That’s no social construct, that’s my wife

Here are some things that are real: money, laws, relationships. They don’t have any physical presence, they can’t be picked up or smelt, they apparently only exist by virtue of a communal agreement to act as though they exist – but all the same, they’re real things. I think that this is what philosopher John Searle refers to as “social reality”, and it contains pretty much everything that’s important about your conscious life and your identity, including gender.

“Man” and “woman” are social constructs. They’re often deeply, horribly flawed social constructs, but the discovery that gender is a social construct doesn’t mean it ceases to exist. In Delusions Of Gender (which I’ve written about a lot this year, and which you really ought to read), Cordelia Fine shows how many of our beliefs about what is innately “male” or “female” are born out of simple sexism. Over and over again, she unpicks allegedly scientific findings about (say) the rational man and the emotional woman, revealing the shabby methods and self-satisfied reasoning that allow essentialist fables to be presented as empirical facts.

But what she also shows is that, while almost everything we believe to be true about gender is extraneous, it’s still intensely important. From the moment a baby’s sex is known, even when they’re still in the womb, adults begin to cultivate the infant’s gender identity; and because infants are possessed by a furious, survivalist need to understand and belong in the world they’re born into, they eagerly grasp these gender cues and learn to conform to them.

That makes gender part of the fundamental grammar of identity. Acting outside of an established type causes psychological anxiety (“stereotype threat”) which is most easily resolved by retreating to a culturally acceptable role – it’s this, argues Fine, and not innate ability that explains the absence of women from technical and scientific specialisms. When women do succeed in traditionally masculine fields, there’s a tendency for them to secure their position by downplaying their own feminity and undermining other women, as one study of women in male-dominated workplaces found:

“… the easiest solution to the problem of being female in a setting in which women are made to feel inferior and do not belong is to become as unfeminine as possible. At the most superficial level, makeup, jewellery and skirts – icons of femininity that draw attention to their wearer’s feminity – were rarely in evidence, the researchers noted. The women also took up antifemale attitudes, denigrating other women as emotional, and ‘heaped scorn’ on women-focused programmes…”

What comes out of this for me is that a radical feminist idea of equality as “[ending] the charade of gender” (Julie Bindel’s definition) is wildly misplaced, or at least so idealistic as to be useless. Given the cultural importance of gender and the primacy of it in our ideas of who we are, this is a profoundly sticky social reality. Dislodging it would be the work of centuries, if it’s possible at all (Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s comparative anthropology in Mother Nature and Mothers And Others shows markedly different gender conventions across societies, but there’s no society as far as I know that has no gender conventions at all). The form it takes is variable, but there are very good reproductive reasons why the social fact of gender might be a constant.

And as well as being arguably useless, it’s possible that such radical feminism is actually harmful to the majority of women who aren’t practising radical feminists. There’s a bias towards seeing the masculine as “normal” with femininity as confected or disposable, and a tendency to present conventionally feminine activities as inherently demeaning – which in turn feeds into an attitude of contempt for women generally, similar to the dynamic described by Fine. “Woman” is indeed a social construct, but it takes more than telling someone they don’t exist to liberate them.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2011; photo (detail of Isaiah Zagar mosaic, Ode To The Feminine) by Katie Tegtmeyer, used under Creative Commons

5 thoughts on “That’s no social construct, that’s my wife

  1. I don’t really see how Fine’s book about how gender roles are created rather than intrinsically genetic means that ending the gender charade is impossible. Surely it’s proof that it can be done, since it couldn’t if it was something fixed and genetic within us? I do also find the idea that something will be difficult and take a long time not a reason not to try. I think if we go for more stuff, we might end up getting less stuff but we’ll probably get some stuff, tends to be my reasoning. Whereas if we don’t bother trying, then everything just stays the same.

    I also don’t see how there are any good reproductive reasons why the social, rather than biological facts of male and female would be relevant, other than those roles are the ones that we have coded for, and so

    Would also like to make the point that actually the people I’ve seen demeaning traditionally feminine activities are men, mostly right wing anti-feminist men, rather than radical feminists. I have seen radical feminists pointing out that feminine activities are demeaned, and also that a lot of activities traditionally thought of as feminine are the ones associated with dirt, hard work, low pay and not given any respect, which seems different from demeaning them as activities. I think saying ‘hang on, why do we always have to be the ones doing the cleaning, why is that a gendered activity?’ etc. is totes relevant. I may have misunderstood your point though, because I wasn’t entirely sure what activities you meant or in what way.

