Professor Stella Sandford, a lecturer in Modern European Philosophy, gave a lively and absorbing 30-minute lecture about feminism at the radical bookshop Housmans last Wednesday. Sandford chose to tackle the highly contentious sex vs. gender debate within feminism.
So what is the sex vs. gender debate, and why is it important? In feminist thought, it has widely been agreed that sex constitues biological, predetermined aspects of our nature (such as the fact that women give birth), while gender is determined by societal expectations and demands (imposed values of femininity – things like the need women may feel to wear make-up through societal pressures).
So, from these definitions of sex and gender, it would appear that it should be easy to seperate out sex from gender, right? Wrong.
The problem is that sex and gender can overlap. As Simone de Beauviour famously said: “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”
Sandford believes that this is why what consitutes ‘sex’ needs to be examined. She compellingly argued that it’s both feminists and anti-feminists who have seen sex as determining, and this has led feminists to leave sex largely uninterrogated and ‘unthought.’
So what needs to be done and where does feminism need to go? Sex needs to be recognised not as a given, but a notional construction that needs a thought-through response, which so far hasn’t really been done.
And here’s where it gets really interesting. Some theorists have argued that sex differences were initially constructed to keep capitalism going by promoting a constant state of consumption.
Yet the patriarchal system and entrenchment of sex differences can’t be explained solely through an analysis of capitalism, simply because patriarchy existed well before the system of capitalism.
In addition, Engels loftily claimed that: “The emancipation of woman will only be possible when woman can take part in production on a large, social scale, and domestic work no longer claims anything but an insignificant amount of her time.”
Yet many women in current Western society are not confined to the domestic sphere. They are free to choose their own careers but are still constrained by sex and gender – even though, according to Engels, they should be ’emancipated’. This seems to suggest that socialist feminism can only go so far in explaining gender inequalities.
So the continuing sex vs. gender debate is just as pertinent as ever, yet sex needs to be more thoroughly investigated and a Marxist analysis arguably doesn’t go far enough in explaining why constructs of sex and gender exist in the modern day.
Where to go from here? Sandford made mention of radical feminist Shulamith Firestone’s statement that “we should abolish sex difference.” The only way to do that is to keep asking questions and never take anything from granted when it comes to gender relations.
I thought it fitting to end with a quote from Cordelia Fine’s recent acclaimed book Delusions of Gender, that summarises just why the sex vs. gender debate needs to be understood, and the harm that gender binarism can cause:
“When the environment makes gender salient, there is a ripple effect on the mind. We start to think of ourselves in terms of our gender, and stereotypes and social expectations become more prominent in the mind. This can change self-perception, alter interests, debilitate or enhance ability, and trigger unintentional discrimination. In other words, the social context influences who you are, how you think and what you do.”