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.