Discussion Prompt: What future do we want for gender?
“We are not only oppressed as women, we are oppressed by having to be women, or men as the case may be. I personally feel that the feminist movement must dream of even more than the elimination of the oppression of women. It must dream of the elimination of obligatory sexualities and sex roles. The dream I find most compelling is one of an androgynous and genderless (though not sexless) society, in which one’s sexual anatomy is irrelevant to who one is, what one does, and with whom one makes love.”
Rubin, Gayle. “The traffic in women: Notes on the ‘political economy’ of sex.” (1975).
What future do you want for gender? Does it involve:
- Abolition, where gender’s grasp on society loosens and ultimately vanishes, as people know and express themselves in other terms
- Equality, where gender differences no longer embody disparities in wealth, labour, authority, and power
- Celebration and affirmation, where gender differences are appreciated as contributing to society’s rich cultural diversity
- Radical reimagining, where gender no longer involves inequality, either material or symbolic, but acquires new meanings and is expressed in new kinds of practices
Perhaps no one of these is sufficient, and gender’s desired future involves some combination of them or something else entirely.
But do differently expressed hopes for gender’s futures rely on different understandings of gender?
Take gender abolition, which associates gender with structures that give rise to hierarchically organised desires, labour, wealth, power, and forms of self-expression. Gender here has no meaning or possibility outside of inequality. By contrast, gender affirmation associates gender with the social languages people use to express themselves. As a language, gender evolves and changes, as the growing use of terms such as agender, non-binary, and genderqueer demonstrates. But fundamentally gender’s value here lies in the means it offers for societies, groups, and individuals to express themselves.
Whether gender can be benign, and what gender would have to mean for this to be possible, divides people. On its face, disagreement seems to be about incompatible social aspirations and divergent critical assessments of what is wrong. However, looked at more closely, it may reflect different uses and understandings of the same gender terms. The gap between abolishing and affirming gender, or between undoing and redoing it, may be smaller than it sometimes seems if the gender some people want to celebrate or retain is not the same (meaning of) gender that others want to abolish.
Our research approaches gender as a social phenomenon. It focuses on the contribution gender makes to shaping people and other parts of society as different and unequal, subject to hierarchical codes of feminine and masculine. Gender, however, is not just something done to people. We all contribute to doing gender, including as workers, activists, public space users, friends, lovers, and carers. This also makes it possible for us to do gender differently.
Our project is explicitly oriented to the future – to aspirations for gender beyond the terms of current politics. Exploring what future social life could be like (with or without gender) may provide a place of greater agreement in the present. It might provide a way of thinking optimistically about feminist, queer and gender politics that refuses to be chained and confined by the bitter and polarised terms of current debate.
Can we recognise and explore shared hopes for less unequal life when the gender-terms for its discussion are currently so contested?
How can we have this conversation?
We look forward to hearing your thoughts.
Davina Cooper, 2021