Clinging to “Gender”

24 Jun

Above the desk that my computer sits on (as I type this) there is a piece of cardboard that says “GENDER” on it, propped up atop a little painting. The little cutout was placed up there over two years ago after I snipped it off of a shoe box that was to be recycled.

Looking up at it, I’ve been trying to remember why I put it there, why I kept it at all. To the left of the “GENDER” thing is the binder divider label from my Women’s Studies 101 course I took my first term of college. Recently, I also hung my 2011 graduation tassel on one of the tacks that holds up the painting.

The theme obviously has something to do with my academic life over the last four years. It’s true that I studied “gender”. But why did I place “GENDER” up there and proceed to surround it by things I consider accomplishments, or things to recall fondly?

The person I was when I put that piece of cardboard up there was not the same person – politically – I am today. The Gender Studies I received was through an entirely non-radical framework, hence my former self thinking that “gender” was something to be proud of. When I finally became a radical feminist through and through (not just anti-porn and anti-prostitution), gender revealed itself for what it was. Not something to happily ponder about, “subvert” with pointless post-modern ‘individuality’. . . gender was nothing but a collection of harmful stereotypes. It needed to be abolished, not rallied around.

Yet rally was what I did. I wrote papers using the terms “gender identity” and “cis” without a hint of sarcasm. And despite my belief in gender, I propounded page after page, in one case, about how one could never define a “category of women”.

Women, that category I was studying. Women’s Studies has been replaced with Gender Studies and the growing Queer Studies (and to a lesser extent there’s men’s/masculinity studies as well). I’m almost certain I was the only one in my graduating class who knew there ever was such a thing as Feminist Studies in academia.

‘Gender’ as a course of study is less threatening to the male order because of its inclusion of men and because it is depoliticized from feminism. In an essay in “Radically Speaking”, Victoria Robinson and Diane Richardson point out that the inclusivity of Gender Studies also makes men teaching in this area seem more justified (after all, ‘men’ are a gender too!).

‘Woman’ and ‘feminist’ cannot be rallying points when ‘gender’ takes center stage. One cannot be openly proud to have studied women and feminism, but one can say ‘Gender Studies’ and be seen as somewhat legitimate. Studying gender doesn’t reveal the nitty gritty of female oppression or the histories of resistance to patriarchy by women.

I couldn’t have snipped ‘women’ or ‘female’ off of the shoe box, although only because they were “men’s”. Gender Studies (along with its kinky cousin Queer Studies) encourages women to do away with organizing politically around ‘woman’. In far too many of my courses, ‘woman’ was just a category that couldn’t really be defined. Devoting oneself to the study of women’s oppression was not enough whereas Gender was.

When people used to ask what my major was, I tended to say “Gender Studies” far more often than “Women’s Studies”, undoubtedly because I didn’t want to seem ‘provocative’. While someone might find it peculiar that one would want to study gender, at least I wasn’t involving myself overtly with women or feminism. ‘Gender’ isn’t as threatening as ‘feminist’.

I think I’m going to strike a line through “GENDER”.

9 Responses to “Clinging to “Gender””

  1. Mary Sunshine June 24, 2011 at 5:36 pm #

    Very clear! It helps me to understand what’s happening to young women at university now. Do you think that young women who *don’t* go to university get sucked into all the “gender” stuff?

    • lishra June 26, 2011 at 2:35 am #

      Thanks for your comment, Mary. I don’t think all of my Women’s Studies peers totally bought into it, really. It’s just one of those things where they just buy the “party line” so to speak… they don’t get offered radical perspectives on gender, don’t seek it out themselves, etc. They know that gender is a construct, but don’t analyze it beyond that (and neither do most of our reading materials, at least not in a radfem way). They use the ‘cis’ language and so forth, but it has been clear to me that they’re just doing it because they don’t want to “offend” people. One of the most cis-language-using women from my classes also once told me *literally, in these exact words* “But I don’t hate men… I LOVE MEN!” It’s all about not wanting to be “offensive” and wanting to be “inclusive”.

  2. Undercover Punk June 25, 2011 at 4:37 am #

    I like this post! Clinging to gender, indeed! Celebrate, rejoice, perform!!!!!!!

    I find it both fascinating and maddening that “gender” is supposedly more coherent and definable than WOMAN. That is really killing me. I-am-whatever-I-say-I-am is more REAL than my uterus, apparently.

    • lishra June 26, 2011 at 2:48 am #

      Thanks, UP! Yeah, in my classes, it was understood that gender was a social construct…. but then we are also to be wishy washy about ‘women’ (and therefore ‘female’) AND accept that trans people claiming to be the “opposite” gender (or sex!!! ARG) are really, truly the SOCIAL CONSTRUCT they say they are.

      Here’s a little related story you’ll enjoy. In a recent class of mine, it was all female students. All women save for one trans man. This trans man had the habit of sighing loudly and rolling his eyes at any radfem-ish type comments (he sure got that part of “being a man” down pretty well!). I actually spoke up in class one day when we were discussing trans whatnot to say how I don’t “feel like” a gender save for what others impose upon me, but I do have a sense of being female. My example was “like when I menstruate”. Cue the sighing and eye rolling! This student had previously said he doesn’t consider his vagina & vulva as such, but rather as a penis. Well, I am sorry that I consider the fact of my own menstruation FEMALE. Jee-zus.

    • rainsinger July 7, 2011 at 12:48 am #

      Yes, being polite hasn’t done us much good either.

  3. Boner Killer June 26, 2011 at 10:13 am #

    I really enjoyed this post. I am a women’s studies minor (my school does not offer a major in the course due to low-number of courses) the women’s studies program is actually a women’s studies program, and i am so grateful as I have heard of many departments turning into privilege-denying, woman-suppressing spaces like gender studies classes. Despite having a very awesome, close-knit women’s studies department available, I do worry about the department being taken over by more and more men and liberal minded groups that want to pretend women’s issues are not incredibly important nor serious. Luckily, most of the gender studies/queer theory stuff is in the sociology department. The department that seems to only succeed at naming everyone under the guise of pretending to “embrace” their “individuality” – I suppose “empowerment” is more important and effective than critical thinking! *sarcasm*

    It is all quite pathetic, in my opinion. Women are STILL being robbed of their own space and more recently, of vital knowledge of women’s oppression on a level that transcends culture, time, and location.

  4. smash June 27, 2011 at 10:46 am #

    “‘Gender’ isn’t as threatening as ‘feminist’.”

    You’ve got it right there.

    Thanks for the post.

  5. FAB Libber / Dave the Squirrel July 3, 2011 at 9:00 pm #

    ‘Gender’ as a course of study is less threatening to the male order because of its inclusion of men and because it is depoliticized from feminism.

    The inclusion of men (and defocus off women) was precisely why they renamed it, then hijacked the entire content of Women’s Studies.

    (along with its kinky cousin Queer Studies)
    This had me really laughing out loud. “kinky cousin”. Hilarious!

  6. wohom November 10, 2011 at 6:12 pm #

    Ok. This IS funny. While I was reading this post, on “gender” co-opting “women” in feminist studies, my cat (seriously) went over the bookcase and threw Christina Hoff Sommer’s book, Who Stole Feminism: how women have betrayed women, off of the bookshelf. I am not sure what my cat’s message was :), but the title of the book is terribly funny, given the topic of this post…..

    (For those of you who don’t know the book, this is an early 1990s book that argued that radical feminism had egregiously overtaken liberal feminism. I often read books contrary to my own thoughts and politics.)

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