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Posted by on Aug 26, 2013 | 6 comments

In Which I Pose A Series of Unanswered, Haunting Questions about Gender

Gender Question

Equality, or difference? Sameness, or radical otherness? Gender essentialism, or ultimate genderlessness?

This is the fundamental question of feminism.[1] Are men and women fundamentally different? And if so, in what ways? If so, how ought society be structured?

Feminists, as well as people across the spectrum who don’t identify as such, have answered this gender question of equality versus difference in nearly every way imaginable. While one of the most salient features of feminist theory/criticism is that there IS no single (hegemonic) formulation of said theory/criticism, one can usually observe trends in the hectic diversity of opinion to discern which views hold sway in the cultural moment. For example, in many academic and legal circles, gender essentialism[2]—that which presumes the radical otherness of man from woman—is thought of as a relic of an older era of feminism, or at least as an unsatisfactory answer to the question of equality versus difference.[3] Saying that men and women are different in essence leads us straight into a quagmire of increasingly difficult questions such as:

  • From where do we learn the essential features of woman and man?
    • Are they in nature? Are they limited to biology? To physiology?
    • Are they divinely ordained?
    • Are they based on or deduced from individual experience? If a man acts nurturingly, is he momentarily acting in a womanly manner? When a woman acts aggressively, is she acting manly?
  • If we choose essentialism, must we then presume an ontology not just of gender but of reality? An order of being?
    • If ontology is necessary, then must it be a Platonist ontology of perfect Forms: Male and Female, Tree and Chair, and Truth, Beauty and Goodness?
    • Is there an alternate metaphysical option at our disposal?

According to a fairly representative cohort of German feminists (and large swaths of the philosophical community who accept the postmodern critique of western reason), the epoch of transcendental philosophy and of metaphysics is over, and since, in the words of Herta Nagl-Docekal and Cornelia Klinger,  “[t]here is no longer a heaven that would ordain the laws of human destiny; there is no longer a great book of nature out of which it can be read,” we can have no essential femininity.[4] Summarizing this position, the philosopher Sandra Harding concludes, “[o]nce essential and universal man dissolves, so does his companion, woman.”[5]

If we say, along with these feminist philosophers, that men and women are not fundamentally different beyond their most basic biological distinctions, then the choice left to us is to say that women and men are equal, the same, and in the most extreme articulation, genderless. But that takes us out of the frying pan and throws us into the fire.

If men and women are equal (i.e., essentially the same) and therefore contribute the same skill sets, dispositions, perspectives and sensitivities to any given sphere, then why need we worry about gender quotas in previously all-male sectors like corporate business, the academy, church leadership, and any other number of ‘public’ arenas?[6] If a male philosophy professor and a female philosophy professor—being equal and essentially the same—are capable of the same quality of research and teaching (because, on this view, all humans are equally rational, nurturing, communicative, emotionally intelligent, etc), then why need we struggle for an even distribution of (put crassly) vaginas and penises in a department’s faculty? If a man can preach as compelling a sermon as a woman, why need we worry about having them take turns behind the pulpit? If we’re all humans, indistinguishable in essence from one another, how do we conceive of, justify, and execute the fundamental liberal-democratic demand for identity-specific representation?

In the face of such questions, we instinctively strain against total equality and total difference; neither seems to capture our experience of the world. The German philosophers Nagl-Docekal and Klinger, whom I quoted earlier, would argue that the best way to think about gender is as “the effect of a discursive constellation.”[7] But what does that leave us with—networks of features which swirl in vaguely distinguishable clusters, and which mutate with time and cultural influence and material circumstance?

Unsatisfied with the ambiguity? Me too.

[1] Incidentally, the question of equality versus difference is the fundamental question of identity politics writ large. Much of the discussion around sex and gender roles could be analogously applied to issues of racial representation, ageism, etc.

[2] Gender essentialism is defined for my purposes with the following shorthand. It presumes that (1) all women have features x, y, and z. All humans with x, y, and z are women and (2) All men have features a, b and c. All humans with a, b, and c, are men. We can know with some certainty all such gender-defining features.

[3]Conservatives (religious and otherwise) oddly end up on the same page as (some brands of) radical feminists about essential femininity, aiming to go back to nature to find its features and characteristics. While conservatives do so in hopes of maintaining a certain kind of family structure (e.g., woman as nurturing mother, man as rational head of household, etc), some feminists look for a primeval womanliness as a source of political or cultural renewal, even emancipation from patriarchal constraints on feminine life and its full expression.