    I find radical feminist concepts useful because they root sexism in the idea of a system of patriarchy, which I find essential to understand how stuff works, rather than one off sexist ideas. It covers a huge amount of thought and action, so dismissing all of it as arguably useless is I think a bit odd.

    Like it or not, in order to survive in a patriarchy, both cis and trans women have to perform a certain amount of femininity, and doing it well is often vital for transwomen’s safety, so we can’t have a go at women who do it, regardless of the fact that in a non-patriarchal world we wouldn’t have to do it, or we could choose which behaviours to perform, and who knows what they would look like? The radical feminists I read and talk to point this out, but don’t bash on women for doing it. Does that make sense?

    I don’t think the ideas and system of radical feminism is harmful to women, although the problem I have with some groups and people is the amount of transmisogyny exhibited (notably by Julie Bindel among others) which I think ties into the idea of gender roles being mutable but completely fails to understand that there’s a different between being trans and a cis woman putting on make-up.

    I think the gender essentialist view of male and female people only also does a lot of trans people a disservice by making them effectively invisible.

    There are also a huge amount of people who do not or cannot define as strictly male or female, so what happens to them? In these kind of cases, redefining the rules of what’s male and female is important for actual survival.

    I hope that all kind of made sense and wasn’t too messy. I do disagree with you, but I hope it makes sense why, even though I don’t feel like I explained it great!

  2. This a response to one particular definition of radical feminism, so no, I’m not refuting the whole of radical feminism – only the particular definition that Julie Bindel put to me yesterday in a conversation about Fine. I do think there’s a difference though between showing that something is mutable and showing it’s dispensable. Gender can take lots of forms, but I’m far from convinced that a society which doesn’t somehow recognise reproductive difference as a social truth is possible.

    It terms of “conventional feminine activities” I was especially thinking of the things given in the Fine extract above: makeup, fashion, jewellery. (Tanya Gold, keynote speaker for the Fawcett society this year, so a reasonable pick for a public face of feminism, has been extensively dismissive of fashion for example.) if we recognise stereotype threat, we have to recognise that “feminine” identity is very important for many women – so important that if society makes women choose between a job they want and appearing fully female, man will ditch the job. Feminist voices shouldn’t be reinforcing that divide.

    Yes, I agree that idealism is important for driving the long game. I’d just like some more recognition of how long that game actually is. Reading the sections in Delusions on early socialisation does drive home how unthinkable a world without gender is – even to people who think they’re without prejudice. I know I’ve failed hugely at gender neutral parenting. I also suspect that if I’d succeeded, I’d have raised a daughter completely out of place.

  3. Aha, got it more with your radical feminist bits. Also read link that I originally did not spot was a link, which helped!

    I agree that feminist voices in no way should be criticising and dismissing women, and it’s one of the things that most depresses me when I see it happening. I do think, however, that there is a lot of value in asking questions about how many of these things are a free choice in a patriarchal society, and educating people about why we might choose them when we do especially when it’s an activity that women are expected to do and men aren’t. I have read some really good stuff addressing it, mostly the obvious that I’m sure you have, like the Beauty Myth etc. I think it’s rarely feminist voices that reinforce that choice between jobs and femininity, but I haven’t read anything by Tanya Gold, so I’m prepared to be disappointed!

    I’m re-reading the parenting bits in Delusions of Gender with interest as I’m now expecting a baby in about 4 weeks, along with some awesome 70s books about non-sexist childraising which are lovely and idealistic, in terms of what you can do vs the entirety of society, but amazingly unrealistic at times. I think it’ll all be a negotiation in terms of what messages we would like a child to have and what it gets from everywhere else, but obviously have no clue how it will work really until we get there.

    I did really like your piece about lego the other day with that in mind as well. I do remember lego as a ‘gender neutral’ toy where all the pieces looked like boys. Have yet to check out the new stuff but I will soon I am sure.

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