A World without Gender?

Judith Lorber. Handbook of Gender and Women’s Studies. Editor: Kathy Davis, Mary Evans, Judith Lorber. 2006. Sage Publication.

Feminists have long tried to attain gender equality by changing the dynamics of interaction between women and men, redressing gender imbalances in politics and control of valued resources, altering gender-discriminatory social practices, and challenging the invisibility and ‘naturalness’ of what is taken for granted about women and men. But after an initial revolutionary foray, they have not pushed these agendas to the point of calling for the abolition of gender boundaries and categories, with the goal of doing away with them altogether. I argue here that it is the bureaucratic and legal binary structure of gender that initiates gender inequality and therefore needs to be dismantled. I raise the question of whether it is possible to have a world without gender.

The Persistence of Gender

The social construction perspective on gender recognizes the equal importance of agency (what people do) and structure (what results from what they do). Gender operates at one and the same time to give individuals status and identities and to shape their everyday behavior, and also as a significant factor in face-to-face relationships and organizational practices. Each level supports and maintains the others, but—and this is the crucial aspect of gender—the effects of gender work top down.

Because it works from social categorization to the individual, the gendered social order is very resistant to individual challenge. Its power is such that people act in gendered ways based on their position within the gender structure without reflection or question. We ‘do gender’ and participate in its construction once we have learned to take our place as a member of a gendered social order. Our gendered practices construct and maintain the gendered social order. But our practices also change it. As it changes, and as we participate in different social institutions and organizations throughout our lives, our gendered behavior changes.

I am arguing here that we have to go further than changing gendered practices and modifying the content of the gendered social order to achieve gender equality. To have a gender revolution, we have to challenge the whole institution based on the binary divisions of gender that are deeply rooted in every aspect of social life and social organization in most societies. In the sense of an underlying principle of how people are categorized and valued, gender is differently constructed throughout the world and throughout history. But the basic principle—a social order built on two sets of different types of people—remains.

At the present time in the Western post-industrial world, the gendered social order persists without much rationale. Women and men have legal equality, supported by a public rhetoric of equal rights and equal responsibilities for family support, household maintenance, and child care, as well as for individual economic independence—none of which are translated into laws. There are still occasional claims for men’s ‘natural’ domination over women and women’s ‘natural’ subordination, ostensibly backed by research on brain organization, hormonal input, or personality structure, but these claims are increasingly delegitimated by the presence of women prime ministers, university presidents, and Nobel prize winners.

Unfortunately, the rhetoric and legality of gender equality mask the underlying structure of gender inequality. Modern machinery and computers even out physical capabilities, and women are often better educated than men, but the post-industrial gendered social order still reproduces gender inequality in the job market and in wage scales. Men can run vacuum cleaners and change diapers, but women are still the main household workers and managers and the primary parents and so lose out in the job market. Men still think they have a right to women’s bodies, to exploit them sexually and to dictate whether or not they should have children. Women’s presence in the political arena varies widely. Wars and violent national conflicts especially perpetuate gender divisions.

As pervasive as gender is, because it is constructed and maintained through daily interaction, it can be resisted and reshaped through degendering practices. We need gender trouble-makers to challenge the way gender is still built into the Western world’s overall social system, interpenetrating the organization of the production of goods and services, kinship and family, sexuality, emotional relationships, and the minutiae of daily life.

Gendered practices have been questioned, but the overall legitimacy of the gendered social order is deeply ingrained and currently bolstered by scientific studies on supposed inborn differences between females and males. The ultimate touchstone is pregnancy and childbirth. Yet procreative and other biological differences are part of the gendered social order, which is so pervasive that the behavior and attitudes it produces are perceived as natural, including women’s greater predisposition to nurturance and bonding. This belief in natural—and thus, necessary—differences legitimates many gender inequalities and exploitations of women.

Feminist movements have focused on the inequalities and exploitations, especially in the gendered work world and domestic division of labor, but have found that as one set of gendered practices is eliminated, others rise to take their place. To keep women down, differences from men must be maintained and used as a rationale for women’s inferior status. Feminists have either minimized these differences, to little effect, or maximized and valorized them, also to little effect. The problem is that the focus has been on differences between women and men as individuals or as social actors. These differences are a means to an end—legitimation and justification of gendered social orders. It is the foundation of gendered social orders, gender itself, gender as a social institution, that must be delegitimized.

But aren’t biological sex differences the ultimate barrier to degendering? And what about sexuality? Won’t degendering flounder on sexual desire for a member of the opposite or same gender? My argument is two-fold: biological sex and sexuality themselves are not clear binary opposites, and both are deeply intertwined with the social aspects of gender. The complexities of the gender system—it is a hierarchy of race and ethnicity and social class as well-complicate the categories of biological sex, sexual identities, and sexual desire. None of these are binary, and none produce gender. Genes, hormones, physiology, and bodies (what is summarized as ‘sex differences’) are socially constructed as gendered in Western society; they are not the source of gender as a social status. Like bodies, sexuality is socially gendered but has multiple manifestations that create more than one ‘opposite sex.’ Sexuality follows gender scripts; it does not create them. If sexual behavior were the source of gender categories, there would be many more than heterosexual man, heterosexual woman, gay man, lesbian woman.

