What can legal consciousness studies and discursive psychology reveal about talk on legal gender?


by Elizabeth Peel | Photo:  Etienne (Flickr)
This blog post discusses what legal gender status means for different members of the public. I combine insights from legal consciousness studies with discursive psychology – applying both to interview data collected during the ESRC Future of Legal Gender project between June 2019 and April 2020. [i] The blog post builds on previous work on peoples’ perspectives on legal gender reform.

In the UK, legal gender is enacted through the Birth and Deaths Registration Act 1953 and crystallised via a birth certification process which is binary (sex is registered as either female or male), static, and life-long (unless it is formally changed through obtaining a gender recognition certificate). What do people think about this way of doing things? And what are some of the different ways people talk about legal gender?

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Responding to gender critical feminism: On gender, sex and a generous feminist politics in anxious times

by Davina Cooper | Photo:  Ben Kanter

Can feminism develop and grow if the room for reasonable divergence between us becomes ever narrower? We need spaces where we can discuss feminist politics to improve all our feminisms. The cheerleading, backslapping and feuding of twitter is not a good substitute.

I’ve been wondering how to respond to the social media attacks we’ve been receiving ever since our project, The Future of Legal Gender, launched its survey in the autumn of 2018. The survey was intended to explore how people, in Britain, thought about gender and, more specifically, their views on proposals to reform gender’s place within legal personhood. Writing the survey in ways that would speak to very different constituencies, however, was a challenge given the lack of a shared progressive language about how to talk about gender or sex – even what the terms meant (and were rapidly coming to mean). People from different perspectives attacked the survey, though most relentlessly on Mumsnet.

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Moving beyond the binary? The enduring power of biological sex in our survey responses

by Han/Hannah Newman @hannahnewm and Elizabeth Peel @profpeel,  Loughborough University | Photo: “Conversation” Annabelle Shemer ( Flickr)

Do people think sex and gender are, or should be, binary? In this blog post we focus on responses to three survey statements that explore this issue: ‘There are two genders, female and male’; ‘Gender identity is on a spectrum’; and ‘Genders outside of male and female should be recognised as equally valid’. Despite some evidence of movement beyond the gender and sex binaries, this blog post demonstrates the enduring power of biological sex in respondents’ reported understandings. “Gender” is a structural, societal and individual phenomena, with feminists debating the extent to which – and how – gender is a feature of society or an aspect of people’s identities. Exploring individual perspectives on gender, in this instance the so-called “gender binary”, reveals something about gender societally.

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Engendering criticism? Reflection on feedback to our “Attitudes to Gender” survey  

By Elizabeth Peel and Han/Hannah Newman, Loughborough University, UK | Photo: Miss Klang (Flickr)

We are living in a cultural moment when, on the one hand, fault lines around gender are being contested, and on the other the very ground of what constitutes a progressive or regressive stance on gendered identities is shaking (Ellis et al., 2020). Gender related rites of passage, such as the North American ‘gender-reveal cake’ party, which typically happens when the foetus is in utero, according to some are ‘losing popularity because they fetishize babies’ genitals and underscore outdated social constructs of gender roles’ (Severson, 2019). There is both a revival in second wave feminist practices of ‘raising children without gender stereotypes’ (Mackay, 2018), and a ‘theybe boom’ of gender neutral, open or creative parenting which aims to decouple gender from sexed bodies or erase gender entirely. In this blog post we reflect on the engagement we had from participants to our online survey. We discuss how the method and timing of data collection may have encouraged critical engagement, and explore how that feedback was constructed without ‘taking sides’.

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Engaging with and thinking beyond the current feminist dichotomies

Purple leaf Flickr Creative Commons

by Flora Renz | Photo: Forest and Kim Starr (Flickr)

Is it possible for a research project to productively contribute to an already contentious public debate? And if so, how can this be done without simply reinforcing existing polarised positions? Our project (FLaG) considers the impact of different law reform models on sex- and gender-specific provision, on advancing gender equality, and on the meaning of legal gender status and its potential reform for the wider public. From the outset, the project has also been committed to organising a number of public engagement events, aimed at different types of audiences from activists, to policy experts and the wider public.[1] However, this comes at a time when there are strongly conflicting views about the role and nature of gender in the context of law. The current public debate seems to be strongly divided between those who conceive gender as primarily a source of oppression and domination and those who see gender as a private matter than can be determined on an individual level.[2] So how can we productively acknowledge these disputes without becoming part of them? Is it possible to draw on and incorporate into our project some of the arguments currently being made while still maintaining the specific focus of our project, which is situated beyond the current tensions?

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Diversifying, Abolishing, Equalising Gender… Can the Law Do All Three?

by Davina Cooper | Photo: Ben Kanter

Legal gender status is currently in tremendous upheaval. What once seemed biologically settled facts – two sexes identified at birth – is now subject to a swirl of different politics. Can we change our gender? What is the relationship of gender to sex? How does gender connect to domination and to how society is organised? And what future might we hope for gender – in what it means and how it is lived?

The Future of Legal Gender project explores these questions, focusing on the specific role of law and legal gender status. The question of legal gender status is today the subject of intense political debate and policy discussion in Britain and elsewhere. We aim to contribute to wider debates and law reform processes by exploring:

  • longer-term directions for legal gender (beyond the exigencies and pragmatism of parliamentary and party politics);
  • how to untangle some of the conceptual differences (and stakes) in the conflicting ways that gender is understood;
  • the principles that might contribute to good feminist law-making, such as equality, justice and care;
  • what gender could come to mean and be.

Our first blog post takes up the problem of gender status and traces some different pathways for its reform.

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