[4] Herta Nagl-Docekal and Cornelia Klinger, “Introduction: Feminist Philosophy in German,” trans. James Dodd, in Continental Philosophy in Feminist Perspective: Re-reading the Canon in German, ed. Herta Nagl-Docekal and Cornelia Klinger (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000), 14.

[5] Sandra Harding, “The Instability of the Analytical Categories of Feminist Theory,” in Sex and Scientific Inquiry, ed. Sandra Harding and Jean F. O’Barr (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 284. For the Christian tradition, particularly for Thomists and their philosophical antecedents, such an outright dismissal of ontology is not an option, but that’s a discussion for another post.

[6] For this profound (and disturbing) insight I am entirely indebted to my brilliant husband, Ryan Kelley, who can spot a paradox from a mile away, and who lets me plagiarize his epiphanies.

[7] Nagl-Docekal and Klinger, “Introduction,” 15.

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  • JFP

    Curious: Are you considering it a given that “gender quotas” are generally good?

    • I consider it a given that an all-male faculty, an all male church leadership, an all-male board of trustees, and really any group of all-male power holders and decision makers is a problem. Such arrangements seems to neglect both the interests and the skill sets of other members of the population (see: the history of the world). But does this make me a gender essentialist? I don’t want to be one! So I don’t know what to do!

      I think it’s a terrible idea, for example, to hire women faculty who may or may not have the requisite qualifications or capabilities, simply in order to even out gender distribution. Institutions are the most effective when they’re meritocracies. And hiring semi-competent women for a diversity quota will likely only perpetuate stereotypes about male superiority in field X. HOWEVER, I believe we as a society have the responsibility to provide the necessary conditions in which women can indeed be/become as qualified and capable as men in a given field (e.g. teaching them to read and write, providing maternity leave, etc).

      • Brett Swearingen

        “I don’t want to be one!”

        Maybe not the best way to discern truth… 🙂

        What if you just acknowledged that gender IS real — aka men and women ARE different — enjoy how lovely and beautiful that is — but also that people are individuals — like those bad-ass lady mathematicians and men who can communicate like Oprah. Both to me are clearly true. Maybe call it essentialism-lite…or maybe just drop the world altogether because it seems to give you the heebie-jeebies 🙂


        p.s. Congrats on getting accepted into the Ph.D. program!!! Your program of study sounds amazing!

  • Maggie

    Maybe this is obvious, but even if men and women are essentially the same, gender still exists as a social construct, and a powerful one at that. Our social construct around gender privileges men and oppresses women. So when we see a church or a faculty with no women, the problem isn’t necessarily “think of the completely unique set of skills and traits that women could bring to this!” but could be more “If men and women are essentially similar, the absence of women points to discrimination and prejudice.” Women have something unique to offer because every individual human being does. When women are not included in places of leadership, we are depriving ourselves of what potential women leaders have to offer, not necessarily as women, but primarily as humans.

    Honestly, I do think there are differences between men and women, but they seem to change over time and across cultures. Even if some things are more essential, there are always substantial and varied exceptions to every rule. Like maybe if you looked all the dudes and ladies in the world, dudes would tend to be better than ladies at math and ladies would tend to be better at writing and communicating. That’s not a helpful thing to know when you have a female and male applicant for a writing or math related position…. cause there are tons of awesome dude writers and bad ass lady mathematicians. So, I think the assumption of sameness is our safest bet, for now… you know, until we destroy the patriarchy… 😉

    • Eva

      Totally, Mags! I think the constructed nature of gender means women’s experience is still largely different than that of men, which is one more good reason to strive for equal representation. And *yes* to the exception-to-every-rule rule. I know several bad ass lady mathematicians and several dude writers who, if anything, demonstrate that those particular skill set stereotypes are maybe not even based in reality but rather in socialization/expectation/cultural reinforcement.

    • Josh

      Great response.

      I understand the project of “evening the playing field” as a careful undoing of rigidly enforced gender roles and expectations. The objection is an interesting one — if there’s no essential difference, why seek to equalize? The problem is that all along we’ve acted like there is an essential difference, and the outcomes of that seemingly misinformed opinion now need to be corrected for fairness. The benefit will be more towards the liberty of the individual than the productive capacity of the whole.

      It’s an equality of outcome vs. equality of opportunity problem. I don’t see any reason to force the former, given the latter. But the latter still needs work.

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