Gender is so deeply embedded in our lives because it is a social institution. It creates structure and stability, seeps into the practices of many social roles, has a long history, and is virtually unquestioned. Institutionalized patterns of acting and thinking are learned so early and reinforced that they seem impervious to change. Nonetheless, institutions evolve as societies evolve. The institution of gender has certainly evolved in Western societies—women and men now have formal equality in all the major social spheres. In many countries, no laws prevent women from achieving what they can, and many laws help them do it by preventing discrimination and sexual harassment. More and more countries are ratifying laws to protect women’s procreative and sexual rights, and to designate rape, battering, and genital mutilation as human rights crimes.

But women are still responsible for child care and men for economic support of children, skewing women’s wages in the job market and chances for career advancement. The continued gendered division of labor in the job market and in the home is the bedrock of gender inequality. At the very least, the gendered division of family work and the gendered practices of work organizations and their interconnections need to be degendered if we are to create true and permanent gender equality.

Degendering in Practice

Degendering as a viable form of resistance has to be deliberate, structural, and independent of sexed bodies if existing gendered social orders are to be transformed. Degendering needs to be focused on how people are sorted and allocated tasks in work organizations, schools, small groups, families, and other familiar social groupings. Degendering means not assigning tasks in the home and workplace by gender. Degendering means not grouping children by gender in schools. Degendering means confronting gender expectations in face-to-face interaction and underplaying gender categories in language (not saying ‘ladies and gentlemen’ but ‘colleagues and friends’).

Many people already use the degendered and legally neutral terms ‘partner,’ ‘constant companion,’ ‘significant other,’ or ‘beloved’ for the person in their long-term emotional relationships. Degendered kinship designations, such as ‘child,’ ‘parent,’ and ‘sibling’ could liberate us further from stereotypical gendered expectations. Especially important is to stop comparing children by gender and not ever saying ‘boys will be boys’ or ‘just like a girl.’

Where language itself is built on gender categories, developing gender-neutral ways of addressing and referring to people will be a major and revolutionary enterprise, but its accomplishment would go a long way towards structural degendering. Similarly, in theocracies where the state religion separates women and men and treats them markedly unequally through religious law, degendering cannot take place unless personal status laws are secularized and made gender-neutral. Non-state religions should be free to continue to separate women and men.

Even with degendering, people who wish to can continue to identify themselves as men, women, girls, boys, and to display femininity or masculinity, as they define it, in names, clothing, and behavior. Displays of dominance or aggression, however, would not be a prerogative of men, nor would displays of subordination or submission be confined to women; with degendering, such currently gendered behavior could be expected of anyone. People can be consistent in their gender presentation and display in all phases of their lives, or varied by situation.

What is most important about degendering is that formal bureaucratic categories and the formal structures of organizations not be built on gender divisions, nor should workplaces, households, and child care.

As degendering agents in our everyday lives, we can confront the ubiquitous bureaucratic and public gender binaries just as transgenders do—by thinking about whether we want to conform or challenge. We could stop ticking off the M/F boxes at the top of every form we fill out or ask about the need for them. Shannon Faulkner, a girl, got into the Citadel, an all-boys military school, because the admission form did not have an M/F check-off box; it was assumed that only boys would apply. All her credentials and biographical information qualified her for admission, but when the Citadel administration found out she was a girl, she was immediately disqualified. The person didn’t change; her qualifications remained the same. The legal status – and all the stereotypical baggage about capabilities that comes with it—changed. It was on that basis that she successfully claimed gender discrimination and challenged the all-male status of the Citadel. That is precisely what degendering would do.

In societies where women are severely disadvantaged, degendering may not be the best strategy to achieve women’s rights. Gender sensitivity may be necessary to bring attention to how seemingly neutral policies are insidious for women. It may also be necessary to compare women and men in the economic sphere, but here the effects of education, income, and social class standing often mean that women and men cannot be treated as homogeneous global categories.

If we are going to conduct a campaign of degendering, it can be everywhere and ongoing, because gender so imbues our lives. If this sounds like the ‘good old days’ of pervasive personal politics, it is—but rather than just fighting sexism or the oppression of women by male-dominated institutions, it includes men and attends as well to other subordinating social statuses. Most of all, degendering directly targets the processes and practices of gendering and their outcome—gendered people, practices, and power. Deliberate degendering is not ignoring gender, which allows gendered processes and practices to proceed unhindered. To deliberately degender, you have to attend to those processes and practices in order to not do them.

Degendering will not do away with wars and hunger and economic disparities. But I do think that degendering will undercut the patriarchal and oppressive structure of Western societies and social institutions and give all of us the space to use our energies to demilitarize, work for peaceable solutions to conflicts, grow and distribute food, level the gaps between social classes.

The feminist task of gaining citizenship rights and economic equality for most of the world’s women is undeniably of first priority, but I will suggest a second task that can be done where women are not so terribly unequal—challenging the binary structures just a little bit more by asking why they are necessary at all. I think that it is only by undercutting the gender system of legal statuses, bureaucratic categories, and official and private allocation of tasks and roles that gender equality can be permanently achieved.