Thinking the (non) gender

14 novembre 2005 par  Sylvia

How about inventing a new vision of male-female relationships ? How about not only denouncing inequalities but rethinking our definitions and borders of what we call gender ? Here I present some theoretical elements to help us overcome certain conceptions of men and women that may prove to be too narrow.

Gender : overcoming a biological explanation of the hierarchy of the sexes
Let us recall what gender is. The idea appeared in the seventies in anglo-american literature to allow for a distinction between biological sex and social construction of the feminine and masculine (1). When I speak of the sex of a person I refer myself to their anatomy, whereas gender means anything else that has been internalised as model of masculinity and femininity. The sex thus indicates the biological differences that are recognised ; gender the social classification of male and female. It includes all the differences between men and women on an individual level as well as with respect to social roles and cultural representations. Sociology has largely shown that the differences are hardly natural but rather a product of a social construction that begins at birth, continues throughout childhood and continues in all our adult life. Women are constantly reminded of a certain femininity that is expected of them, both insidiously and subtly (Bourdieu (2) speaks of symbolic violence to express the adherence of the dominated to the dominant), as well as very real psychological and physical violence (need it be recalled that every month, in France, six women die as a result of intra-family violence ?). Men also suffer from a socialisation that forces them to show off their virility. I shall not develop further these questions of differential socialisation since this is not the main point.

Overcoming the notion of gender
The notion of gender needs to be criticised and rethought. The thought of Christine Delphy is very helpful from this point of view (3).

She explains first of all that the adoption of the concept of gender brings to light three elements : the social and essentially arbitrary nature of what is understood to be a difference between the sexes ; a singular (the gender) as a basis for the principle of distinction (and not only different parts, masculine and feminine) ; the notion of a hierarchy of sexes. In the end, however, this sociologist disapproves of our tendency to think gender simply in terms of sex ; as a social dichotomy constructed on the pre-determined dichotomy of biology. Gender is seen as the content and sex the receptacle. The possibility of an independence between sex and gender is not raised. She believes that most authors ask themselves what kind of classification sex gives rise to, but do not go on to ask why sex should give rise to any kind of classification. They thereby posit the foundational status of sex with respect to gender, sex here causes gender. Christine Delphy herself believes that gender precedes sex, and that the latter is simply a marker of a social division, employed in order to recognise and identify the dominant and dominated. Hence to establish a correspondence between sex and gender is, in her eyes, not one between a natural element and a social construct, but an opposition of one social construct with another. We are faced with the representation that society has of “biology”. (In an interesting article, Nicole-Claude Mathieu (4), referring to Paola Tabet (5) gives an interesting materialist explanation for the “biologification” of the female body to encourage reproduction.)

Christine Delphy explains in the following that several feminists try to abolish the existing hierarchy between men and women without trying to dissolve the distinction, equivalent to emptying the content whilst keeping the receptacle. This denies that the categories of male and female are themselves a result of the hierarchy, of the system of domination. As a result, if the hierarchy is dissolved, the ideas themselves of male and female will disappear - a utopian plan, of course, but one that allows us to think about gender and our objectives. These concepts cannot exist without an undervaluation of the one in relation to the other. The distinction between the sexes only serves as a mental construction for male domination. We must escape our current prejudice of a complementary relationship between the sexes. One cannot imagine the values of an egalitarian society as the sum or combination of the male and the female today. Created within and by the hierarchy these cannot survive without it. We must therefore imagine a world where differences between sexes would lose their sense, which is very difficult indeed.

To be continued
Utopias allow us to define together the objectives of a society towards which we would like to move. The idea of a society where the differences between the sexes do not mean more than the difference between blue and green eyes seems appealing to me. That in no way implies that we lose diversity, to the contrary, to recognise all our differences, but without any representing a mark of same or of honour. To be a woman today is to be divergent from the masculine norm (as being black also diverges from a white norm). In the world we have before our eyes here to be a woman wouldn’t be any more than one difference amongst many, as it would be to be a man, white, heterosexual etc. As it has been well put by Pascale Molibier (6), our individuality could then express itself in all its beauty instead of being enclosed in its own characteristics.

Let’s get on with our utopia, let’s overcome gender !!


(1) Ann Oakley, Sex, Gender and Society, Temple Smith, London, 1972
(2) Pierre Bourdieu, La Domination masculine, Paris, Seuil, 1998
(3) Christine Delphy, « Penser le genre : quels problèmes ? », Sociologie, IRESCO, CNRS, 1991.
(4) Nicole-Claude Mathieu, « Identité sexuelle/sexuée/de sexe. Trois modes de conceptualisation du rapport entre sexe et genre », in Daune-Richard, Anne-Marie, Marie-Claude Hurtig et Marie-France Pichevin, Catégorisation de sexe et constructions scientifiques, Aix-en Provence, Université d’Aix-en Provence, 1989.
(5) Paola Tabet, « Fertilité naturelle et reproduction forcée », in L’Arraisonnement des femmes. Essais en anthropologie des sexes, Paris, EHESS, 1985.
(6) Pascale Molinier, L’Enigme de la femme active. Egoïsme, sexe et compassion, Paris, Payot, 2003. Wonderful, not to be missed !
(7) for this topic see also : Françoise Collin, « Pluralité Différence Identité », Présences, n°38, octobre 1991.