85, New York,) p.57, cited in O’Leary 1995, p.6.

18. Ibid. p.70, cited in O’Leary 1995, p.6.

19. Ibid. p.35, cited in O’Leary 1995 p. 6.

20. Kate Bornestein, Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women and the Rest of Us (New York,) p.52, (cited in Dale O’Leary, The Gender Agenda: Redefining Equality (Lafayette, La. 1997). The author is a man who underwent a sex-change operation.

21. Ibid., p.115

22. Anne Falsto-Sterling, ‘The Five Sexes: Why Male and Female are Not Enough’ in The Sciences (March-April 1993) p.24

23. Mary Hunt of ‘Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual’ at Re-Imaging Conference, Minneapolis, 1993, cited in O’Leary, 1997, p. 79

24. Christine Riddiough, ‘Socialism, Feminism and Gay/Lesbian Liberation,’ Women and Revolution, ed. Lydia Sargent (Boston 1981) p.87.

25. O’Leary, 1997. p.112

26. Judith Butler, Gender Trouble, Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York, 1990), p.6

27. Ibid., p.7

28. Miriam Schneir, ed. The Vintage Book of Feminism (London, 1995) p. 245

29. Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution (New York, 1970 and 1993), (excerpts published in Schneir, op.cit. pp.246-256.)

30. Firestone, op.cit. p.9.

31. Ibid., pp. 10-11.

32. Ibid., p.10.

33. Ibid., p.12

34. Ibid., p.59.

35. Ibid., p.60.

36. Ibid., p. 240

37. Ibid. (cited in Schneir l995, 249))

38. For a full account of the way the ‘gender’ issue was treated in Beijing, see O’Leary, 1997

39. Ibid. p.86.87.

40. Karl R. Popper and John C. Eccles, The Self and Its Brain, (London, 1977), p. 109

41. Ibid., p. 111.

42. Ibid., p. 121.

43. Christina Hoff Summers, Who Stole Feminism? (New York, 1994)

44. O’Leary, 1997, p.70.

45. Ibid., .213

­­­­____________

.

2 comentários:

Xico disse...

É bom podermos ter acesso a escritos na blogosfera com memória!
Este tipo de media tem ainda muito pouca idade e é com grande satisfação que vejo chegarem-se a ele "os velhos" (aqui no sentido de sábios).
Nem sempre a velhice é um posto nem a Patrícia espera concerteza que a tratem com complacência. Apesar de nem sempre estar de acordo com os seus textos, foi com muito agrado que adicionei os seus sites aos meus favoritos.
Belíssimo texto que tem contudo de ser bem digerido (o inglês requer maior esforço na concentração) e provocar contestação e polémica inteligente de forma a podermos entendê-lo melhor.
Um abraço
Xico

Patrícia Lança disse...

Obrigada,Xico. Este site ainda está em construção e há uma certa dificuldade em publicar correctamente as notas de rodapé. Conto com os leitores como V. para exercer um bicadinho de paciência. Um abraço, Patrícia